Notting Hill carnival ends in riots


In the summer of 1981, riots gripped every major city in Britain – but with particular ferocity in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool. However – there had been some dress rehearsals in the years immediately previous. Throughout the late 1970s, Notting Hill Carnival had ended in violence. Some of the following account contains language from that era that obviously I do not endorse. 

In the run up to the 1976 carnival, the Carnival Development Committee faced opposition to the big event from several quarters.  Chief Superintendant Ron Patterson was photographed for the local newspaper holding up a long roll of paper – a petition by local residents to stop the carnival.

“It was handed to me by a North Kensington housewife.  She said it was a token of support for the police by the ordinary people of North Kensington.”

Local councillors suggested moving the event to White City stadium and the Chief Superintendant thought Battersea Park would be an acceptable alternative.  The top cop even took a member of the carnival committee for a walk in the park to convince them that it would be a better venue than the streets of Notting Hill.

But the committee decided to stand firm on the now almost traditional carnival route over the August Bank Holiday and one might say that battle lines were drawn.  The black community wanted its festivity while councillors, residents and the police were either hostile or distinctly lukewarm.

Through the Spring, the carnival organisers and police had increasingly intemperate meetings over the route, stewarding and liquor licensing.  What became clear was that in 1976, the police presence would be upped in spite of a warning from the Black People’s Information Centre that this would be an explosive move.

The very fateful day arrived and before long, tens of thousands of people had thronged the streets.  Estimates of the eventual numbers on the streets vary from 150,000 to 200,000 so the carnival was already a major event in Britain.

One young guy remembered the steel bands playing and drifting away from his friends, found himself at the corner of Acklam and Portobello Road.

“Across the ‘bello flies a highway and under the fly-over the heavy dub groups were staging their section of the carnival, belting out the sounds of bass guitars.”

The followers of various sound systems were in attendance including one called Prince Melody.  But the young black reveller didn’t have much time to take in the sounds as he walked in to a large group that already had about thirty policemen on the run.  All around, he could see people picking up whatever was to hand and throwing it at the cops.

Somebody selling revolutionary pamphlets decided that this was one barricade he didn’t wish to stand on and packed up.  Nearby, loudspeakers were blaring ‘Chase Them Crazy Baldheads Out of Town’.  And to cap off this surreal scene of mayhem, a black woman was shouting in to a megaphone: “Yeah, lick them.”

As photographs of the time testify, the police had indeed turned out in force but once the heat was turned on, many of them had only dustbin lids and bottle crates for defence.  There were no riot helmets, padded uniforms or shields.  Instead, many had zero head protection, were in rolled up shirtsleeves and just swinging a truncheon around.

But if the crowd thought this was a rout for the police, they were about to be disabused.  They had been surprised by the ferocity of the crowd reaction but the retreat was a moment to regroup not leave.

The young guy now saw a ‘rastaman’ standing in front of five hundred youth and shaking a red, green and gold stick in the air urging them to “burn the wicked”.

“I walk through fire,” he yelled, strutting towards the cowering officers.  Behind him, more cautiously, came the youths still hurling bricks and bottles.  But suddenly things changed dramatically.

‘Get them!’

The cry came from the police lines and a phalanx of dustbin lid clutching Metropolitan officers hurtled forward, truncheons chopping the air in all directions.  The rastaman disappeared in the melee and the young guy was bundled in to a police van with four others.

Coats covered the windows and he claimed a police inspector poked his head in the head door and barked an instruction to a subordinate.

“Take down the coats, they mightn’t stone us if they see niggers inside.”

Though there would be several stages towards the development of the riot police we know today, this was an early milestone.  After the 1976 carnival, the police returned – minus their Chief Superintendant who had moved on – with much better equipment.

Instead of flooding the area haphazardly and relying on bottle crates for defence, the police returned with shields, helmets and even night goggles.  Battle re-commenced with an expectant media having pretty much earmarked an annual carnival riot in their planning calendars.

The media would not be disappointed.  All hell duly broke loose in 1977 with a distinctly unpleasant bust up between police and revellers inside the Mangrove Restaurant on All Saints Road.  The restaurant had turned away a gang of youths they felt were looking for trouble and was full of revellers watching the steel bands go by.

Eye witnesses claimed that a large force of police entered All Saints Road from Lancaster Road and sealed off that point of exit and the Westbourne Park Road end as well.  Beating on their riot shields, the police advanced down the road towards the Mangrove.

The owner of the premises, Frank Critchlow, tried to persuade the police not to enter but earned a truncheon blow for his efforts.  Stewards that had been appointed by the restaurant to keep order in the area now found themselves pushing against the doors to the Mangrove to prevent the police entering but they eventually got in.

Everybody was told to leave in no uncertain terms and resistance was met with more truncheon blows. One DJ, Basil, stood by helplessly while his sound system, Black Patch, was smashed to pieces.

The anguish of people like Basil was of little concern to the Daily Mail, which went in to fulmination mode in the aftermath.

“If the West Indians wish to preserve what should be a happy celebration which gives free rein to their natural exuberance, vitality and joy, then it is up to their leaders to take steps necessary to ensure its survival.”

The Daily Express was reminded of a different group of blacks on its front page the day after.

“War Cry!  The unprecedented scenes in the darkness of London streets looked and sounded like something out of the film classic Zulu.”

On the floor of the Mangrove lay the remnants of Basil’s hi-fi and the broken vinyl pieces from forty-eight singles and five LPs.  This was the kind of memory that would be stored then unleashed in a torrent of violence three years later.

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General election night coverage in 1983


The general election of 1983 saw Labour badly divided. The 1974-79 Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan had been seen by the left as a betrayal of socialist values and capitulation to the International Monetary Fund. These had been years of incomes policies to curb pay and the first major cuts in public spending since the war.

Many of the policies Thatcher would implement in her first term were already in play in the last years of the Labour administration – though with less of the monetarist ideology that Thatcher espoused.

1979 to 1983 saw a horrific recession and the collapse of large swathes of manufacturing industry. This wiped out Tory support in the north and Midlands and there was initially strong hopes that Labour might be returned to office. But the party was ripping itself apart over what direction to take. Right-wingers like Shirley Williams and David Owen left to form the Social Democrat party (SDP). While Dennis Healey and Roy Hattersley remained within Labour to fight a bitter rearguard action against the Left led by Tony Benn.

Benn wanted mandatory re-selection of MPs, exit from the Common Market (European Union) and nuclear disarmament. To the left of him were groups like Tribune and the Militant advocating large scale nationalisation and a wholesale transformation of society. I often joked that you could walk into some Labour meetings and the Tribunites would be on one side of the room calling for the top 25 monopolies to be taken into public ownership. While the other side, Militant supporters, put a zero on that number and called for 250 nationalisations. That ‘zero’ separated reformists from Marxist-Leninists.

The 1983 manifesto was referred to be right-wingers as a ‘suicide note’ though, as with Corbyn’s policy platform, I’m not sure the demands were as unpopular as claimed. The bigger problems on the doorstep were a leader seen as ineffective (Michael Foot), Thatcher’s leadership in the Falklands War against Argentina and the overall impression of disunity.  It often seemed that there were many in the party more interested in the internal civil war and winning that – than taking power.

It would be another 14 years until Labour entered Downing Street again.

Two rival youth organisations inside the Labour Party


IMG_6202In the early 80s, the Labour Party had two youth organisations that were at each other’s throats. The Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was under the control of the Marxist group Militant and adopted a hard left programme of nationalisation and the overthrow of capitalism. Since the mid-70s, Militant had been in the LPYS driving seat and even had a representative on the Labour Party national executive.

IMG_6401The party bureaucracy didn’t enjoy this situation so they set up a separate student wing called the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) – under the control of leadership friendly activists. Militant responded with a spirited attempt to take over NOLS. Every NOLS conference became a battleground between Militant supporters and those aligned to Labour’s leadership. The pro-leadership group was initially called Clause 4 but then re-grouped into a faction called the Democratic Left.

NOLS remained under the control of Clause 4 while the LPYS continued with Militant. Eventually, Labour closed down the LPYS at the same time it carried out large scale expulsions of Militants from the party.

Those CND demos in the early 80s


IMG_6241The start of the 80s saw some monster CND demonstrations in London. The 1981 demo, which I remember well, attracted at least 250,000 people and took five hours to snake through London to Hyde Park. As we approached the park, I could hear Michael Foot’s voice very clearly – the then Labour leader and veteran unilateralist.

Later, outside McDonalds on Charing Cross Road, some old biddy came up to me and said I was as bad as those Peace Pledge Union types in the 1930s who’d have left us defenceless in the face of Hitler, etc.

The reason for the big turnouts on these CND protests was mainly the election of Ronald Reagan, seen as a dangerous militarist by us lefties at the time. The world was dominated by the superpower struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and it seemed to be hotting up. There were widespread concerns in the UK over the stationing of American nukes on British soil with Tony Benn calling for the closure of US military bases here.

 

When Shoreditch was fascist territory


National Front leafletEven in a lifetime, parts of London can change dramatically and Shoreditch is a huge transformation story.  Thirty five years ago, it was a battleground between neo-Nazis and anti-fascists.  National Front supporters would strut through Brick Lane intimidating the local Asian population and spray painting swastikas and racist graffiti.  And in 1978, the NF set up its headquarters in deepest Hoxton – 73 Great Eastern Street to be precise.

In the spring of 78, the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a huge anti-racist carnival in Victoria Park, Mile End – which I attended with my school mates. In our group was the son of Len Murray, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a fellow pupil at my school. On what was a magical day, we watched The Clash play in the park as well as the Tom Robinson Band – not a combo remembered much by anybody aged under 40.

Later the same year, south London got its chance to rock against the National Front with a carnival in Brockwell Park. But the word went out that while the capital’s anti-racists were watching some great bands – the Nazis would be taking over the east end. The call went out for some of those who opposed the NF to forego the music and counter-demonstrate against the far right in Shoreditch.

 

Tony McMahon

My student union election poster from 1982


Tony McMahonIn my first year at university, I ran for the welfare officer position in the student union at Liverpool Uni. The Labour Club was heavily influenced by the Marxist policies of the Militant Tendency and so the programme I ran on included calls to nationalise the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage and a 35 hour week. I think the latter demand probably terrified some of the arts students!

Note the heavy fringe of the time. Think my hair would have been dyed jet black – think Phil Oakey of the Human League.

The poster was drawn with a felt-tip pen. Seems so weirdly amateur now but we had no digital magic back in those far off days.