ZOOM doesn’t do justice to Patrick Vernon. When you meet him in person, it’s easy to be drawn by his social justice campaigner persona. Serious at first, when he finally laughs (which happens soon enough), you can see the room lighting up.
Now in Covid times, he joins me from his house in Hackney borough where he once was a Labour councillor.
Despite having an OBE, a title he accepted “selfishly for my parents” and uses for his campaigning, Vernon is completely unassuming and very approachable.
He is also a very cool man who emcees a radio show called Museum of Grooves — “a museum established for humanoids who live off-world and have never been to Earth.”
Born in Wolverhampton from Windrush-generation parents, Vernon grew under the shadow of Enoch Powell as his MP and the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech as soundtrack of a divided society that directed its hate against the black and Asian communities.
Things were indeed ugly at the time and black Britons felt the yoke of this sheer racism daily, whether at work, at home or in education. Some schools had a policy of not having children from black and Asian families in the classroom.
“There was a fear that immigrant children would bring down teaching standards of white pupils — even if we were born in Wolverhampton, we were classed as immigrant children,” says Vernon.
Fast forward to the 21st century and you would think that after decades of black struggle for equal rights and against institutional racism, things would have improved. But have they?
Two years ago, Vernon was approached by a man called Elwaldo Romeo. Born in Antigua, Romeo had been living in Britain for almost 60 years after coming to Britain as a four-year-old.
One day in early 2018, he received a letter from the Home Office saying that he was living in Britain illegally. Not only that, he was also being asked to report to the government every two weeks before his deportation was arranged.
But Romeo’s case wasn’t just a one-off incident. Since 2017, hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of them from the Windrush generation, had been unjustly detained and deported as a result of the “hostile environment” legislation initiated by the Conservative government in 2012 that aimed to get rid of undocumented migrants living in Britain.
“I studied law at university, and I’ve got a good sense of key issues around citizenship,” Vernon tells me.
“I realised that this was a massive violation against the Windrush generation, particularly against those who came to Britain as children because they didn’t have paperwork to prove they were British, although they were classed as British under the 1948 Nationality Act.”
Vernon started a petition asking the Conservative government of Theresa May to grant amnesty to people like Romeo.
The objective of the campaign was to force the government to recognise that those belonging to the Windrush generation didn’t need to prove their citizenship status since they were British in the first place — “that’s why I used the word amnesty,” explains Vernon.
More than 180,000 people signed the petition, which led to its debate in Parliament and a much-welcomed media attention.
NGOs and charities like Liberty, who had been raising concerns about the hostile environment policy for years, also got involved.
The Caribbean High Commissioner held a press conference asking the government to grant the Windrush generation citizenship status.
“All this came together to put pressure on the government and eventually led to Amber Rudd resigning because she lied to parliament,” explains Vernon.
“She had said there were no immigration targets — but there were immigration targets and quotas. Senior civil servants and private sector companies were given bonuses and incentives for deporting people — for getting rid of people.”
When the Windrush scandal was exposed thanks to the work of activists like Vernon, the government had no option but to apologies and commit to a rectification.
A task force was set to fast-track people’s citizenship status. So far, around 12-13,000 of those affected have had their status regularised. The government also pledged that they would set compensation schemes and stop deportation flights.
“But as you know, the deportation flights continue, even after the independent review into the Windrush scandal done by Wendy Williams.
“The government is continuing the hostile environment policy until 2022, when they will review it again. There’s still lots of work to be done to right the wrongs, to be honest.”
Vernon believes that the Windrush scandal sent an unequivocal message from the government and many sectors within British society who don’t see black Britons as full citizens and don’t acknowledge their contribution to British culture.
“The hostile environment created by the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, Brexit … All these things basically say ‘who is British?’ ‘Who is in and who is out’?”
To counter this narrative of racism and exclusion, Vernon and his colleague Angelina Osborne recently published 100 Great Black Britons — a 440-pages tome with the lives of a hundred black Brits who have shaped the culture, economy and society of Britain.
Although the book came out only in September but based on previous campaign that Vernon and Osborne started 17 years ago, when the BBC asked for a public vote to find “the greatest Brit of all time” (who happened to be Winston Churchill, a notorious racist, even by the standards of his time). The official BBC 100 shortlist didn’t include a single black person.
“The only person of colour was Freddie Mercury. It was outrageous.”
Vernon and Osborne created a website to countercampaign to the BBC list. It included the biographies of 100 black influential Britons, from Ira Aldridge and Queen Charlotte to Angie Le Mar and Bernie Grant (one of Vernon’s most inspirational figures).
The campaign was a provocation, Vernon tells me, and led to positive outcomes such as the inclusion of black Britons in the national curriculum or the Royal College of Nursing recognising Mary Seacole at the same level as Florence Nightingale. It also inspired other authors to do research on black history.
The book, adds Vernon, was yet another reaction, but this time to the Windrush scandal.
“I was doing the provocation again, this time not so much against the BBC but to the government and to the public to say that we are British. We belong here, this is our home and we ain’t going nowhere.”
100 Great Black Britons, which took around 17 months to be written (Vernon admits that Osborne did most of the writing while he was involved in the activism side of it), is now an Amazon bestseller and has sold over 5,000 in less than a month.
Its coincidence with the latest Black Lives Matter protests and calls for racial justice makes it even more timely and relevant.
As Vernon concludes at the end of our conversation, the book it’s about respecting black lives: past, present and future. As simple as that.
“It’s a validation of our experience in Britain, and that’s really powerful. I hope that eventually the mainstream and the public will embrace the book and celebrate black achievements.”