“Blood! Blood! Spilled by police tactics. They batter them, batter them in a tha head.”
Rioting swept many parts if Britain’s cities in the summer of 1981. If the first Brixton riots in April kicked it off, tension across many communities built to a climactic series of eruptions in the first week of July.
3 July saw aggro in Southall as skinheads arriving for a gig provoked angry resistance and fighting in Liverpool between police and young black folk. Over the following days uprisings broke out all over the country: in Liverpool, Manchester, again in Brixton, Bristol, Southampton, Leicester, Luton, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Bradford, Halifax, Leeds, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Bolton, Preston and Teesside, and across London from Acton to Walthamstow, from Haringey to Clapham… The whole country seemed on fire.
In Hackney, East London, trouble had been building for weeks: some of it turned against the police, some of it aimed at shops, and some turned (sometimes anti-socially) on anyone…
Police vs Black people in Hackney pre-1981
“The community hated us and we hated them…” (Hackney police officer)
In the early 1980s local policing in the Hackney area was violent and racist, almost in outright war against local black community. Complaints or racist attacks taken to the police received indifference, contempt and abuse. As in other inner city areas, SUS was used to harass black people and falsely accuse them of crimes.
Police had been accused of targeting black people locally for several years.
Just a few examples: In May 1971, Aseta Simms died in Stoke Newington Police Station in suspicious circumstances
In December 1978, Black teenager Michael Ferreira was stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends took him to the nearby police station, where the cops seemed more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who died of his wounds before reaching hospital.
This incident led to the setting up of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation.
On 24th April 1979 Hackney resident Blair Peach was killed by police, hit over the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall. Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia. The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police.
November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney called for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough.
February 1980: Five units of the Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.
Events in the weeks leading up to what later became called ‘Riot Week’ (3-15 July 1981) indicated a ratchetting up of tension towards what seemed inevitable eruption.
On 20 April, towards the end of a bank-holiday fair at Finsbury Park, hundreds of youths went on the rampage with sticks and bars, smashing up stalls and mugging people.
On the night of Tuesday, 5 May, about a hundred youths, most of whom had just come out of Cubie’s, an Afro-Caribbean disco off Dalston Lane, gathered round while some of them ripped out a jeweller’s window and stole jewellery worth £500. The retreating crowd threw bottles at the police.
In the early hours of Wednesday, 24 June, gangs of youths roaming the streets, again after chucking-out time at Cubie’s, smashed the windows of a travel agency and a fish-and-chip shop, grabbed the till of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Kingsland Road, and mugged three pedestrians.
London Transport bus crews, fearful of trouble, had been refusing to pick up passengers from Cubie’s for some months, thus leaving large gangs of black youths to walk home, along streets lined with shops, in a mood of anger and frustration.
As rioting spread elsewhere, on Wednesday, 8 July, two officers on patrol in Stoke Newington were attacked with stones, and towards midnight four police cars were damaged by missiles. The next evening, (July 9th) police were out in force, on foot, around Dalston, skirmishing with a couple of hundred youths on the move. Five shop windows were smashed and one policeman injured by missiles.
Police presence in the area was increased dramatically throughout the week.
On 10 July, fighting increased:
“The clashes in Dalston and Stoke Newington between police and local people on the weekend of 10-12 July were the culmination of several days of tension, caused mainly by police tactics.
Local traders had been told repeatedly to board up shops because the police were expecting trouble, and this created an unreal siege-like atmosphere in both Kingsland and Stoke Newington High Streets. There were also a number of raids on Johnson’s, a West Indian cafe in Sandringham Road, which was to become the focus for the worst disturbances.” (Hackney Peoples Press)
The junction of Sandringham Road and Kingsland High Street became a focus; unsurprisingly. Sandringham Road led down into what was then the heart of the most populous Afro-Caribbean area in Hackney. It was sometimes called Dalston’s ‘frontline’.
At the top of the road, the Argos showroom windows gleamed with consumer products. On the right, Johnson’s cafe, a haunt favoured by black youth. Police targetted Johnson’s constantly, accusing young people gathering there of being involved in crime; there were frequent drug busts and raids in pursuit of ‘dips’ (pickpockets), accused of gathering there after escaping from their favourite hunting-ground, nearby Ridley Road Market.
Days of fighting elsewhere had ben splashed across the news… The mood of insurrection was emerging from the constant tension.
The trouble on 10th July began around 5 p.m. when a group of youths robbed a jewellers’ shop in Kingsland High Street.
“Trouble became inevitable when the police tried to prevent people going down Sandringham Road, to gather outside Johnson’s…”
The police closed down Johnson’s cafe and moved on groups that formed outside: a few bricks and bottles were thrown. Then larger groups of youth began to congregate.
“At around 7.30 p.m. two fire-bombs were thrown: one at the Argos showrooms, followed by looting; and one at a policeman in Arcola Street, site of the main social-security office in Stoke Newington. The police charged down Sandringham Road, but were pushed back by the youths for a distance of about 40 metres before making a successful counter-charge. Just before midnight bricks were thrown at the police stationed at the mouth of Sandringham Road, from the barrier railings outside the Rio cinema, opposite. Under attack, exhausted from working days of fourteen and sixteen hours around London’s riot areas, some officers lost their cool. A unit of helmeted police charged across the road, truncheons drawn, and used them to `disperse’ the crowd at the railings. One girl suffered a head wound and was rushed to hospital.”
There were at least two baton charges by police to clear Sandringham Road. Police lashed out wildly with truncheons – many people were injured, including a Hackney People’s Press reporter, who was standing in the doorway of the Rio Cinema. He was taken to the Hackney Hospital, and had three stitches in a scalp wound.
“There was an atmosphere of Sweeney and Starsky and Hutch. It was just after the stoning incident, and police Rovers, Escorts and blue-and-white vans packed with men were using Kingsland Road as a race-track, hooters wailing and lights flashing, in pursuit of the suspected assailants. For the meanwhile, the protection of property took a back seat, and I watched for half an hour as menswear shop, Mr H, was looted down to the last button and buckle. The window smashed a few seconds after I had walked past it: there was no one in sight but a young black boy of about thirteen, looking a picture of innocence. A few minutes later five or ten youths, black and white, began to arrive, clambering over the railings from the road, then leaning against them and looking around themselves with great caution before acting. One boy set the example, snatching a white sweatshirt and stuffing it down the front of his jacket. The others helped themselves, each one walking away in a relaxed manner calculated to allay suspicion. Mr H’s alarm was ringing noisily: but so were many others. After a lull more wardrobe hunters arrived, and some of the first wave returned for second helpings. The first time they’d snatched anything that came to hand. This time they were more discriminating, checking sizes and colours and discarding unsuitable ones.
Three whites in their late twenties stood opposite, smiling benevolently and shouting ‘Police’, with the accent on the first syllable, whenever men in blue came near. A skinhead in a long Edwardian jacket, attracted by the Victoria Wine off-licence next door to Mr H, wrapped a brick in a paper bag and hurled it at the window with all his might. It bounced off. A boy slipped on the glass outside Mr H, and cut himself badly, and the others gathered round to help. The looting proceeded, while at the back, thieves were smashing their way through security bars and looting the racks inside. Some of the earliest looters had the opportunity to saunter by five or six times, while the skinhead persisted in his increasingly desperate attempts to smash the off-licence window, the only effect being to leave a dusting of brick powder on the glass.
At about 1 a.m. a big black bearded youth in a long leather raincoat took out a pair of model legs from the window and threw them into the middle of the road. Police vehicles had passed the scene at least forty or fifty times, but this act finally attracted their attention. A van screeched to a halt, a dozen officers leapt out, and one of them stayed behind to stand guard over what, by now, was a totally empty window.”
Compared to the riot the same day in Brixton, and the week’s events in Liverpool 8 and Moss Side, the events in Hackney were said to be relatively minor, In all forty premises were damaged that night and sixty arrests were made. The score of injuries was even: twenty-three police, twenty-three members of the public.”
The Hackney People’s Press reporter injured by police truncheons described the scene in Hackney Hospital:
“The casualty ward of the hospital was like a battle-field. A number of people were being treated for head wounds. I spoke to two 16-year old white youths who had been attacked. One of them had been truncheoned and kicked while outside the Rio, at the same time as me. Another had been attacked with a group of friends while on his way home to Stoke Newington. With his head bleeding from a wound, he and his friends walked all the way from Sandringham Road to Hackney Hospital. While at the hospital I saw uniformed and plain-clothes police writing down the names and addresses of people being treated. They were being helped to do this by at least one member of the administrative staff.”
Just up the road in Stoke Newington, the same night saw repeated use of violent police tactics to clear the streets of people, mostly against bystanders and spectators. Transit vans full of police were driven very fast down narrow roads and up onto pavements.
“Coachloads of police would suddenly rush out of their buses and chase off local people, lashing out wildly with their truncheons. HPP knows of a number of people who were attacked and arrested on that evening.” (Hackney People’s Press)
The following day, Saturday, 11 July, “far worse was expected. Shoppers stayed away from the High Street and the Wimpy Bar owner complained of his worst Saturday for business in twenty years. But the shopkeepers had their minds preoccupied in other ways. From Dalston Junction to Stamford Hill, they were measuring and sawing, drilling and screwing, fitting and hammering. According to means, great panels of corrugated iron, wood, plywood, chipboard, hardboard and cardboard were being battened up by those who did not already have armour-plated glass, grilles and shutters. Builders’ merchants were running out of supplies, security firms doing more business than they could cope with, employees and friends and relatives were dragooned into a frenetic race against time to put up their protective walls before the expected confrontation of the late afternoon and evening.”
But less trouble than expected in fact panned out… There were further disturbances during the afternoon, particularly in the Sandringham Road area. Police moved in a pincer movement to try and clear the streets – this just led to the fighting spreading into gardens (St. Mark’s Rise residents reported groups of police chasing youths through their gardens through the afternoon).
At some point, Johnson’s cafe in Sandringham Road had its window smashed in – seemingly by the cops.
“All the glass wall and glass door at the front of the shop was kicked in, kicked in by the police – bash! and smash!” “Police came into the cafe using truncheons, slashing them in… a them head…”
Journalist Paul Harrison described the atmosphere on the Saturday:
“Up at the end of Sandringham Road, the atmosphere was High Noon. The police were scattered, in twos and threes, all down the High Street. About fifty black youths, with the merest scattering of whites, were sitting along the railings and on the wooden fence of the petrol station and crowding outside Johnson’s cafe. I talked to many of them and the grievances bubbled out, against unemployment, racialism, but above all against the police.
A pretty girl of seventeen, with four grade ones in the Certificate of Secondary Education, out of work for ten months, said:
‘I go down the temp agency every morning. There’s only been two jobs going there all week. Since Thatcher’s come in, everything’s just fallen. She needs a knife through her heart.’
Her nineteen-year-old friend continues:
‘I got three O-levels and that’s done me no good at all. A lot of my friends are having babies. If you haven’t got a job, you might as well have a baby.’
Vengeance for colonialism and slavery, rebellion against discrimination, redress for police abuses, all mingled together as a group of boys pitched in. They were angry, agitated.
‘You can’t win,’ said a tall youth worker:
‘If a black person drive a nice car, the police say, where you get the money to drive that? You wear a gold chain, they say, where you thief that? We like to gather in a little place and have a drink and music, so what the police do? They like to close it down, so we all on the street instead. And what happen when they get hold of you? They fling you in the van, they say, come on you bunnies [short for ‘jungle bunnies’]. They play find the black man’s balls. They treat us like animals, man, they treat their dogs better than they treat us. They kick the shit out of us and put us inside to rot. They think they are OK in their uniforms. But if that one there was to walk over here naked now, we’d kick the hell out of him. Somebody said, black people will never know themselves till their back is against the wall, well, now our backs is against the wall. I’m gonna sit right here, and I ain’t gonna move.’
A boy of eighteen in a flat corduroy cap said:
‘I was driving down from Tottenham to Hackney once, I got stopped seven times on the way. Four years ago, they came to my house searching for stolen goods and asked me to provide a receipt for everything in my house. We’ve been humiliated. It’s time we show them that we want to be left alone.’
‘We’re fighting for our forefathers,’ said the seventeen-year-old secretary:
‘We’ve been watching Roots [the film series on American slavery]. They used us here for twenty years, now they got no use for us, they want us out.’
An eighteen-year-old boy in a green, red and black tea-cosy hat went on:
‘The police can call you a fucking cunt, but if you say one word at them they’ll take you down. They don’t even like you to smile at them. You try to fight them at court: you can’t fight them, because black man don’t have no rights at all in this country.’
There was a lot of military talk, for this was not seen as a challenge to law, but a matter of group honour: the police, as a clan, had humiliated young blacks, as a clan, and clan revenge had to be exacted.
‘Since they got these riot shields,’ said a boy of twenty, ‘they think they’re it. We can’t stand for that. Tonight we have to kill one of them, and now there’s a crowd of us, we’re gonna do it. If they bring in the army we’ll bring in more reinforcements and kill them.’
One boy in sunglasses, sixteen at the oldest, launched into a lecture on guerrilla tactics:
‘If you come one night and they make you run, then the next night you bring enough stones, bottles and bombs that they can’t make you run: you don’t run, they run.’
He smirks, as if he has just stormed their lines single-handed:
‘But look at everyone here. They’re all empty-handed. Last night they were wasting their petrol-bombs, throwing them on the street. It’s no use throwing one without a specific target. Look at that police bus: one bomb at the front, one at the back, and that would be thirty-two or sixty-four police less. You got to have organisation, like they got.’ “
At 6 p.m. the police decided to clear the streets, moving on the group gathered at the petrol-station fence, pushing them down Sandringham Road. At the same time another cordon of police began to walk up Sandringham Road from the other end. An escape route was deliberately left open — the alley of Birkbeck Road — and the cordons let through most of those who wanted to get by.
But many of the youths believed the police had trapped them in a pincer with the intention of beating them up. Several of them started to break down the wall next to Johnson’s café to use the bricks. As one young boy explained:
‘When they come smashing you over the head with a baton one night, the next time you know you’ve got to get something to defend yourself with.’
… The police closed in to forestall the brick-throwers, there were scuffles, one policeman was injured, and five arrests were made.”
The expected explosion did not occur…How come a “full-blooded riot” didn’t really get going In Hackney, as deprived and angry as Brixton?
Partly Hackney had no single centre like Brixton, and its heart, Railton Road, The numbers required to start a large-scale disturbance never came together.
Also, the police had learned tactics, from the experience of Brixton to learn from, “they did not offer a static, concentrated defensive line that was a sitting target for missiles. And they split up the opposition into smaller groups and kept them moving down separate side roads, preventing any larger crowds from forming.”
The main motivation of rioters was, quite simply and straightforwardly, hatred of the police among the young and the desire to hit back at them for humiliations received. A spot of looting never does any harm either…
By the Sunday, the situation was a lot calmer, but there was still a massive police presence on the streets. Coachloads of cops were permanently parked in Sandringham Road, and Transit vans, with iron grids over the windscreen to prevent them being smashed, lined up outside Stoke Newington police station.
The organisers of two local festivals held that weekend at London Fields and Stoke Newington Common, were asked by the police to cancel their festivities. Both of these refused to call the events off – there was no trouble at all.
Over 100 people were arrested over the few days of fighting: magistrates sent a fair few to prison. The Hackney Legal Defence Committee (HDLC) was set up to assist those arrested.
Anger at collective reaction against racism and police violence didn’t dissipate after July 1981 – it was in fact to peak in the area two years later.
In December 1981 Hackney Police arrested and assaulted a black mother and two daughters — the Knight family. This was one of many such incidents in Hackney. Others include the wrongful arrest and assault on the White family who got over £50,000 compensation and the wrongful arrest of Newton Rose for murder.
By 1982 there was demand for an enquiry into policing locally, coming from the community.
In January 1983, Colin Roach, a local black 15 year old, died from gunshot wounds in the foyer of Stoke Newington Police Station. Police said he shot himself, but there were highly dubious circumstances, and signs of a police cover-up. Colin’s family was treated very badly. The death, and the way the Roach family were dealt with, provoked a huge local upsurge of anger; mass pickets of the Police Station ended with arrests and a mini-riot. Numerous protests and community organising followed; the mass response to this death sparked collective activity that lasted several years.
Eventually an inquest verdict of suicide was brought in on Colin, but it was critical of the police response. Many community organisations ended up in effect refusing to co-operate with the cops at all. A campaign to defund the police was initially backed by Hackney Council (though it was eventually ruled illegal).
Police brutality continued into the mid-80s, with the vicious beating of Trevor Monerville, the death of Tunay Hassan in custody in Dalston Police Station, and other cases. The community campaigns that formed from these cases eventually came together with the founding of Hackney Community Defence Campaign (HCDA).
HCDA stepped up the pressure on the police locally, setting up a database of violent, racist and corrupt police and those involved in harassment and deaths etc, following up cases, going to court, running campaigns, uncovering police corruption and drug-dealing. Eventually they forced the transfer of eight officers, another committed suicide, others jailed for nicking money from victims and dealing…
In return they experienced harassment, were followed by unmarked cars, received threats… Special Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad sent undercover police to infiltrate the Campaign at the Colin Roach Centre. Mind you, this was in keeping with police traditions – SDS officers had also previously spied on a number of local groups and campaigns, including Schoolkids Against the Nazis.
Sandringham Road E8 1983
Some amateur and unique footage of black youths hanging out on “The Frontline”.
Part one includes some police-community relations including an arrest at 6:40 and a cop getting lumped at 7:05 – after which his helmet is used as football.
Part two is a bit more relaxed and includes a visit at 5:58 from reggae royalty Dennis Brown (of “Money In My Pocket” fame).
More context about the policing and community of Sandringham Road available in Hackney Community Defence Association’s “Fighting The Lawmen”.
There’s an audio guide to Sandringham Road as part of A Hackney Autobiography.
Mush of the above was shamelessly lifted from the Radical History of Hackney, many thanks to them, go check their excellent blog.