Brixton was on fire in September of 1985, and Paul Boateng was running between the flaming buildings. Mr. Boateng wasn't striking matches during the wave of rioting that hit the black community in London. But, some say, he was setting police officers' nerves on fire, as he spent his time reminding bobbies that the youth arrested had the right to confer with a lawyer.
``I was just making sure people's rights were not violated,'' Boateng says briskly, with his sharp scholarly British accent. ``I've built my career and my law practice around the rights of the poor.''
Boateng, a Labour Party candidate, is eager to take his fight to Westminister. The 33-year-old could make history; there has been no black member of Parliament in Britian in modern times. (In Britain, the term black refers to people of African, Asian, and Caribbean descent; three Asians served in Parliament during the first quarter of this century.)
Boateng is running for the Brent South seat - and even Conservative Party loyalists wouldn't bet any shillings on victory in that district. The district has a 2-to-1 Labour majority, and half the population is black.
Since Boateng's nomination in 1985, five more blacks have been nominated for other seats. But experts here say only one other candidate, Labour's Bernie Grant, is also considered a shoo-in.
``It's long overdue that someone of my race and with my perspective join Parliament,'' Boateng says.
His left-wing leanings, Boaten says, can be traced to Ghana, where his family moved from the West Indies when he was three years old. His father, Kwaku Boateng, served in former president Kwame Nkrumah's Cabinet during the early days of Ghana's independence.
``It is a privilege for one to be raised in that kind of atmosphere, at a time of great hope and optimism about the black race,'' Boateng says. ``W.E.B. Du Bois lived close to us and was very good friends of my family.... Black intellectual activity was flowering.''
The Boatengs went to London after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. There, the 15-year-old Boateng became a student activist, eventually aligning himself with Labour's left wing. As the only black member of the now-defunct Greater London Council for five years, he became a leading voice in the campaign for economic sanctions against South Africa.
But Boateng's reputation in London politics comes from defending people like Cherry Groce, whose shooting by police who were searching for her son sparked the rioting in September 1985.
Controversial cases like these have been under fire from the police federation, Conservatives, and even many in his own Labour Party. Much like the Democratic Party in the United States, Labour leaders are concerned they have lost the middle class, a concern pushing many Labourites toward the center. Party chief Neil Kinnock has publicly called on radicals to take the back seat. As for rhetoric from those who - farther to the left - suggest that blacks should abandon the Labour Party and start their own, Boateng explodes: ``The Labour Party is clearly the party of the poor, the working class, blacks, and others. We should stop fighting each other and unite behind the real enemy - Margaret Thatcher's policies. Her policies have left people in despair.''