Anger and pain in a hostile environment
27 June, 2019 — By John Gulliver
Michael Braithwaite, right, with anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth
MICHAEL Braithwaite isn’t used to public speaking but he is so upset, deep down, that the words tumbled out before an audience in a parliamentary committee room.
He had been “hurt, demoralised and humiliated” he said by the way a sudden change in the law meant he was no longer seen as British in a country where he had lived all his life.
He had lost his job two years ago as a teaching assistant at Gospel Oak primary school – and the audience of fellow Caribbeans shared his pain and anger.
They want to achieve justice for a generation harassed and several deported in the past few years in a government-targeted “removal” programme, reported to be code-named Perceptor,
And on Saturday, the day named Windrush by the government to celebrate the men and women who had sailed from the Caribbean in the Windrush in the late 1940s, Michael and scores of Caribbeans and Africans held a protest in Whitehall and then marched to Westminster Bridge where they held up their banner and stopped the traffic.
They wanted “justice” not a “celebrated” moment in history.
A colleague caught up with Michael who, for the special occasion, wore his “protest” T-shirt, with the words “More blacks, more Irish, more dogs”, a reference to the signs landlords hung up outside boarding houses in the 1950s saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.
He finds it difficult to talk about the day he was effectively sacked by Gospel Oak Primary School where he had helped children for 15 years, a place he thought of as “home”, a place he expected to retire from.
Michael wasn’t the only Caribbean who had suddenly fallen victim to the “hostile environment” programme set up by the Home Office under Theresa May – hundreds lost jobs, homes, many were either deported or refused entry on trying to return to Britain after holidays.
The government has now admitted its errors and is drawing up a compensation scheme – but few have benefited, and those who have say they have been offered small sums that hardly cover the losses they suffered.
Following protests over Michael’s dismissal, the Home Office apologised and issued him with the documentation that allowed him to stay in the UK. He was also offered his job back but he felt so rejected and dejected by a school he had loved working in, and by a management whom he thought respected him, that he could not accept the offer: “It’s hard to describe how I felt, emotionally I was at rock bottom – I just could not go back.”
Even if he had felt able to return to his old job, he said, it wouldn’t be possible now because schools – and, as far as he is aware, Gospel Oak is among them – are either laying off assistant teachers or do not have enough cash to employ new ones.
His union, Unison, has employed a solicitor to pursue his compensation claim – in theory, the Home Office accepts his entitlement to it – but, according to Michael it is such a long, complex process, involving scores of arcane-worded documents, that he does not know how long it will take his lawyers to be able to submit it.
“A lawyer said you need a PhD to be able fill in these compensatory forms!’ he told me.
Michael, who has three children and lives in Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak, is a musician, and works two days a week helping handicapped children at a centre in Somers Town.
I have known him for some time, and have met one of the disabled youngsters he helps at the centre to whom he is clearly attached, and I am bewildered by the way he was treated by the school, and the Home Office.
Michael was one of many Caribbeans whose plight was exposed initially by Amelia Gentleman of the Guardian. As public unease has grown, the Home Office has expressed its apologies, but how little it seems to mean as the compensation claims pile up with so few – hardly any, in fact – dealt with expeditiously at Whitehall.
It is not difficult to understand the depth of Michael’s sense of betrayal and abandonment.