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From rebellious student to radical leader

Decades of dedication, giving a voice to the voiceless

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Liz Fekete (with megaphone) at a candlelit vigil for justice for Ricky Reel, New Scotland Yard, London, 21 October 2014. Photo: Peter Marshall


Liz Fekete is director of the seven-person Institute of Race Relations in central London. She is one of Europe’s leading authorities on racism, heading one of the most respected advocacy groups in the UK, a body which has published a rigorously radical journal, Race & Class, since 1974. That could sound intimidating. In person, Liz is disarmingly cheerful, down-to-earth and approachable.

Near the end of our interview in the institute’s reading room/meeting room/office space, Liz says: ‘I’ve grown up here, I came here when I was 20, 21. I’ve grown as a person through the institute, particularly through the guidance of A Sivanandan, who transformed the institute in the 1970s from an elitist policy-oriented institution into a radical anti-racist think-tank. He is a hard act to follow!’ She goes on: ‘I didn’t come as an expert, I came as a typist. Everything that I’ve learned, I’ve learned here. I’ve moved from being the one who types the applications.... That could be the headline! “She typed the applications; now she writes them.” Now I still type them and write them!’

I was the typist. I worked my way up to the top!

Liz’s parents were both Hungarian refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War: ‘My mother had been in a refugee camp in Austria for a number of years, and my father was actually from Transylvania, from a Hungarian minority in Transylvania in Romania. So he had quite a difficult time actually getting here.’ Both parents were traumatised by their experiences, though Liz and her two brothers did not realise this for many years.

I ask Liz how she would describe her complicated class background growing up. She settles on ‘lower middle class’.

Being a child of Eastern European refugees in the 1960s was a formative experience: ‘At the time I was growing up, I was born in 1959, we lived in South London, in Thornton Heath, at that time there was no big African, Afro-Caribbean or Asian presence. So, at primary school, as the Hungarian children, we were the different ones. That definitely had a big impact on me, the idea of not being part of the monocultural community, and our family being viewed as different.’

Liz was, in her own words, ‘naturally rebellious’, going ‘off the rails’ at secondary school and leaving at 16 to do a secretarial course at Croydon technical college. ‘Then I just became friends with everybody in the arts school, and we were very rebellious! We were always in trouble, and there was an occupation at the technical college.’ There were students at the college from India and from Pakistan; ‘they were our friends, so we went into occupation’ to protest against the introduction of fees for overseas students. ‘So that politicised me, the first step.’

The institute has been critical of academia and “high theory”, and also eschewed policy-oriented research

‘Then, again, everything was chance, because I would say I was a bit of a rebel but I had no discipline. I was very undisciplined and I was a bit out of control as a young person.... a complete rebellion with no political direction.’ Despite this, Liz managed to pass A-levels taken at night school, and get into Middlesex Poly (now Middlesex University), ‘where again I was just completely rebellious, didn’t really know what I was doing, and we went into occupation again around the whole question of a nursery, we were demanding a nursery for students with children. So I got into trouble for that.’

Early steps

It was then that Liz met Harsh Punja, who worked at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). At the time, the IRR was bringing out its first education books on the roots and patterns of racism, ‘and they needed somebody who was a good typist, and the one thing that I had, because I’d gone to secretarial college, was: I was a good typist.’ In fact, Liz had learned to touch type ‘really fast’ by the time she was 10, on her mother’s typewriter.

‘So I came in as a volunteer to type those books, and then I stayed!’

Liz began volunteering at the IRR around 1980. ‘Very soon after, the uprisings happened’, the urban rebellions against racism, police violence and deprivation, in Brixton and Southall in London, in Toxteth in Liverpool, and elsewhere in England.

Liz became very involved in anti-racist politics, firstly around the Newham Eight and the Newham Seven campaigns. These cases involved the prosecution of young Asian men who took on violent white racists in acts of community self-defence – in the first case, to protect Asian children who were being systematically attacked in and around their schools by adult white gangs.

Liz remembers: ‘In one of those campaigns, I was in charge of organising the legal observers on the demonstration. The demonstrations were very violently attacked by the police. It was happening just after the miners’ strike and they attacked one demonstration and we were all just beaten up. After that, I was also very involved in anti-fascist politics and was a founding member of Anti-Fascist Action, and was the treasurer for about four years of Anti-Fascist Action. At the same time, I got a job here at the institute. I was the typist. I worked my way up to the top! I typed the books.’

In some countries, like France, there’s no concept of race relations at all

Liz began doing weightier work at the institute: compiling a bulletin on policing and London. ‘At that time, there were a lot of anti-racist groups and a lot of monitoring groups. Most of those died out, so you’ve only got The Monitoring Group actually left, out of that era when there were monitoring groups and committees in every London borough. So I brought together that bulletin on policing in London – because I was involved’, in a personal capacity, in grassroots anti-racist campaigning.

Before Liz began to coming to the IRR, the institute had given evidence to an inquiry into policing (a ‘royal commission on criminal procedure’) handing in case files of police harassment, the racist use of ‘stop and search’ powers, and police raids on black communities. This evidence had been published as Police Against Black People (1979).

After some years of documenting the work of the monitoring campaigns in Liz’s bulletin, the IRR decided to publish an update of Police against Black People, calling it Policing against Black People (1987). ‘And that was the first major bit of research that I worked on at the institute.’ Liz collaborated with Jenny Bourne and Lee Bridges, who had both worked on the original book: ‘I was kind of the researcher putting all the cases together.’

The IRR’s approach to research is distinctive: ‘Because the history of the institute has been one that has been critical of academia and “high theory”, and also eschewing policy-oriented research, not wanting to be lobbyists, our ethos is very much around what Sivanandan had described as “lived theory”. So research is just about showing people what is happening at the coalface of racism. It always starts with collating cases. So that was obviously easy because that was what I was doing with the bulletin, collating cases.’

While the research started with cases, it also had to trace patterns and trends. Liz could rely for this on the authority of researchers such as Jenny Bourne, Lee Bridges and Tony Bunyan (author of The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, 1976). ‘My job was to report from the coalface, but I had people who would then not bring in “high theory”, but who would test my evidence against what was already known in the field of policing.’

New directions

A few years later, for a variety of reasons, ‘it became much more vital to bring a European perspective into British work’. In 1992, the institute set up its European Race Audit, after ‘the pogroms in Hoyerswerda and then Rostock’ in northern Germany.

In September 1991, racists in 20 German towns attacked buildings in which migrants lived. In Hoyerswerda, gangs supported by hundreds of local residents beseiged two apartment complexes where migrant workers lived – in an onslaught that lasted nearly a week. In the outskirts of Rostock the following August, hundreds of attackers were cheered on by thousands of residents during 12 days of firebombings and other assaults on buildings housing Vietnamese immigrants and Roma from Romania.

Secularism was becoming an instrument of Islamophobia and an instrument to actually further racism

Another factor in the IRR’s new focus on Europe was that asylum law began to be harmonised in Europe around this time. Liz began compiling the European Race Bulletin: ‘a summary of what was happening in all the different EU countries, and a few other countries like Norway and Switzerland, around refugees, migration, the far right and anti-immigration parties.’

There were so many cases of deportation and human rights abuses that the institute brought out two pamphlets. ‘I was the main person writing them, I was collating all the cases together, but this time I had the authority of my own experience, I didn’t have to rely on other people to give that authority, because I had immersed myself in the cases. So I began to have an understanding and an authority about the legal situation and different political cultures in different European countries. Because you have to be sensitive to that. There’s such a different way of understanding race relations in different countries. In some countries, like France, there’s no concept of race relations at all, there’s just the majority community.’

Liz continued to work very closely with Frances Webber, the legal expert at the IRR. ‘The first pamphlet we brought out was The Deportation Machine [2005], which looked at 100 cases at least, where we looked at human rights abuses.... What was happening with the asylum system was it was taken out of refugee policy. They tried to manipulate the Geneva Convention to make it into an instrument to manage migration, not a humanitarian instrument.’

‘Blair put it very well, in a nutshell.’ He wrote in September 2014: ‘we want the monthly rate of removals to exceed the number of unfounded applications’. In other words, he wanted the number of removals to exceed the number of arrivals every month. ‘Once you actually say that refugee policy is determined not by need but by numbers, you’ve moved from a humanitarian situation to a deterrent system. The idea of the pamphlets was to show how a deterrent asylum system naturally abuses human rights of asylum-seekers.’

The second pamphlet Liz produced was They Are Children Too (2007). Refugee children are not only protected under the Geneva Convention but also under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which became legally binding in 1989). ‘So we tested the human rights abuses against those conventions.’

Progressive racism

After 2001, ‘we didn’t just have the war on refugees, we had the “war on terror”.’ In 2002, Liz brought out a pamphlet, Racism: the hidden cost of September 11, and she wrote articles for Race & Class on this theme, one on ‘anti-Muslim racism and the European security state’ (July 2004).

Liz reflects: ‘What freaked me out was the way that Islamophobia was also rooted in progressive politics, in the sense that sections of the feminist movement, to be fair it was right-wing feminists to start with, were also peddling Islamophobia. So I wrote a piece for Race & Class [October 2006] called “Enlightened fundamentalism: immigration, feminism and the right”.’

‘We held some seminars on Islamophobia and progressive values. We thought the frightening thing was, this was very much coming from the French experience, that whereas in other forms of racism you would naturally think that the left or the progressive movements were natural allies of a beleaguered and vulnerable minority, when it came to Islamophobia, the strong prejudices against religion within feminist and gay movements, not that I don’t understand the whole question of why feminism and gay movements feel threatened by religion, of course I understand it, because of the whole question of control of bodies, but you saw that secularism was becoming an instrument of Islamophobia and an instrument to actually further racism, basically.’

Out of that work came Liz’s first book, A Suitable Enemy: Racism, Migration and Islamophobia in Europe (Pluto, 2009). (She’s now working on a second book, for Verso, to be published in 2017.)

With both refugees and the ‘war on terror’ and Islamophobia, ‘in 2001, there were very few people doing this work... What we feel at the institute is, it’s not about becoming an empire. A lot of groups “get their area”, and that’s their area, and no one’s allowed to come in, and they’re locking it in and they’re jealously guarding their resources. What I think we’re good at the institute in doing, what I hope we’re good in doing, is pioneering an area. Because we say, ‘By God, there’s a need, there’s no one talking about this, there’s no one doing anything about this’, so we pioneer the area, but once other groups, other NGOs are coming in, we don’t necessarily have to stay there, we go on to do something else where groups are vulnerable and there isn’t the intervention.’

Sustaining resistance

By this point in our conversation, I’m seriously in awe of Liz’s achievements, and I ask how she has managed not to burn out, how she’s managed to stay so fresh with her politics, after decades of engaging with such appalling human rights abuses. She’s puzzled by the question: ‘I feel that I’m one step away from what’s happening on the ground. The people who it really affects are the people who are really at the coalface.’

The real danger for people like her, she thinks, is: ‘because you’ve built up your area of expertise and “you’re the expert”... you could become a sort of careerist – and the institute could become like any other NGO, which is just concerned about reproducing itself and “being at the top table”.’

The answer to both dangers ‘is that we have a collective ethos here, and we have a historical connection with not just radical politics but transformative politics or liberatory politics.’

Part of having a collective ethos is: ‘Everything is always new, everything is fresh, because I’m not just working in a little tunnel on Europe. My colleague sitting next to me is working on austerity in the UK. My other colleagues are bringing out Race & Class, which is getting fantastic articles from all over the world.

‘We don’t want to be in an organisation where everyone comes and sits at their desk and doesn’t talk to each other. We all come together, certainly once a day at lunch. We all go collectively through each other’s work, through each other’s post. We’re constantly sharing, so it’s always fresh and it’s always challenging.

‘Particularly Race & Class. You always have to be thinking, when you get these articles from all over the world. There might be something interesting in them, but it’s not quite right... so everyone is going to be asked: “You read this, what do you think?” An article comes in and two people like it, and two people don’t like it, and you all have to come together to work out what is it you like and don’t like. It’s never a boring day here.’

Liz stresses: ‘From the youngest to the oldest, everyone’s opinion is important, so we’re not just a collective, we’re an intergenerational collective.’

The second part of this interview, on the history of transformative politics that the IRR is connected to, contesting the government’s ‘anti-extremism’ Prevent programme, and much more, will be published on the PN website in mid-June. More info on the institute: www.irr.org.uk. Race & Class appears quarterly. An annual sub costs £35 (print) or £18 (online-only). Search online for ‘Race & Class’; or call 020 7837 0041.

Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, will be speaking at Peace News Summer Camp on ‘Islamophobia and anti-refugee racism after the Brussels attacks’. Milan Rai is editor of Peace News.

Topics: Race | Civil Liberties