July, 1981 saw riots in the Toxteth district of Liverpool that arguably eclipsed the violence seen in other countries during that same long summer. When I arrived as a fresh faced undergraduate that October, our college bus would go from the halls of residence through Toxteth and the scene was one to make any middle class kid from southern England gulp. Houses gutted and charred and entire buildings flattened.
You might have thought we students at the university would have chosen to keep a low profile and maybe not antagonise the local youth – particularly the black youth of Toxteth who suffered high levels of unemployment and social deprivation at that time. But you wouldn’t have reckoned with the university Law Society. They decided it would be jolly interesting to hear from the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Ken Oxford.
To say that Oxford was a controversial figure would be putting it mildly. Neither the political left in Liverpool or the youth of Toxteth had a kind word to say about him. Nevertheless, in December of 1981, Oxford was asked to address a Law Society meeting on the university precinct. I should point out that said precinct may have felt remote from Toxteth but was actually a mere stone’s throw (pardon the pun) away.
Before Oxford spoke, a spokeswoman from the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee was allowed to make a statement. She proposed that Oxford be turned away because he was responsible for the ‘murder’ of David Moore (a disabled youth who died during the riots after being hit by a police van), the use of CS gas (first time on the British mainland – it had been used in Northern Ireland) and the report he himself had done on the riots was, the spokeswoman opined, a ‘whitewash’. Her motion was rejected “with a loud ‘no’ from the floor” and no vote needed to be taken.
Oxford got on with his speech saying that the police didn’t go out of their way to recruit racists and he felt the main problem facing him was a lack of finance and the attitude of the community. It was noted that he didn’t think there was anything seriously wrong within the force itself.
He hadn’t concluded his remarks when about thirty members of the L8DC burst in to the Moot Room, where the meeting was being held, screaming “Fucking burn the police!”, “Fucking University”, “Burn the Place Down!” and “Students are guests in this city”. Carl Chapman, vice-president of the Law Society, tried to encourage the protestors to leave but only when Oxford himself departed early, did the room empty out.
Buildings around the precinct were subsequently daubed with comments to the effect that the student body was racist. This wasn’t the only time that the university was subject to spray can comments from locals. Professor Patrick Minford in the Economics Department was one of Thatcher’s key advisers and his call for massive public expenditure cuts met with a graffiti response in jumbo-sized letters all over the faculty exterior.