Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A tale of three Michaels

He was a pimp, pusher and political activist, with a penchant for the outlandish and an ability to attract support from the rich and famous. Until his murder conviction and hanging in Trinidad in 1975, Michael X was one of the best-known figures of 1960s radicalism. Michael Horovitz reviews a new account of the life of this self-styled black Muslim revolutionary

May 22, 2009
9 min read

John Williams presents this picaresque but factual chronicle in three parts, headed ‘Michael De Freitas’, ‘Michael X’, and ‘Michael Abdul Malik’ – the three phases of its subject’s life. Michael was born in Port of Spain in 1933 to the black Barbadian Obeah (folk magic) practitioner Iona Brown, and sired by Emanuel De Freitas, a white Portuguese ship’s captain turned shopkeeper who was to remain wilfully distant. Michael’s relatively light skin colour was a plus socio-economically, and his mother had upward designs on Trinidad’s intricately colour-scaled pyramid. But her son, nicknamed ‘Red Mike’ on the streets, ran on the wildest darker sides he could access from early on. He was expelled from school at 14 for being ‘a thoroughgoing terror’, and had already decided he wanted to emulate his father and go to sea.

Three years and various jobs on transworld cargo ships later, he dug his heels into the spectacularly multiracial Tiger Bay docklands of Cardiff, where hustling drugs, gambling and sex were commonplace occupations for Afro-Caribbean immigrants. In 1957 Michael moved to grotty North Kensington. There he met and married a gorgeous young Guyanese woman, Desirée De Souza, who was to stay loyally supportive despite his continued pimping, infidelities, abandonments and even beatings of her, until his premature death. Michael’s Ladbroke Grove phase went on – punctuated by two terms of imprisonment – till, under threat of a third, he flew to Trinidad in February 1971, never to return.

Accounts of the counter-culture in Britain, and the London underground in particular, have constantly appeared in the press and magazines, on radio, TV and film, and in a steady flow of books ranging from academic to lurid, and from oldies’ reminiscences to diversely pitched reconstructions by authors who, like Williams, were still at primary school, or even in nappies or unborn, in 1971. His exposition of those times (during which I too lived mainly around Notting Hill), as well as of Michael’s doings, is as judiciously revealing as any. It draws on choice passages from the loci classici, including Colin MacInnes’s London trilogy, Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, and De Freitas’s own co-authored memoir-manifesto published in 1968.

Sundry revaluations of tabloid-generated clichés emerge. For example, as Michael recalled it, the 1958 street fights in Notting Dale ‘were not real race riots. People are always fighting in the ghetto, with clubs being invaded and broken up.’ Most of the clubs were hangouts for white prostitutes run by blacks – of which police, Teddy boys et al were jealous. So gang wars for turf control cross-cut with what Williams calls ‘the British working classes’ traditional fondness for a ritualised punch-up’ were probably as influential as racism that summer.

Nevertheless, massive newsprint coverage had spread the word that colour clashes were the touch paper. On the day after a club had been petrol-bombed and a West Indian shot in the leg, Michael and some buddies were arrested for loitering nearby. He was the only one to get bail, persuading the police ‘I’m not black, I’m a Jew’ – and promptly organised bail for the others.

Soon after, at a Calypso Club meeting of disaffected blacks, Michael sprang up and challenged the platform speakers’ cautious calls for committees to ‘make representations to the police and our MPs … a lot of shit in my view. I had just landed in court through police action and here they was saying we should go to the police for redress. I said “What you need is a few pieces of iron so that when they come we can defend ourselves.” There was an uproar of supporting cries. I’d told them all just what they wanted to hear.’ And so the role of black community spokesman was added to Michael’s chameleonic repertoire.

I first heard about and observed him in 1960-61 as a dapper yet piratical figure patrolling London’s Westbourne Park/Portobello precinct with a silver-topped cane, big hair and beard, glint of earring, often with other heavies and growling Alsatians in tow. He was collecting rents and evicting those who could not pay (mainly impoverished blacks) for the ruling local slum-landlord Peter Rachman at intervals between milking do-gooders for whom the then Grove ghetto had become a favoured target for redemption.

In early 1965, Michael De Freitas heard Malcolm X speak in London. He later told Jan Carew, who was launching the first black British newspaper, Magnet, that ‘he had decided then and there to set up a black nationalist movement in Britain’. Malcolm took Michael to his next speaking gig, in racist Smethwick, at which Michael, asked his name by a reporter, answered ‘Call me Michael X.’

A few weeks later Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, and Michael was rapidly spinning hyped-up inflammatory Black Power lines to mainstream white media (notably the Sunday Times) ever ready to play along with and retail almost any sensational copy. And with a few shrewdly gathered henchmen, including Carew, the suddenly newborn leader founded the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS), converted to Islam as Michael Abdul Malik, and co-founded Defence (for black civil liberties), the London Free School and the Notting Hill Carnival – co-opting the likes of Oscar Brown, Dick Gregory and Muhammad Ali, along with a host of mainly white female providers of serious financial handouts, en route.

In June 1965 I encountered and joshed with him in the heroin evangelist Alex Trocchi’s St Stephen’s Gardens pad. Allen Ginsberg and other transatlantic beats and rebels were putting together the Wholly Communion internationale, which filled Albert Hall with the biggest crowd for poetry in Britain on record. One of many new departures this catalysed was a chaotic Commonwealth poetry conference in Cardiff, at which I urged Michael to strip his speeches and writings-in-progress of what I saw as quick-sell soapbox banalities. We struck a deal by lobbying the conference to compose and send a sheaf of anti-war poems to Mao Tse Tung, suggesting that our fellow versifiers would do well to keep China out of the India-Pakistan conflict. Mao replied with thanks – and it turned out he did indeed steer clear of the conflict (though not necessarily in consequence of our communications).

In 1969 Michael threw himself into megaphoning and fundraising for London’s first major arts and community centre for black youth, and with astronomical backing from Ali, Sammy Davis Jr and John Lennon, rented a 28,000 square-foot property spread over three shops, plus upper floors, on Holloway Road. But renovations and opening of the projected Black House were deferred for month after month. Williams comments that in early 1970 it was still only ‘an intimidating establishment used as a base for various kinds of illegal activity’, and that ‘Michael was manipulating the existence of racism to appeal to liberal guilt and thereby raise money he claimed would help black people but was really for his personal enrichment’.

A growing breed of authentic political revolutionaries, along with the anti-exploitative underground movement and its ripped-off hippie drug-dealers, as well as celebrity sponsors, were all drawing in their horns. After Malik’s supervision of a grossly vicious kangaroo court led to a 50-man police raid of the Black House and an impending Old Bailey trial, Michael set his sights on relocating to Trinidad. Black Power strikes and army mutinies were rising there, albeit unsteadily. When refused further handouts by nearly all his previous benefactors, he tried to hit on Lennon for more. At once down-to-earth and dadaist, Yoko Ono responded by sending over a delivery of wood, hammers and nails.

Even so, in February 1971 Abdul Malik was able to check into Port of Spain’s plush new Hilton Hotel with a swag-bag of £50,000 – a vast fortune in 1970s Trinidad. But his visions of becoming the mother country’s president were summarily derided by the pragmatic Marxists promoting oppressed-black resistance there. As so often before, Michael switched to a completely different prospect: the foundation of a farming commune on an acre of land he leased in Arima, a country town 20 miles east of Port of Spain. And again as before, extensive farming did not ensue. What he did and underwent in the last four years of his life make the last 75 pages of Michael X a memorably harrowing read.

The remains of two dead bodies were dug up by police from his garden, and Michael was eventually convicted for the murder of his young cousin Joe Skerritt. This was mainly on the basis of evidence turned by one of the other Malik communards also charged with both murders, Adolphus Parmassar, in exchange for a guaranteed immunity from prosecution. The consequent execution of Michael’s sentence to death by hanging – which took place on 16 May 1975 – was rushed through in a record-breaking two weeks, presumably to cut down his defence lawyers’ repeated applications to appeal. Yet another case of Alexander Pope’s observation, ‘The hungry judges soon the sentence sign/And wretches hang that jurymen may dine’?

With characteristic objectivity, Williams concludes that ‘it is as hard to credit that Michael was guilty as portrayed as it is to believe in his complete innocence’ of either murder. But the extremes of human degradation he witnessed, suffered and described for 33 months on Trinidad’s Death Row remain an indictment of the same barbaric methodologies of imperialist retribution, as has been documented more recently by Moazzam Begg and others as routine practice in the USA’s Guantánamo Bay hellhole, and in the dungeons of CIA and other torture renditions.

Michael De Freitas was neither Othello nor Robert Mugabe. But this book exposes, like Shakespeare’s tragedy and contemporary Zimbabwe’s, not only the random fatalities to which inter-racial relations can fall prey, but the flaws that pollute societies in hock to superpower mania and financial greed, kneejerk eye-for-an-eye brutality, and the unregulated production, trading and use of lethal weaponry as ultimate governing forces.

Michael X: A Life in Black and White by John L Williams is published by

Century, price £11.99

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


3