Riots rocked the UK in the summer of 1981 but one of the forgotten disturbances is Coventry – and yet it was a hugely important riot. And an event I got to write about through the experiences of two Coventry heroes: Neville Staple, lead vocalist in The Specials and the black boxing champ, Errol Christie.
To get a flavour of Coventry just before its riot kicked off, there was a brilliant feature in that fashion bible The Face at around the time. It showed the 1960s shopping centre precinct with all the characters you’d expect to find there.
That included ‘the victim’, scapegoated for rising unemployment (a BAME youth); the ‘law abiding citizen’ ready to turn a blind eye to what’s going on and ‘the law’, a police officer who was very much part of the problem.
In the lead up to the 1981 riot in Coventry, a young Asian teenager called Satnam Singh Gill was murdered in the precinct in broad daylight. This would have been yet another horrific attack on an Asian youth but Coventry had a unique way to respond.
That was through a local musical sound that emerged from 1979 – a reworking of Jamaican ska music that coalesced around the 2Tone record label. Bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat embraced ska adding powerful lyrics that addressed the pressing issues facing young people in 1981.
The Specials organised a concert for unity in response to the murder of Satnam Singh Gill and the growing polarisation in the city. Predictably, the National Front announced it would hold a counter-demonstration in Coventry. The extreme Right would be met by a large crowd when they tried to disembark at the bus station to wave their Union Jacks around.
1981 Coventry riot was a display of unity
The late Errol Christie recounted to me how he went down to the bus station to explain matters to the National Front with his fists. But what overwhelmed him on the day was the unity between black and Asian youth on the demonstration. “I never got called a ‘bruv’ by an Asian bloke before”, he told me when I worked on his biography, No Place To Hide.
The Specials released their single Ghost Town coinciding with the unity gig and it perfectly captured the mood among young people across the country. So much so that it topped the pop charts at exactly the moment that Brixton and Toxteth went up in flames in July 1981. Art certainly imitated life.