The NME visits Liverpool after the 1981 riots


At the start of August 1981 – just days after the July riots had simmered down – the New Musical Express went to Toxteth to find out what locals were really thinking.  Police still patrolled every street corner and there did not appear to be a single shop in the area that had not been looted.  A woman called Anna sat behind a makeshift stall beyond which was a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole.  They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”

While middle aged and older residents were aghast at what had unfolded in their community, some younger interviewees were enjoying the breakdown in law and order.  There was a cocky bravado at getting goods they couldn’t normally afford free of charge.

“We just do it for what we can get out of it – to see what we can nick.”

“Just ‘cos I enjoy every minute of it.  I only do it for kicks an’ so I can rob cars.”

But there were more thoughtful youngsters who said the situation had been building up for twenty years.  The police had always treated black and white youth in the area with suspicion, searching their bags, getting a bit rough with them.  “People were bound to fight back one day.”

The death of David Moore (the only person to die in the riots, see my other blog posts on him) seemed to validate their actions as he was a defenceless, disabled man mown down by a police van.  So the NME went to talk to the police who, it noted, had received 1,631 complaints (mentioned in their annual report) resulting in formal disciplinary action against just two officers.

In spite of its trendy-left reputation, the paper took an even-handed view towards the constabulary pointing out that while there had been allegations of harassment, the police themselves had been subjected to daily provocation including being spat at and called ‘pigs’ to see if they would react.  As one garage attendant stoically remarked to the NME – “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Talking to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, it became clear that well known comments about the local Toxteth community being the product of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes were now widely attributed to the Merseyside Chief Constable Ken Oxford himself – though he denied it vehemently.

The exchange between the L8DC and the NME was frosty in the extreme and things only got worse when the reporter arrived at the Carribean Community Centre to be told “no white press in here”.  About twenty local youth quickly arrived on the scene to ask why the music paper only came to see them when there were bad times and crisis.

Promoting Merseyside bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark didn’t endear the NME to these black teenagers who saw that as “only another example of discrimination against blacks – in this case by the predominantly white-controlled music business”.

Clearly not having a good time in Toxteth, the reporter then alleged that he had been frisked as he moved along by inept pick-pockets and four other youths were now bouncing up and down on the bonnet of his ten year old Escort van.  Remonstrating with them, he got this stark response.

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions at black people under pressure.  An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”

Describing himself and his cameraman as “white boys in the wrong part of town”, the NME reporter decided to exit the city.

After the Liverpool riots – students make a big mistake


Ken Oxford
Liverpool police chief Ken Oxford was hated by local black youth

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.

university daubed
University daubed

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.

The first night of the Toxteth riot – 1981


The first night involved scuffles, an arrest and some injuries on both sides but 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.  “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.