The Toxteth riot in July 1981 followed a riot in Southall the night before and preceded the Moss Side disturbance. It was sparked off by a botched arrest by police but the underlying causes were chronic unemployment and abysmal police-community relations.
The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides and after this Toxteth simmered with a glowering rage. On the following night, an anonymous caller to the police reported a stolen car and officers who went to investigate were pelted with bricks and stones. This was the first skirmish of what would be a very long night of violence.
Eyewitness accounts from the time described a dairy and a car hire shop at the top of Upper Parliament Street providing a fortuitous combination for the rioters.
A group of youths took the milk bottles from the dairy and filled them with petrol from the car hire outlet. The police line that was attempting to advance up “Parli” suddenly found itself at the receiving end of blazing Molotov cocktails.
Worse was to come as the actual hire cars were enlisted for use against the police line. Rather like the game of dare with stolen cars in the 1950s movie ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, youths jammed the accelerators with bricks then drove at pull speed towards the police jumping out before impact.
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“The police scattered like flies each time a driverless car screeched down at them,” an eye-witness later said. One press report called the action a wild “dodgem game”.
A police officer remembered one car “hit a lamp-post and burst in to flames. If it had stayed on course, it could have killed someone.” But it wasn’t just the cars that were hurtling towards the police line.
The Daily Express, in its coverage that weekend, claimed that twelve milk floats from the dairy were driven in a similar manner while two hundred youths built barricades of flaming car tyres sending a pall of smoke rising high above Liverpool.
Going back ten years before the 1981 riot, there seems to have been escalating tensions in the Toxteth area between some black and white youth as the film below from 1972 suggests.
But by 1981, the riot was – as the government itself acknowledged – a very multi-ethnic affair. In fact, according to the Home Secretary William Whitelaw, it became whiter with each night of violence.