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.

Shocking attitudes to race in the early 80s


If I want to shock the millennials I work with, I tell them of a grim time not so long ago when racism was not only casual but endemic. Worse, it tipped from the mouths of MPs, broadcasters, senior police officers and judges. I find it almost impossible to believe that when I was in my teens, people could utter some of what follows here…

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Powell – putting his own views in other people’s mouths

Enoch Powell MP was a posh demagogue much loved by the sort of people who would begin a sentence with “I’m not racialist but…” Powell always put his racist views into other people’s mouths. As if to say – I don’t necessarily believe this myself but I’m honour bound as a representative of my constituents to tell you that…etc.

That allowed him to posture as the unwilling messenger who had to relay to all of us the shocking truth about the perils of immigration. He once claimed that an elderly, frail white woman had “excreta pushed through her letter box”.  A woman like her was intended to embody all white people – vulnerable and overwhelmed by the aggressive and sexualised violence of people from the black Commonwealth.

It was all nods and knowing winks from Powell to the racists on the street. That’s not to say that a little old lady didn’t have poo put through her letter box.  But it sure as hell happened to a lot more Asian run newsagents at the hands of neo-fascists – a fact that conveniently escaped Powell.

Winston Churchill’s grandson was a prominent MP in the 1970s – same name as his granddad but less illustrious career. In 1976, he made a very Powell-esque speech himself. He imagined his constituents not being able to recognise their own neighbourhoods anymore.

We can not fail to recognise the deep bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire and woke up the next day in New Delhi Calcutta or Kingston, Jamaica.”

Churchill, incidentally, once described one of his constituents to the House of Commons as being “as black as your coat, Mister Deputy Speaker”.

Sir Kenneth Newman of the Metropolitan Police had some positives in his career such as backing the formation of Crimestoppers. But he also opined that Jamaicans were incapable of obeying the law: “It’s simply in their make up, they’re constitutionally disposed to be anti-authority”.  Another commentator even said that mugging was a form of self-employment for “West Indians”.  Crime reporting in those days was often underpinned by the assumption that black people were more disposed to criminality.

Another knighted copper called Ken was Sir Kenneth Oxford running the force in Merseyside. BBC reporter Martin Young spent some time with the Liverpool police and wrote a report for The Listener magazine. Jaws dropped round Merseyside when he claimed there was a view that “half-castes in Liverpool today” were the “products of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8 – the red light district”. Oxford bitterly denied that any senior police officer had said such a thing to the reporter – who in turn stood by his story.

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Alfred Sherman

Right-wing ideologues often conflated the perceived threat posed by immigrants – from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean mainly – with the permissive society unleashed by the 1960s. Alfred Sherman was a political guru to Margaret Thatcher and once declared that:

“…the imposition of mass immigration from backward alien cultures is just one symptom of this self-destructive urge reflected in the assault on patriotism, the family – both as a conjugal and economic unit – the Christian religion in public life and schools, traditional morality in matters of sex, honesty, public display and respect for the law – in short, all that is English and wholesome…”

How did black Britons view this kind of thing? In the late 70s and early 80s, change was slowly happening. A new generation born and bred in Britain wasn’t prepared to doff its cap to the former colonial master. And they wanted to succeed in British society.

However, there was still very widespread discrimination in employment and housing. I found a copy of a teen mag called Fab208 – mentioned elsewhere on this blog – where a black single mother was interviewed about what Christmas would be like for her. Mrs Jones, who lived in a dingy flat in Wapping with her kids replied:  “I don’t know how I’ve avoided committing suicide.”

There was so little room in the flat that clothes were hung up outside to dry but were then stolen. The family never went on holidays. Her 14 year old daughter Sharon told Fab208:  “At school I hear them talking about the places they’ve been to and I feel like the odd one out.”

Mrs Jones pointed out she had never been on social security and worked to keep her family.  “I’m not a sponger.  I wouldn’t like the idea of someone else supporting my children.” 

Shame Enoch Powell never dropped by to hear her account of life in Britain during the 70s and 80s.

How Thatcher wanted to arm the police in 1981


In April, 1981, Brixton exploded into a fury of rioting, which then abated. But this would prove to be a lull in the storm. Because when the summer came, city after city across Britain went up in flames. The two most violent disturbances were again in Brixton and in the Toxteth district of Liverpool.  But there were highly charged nights of violence in the Moss Side area of Manchester, Southall in west London and smaller upheavals in cities like Coventry, Leicester and Leeds.

What’s emerged this year in released files is that Thatcher was looking to arm the police – particularly, it turns out, because she was concerned about security at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.  The wedding went ahead as planned that year but by one of those cruel ironies, the only protestor to die in the Toxteth riot – passed away on the same day that Charles and Di swapped their vows.

 

Tooling up the police under Thatcher


In 1977, a massive riot between National Front supporters and anti-Nazis swept through Lewisham and tied up an estimated fifth of the Metropolitan Police. From 1976, the Notting Hill carnivals had ended in a fracas between police and local youth with a heavily charged racist undertow.

So, unsurprisingly, those politicians who nailed their colours to the law and order mast were calling for a more heavily armed police by the end of the 1970s. The sight of cops holding dustbin lids as shields and traffic cones had become a sick joke in their eyes. But there was also – among those who saw a threatening left wing tide – a desire to toughen up the state apparatus.

Here’s a headline from the Daily Mail after the Battle of Lewisham that makes their point.

Battle of Lewisham

Mob storm Manchester police HQ


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The most violent night in the Moss Side riot

July was the month of riots in 1981 and they came thick and fast from Toxteth, a re-ignited Brixton (which had already rioted in April), Southall and mini-riots from Coventry to Leicester and some very unlikely places like Chigwell in Essex!

The Manchester riot was particularly vicious. I remember driving through Moss Side – having been on a canal trip! It was just after the violence had died down and there was evidence of the destruction everywhere. And a very strange atmosphere.

Read the Wikipedia entry on the 1981 Moss Side Riot and it could easily be an article in a police magazine. The community leaders failed to stop the youth taking to the streets (as if they had any real power to stop them) and Chief Constable James Anderton was lauded by one and all for his tough measures including driving police vans directly at the rioters (similar tactic resulted in one death in Toxteth) and snatch squads then pouncing on rioters.

In truth, Anderton – who famously brought his religious views very publicly into his work – came under a hail of criticism from both the left and even other police chiefs. His approach was seen as abrasive and antagonistic. Undoubtedly he thought that was just what the situation needed.

The most memorable and chilling moment of the riot was when a police station was surrounded and among the weapons used were garden tools and a crossbow!

Heseltine visits Merseyside after the 1981 riots


Something had to be done about Liverpool as riots continued in the summer of 1981 and it was Environment Minister Michael Heseltine who became de facto Minister for Merseyside.  Making a beeline for the city, his arrival was greeted with warmth from allies, curiosity and derision from enemies.

A group of children at the Toxteth Methodist Centre having an evening of socialising were rather bemused when a four car cavalcade drew up and in to their midst strode the six foot three former guardsman, publishing millionaire and cabinet minister – Michael Heseltine.  Expecting to be rejected by the youth, according to contemporary accounts, he was in fact inundated with their grievances and for their part, the youth seemed rather overawed by this visitation from Westminster. Heseltine’s possibly studied informality disarmed critics like black youth leader Joe Brown.

“The kids told me he was a very genuine guy and that he was really concerned and listened to them, listened really hard. They liked him.”

But the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, formed to demand the release of those arrested, was in a far less accommodating mood.  On the 20th July, they stormed out of a meeting at the YMCA though 48 hours later, requested another encounter with the minister.  It was difficult to ignore the Cabinet member on their turf.

Heseltine behaved like a man on a mission who was learning on the job.  One of his aides told a reporter that the whole experience was changing him profoundly.

“He’d had one hell of an eye opener this week. I doubt if he had any idea what deprivation and appalling conditions can really be like in a city like this.  It’s been one hell of a jolt to his mind.”

Visiting a housing estate in the mainly white working class district of Croxteth, which some statistics suggested had a higher jobless rate than Toxteth, Heseltine was overhead having a rather surreal exchange with a local woman.  She turned to the figure before her.

“Where do you live?”

Heseltine replied:  “Somewhere rather nice near London.”

His 400 acre estate near Banbury in Oxfordshire was calculated to be half the size of Toxteth.  On that Friday, 24th July, he took time out from Liverpool to attend the 18th birthday of his daughter Annabel at their home, Thenford Manor.  The gossip columns reported that the minister spent £20,000 on the party, a fact that unfortunately for him did not go unreported in Liverpool.

The housing charity Shelter stuck the boot in with a scathing editorial in its magazine, Roof.  “There has been something ludicrous in Mr Heseltine’s professions of concern about the problems he has seen on Merseyside, when it was he who savaged the Housing Investment Programme and re-calculated the Rate Support Grant to favour the shire counties at the expense of the inner cities.”

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.

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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.