Review: Out of the Box

out of the box

Out of the Box by Leroy Smith, published 2016, ISBN 978-09955520-0-5

Short of assassinating the monarch, shooting a police officer is about the most risky crime to commit. Do so and every single law enforcement agent will be on your case. And the pursuit of such suspects will extend far beyond these shores. In 1993, Leroy Smith found out just how true this is. He shot and wounded two police officers in Brixton, south London and fled to the USA. Two years on he was arrested by a Swat Team in Connecticut and after a spell in Bridport Correctional Centre, a high security state jail, he was returned to England and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment.

Smith spent the whole of his prison sentence on Category A in the high security prison estate. Now free, he has written Out of the Box, a brutally honest story of the making of a criminal, in which he pulls no punches, nor makes excuses. He says that he is putting his story out in the hope that other underprivileged young black men will not follow the path he did.

Like many serving time in an unjust system, where black, ethnic minority and poor prisoners are massively over represented and where racism regularly displays its ugly face, Smith became politicised in prison. He educated himself by conversing with political prisoners, supplemented by ‘ten years of watching Newsnight every night, and lots of other news stations…as well as reading non-mainstream newspapers like Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

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We are not all Daniel Blake

I Daniel Dlake

Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, paints an intimate picture of the brutality of Britain’s sanction-driven benefits system. The plot hinges upon the human consequences of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) ‘fit for work’ judgements, and Jobseeker’s sanctions. By focusing upon a small cast of characters, Loach succeeds in portraying the sheer barbarity of poverty in Britain. I, Daniel Blake is a powerful argument for human dignity; depicting Newcastle’s jobcentres, food banks and run-down industrial estates as theatres of cruelty.

Between January and June 2016, a total of 165,013 Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants were referred for a sanction. 81,195 (49.2%) of these referrals resulted in sanctions. Over the same period 7,034 ESA claimants were sanctioned and deprived of their income. An October 2016 study published by Oxford University – ‘The impact of benefit sanctioning on food insecurity’ – clearly demonstrates the relationship between benefit sanctions and the use of food banks. It demonstrates that after the application of one million benefit sanctions in 2013, reliance upon food banks tripled. Trussell Trust statistics reveal that 21% of all referrals to their food banks are due to benefit sanctions.

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'Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution': Revolutionary movement against racism and imperialism

• Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson, 2015, 1 hour 55 minutes

The Black Panther Party for Self Defence has been interpreted in vastly different ways – from a racist hate group, as it is typically portrayed in the liberal media, to an indispensable blueprint for revolutionary organisation in an imperialist country. The Panthers were formed in Oakland, California, in 1966, to defend the African American community from constant attacks by the US state. They recognised that US imperialism was at the core of the destruction of their community. They saw the need for anti-imperialism and revolutionary socialism in order to fight for real change. The party was highly organised, armed for self-defence against the police and dedicated to class struggle. Working class unity is dangerous for the ruling class and the Panthers’ demonstration that they could provide for the poor, in a way that capitalism could not, meant they had to be destroyed. In 1968 they were described by FBI director J Edgar Hoover as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’. In the end, after an orchestrated campaign of state aggression, the organisation was destroyed.

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United We Stand

In November, at the Bussey Building in Peckham, south-east London, the play United We Stand by Neil Gore was produced, directed by Louise Townsend. The cast of writer Neil Gore and William Fox take on multiple roles, but primarily they portray the Shrewsbury pickets Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren during the 1972 builders strike. It is performed on a set of scaffolding bars which is adorned by strike posters.  A projector shows footage of Tory prime minister Edward Heath, the 1972 Miners' strike, and working class resistance against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Heath's term in office was a fiasco for the capitalist class; a seven-week Miners' strike in January-February 1972 was a victory for the NUM, and in July 1972 the Pentonville 5 were imprisoned for defying the Industrial Relations Act which was followed by a near-general strike.

In the early 1970s building workers faced dangerous working conditions, and poor wages. Warren says 'life and limb are cheap on the building sites'. Between 1970-73 there were 242,000 registered industrial injuries but the highest fine paid by an employer was £300 for two deaths. In 1972 'casualisation' was rife in the building industry, where it was known as 'the Lump.' The Lump Labour Scheme institutionalised casual cash-paid daily labour without any employment rights. Building workers were a dispersed force, little unified because of the diverse and transitory nature of their trades, unionisation was weak, and thus they were a section of the working class generally ignored by the labour aristocracy who controlled the trade union movement.

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Strangeways protester Alan Lord tells his story

• Life in Strangeways: from riot to redemption, my 32 years behind bars,

Alan Lord with Anita Armstrong, £7.99, John Blake Publishing, 2015

In 1981, aged 20, Alan Lord was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, following a bungled robbery. Following his release in 2013, Alan has written this autobiography, chronicling his life before prison, years of incarceration, participation in the 1990 uprising at Strangeways prison in Manchester, and eventual path to freedom.

This book is an easy read but not easy reading, graphically detailing beating after beating by violent, racist prison staff: ‘I sometimes regretted my actions in fighting the regime, but I was stubborn to a fault. I could have kept my head down like most inmates do, but it’s just not me. I wanted to make it clear from the start that they could have it the easy way, by treating me with respect as a human being, or the hard way. I always had it in my head that one day I’d beat the system and come out the better man.’ (p37)

Throughout his sentence Alan maintained a strict regime of physical training and Spartan living; on arrival at every new prison – and there were many moves – he would throw out the furniture, bleach the floor and lay a sheet on the floor. In this way he slept every night of his sentence on the ground.

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