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.

Police recruitment ad from the riot torn 80s


This is from 1980 – a year before the explosive riots of 1981, though the same year as the riot in St Paul’s, Bristol. There were lots of young unemployed people to tempt with a career in either the police or the army.

But there was equally some resistance to being part of the state machine, as it was then viewed. As for black youth, they either didn’t want to join (because of the SUS laws and pressure from within the community not to ‘sell out’) or the police just didn’t take them on.

Black police officers were a very rare sight at this time – and ethnic minority representation within the Metropolitan Police was at scandalously low levels.

Probably on riot duty a year later…

The Deptford Fire – months before the Brixton Riots


Thirteen young people died at a house fire in Deptford, south London on 18 January, 1981. They had been at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock, aged 16. Thirteen people died in the inferno including Yvonne and her brother.

Even by the standards of the time, this was a horrific incident. And I say that because house fires claiming lives often got surprisingly little media coverage. In this case, the tone of the media commentary and the attitude of the police played into an already existing sense of grievance among many black people in south London and beyond.

It’s reasonable to say now that this house fire set in train a series of events that would lead to the riots that convulsed cities across the UK in the spring and summer of that year.

A 2001 article in The Guardian details how the police focussed on the idea of something illegal going on at the party – or possible a fight between partygoers being the root cause. In contrast, many black activists believed the fire had been an arson attack with racist motives.

In a way, the cause was overshadowed by the reaction to the event. To many black youth, it seemed that the establishment revealed its indifference. For example, there was no statement of condolence from the prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Whereas now, a tragedy like Grenfell – and similar incidents – are treated with a far greater degree of sensitivity.

Local anger resulted in a Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March, 1981 – new photographs of which were featured in a recent exhibition. It took a long route from Fordham Park in south London, through Peckham and Camberwell, on to Blackfriars and Fleet Street, then finally through the west end to Hyde Park.

Official estimates put the turnout at around 6,000 while the organisers claimed 20,000 – these kind of disparities for demo turnouts were really common at the time. The authorities always wanted to play down attendance whereas the organisers wanted to inflate the numbers. The truth was always somewhere in between.

Tragically, to this day, the cause and motive behind the fire remains a mystery.

A demonstration outside the house in Deptford

Death at the Toxteth riots in 1981


This photo captures the dreadful moment when David Moore – a young disabled man who lived in Liverpool – was killed by a police van traveling at speed during the Toxteth riots. David had gone to see the commotion but was unable to run fast enough to avoid the fateful impact.

Kneeling over him is Pauline Dunlop – who went on to be a high profile Labour city councillor and support of Militant. The shock of what had happened is etched painfully into her face. Moore’s family pursued the police through the courts but with little success.

 

The SPG – SUS laws – and 80s riots


I was standing at a bus stop in 1981 when a police car I didn’t realise was Special Patrol Group (SPG) stopped and one of the officers inside asked me what I was doing.   “Waiting for a bus,” I said, bit confused by the question.  “Well get a move on,” he replied.

And that was my one and only encounter with the SPG.

I appreciate that had I been black, my encounter might have been more prolonged and led me to a local cop shop.   I found this in my 80s collection – a leaflet from a group in south London campaigning against the so-called SUS laws allowing police to stop young people and search them in the street.  This became a major cause of the 1981 riots.

So, what was the SPG and why was this police unit problematic?

  • This unit was part of the Metropolitan Police and specialised in public disorder and in the Thatcher era was seen as a highly politicised branch of the police
  • It had been set up in 1961 and was seen as an elite unit that officers would aspire to join
  • The SPG tended to enforce stop and search, referred to as the SUS laws, which came to be seen as disproportionately affecting black youth in inner cities. The enforcement of this law undoubtedly contributed to the 1981 riots in areas like Brixton
  • In 1979, the SPG’s conduct during severe rioting in the Southall area of London came under scrutiny following the death of teacher Blair Peach

The SPG even inspired a punk song by The Exploited.