Nottingham: Our making of history

(Anti-Apartheid march, Nottingham UK November 1986)

Nottingham’s future looks somewhat bleak, something we should be asking ourselves though… Are we living up to not just present expectations, but our past?

Nottingham, the city we call home. It’s a city full of cultural vibrancy; nightlife; sport and a renowned history going as far back as that green-clad bow and arrow crusader.

But what many people do occasionally overlook is the more significant and politically radical roots of Nottingham; beyond Robin Hood stealing from the ruling class and giving to the poor,  but a rich history of Nottingham standing up in the face of despair, pessimism, and injustice. 

This is a rich history but one school rarely teaches. For example, protests against South Africa’s systematic Apartheid. The victories then were viewed as an extraordinarily moral and righteous moment in history. And Nottingham contributed to such a chapter in history. The question may come up though: why would I want to highlight this to you and others?

Suppose you look at the international picture today. In that case, it’s alarming, even disturbing. Ukraine is under assault by Russia, and Israel is still committing human rights violations against Palestinians; moving the scope to the USA, racial disparities seem to be growing, especially where race intersects with class. Blacks and  Hispanics are marginalised in comparison to privileged whites. Even something assumed to be an undiscriminating leveler – Covid 19- is seen to exacerbate class differences. Amidst all this chaos, destruction, and hate, where is Nottingham? It may seem on a constituency level we contribute barely to changes in the world, never mind on an individual level. But I don’t see it like that. And neither should you. 

Nottingham can politically position itself so that we could have a collective influence on these issues, and advocate on behalf of oppressed groups. Take BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, and the awakening of BLM protests in the whole of the UK and Nottingham, especially following the death of George Floyd. Ever greater discussions of how we strategically mount pressure on areas of institutional injustice are taking place.

It seems to many of us though, notably in my generation, that there is a pessimism lurking when we look at injustice and war. We are all pessimistic, full of not just fear but powerlessness. It is such a psychological trend amongst our generation in the past decades as communities feel less community and as people feel, well, less like people at all. But as Antonio Gramsci says, we should have “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” and that is a good enough formula.

What kind of past do we even have to justify such a formula?  Well, we have such an interesting history of being pushed to the edge of the abyss, (arpartied) and expecting ourselves to take a stance. The fact that thousands of determined Notts constantly protested and made their stance clear to those that would oppose such ideals of justice and equality proves that we can overcome such an illness of pessimism and doubt. The negative notions that we find popular in culture today, make us feel we are unable to commit to any meaningful changes in our system or other people’s injustices, and social media can be a factor pushing this even further with soundbites and by not embracing the broader picture. History, in particular, demonstrates the value of being able to consistently seek out the truth, justice, and reconciliation; the notions which grant us the ability to resist many of the institutions that place pressure on individuals, making it far easier to succeed in our aims of equality. That is what the belief optimism over despair brings to a person, a lot of self-empowerment, which causes the acknowledgment of despair and the need to overcome such ongoing injustices. One of the notions of morality and value we can take inspiration from is the anti-apartheid protests in Nottingham from the 1970s to the early 1990s. 

When I look at the activists during this time, to me it resembles the notion that people can be moral agents of their destiny, in comparison, institutions are not moral agents, not the state, not places that are essentially centers of control and power. The activism then proves we can stand up to injustice, even in a pacifist way. A way that may not even concern itself with violence. But today, there are many misconceptions and stereotypes when we think of activism.  

I interviewed a Nottingham activist, her name is Amy, an adamant feminist and anarchist today, she cares about the role her generation takes, she said to me: “I’m seen as violent but what I do is nowhere near violence. I just hold a banner up and scream really. But what I do is not an aim to make anyone uncomfortable or unsettled. But to educate. I care about other people, but some people you won’t just get to until they properly interact with you on a more personal level. And that is the point of activism” Amy’s complaint is a challenge many activists face, and one they task themselves to encounter daily in Nottingham.

The research on the anti-apartheid movement in Nottingham is not documented in detail as compared to London or Liverpool, but as recently discovered, Nottingham University project discusses such an unbelievably emotional, and self-empowering, rich era of civil disobedience. 

In my interview with Lisa Clarkson, who was the research assistant in the project. She told me that apartheid limited the political rights of the black majority in South Africa, which in return caused an immense level of poverty and desperation for the vast majority of the general public, saying that: “White South Africans had better public services; healthcare services; better job security and better longevity. Interracial marriages were criminalised, apartheid, black couldn’t own property, education was highly segregated, people were classified into racial groups and the national African Congress was banned and police brutality was rampant”. During the 1970s and 1980s, resistance to apartheid became increasingly more direct and offensive to the horrific policies the National Party at the time was instating; worsening the paradigm many South Africans faced. It was based on their race, what level of education they gained, participation in the electoral system, and how they were expected by and regarded to work in public and private institutions which further pursued racial segregation. Racial segregation is not just unliberal, but the execution of this policy will always lead to a “us versus them” mentality. Amy believes that it was: a setback and real injustice. 

The Apartheid Convention was adopted by the General Assembly on 30 November 1973: coming into force on 18 July 1976. The definition of racial segregation and apartheid today is a crime against humanity under international criminal court. This progression proves why we should exactly be more optimistic about issues now. 

I learned in my interview with Noam Chomsky that a major factor of anti-apartheid was no other but education: “A big pillar of it (British anti-apartheid movement) was about tasking the public to educate yourself and inspire others to take a stand against it. Today, that is something we are hugely lacking, but over time, like with other examples. It improves, the reaction we take when concerning ourselves with injustice”

Clarkson made a very similar point, suggesting the importance of history and the lack of educational understanding.

“We sought to remove the veil of Nottingham’s under-documented past and present a clearer picture of what was happening then. History matters, it empowers young people more than anything else”

Nottingham is one example amongst many others that supported the same resistance in the form of grassroots activism that helped to free Nelson Mandela and brought him to become South Africa’s first black head of state and elected leader. His government focused on dismantling the terrible legacy of apartheid by using a sledgehammer on institutional racism and fostering racial reconciliation. All of this brought a valuable message, a message that activists such as Amy have as a foundation of why she is an activist. The foundation is that we have no other choice than to persist, with enough long-term opposition. We can succeed in making meaningful changes that will benefit the next generations to come in the making of our history.


Magazine and website celebrating Nottingham's stories.

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