This week in UK history, 1981: uprisings and riots all over the country

“Britain is a paradoxically closed yet ‘open’ society ruled over by a patrician but condescendingly populist elite possessing the most remarkable cunning and duplicity well versed in a token recuperation of everything from below that raises its head in protest… Yet over the last decade the UK has lived through profound social turmoil. Mingled with the seemingly never ending hopelessness of drugs, drugs, drugs, drink, drink, drink, the place is alive with an unfocussed rebellion…

There is a path that leads out of this wasteland and during the summer of 1981 the unemployed started to travel its length unaided. The totality of desperation and misery produced its opposite – The nights were young and though the pubs had called time the firewater was freely circulating. In the space of 10 days in early July 1981. England was transformed. It will never be the same again. Every major city and town was rocked with youth riots. Bored youngsters ranging from 8 to 80 excitedly got ready for an evenings burnin’ and lootin’. Even Army recruits on leave joined in. If the grandkid did the hell raising, grandma helped out with the free shopping. In Manchester an 8 year old was arrested for setting fire to a bike shop and in Bristol a paraplegic pensioner was wheeled obligingly into a supermarket so he could get in on the lootin’ too.”
(Like a Summer With a Thousand Julys, BM Blob, 1982)

Rioting swept many parts of Britain’s cities in the summer of 1981. Tension across many communities built to a climactic series of eruptions in the first week of July.

Policing, especially violent paramilitary policing of inner city communities, and most particularly racist policing used against black and Asian young people, was the immediate spark in most places. But behind this, poverty, desperation and alienation were widespread across the UK, and in many cities work was becoming increasingly scarce as manufacturing industries declined and thousands ended up on the dole. Young working class people could see little was on offer but being skint and treated like shit, and for many smashing things up was the only solution.

If rage at police harassment, boredom and alienation at a society that seemed to offer young people nothing, and skintness and hostility to authority generally were common elements, local conditions produced different results on the ground.

Below is a chronological record of some major incidents, marches, confrontations, demonstrations, disturbances and gatherings that made the headlines in the seven months from March 1981. It is far from comprehensive and nay contributions to update it, suggestions for longer accounts to link to etc would be welcome…

Bristol Riot 1980

However, many would point out that the April 1980 Bristol Riots in St Pauls and Southmead could be seen as the opening skirmish, an initial battle over the same issues and flashpoints, if a year earlier.

We’ve linked to longer posts or articles on some of the events where we can…

The New Cross Fire and the Black community response to it are crucial to the context to much of the 1981 insurgency.
On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party during a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock (aged 16) and Angela Jackson (aged 18), at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross. The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade. Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. And police quickly then discounted the racist attack theory and treated survivors and witnesses with suspicion. Anger grew in the area and among black people wider afield, and an action committee formed to co-ordinate a response. The result was the Black People’s Day of Action…

Monday, 2 March
London
Between 3,000 and 6,000 people, most of them black, took part in the Black People’s Day of Action, a demonstration organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee to protest against the police handling of the Deptford fire investigation. The demo saw some sporadic agro, but the self-confidence, anger and unity of the Day of Action were a watershed moment for British black communities; subsequent police attacks would be stoutly resisted…

While police and scared commentators were keen to label the events of 1981 as all about race, this was not the case in every riot and in many of the uprisings, whites fought alongside Blacks and Asians in many cases. But racial violence towards black and Asian people, from police and from racists (organised and unorganised) was one of the major triggers.

Racist attacks were endemic across the country in early 1981: Malcom Chambers was killed in Swindon in April during an ‘anti-black riot’; Satnam Singh Gill was murdered by skinheads in Coventry. In the same month a Sikh temple was petrol bombed and the Indian and Commonwealth Club was hit by an arson attack. In June Fenton Ogbogbo was killed by racists in South London.

Kicking off the 1981 events was a major riot in Brixton, South London, where the area was repeatedly invaded by an army of police to ‘crack down on streetcrime’ (code for harass, arrest and beat up black youth). The Met’s ‘Operation Swamp ’81’ backfired spectacularly on them, however…

10-13 April
Brixton, South London

On Friday night (10 April), police were attacked by 40-50 youths. During the next three days, violence flared, rioters set fire to 26 buildings, one fire engine, and 19 cars, between 145 and 165 police were injured, there were nearly 200 arrests and there was a total of 226 casualties. Petrol bombs were thrown at police and estimates of damage vary from £2 million to £10 million. By Monday evening some violence continued but no further arrests were reported.

Read firsthand accounts of the April Brixton riot

Easter weekend, 17-20 April: The ‘Seaside rampages”
The Daily Telegraph reported mods, skinheads, punks and rockers ‘on the rampage’ at numerous seaside resorts. the bank holiday riot-beanos were already a bit of a ritual annual fixture to some extent, but it added to the sense of youth uprising, even if some accounts reckon skins, some of the nazi persuasion, were involved in some of the easter shindigs. However, many outside observers couldn’t tell a nazi skin from any other variety of skin, and at the time there was a considerable blurring of such boundaries.

Southend
A large number of skinheads gathered for the weekend, shop windows were smashed and 170 people arrested. Apparently there were ‘reports of British Movement and November 9th Society (neo-Nazi) involvement’.

Margate
Thirty-nine arrests. One policeman and one skinhead injured.

Hastings
Twenty people arrested after clashes between rival gangs.

Brighton
All police leave cancelled as 1,000 mods arrived. Ninety-two arrests over the weekend.

Great Yarmouth
Forty arrests.

Scarborough
Seventy-eight arrests

Fairground riots
Around the same time trouble broke out at several London fairs, mainly involving black youth.

Finsbury Park
A reported 500 black teenagers attacked shops and fought police outside a fairground after it closed early. Eight police and twenty civilians were injured, 40 people were arrested and £1,000 worth of electrical goods were looted from a shop owned by the Asian vice-chairman of Haringey Community Relations Council.

Ealing Common
Three hundred black youths smashed shop windows and damaged police vehicles.

Wanstead Flats
‘Dozens’ of youths ‘went on a rampage’.

Saturday, 23 May

Coventry
Violence broke out during a march by 8,000 Asians protesting against the number of racist attacks in the city. The marchers were heckled by about 200 skinheads shouting Fascist slogans, marchers later fought with 1,500 police patrolling the march. Paving stones and banner poles were used as weapons. Over 70 people were arrested. One policeman was stabbed.
Some images of the Coventry demo 

Late May

Enfield, North London
A white man was killed by a mob of skinheads.

Brixton
Late May: A confrontation between police and youth nearly erupted again but police withdrew in the face of a gathering crowd.

Monday, 1 June

Thornton Heath, South London
Local black youth attacked the Wilton Arms pub in Thornton Heath, looking for National Front supporters after a spate of racist attacks. Later, a white youth was stabbed and killed in the street outside.
More on the Wilton Arms incident and racism/anti-racism in Thornton Heath

On the same night eight police were injured in a clash with black youths at a shopping centre in Lewisham, Southeast London.

Tuesday, 2 June

London
More trouble at Lewisham. Police who arrested a girl at the shopping centre were attacked by black youths. Ten people were arrested. Later 100 youths gathered outside the police station shouting abuse. The incidents were described as ‘a near riot’ {Observer 7/6/81).

Saturday, 20 June

London

Various papers reported 400 to 1,000 black youths ‘rampaging’ at a fairground on Peckham Rye Common in South London. Thirty shop windows were smashed in nearby Rye Lane, and merchandise stolen. Twenty-eight people were arrested.

Friday, 3 July

Southall, West London
On 3 July, Southall erupted when a group of racist skinheads were bussed into the area (with a predominantly Asian and Black population) for a concert by the band Oi at the Hamborough Tavern: the skins marched through the High Street smashing windows and racially harassing people as they went. Asian youths, organised by west London’s Asian Youth Movement, laid siege to the pub. The police intervened, and there were over a hundred casualties, sixty-one of them policemen.
In the rioting that broke out petrol bombs were thrown and the Hamborough Tavern, venue for the concert, was burnt down.
An account of the 3 July Southall Riot

Liverpool
At about the same time as the Southall disturbance was occurring, police in Liverpool 8 (aka Toxteth) chased and arrested a black motorcyclist. He fell off and they caught him, but he was then rescued by a crowd of about forty black youths. Bricks were thrown, and a two-hour battle with police developed.

Police with riot shields face a group of youths during riot in Liverpool 8

Saturday, 4 July
Liverpool
Late Saturday night violence broke out again in Liverpool 8. police were lured to Upper Parliament Street by an anonymous report of a stolen car, then attacked. A crowd of nearly two hundred youths, both black and white, some in balaclava helmets, built barricades, threw petrol bombs and used vehicles as battering rams to break the police lines. A school and several shops were burnt down and other shops were looted.

Sunday, 5 July
Liverpool
The night of the worst violence in Liverpool. On the Sunday the rioting went out of control with the police calling in reinforcements from all over the North West to make up a force of 800, but they were still overwhelmed by a crowd of black and white youths. In the meantime the local community poured out to loot everything they could. They were pushing shopping trolleys and prams and filling them up as they went. They drove vans into the area like a regular shopping trip, picking up refrigerators, electrical goods, carpets, the lot. CS gas was used to disperse rioters in the early hours of Monday morning.

An account of the riots and the background to the eruption in Liverpool

And another

Monday, 6 July

Liverpool

Some violence continued in Toxteth but of a lesser intensity than the previous two nights. Newspaper reports and photographs show both white and black youths involved in the rioting, and the majority of looters appeared to be white people of all ages. Over the entire weekend a total of 255 police were injured. Seventy people appeared in court on Monday and 77 on Tuesday. Most of them were white and some were as young as thirteen.

London
200 youths ‘ran wild’ in Wood Green, North London. Those involved were reported to be mainly Black and Greek Cypriot. This outbreak was widely regarded as a ‘copycat’ riot.

Tuesday, 7 July

Cop chases skinhead down West Green Road during Wood Green riot

Wood Green, North London
Between 400 and 500 youths attacked police and looted shops in Wood Green.
The Times reported that in Wood Green ‘the trouble began when a group of between 300 and 400 black youths began to gather near Turnpike Lane Underground station and marched along the High Road… The Special Patrol Group was called in. Police carrying riot shields attempted to drive the youths from the High Road. They had started fires in waste bins, and police cars were stoned…. In one men’s outfitters, a gang of black youths even took time to strip every window model of their trousers. Mr Mel Cooper, the owner commented: “They looted thousands of pounds worth of stuff, most of it trousers and shirts”‘ (Times, 8 July 1981).

The incident was reported on the 10 o’clock news and the crowd soon increased to 500. 35 shops in Wood Green High Road were looted or had their windows broken. Reports in the press and by various individuals claim that 26 policemen were injured and 50 civilians arrested.

Trouble in Moss Side

Manchester
Rioting broke out in Moss Side, Manchester. James Anderton, the chief constable, was generally considered a rightwing ultra-christian reactionary; after an attempt to ignore the riots as if they would go away, his solution was to send fifty-four vans speeding through the area on the third night of rioting, with their back doors hanging open and filled with snatch squads in crash helmets who leapt out to crack heads and drag their targets away. ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger – oi, oi, oi’, the cops shouted as they went, beating their truncheons on the side of the vans. In spite of the new tactic, the disturbances took until the Saturday to quell. The violence spread round Greater Manchester during that time, leading to a final tally of 475 arrests, of whom the majority were white.
A blog on the 1981 Manchester riots

Wednesday, 8 July

Wood Green
Youths gathering on Wood Green High Road in north London the morning after the riot there, loudly played back tape recordings of news reports just to goad the police. Chris, a 17-year-old Greek Cypriot said “I hope this gets us in the papers. I hope this counts as a big riot like Liverpool.”

Manchester and Salford

One thousand youths stormed Moss Side police station, police and ambulancemen were injured, petrol bombs thrown, vehicles overturned and shops looted. There were other outbreaks of violence throughout the area and three policemen were injured.

Thursday, 9 July

London
Crowds were on the streets in various parts of London with sporadic clashes with police:
On the sixth consecutive night of widespread civil disorder there were disturbances in Woolwich, Tooting, Fulham and Dalston.

Woolwich, Southeast London
‘London police quickly quelled what threatened to be a riot early yesterday evening in Woolwich, south-east London. About 200 black and Asian youths ran through the town centre smashing 15 shop windows and overturning two cars. There was some looting. The youths were outnumbered by police who quickly dispersed them. 27 arrests were made…’ (The Times).
The Woolwich events seem to have been provoked by rumours of a racist skinhead invasion to attend a gig at the Tramshed (a similar occurrence had led to the riots in Southall in the previous week). According to the Deptford and Peckham Mercury (16 July 1981), people initially gathered on the streets to defend local venues thought vulnerable to racist attack – groups were reported at local Sikh temples in Calderwood Street and Masons Hill (where an Anti Nazi League meting was taking place), a mosque in Thomas Street, and the Simba project (an African-Caribbean community group). An (untrue) rumour that the skinheads were arriving on the Woolwich ferry prompted hundreds of mainly young people to run down Powis Street, and it was here that shop windows were broken and cars overturned, with a tobacconist shop being looted.
A briefing from the F4 division of the Home Office (responsible for links with security services, Special Branch etc) gives more details: ‘At 7:24 pm 100 black youths and 50 white youths were reported at Woolwich, but there was no trouble… at 8.42 pm disturbances broke out at Woolwich, with youths throwing stones and overturning vehicles. Serials had previously been deployed to the Woolwich area for the Anti-Nazi League meeting and these, supplemented by the Special Patrol Group and Urgent Response Units deployed from Operations Room, moved into the area to prevent trouble…’
It’s worth noting that Nazi attacks were a very real daily threat in Woolwich. The fascist British Movement had been very active in the area in the run-up to these events, carrying out racist attacks, including a horrific incident the previous year led by notorious British Movement skin führer Nicci Crane. (Later in 1981 Crane was jailed for four years for his part in an ambush on black youths at Woolwich Arsenal station).

Lewisham, SE London
In Lewisham, eight youths were arrested after clashes in which goods were looted from Chiesman’s department store. About 100 black youths in Deptford threw bottles at a police car.
The trouble in Lewisham seems to have been fairly sporadic, prompting some self-congratulation from the police in the South London Press: ‘Lewisham has escaped almost trouble free from a week of rioting in Britain’s inner cities thanks to sensitive policing and public co-operation, a police chief said yesterday. Apart from a window being smashed at Chiesman’s in Lewisham High-St, and a minor stone throwing incident in Sydenham on Saturday where three people were arrested, there have been no repeats of the mass looting and rioting which has hit many areas.
However, there was controversy in the area when police warned that a planned New Cross Massacre Action Committee fundraiser couldn’t go ahead for licensing reasons at the Evelyn 190 Centre in Evelyn Street, Deptford (‘Clash over fire victims’ disco’, Mercury, 16 July 1981).

Dalston/Stoke Newington, North/East London
3 days of trouble began in these neighbouring areas of Hackney. Twenty youths were arrested in Stoke Newington after bricks and bottles were thrown at the police… Several hundred youths were moved on by police from Dalston, east London. The youths, black and white in about equal numbers, gathered in Kingsland High Street and Dalston Lane. Several hundred police patrolled the streets. (The Times, 10 July 1981)
A longer account of these three days of rioting in Stokey and Dalston

Fulham, West London
Street fighting broke out last night in Fulham with minor clashes between police and youths. Seven youths were arrested, six black and one white’ (The Times)

Moss Side

Manchester
More violence reported in Moss Side.

Friday, 10 July

London

Brixton once again became the centre of attention – several hours of fighting with police erupted after the arrest of a local black DJ. Cars were set alight and shops looted. Four police and four civilians were injured, and 90 people were arrested.
A longer report on this Brixton riot

Several other areas of London also went off on the Friday night:
Southall
There were outbreaks of ‘hooliganism’ (as described by the police). Reports claimed 1,500 Asian youths threw bricks and looted shops. Southall blazed again with burning cars, while black and Asian youths stoned the fire engines trying to reach the fires.

Battersea, South London
A block of flats was set on fire and a fire station was attacked by a crowd of youths. 17 arrests were made in Queenstown Road and Falcon Road area.

Dalston
70 youths threw firebombs at police. Three policemen injured.

Stoke Newington
500 people threw stones at the police station. Firebombs were thrown and 29 people were arrested.

Hounslow, West London
11 skinheads were arrested after a group began stoning cars.

Peckham
A 15 year old youth was arrested in Rye Lane, Peckham, for allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at police (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Balham, South London
Around 35 shops along the High Road were damaged in a wave of violence which started shortly after midnight when some 200 youths roamed the streets. ‘Worst hit was the Argos Discount Store where hundreds of pounds worth of goods were stolen’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

There were also smaller disturbances on Friday night in Clapham (cars overturned), Streatham (sporadic looting), Penge (petrol bombs), Camberwell (two cars were overturned in Daneville Road) and Slough.

Outside London

Trouble was reported on the 10th in a number of cities including Preston, Hull, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Reading.

Birmingham
In the Handsworth district of Birmingham, 400 ‘black and white youth, mostly Asian’ stormed the police station, threw bricks at police, driving them out of the area, and then turned on the local fire station and a British Legion club. There were 329 arrests.

Not sure what day, but ‘at the end of riot week’ possibly Friday, in Walthamstow (NE London) ‘a riot of Asian youth’ broke out, after the funeral of Mrs Doreen Khan and her 3 children. 100 youths were involved in fighting with police.
The Khans died as a result of a petrol bomb attack on their home on 2nd July, during a wave of racist incidents in the area. Her husband was badly burned. The police, adding insult to injury, detained for questioning friends and relatives of the victims, repeatedly grilling them hoping to shift the blame for the tragedies on to them.

In Hull on Friday night a battle between skins and bikers turned into a united 150 strong battle against the police.
Hull reflected some of the contradictions during the riots between collective social rebellion and aggro:
“Hull epitomizing some of the worst aspects of skin activity. In addition to wrecking the city centre rival gangs of skins, punks etc set upon each other. Symbols of wealth like the Leeds Building Society plus a number of large stores, including Binns, were trashed. But excepting anti police verbals (one guy was jailed for shouting “kill the pigs”) class-consciousness generally rose no higher than the Humber riverbed.

Shouting football slogans some rioters nutted ordinary people standing in bus queues. One youth threw a concrete block through a bus window while passengers were still inside.

This chaotic response not surprisingly created amongst some Hull transport workers a passing sympathy for the police. The local TGWU official with the backing of the rank and file made preparations in concert with the police and the transport management to close down the Ferensway bus station at the centre of the riots. The Hull Daily Mail rubbed its hands in glee as workers, management and police clasped hands throughout this mid summer week of countryside proletarian insurgency.

Over the past ten years the Hull working class have exhibited a notable radicality, even as recently as the Winter of Discontent, which makes this understandable reaction doubly sad. They are not by nature hostile to class violence and sabotage. For instance during the 1972 dock strike in the UK some Hull dockers cut ships, moored at the disputed container wharves up river, adrift. But they didn’t then go on to root out innocent crewmembers to give them a thrashing as local skins might have done if their performance throughout riot week is anything to go by.”
(Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

In Nottingham rioting developed on the Friday, in response to a huge build up of police presence…

Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 July

Leicester

In Leicester, police from four counties had assembled close to the Highfields area during the Saturday that evening to try to prevent trouble, but ‘300 to 500 people in their early twenties, West Indian and white mixed, with a few Asians, kept them out of the area using petrol bombs and burning barricades’; the fighting continued for two more evenings, with ‘people in the flats joining the rioting, leaving their doors open so that people could escape from the police’.  Six police were injured and there were 30 arrests.
“Armed with bricks and stones, they confronted lines of police in riot gear who stood between them and their objective – Charles Street police station… Reinforcements were quickly brought in from Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and some 230 officers from the Metropolitan Police. A wooden telegraph pole was ripped from the ground and used as a battering ram against the police. Cars were set on fire or overturned and nearby shops were trashed. Stores in St Peter’s Shopping Centre were smashed and looted and there was a failed attempt to set the post office in St Stephen’s Road ablaze. At the same time as the Highfields riot erupted, the violence continued in the city centre, as mobs of skinheads went on the rampage in Gallowtree Gate, smashing shop windows and stealing anything they could lay their hands on.” (Leicester Mercury)
A short report here

The Bradford 12

Bradford
On 11 July 1981, the “Bradford 12” — a group of Asian youths, members of the United Black Youth League — were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs, to protect their community from a rumoured fascist attack. (At the subsequent trial, they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self-defence)

Huddersfield

One hundred black and white youths broke shop windows.

London

Battersea
‘A gang of youths attacked four policeman on Sunday afternoon [12 July], striking them to the tarmac floor of the roller skating rink in Battersea Park. Two PCs – Robert Smith and Brian Tullock – were rushed to hospital with serious head wounds. PC Smith needed 13 stitches. “It all started when we answered a call saying a car had been overturned in the park, said Det. Con. Larry Lawrence, “Four of us were in plain clothes but as soon as we identified ourselves we were attacked by about 20 youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves. The blows rained down on PC Smith and PC Tullock was given a severe kicking”. Mr Lawrence said a crowd of 200 stood watching. “The only human touch there was a girl who took off her cardigan and wrapped it around PC Smith’s head as he lay bleeding”. A crowd of youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves ran through the park during the early evening damaging two cars and throwing petrol bombs at the police’.

‘Later in the evening three policeman were injured in Francis Chichester Way when 35 youths hurled missiles and fire bombs at police lines.’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Leeds
In Chapeltown ‘the police weren’t strong enough to cope’ after ‘all types of youth, black and white’, responded to racist attacks and a police raid on a black club by ‘stoning, throwing petrol bombs, burning cars, setting fire to police vans’.

Bolton
‘300-400 Asians and anti-racists hijacked a milk float and attacked police with bricks, bottles, stones, driving the police 200 yards back … The police got a hammering …’

Luton
Black and white youth began by attacking racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the Tory Party HQ, throwing stones and petrol bombs, breaking windows and looting shops; there were 102 arrests.

Nottingham
Rioting continued from Friday: on the Saturday night racists from outside the town had attacked blacks under the cover of the riots; the fighting began as a confrontation with the police using stones and petrol bombs, with shop windows only being broken ‘accidentally’ – but looting developed later. The rioters were ‘always of mixed races, ages, employed and unemployed’.
Nottingham Police Inspector Colin Sheppard was moved in awe to say…“There was no end to the imagination of the mob used to vent their feelings on the police.” (The Daily Telegraph July 14th 1981) adding, they were “Nottingham’s blackest ever days.”

Derby
Police forced mainly white youths running amuck in the smart city centre into the ghettoised Normanton Road and Peartree area. This tactic came unstuck because a battle ensued involving white, black and Asian youth who more or less fought the police together. A police traffic office was set on fire.
‘At some point during the riots in Derby a group of Asians were seen carrying a large cross through the streets. The cross was later recovered but Our Saviour had been nicked. But this was no Islamic anti-image jag, more probably it was a protest against a band of young Catholics who marched with all the sensitivity of an elephant through Derby’s semi ghettoised district singing “We Shall Overcome.” ‘ (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Trouble was also reported over the weekend in Southampton, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Birkenhead, Ellesemere Port, Chester, Stoke Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, High Wycombe, Newcastle, Knaresborough, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth.

A total of 1,000 people were arrested over the Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, 13 July

Rioting hit Leicester for the third successive night. There were also reports of disturbances in Huddersfield, Derby and Nottingham.

Tuesday, 14 July

All parts of the country were ‘relatively quiet’ for the first time in eleven days.

Wednesday, 15 July

Brixton
An early morning police raid on several Railton Road properties was followed that evening by renewed violence. Three hundred black youths confronted 800 police, eight cars were set on fire and nine police were injured.
This raid caused some bickering even in Parliament – MPs and even some government ministers thought the cops had been unwise to batter their way into the various homes raided, given the atmosphere, and that the raids may even have been unlawful.

At some point in the ten days of rioting in early July,  apart from the events mentioned above, there was also trouble in Romford and Upton Park (East London), Sutton (south of London), Stockwell in South London, Shepherds Bush, Acton, & Chiswick (all in West London), Golders Green (North London).
Hammersmith (W London) saw some somewhat anti-social, unfocussed agro:
“During riot week, some black youths in Hammersmith post office menaced a long queue of black and white unemployed people waiting to cash their giro’s by shoving everyone aside to be served first. Edgy mounted police had been stationed outside the post office in case of trouble and these young blacks, outta their skulls with hope, were looking for any occasion to provoke a riot. But in their understandable eagerness they were well out of line and this silly action only served to put everyone against them in the airless and crammed post office. Even so, the cops were scared of dealing with them.” (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Sunday, 26 July

Liverpool
Seventy black and white youths threw bricks and petrol bombs at police in Toxteth.

Tuesday, 28 July

Liverpool
In the heaviest night of rioting in Toxteth since the first outbreak four weeks earlier, 22-year-old David Moore died after being hit by a police vehicle being used to disperse the crowd. Thirty-four police were injured. There were 22 arrests.
Two police officers were charged with the manslaughter of David Moore but cleared in April 1982.

Saturday, 15 August

Liverpool
A protest march took place demanding the removal of Kenneth Oxford as Chief Constable of Merseyside. Two thousand people took part in the march, watched over by 3,000 police. There was some trouble… Fifteen police were injured, two of them receiving stab wounds, but no arrests were made.

Sheffield
A crowd of 500 youths, most of them black, fought with police at a shopping centre. Three police were injured and seventeen people were arrested.

Bank Holiday weekend, 30-31 August

Brighton
There was a serious outbreak of violence and disorder when 300 mods stoned police and passing cars and threw petrol bombs. Nine youths were arrested. On Monday night police had to separate rival gangs of mods, skinheads and punks.

London

The two days of the annual Notting Hill Carnival passed almost entirely without incident despite earlier predictions of violence and sabotage, and the usual suggestions that it should be called off (forty year later this is still an annual chorus). The only trouble occurred late on Monday night as the carnival was finishing (since the seminal 1976 Carnival Riot, trouble at the end between revellers and police had been pretty normal). Some youths threw bottles at police but were quickly dispersed. Three people suffered stab wounds and four police were injured. Altogether there were 40 arrests during Carnival.

State responses to the riots

The police were undoubtedly, in some areas, nearly overwhelmed by the riotous upsurge; particularly in Liverpool, Manchester and parts of London.

Well over 2,500 people had been arrested for involvement in the riots by the end of ‘Riot Week’. An already overcrowded prison population, and an ongoing work to rule dispute by prison screws meant, however, that there was little room in the jails (there were abortive proposals that they be accommodated in overflow army camps). Some were however jailed on short sentences with little or no defence. There were a number of longer sentences – a number of people were given between 5 and 8 years, mostly for criminal damage or molotov cocktail related actions… Local defence campaigns were set up in some places (eg in Brixton) to support the arrested and imprisoned.

Legislative and strategic ideas for dealing with the riots and threatened future riots abounded. Proposals to revive the defunct Riot Act to allow anyone found present at the scene of a riot to be jailed automatically without a jury trial, however, fell foul of objections by judges (more jealous of their prerogatives than sympathetic to insurrection, possibly…?) Panicked proposals to arm the police routinely also came to nothing in the short term.

In the longer term, however, the riots played a part in influencing shift changes in the legislative armoury the justice system had to use against collective violent challenge. The Tory government already had a strong ‘law ‘n’ order rhetoric, and along with the ’78-79 Winter of Discontent, the experience of the 81 riots became central to Conservative myths of the ‘enemies within’ (trade unionists, strikers and riotous urban youth, later to be joined by lesbians, gays and loony lefties) which demanded increasing development of repressive institutions of the state.

Toxteth, 6th July

Alterations to police powers came over the next few years aimed at updating legislation to deal with public disorder. 1981, and the miner’s strike 1984-85 – in particular the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 – were very much the driving force behind this. The mass disorder during the riots and the miners’ strike led to the government concluding that new public order arrangements needed to be made. Specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were made available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations (eg the Association of Chief Police Officers Public Order Manual). This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it. The SPG was upgraded, rebranded as the Territorial Support Group.

New policing bills reinforced this. Some concessions were made to move deckchairs around – eg the hated ‘SUS’ law was quickly repealed, and the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) brought in new codes of behaviour and a new Police Complaints Authority. But behind the window dressing repressive legislation was also being brought in. PACE also re-introduced beefed up Stop and Search powers which allowed police more discretion and clauses which specifically enabled greater control over ‘public order’ situations – from riots, to demonstrations and picket lines. PACE also brought in powers to cover police actions such as tactics which had been used in ’81 but with doubtful legal basis – eg more powers to raid and search ‘suspects’ homes.

The Public Order Act 1986 replaced reliance on various relevant common law offences, and on the Public Order Act 1936, and brought in new offences which could be levelled at people taking part in not just riots, but demonstrators, pickets, anyone involved in any crowd activity…
More on the 1986 Public Order Act in this ‘Short History of Public Order Acts’.

In parallel to beefing up repressive weaponry, the government was urgently investigating why this was all happening, On a pragmatic level – they knew fundamentally that people don’t riot in their tens of thousands without reasons, and someone had to be seen to be at least looking like they were doing something more than nicking people.

The government commissioned the Scarman report two days after the April Brixton Riots (ironically, he finished his report on Brixton right in the middle of the July riot week!) Scarman’s terms of reference for the enquiry were “to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10–12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations”. Scarman basically concluded that ethnic communities in UK inner cities felt they had little stake in UK society, and that their relationship with institutions, especially the cops, had broken down, and that changes had to be made to integrate disaffected ethnic minorities, and stop being so obvious about targetting young black people. Fundamentally, though, Scarman cleared the police of having sparked riots by their tactics.

When it came to addressing decline and social collapse in some areas, the government was tempted to abandon some cities, more or less. Government documents released at the end of 2011 (under the ‘30 year rule’) revealed that some of Thatcher’s advisers considered government social and economic intervention in Liverpool “to be a ‘doomed mission.'” Government ministers also opposed “‘massive injection of additional public spending’ to stabilise the inner cities” and claiming that it would be “‘pumping water uphill.'” Instead, they urged a policy that “‘managed decline'” in Liverpool.

Many residents of many areas of UK cities might be forgiven for thinking managed decline has been pretty much continuous since the 80s…

A plethora of urban programmes, public private partnerships and regeneration projects were, however, launched in the years after ’81. However, many were aimed at dragooning young unemployed people into crap training schemes or lowpaid jobs; mickey mouse projects like the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and similar schemes were brought in for school leavers. Most of these schemes enabled employers to exploit school leavers for cheap labour without much in the way of real training or education. YTS later provoked its own day of youth rebellion in 1985.

Some theoretical responses to the 81 riots

A few interesting perspectives on the ’81 events: causes, implications, fallout, the social and economic context…

Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys
The ‘Post-Situationist’ (?) Wise brothers epic take on the riots, the background, British society, race, police, capitalism… A glorious full on charge of a read. Well worth a look.

The Impossible Class
An anarchist take from 1981, which positions the riots as the response of an increasingly autonomous new class that was developing in UK inner cities.
(See also Past Tense’s more recent comments on this text: Impossible Classlessness)

You Can’t Fool the Youth
Black Marxist writer and historian Paul Gilroy’s Autumn 1981 analysis of the uprisings.

From Resistance to Rebellion
A Sivanandan
Putting the riots into the context of the Black struggles of the previous decades

The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis
Chris Harman
Socialist Workers Party bigwig Harman puts the riots in historical context, spending quite a bit of time attacking autonomous organising by black activists, but some interesting bits despite this…

You’re Miles Better Off Here – the Wood Green Riot

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Thanks to the Radical History of Hackney, transpontine, Revolt Against Plenty and others who we looted some of the above info from.
Some bits also came from an old Commission for Racial Equality timeline of the riots

Three days of rioting kick off in Dalston and Stoke Newington, 1981

“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”.

1981

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’.

Johnsons Cafe, early 1980s

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.”

Hackney copper, snapped shortly before whacking a Hackney People’s Press reporter

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.

After ‘81

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.

Colin Roach family campaign demo, 1983

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.
https://www.ahackneyautobiography.org.uk/trails/food-and-frontline/9

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Mush of the above was shamelessly lifted from the Radical History of Hackney, many thanks to them, go check their excellent blog.

Impossible Classlessness?

Some responses to, and problems we have with, The Impossible Class.

‘The Impossible Class ‘was published by some anarchists in 1981 as an analysis and thereoretical response to the urban riots if 1981, notably Brixton. I’d suggest reading that before reading this text…

This reply was largely written in 2013, left in a drawer then updated slightly in 2021. (Yes, 40 years is a long time to wait to write a reply)… this is a first draft, so any comments, snorts of derision are of course welcome.

When I first read ‘The Impossible Class’ many years back, I had some gripes with its analyses of the causes of the riots of ’81 in Brixton (and elsewhere), and their implications for us living under modern capitalism. Re-reading it thirty-odd years later (and having lived in Brixton, and been involved in its underground life and rebellious politics, for most of the intervening period), I have more reservations; but further to that, social change, economic upheavals, and the movements of classes in inner-city London, have called into question some of the writers’ conclusions (as I’m sure they themselves would not have found totally unexpected..). However, there are some interesting ideas here too. For anyone interested in Brixton, its contested past, its strange current existence, and where it might evolve, this text is worth examining – of course there are wider implications too.

Much of ‘The Impossible Class’ is rooted in the anarchist theory of the era… an ideology I also found my home in, for a while, and which (for me) still provides some useful elements to an ongoing struggle to understand the world around us, and change it; though I have come to question many ‘anarchist’ orthodoxies. Below, I have briefly set out some of the points that came up for me when reading the Impossible Class. It is worth saying, I am not being critical for the sake of it, or to belittle the ideas or vision of those who wrote it; in many ways I would have put forward similar analyses in my past. We all share a vision of another way of life entirely to the gradgrind of modern wage labour… Changes in class relations just didn’t work out the way the writers thought they might. It’s too easy to dismiss observations and social predictions after the fact; that’s not what we want to do here, because what is most interesting is how they thought class relations and antagonisms might develop, and the factors that influenced how it has – so far – turned out differently to that vision. As well as what we can do about it. But also – the battle is still undecided, as it were. Discussion, debate, working ideas and social relations out in practice are still all vital.  I am not especially theoretically coherent or rigid, so forgive me if what follows seems obvious or confused.

The writers projected their conclusions about life in Brixton out onto the world, and with the exception of particular areas with strong similarities to Brixton, like say St Pauls, in Bristol, or parts of Hackney, (just as examples), this projection didn’t always click. I have lived all my adult life in London, and while you can read about places, visit them, talk to those that live there, my response is very much conditioned by that… Wildly varying conditions exist, even in the UK, so some of what I say won’t apply, or even have any meaning, elsewhere. Hopefully though what follows is useful. Naturally any responses, critiques, loud laughter and argument are always welcome.

My first feeling about the Impossible Class text is that it romanticises, or at least waxes optimistic, about the ‘black’ or underground economy, suggesting that many, if not most working class people were consciously rejecting the mainstream economy, choosing to survive through a mix of signing on the dole, and cash-in-hand/dealing/self-organised underground projects, etc. More than this, it suggests that the police attacks on Brixton were partly motivated by a desire from the powers-that-be to crush this embryonic challenge to the orthodox structures of wage labour (and in particular, that part them that manifested openly in the street, posing a direct challenge to the forces of law ‘n’ order).

As with much of ‘The Impossible Class’, there is an element of truth to this. In Brixton, many local kids deliberately rejected a system they saw as rejecting them/attacking them… For young west indian men, the Rastafarian ideology/theology gave this a shape; they were the oppressed, living in Babylon, which had transported them from their home, Africa, (all true), to which they would one day return. An interesting additional feed-in to the UK rasta consciousness could also be the widespread idea that many of the first generation of west Indian migrants to move here shared, that they would work here for a while then return to the Caribbean. Though this didn’t work out for many, most ended up bringing families here, making a more permanent home; maybe, though, it coloured many people’s view that oppression here was temporary, that they could physically escape it, either actually, or spiritually, or in the vision of a return to Africa.  Otherwise, for young whites and blacks, its also true that pretty much the entire wider drop-out culture of the 70s/80s was subsidised by the dole! Which was great – it gave us space to do stuff we wanted to do. Part-time, cash in hand or casual jobs were mingled with giro cheques, shoplifting, often squatting, signing on in more than name, covering for mates when they went on holiday or were working etc.; mixed in later on with finding loopholes and ways of exploiting training schemes, pseudo-self-employment, for our own benefit, or with alternating claiming with temporary and more official jobs as things got harder on the dole. All useful pieces of the jigsaw of survival.

But the writers were to a great extent theorising from above, really, despite their anarchist credentials… Most people involved in the underground economy were doing it from practical need, not thinking clearly that they were rejecting the whole of society etc… When economic times changed they were mainly reabsorbed into work culture, or found themselves in ‘proper’ jobs. Tis true that some of us – anarchos, musos, artists, dealers, etc – did stay on the dole deliberately, or ideologically; benefits plus work on side – gives you space for activism, creating etc… plus why not get dole and wages, if you can. ‘Twas easy then.   1980s anarchist ideology often identified methods of survival (especially if they were illegal, or unlawful) as methods of struggle, or even as weapons for the destruction of capital – eg shoplifting, looting, squatting, skipping food, etc. All good stuff, I did it all, to survive, and would again if need be. All gave people a measure of autonomy in their own lives, and helped people get by. But often it was not really as much in rejection of society, as just what was needed to break even, or get a bit more than a pittance.

The authors of The Impossible Class rightly identify that whole subcultures had grown up which thrived at the fringe of the GDP-economy. Now the modern state of any colour hates that kind of unregulated, untaxed, unofficial economic goings-on – when practiced by the working class, of course; contrariwise, for the neo-liberal wing of capital a certain kind of cowboy entrepreneurism is pedestalised when carried out by business/corporations. So as much of that fringe economy has since been reined in as possible – a complete revolution in forms and structures of work, technological change, especially computerisation, regulation, bureaucratic rationalisation, and more, have made working on the side while signing on much more difficult, although large loopholes will always remain (Witness the pathetic attempt a few years back to demonise paying builders etc cash in hand). But also survival on the dole long term, which used to be a matter of turning up once a fortnight, is now a full time job in itself.  Autonomy, and counter-cultural forms, are not the same as a conscious revolutionary opposition to capital. Unless you buy the idea that there can be an Unconscious revolutionary opposition (which is debatable). Squatting, for instance, gave people cheap places to live in times of housing crisis; if for a substantial minority it was a conscious political rebellion against property, against housing as a commodity, against the landlords who profit from it, or the social landlords (so-called) and policy theorists who sought to control working people through cheap and accessible council housing… (This last point – that social housing has always been partly intended to keep us from rebelling – doesn’t mean we wouldn’t mind the relatively easy access to it available in the 1960s! As a minimum step back from the market-driven housing chaos we now face.) But for many more, squatting gave people space to create alternatives, either personal ones or collective ones. Some of these were intended to form part of a diverse radical challenge to the existing order. Many were taking advantage of the possibilities but had no intention of challenging this society – many were able to further their own careers and niches within class society through those alternative nooks and crannies, rising to form new strata and levels of (often creative) entrepreneurship, and even managerial or bureaucratic power, or positions of parasitical ‘consultant’ status. Many more made lot of money ripping others off using squats, squat-raves, dealing or whatever, (with some dosing out threats and violence against anyone who mildly dissented along the way). That’s not to diss people who don’t share the anarchist ideal of ‘smashing the state’, but to question and qualify the idea that the twilight economy was IN ITSELF revolutionary. Many people in the squatting/DIY/drop-out/anarchist/hippy left scene did fetishise not buying ‘sweatshop goods’, making your own, self-publishing, adding these up to rejecting ‘capitalism’, we’re not breadheads maan… etc… many also rapidly compromised those principles and ended up in the orthodox market. Others of course did stick by them, but its questionable how much they built an ‘oppositional community’… A fair few of them spent far too much time sneering at the ‘normal working class people’ for being ‘slaves’ (ie going to work), or making distinctions between each other’s brands of drop-outery as not being radical enough. Little enough of this scene had any class-consciousness, as to impossible-class-consciousness, it’s hard to say.

Partly in reaction to the frustrations of this scene, probably the most dominant strand of UK anarchist ideas of the 1980s and into the 1990s evolved; based on the idea, broadly speaking, that the working class, or at least the section of the working class, typically depicted as living in inner-cities, on council estates, was in the process of rejecting capitalist forms and exchanges, and was up for it and ripe for an uprising… Class War, and many local anarchist papers and groups, operated, or at least talked, as if this uprising was imminent. Outbreaks like Brixton, Broadwater Farm, the miners strike, Wapping, and then the anti-poll tax movement seemed to us to support these views. Immersed in this movement it was easy to miss the fact that these outbreaks were more exceptions than tips of the iceberg. Although the ’80s were a decade of constant overt class antagonism, we lost most of those battles (the poll tax being an exception, and qualified now by the gradual ratcheting up of council taxes) and ended the era  with a fragmented sense of class opposition, traditional notions of class even being questioned.  Ironically the vast majority of the ‘class struggle anarchists’ adopting this view didn’t originate in this social ‘strata’, (of course some did), although they may have wanted to, or come from areas like Brixton. Whether or not this invalidated their ideas, or their ‘right’ to be involved in that politics, could be debated… Class identity, and class composition, are much more fluid than ’80s anarchists at the time would have liked to admit; Class War’s attempt, for instance to build around the idea of class pride, class identity, was stoutly ignoring the rapid changes in class composition taking place in that time. Ironically this divergence was eventually to partly lead to the disintegration of CW as a group in 1997-8 (though a small minority continued to operate under the name); the majority of its members by this point had both acquired more permananent jobs, usually in skilled sector/local authorities, mortgages, and had come to question some of the CW’s core ideology. [The wildly varying wanderings of some of the ex-Class War crew could not be told here, though some interesting speculations could be made from the current organisational incarnations of the former factions/leading individuals – from attempting to raise the dead a third time as farce as the Class War Party, standing in elections and waving arms about like the last 35 years never happened; or as Plan C, falling headlong into academic autonomism and from thence for many to the dead end of acid Corbynism and the Labour party… Not to mention those who now teach t’ai chi to cabinet ministers or have large property portfolios… But that’s another article. Coming, maybe, soon…]

A real challenge to the whole capitalist caboodle has to involve more than both dropping out of the economy, or a narrow definition of who the ‘real working class’ is.  Some of the response to UK 2011 riots shows that divisions have increased, between people with little to lose, or for who all out combat against the police and destruction of property is a valid tactic, and many who might otherwise believe in a broadly more egalitarian society. Now this was true in 1981 too, though perhaps a larger proportion of people felt rioting to be justified then than now. It’s fair enough to argue with the idea that riots in the past were community uprisings while today’s rioters are just hooligan elements – which tendency includes some former rioters of the ’80s themselves (see the report on the 2006 Brixton riot commemoration), and bizarrely some old anarchist comrades.

But we should also be looking to the differences between then and now, the changes that really have taken place, and where that leaves the possibilities for us. This is a wider discussion than just about rioting.   These days we are thinking less about expanding an underground economy as part of a radical challenge to orthodox economic relations, as we are desperately fighting to preserve such ‘social-democratic’ protections as we have left, on working conditions, the welfare state, etc, in the face of a new onslaught on them by a re-energised neo-liberal elite.

It’s all very well idealising it, but the black economy is also very dodgy.  As the writers themselves admit “…aspects of that mass illegality are no less exploitative than that of the capitalist economy as a whole…” The most destructive and exploitative aspects of this economy were the ones that have survived and thrived, growing into hugely profitable gangster alt-capitalism on the one hand and territorial civil war against each other on the other. Happily for the state this has taken the most root in the communities that it saw as offering the most potential threat in terms of collective resistance to police control and work discipline: crime, gang warfare and penal response are a much more comfortable outcome for them, shite as it pans out for people on the ground.

On the other hand The Impossible Class failed to take into account how the culture they talk about suited disenfranchised youth, in an economy that had passed them by, but as the economy was radically restructured, and at the same time the ‘frontline’ shrank, horizons for ducking and diving shortened, and people also grew up, had kids, greater and different needs and so on arose. The most successful response to the ’81 riots was from the state, who managed to force much of the ‘impossibles’ back into its clutches; but age, maturing, raising families and so on would likely have done much of that job in time for many anyway. It’s not just about giving in to the spectacle etc (though I have anarchist friends who still despise me for getting a proper job. Hey ho) Lack of rights, working with no long term security etc is ok, when you’re single and fancy free, but crap when you have a bit more to lose –  you crave holiday pay… Having worked on the side while signing on, claimed multiple benefits dubiously, worked on the buildings under various forms of self-employment, through agencies, dodging tax when I could, but being now on the cards, to be honest each suited me at the time. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid work as much as possible, but when I needed cash I’d find a way to steal/work delete as you wish… Now I have a young child, in a proper family situation… All the benefits and flexibility modern capitalism can give an (allegedly) skilled worker come in handy. Obviously I am also lucky I’m white, not a recent migrant, that I decided to learn a trade, and was reasonably competent/able to stick at it. But the fight now is on more basic levels.

I would also question the implication that all rioters were immersed in the black economy… (though the writers may not have meant that). That it’s contradicted by reality is suggested by their own text, eg the report from the Wood Green riot (“We’ve all got jobs… We want a riot!”). But historically it is also true that from the respectable left, (often echoing the authorities), there’s always the chorus that rioters are lumpens, rowdies, not proper workers. Where analysis has been carried out, from Chartist riots, to the anti-poll tax shindig in Trafalgar Square 1990, this is not born out by evidence: as many artisans, workers in respectable trades, etc, are reported in Chartist arrest lists and so on. NB: Also see reports from the local Trades Councils in the General Strike, which saw fighting between police and strikers/supporters every day, all over the country… The union line was almost invariably that any trouble was started by non-unionists or the unemployed – but it’s just not born out by arrests or by grassroots accounts.) ‘Hardworking workers’ are just as alienated and likely to crack and kick things over; because work itself is often shit and mind-numbing, abasing ourselves to someone with unreasonable power over us day after day.

When ‘The impossible Class’ was published, the changes in capitalist economy that we are even now suffering were then well underway – broadly labelled Thatcherism in this country (though some of those changes began in the early 1970s), also widely lumped together as neo-liberalism; developments in financial markets, globalisation and internal expansion in service industries and so on. Of course it’s daft to expect the authors of one text to nostradamically prognosticate how the system would regenerate itself. To them and many other left commentators, it seemed clear that the crisis of the late 70s and early 80s, and the decline in the industrial economies of the developed west would continue, and sharpen, shit would get worse, breakdown, and that space was opening up for this kind of diffuse challenge to the established order. Which would have left room for dual power, counter-structures or working class power. For an interesting take on how people thought it might happen, from the 1980s, it’s worth reading The Free, an excellent fictional account of a revolution in Ireland, written by a well-known Brixton anarchist, in which squatting, co-ops, industrial decline lead to a mass rebellion through dual power, creating a libertarian classless society… (though possible difficulties with rightwing and leftwing authoritarian groups are pretty much brushed over). Many anarchos (and not just in Britain – friends in Germany, Holland too that I know of also) did think that things were developing that way around ’81 .

It didn’t happen.
But it may happen still (now we’re in another phase of crisis, belt-tightening and embryonic resistance); though does a wider section of population think that way any more, as they did in that era? Or even think in those terms. Many of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s learned from a widespread belief in some sort of socialism, some sort of more egalitarian collectivism, or the idea that such things were possible, if much of the examples were either outdated, or based on rosy glows of soviet or Cuban models, or on municipal Labourism & trade union bureaucracies. It’s worth debating whether this gave us much of the impetus for long-term involvement in activist scenes, movements and campaigns. How much does the radically different experience of young people now, (who to a much greater extent didn’t grow up with that diffuse belief in ‘a better world’) influence the chances of resistance to capital’s current attacks on us, or of a powerful movement for an alternative way to live? Maybe Occupy etc are the kids of our generation, to some extent… Some people think that the relative collapse of the left, trade union influence and membership, the lack of the false alternative of Soviet ‘communism’, clears the way for the real movements to arise. Others bemoan the destruction of the old-style labour movement and would rebuild it as it was, whether or not the model fits now. It’s also true that a wider, general feeling of rebelliousness, rejecting orthodoxies and hierarchies, of youth kicking up the dust, avoiding work, etc, has for many years seemed like a distant dream; this gave many of us a positive experience in the 70s and 80s (earlier and later for others maybe); today I talk to 22 year-olds and you think, you have a mortgage, you should be out taking DRUGS, for fuck’s sake! Maybe this is now beginning to change, under the combined influence of the 2008 crash, Covid-19 and whatever fallout Brexit might have on the British economy.

OK, you can’t impose one generation’s outlook on another, and while me and my mates were dossing, squatting and getting off our heads (as well as rioting and ‘organising’), probably the majority of people my age were ‘knuckling down to hard work’. It’s just the minority seemed bigger and more based in every town, you know?  In the light of that, maybe the most positive aspect of involvement in Brixton riots etc was the empowerment that those participants underwent – the changes in their own consciousness, their feelings of collectivity etc – rather than any mass effect on future ‘oppositional communities’… In the long run it’s always difficult to know what lasting effect you have when you take part in any kind of rebellion, activism, etc – I’m no hippy, but sometimes the only changes you can be sure of are the ones that you and the people around you undergo, that you can see and feel. What inspiration or effects on social policy, policing, ‘the coming revolution’ your activities have is often either questionable, reversible by those in authority, double-edged in its real implications. Brixton ’81 seems clearer than most events as a positive inspiring outpouring of righteous anger, it’s true.  However, this kind of head-scratching is as much also a product of my advancing age, thinking too much, seeing the shades of grey in events, rather than as black and white as I did when I was 19. It’s possible that people should pay no attention to these dusty ramblings. There’s a strong argument that you SHOULD be like that when you’re young, fuck listening to the people who tell you its difficult and there’s a point on both sides, or it’s all negative, nothing works, “we tried it and look what happened…” the empowerment of taking part in riots, not compromising, all-out radical projects, etc, is a positive thing – often it’s the long term boredom of work and orthodox career path, or even of long-term political activism, that fucks the hope out of people.

In terms of policing, in the long term the police have not exactly taken the route to that predicted in ‘The Impossible Class’. Although paramilitary policing did dominate the 1980s, in the last twenty years, a more graduate culture has been built, with a bent to strategic thinking, technology, and a powerful interest in public relations, co-opting minorities and spreading tentacles into ‘communities’. The Met has in fact, in direct contradiction to the writers’ predictions, made a real effort to present itself as opening up to be more representative, more accountable; and, especially after the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson Inquiry, have admitted that they are saturated with racism but are dealing with the problem, huge changes have taken place etc… PR is a major part of 21st century policing, and the Met has become very adept. The kind of tactics that the Special Patrol Group favoured, including mass invasions and occupations of a whole area, have more been replaced by cleverer targetting, with more subtle accompanying propaganda. Its true that whole areas are not identified with dissent, crime, ‘criminal minorities’, or not as blanketedly as Brixton used to be, at least in London; so targetting is necessary, but there’s also some smarter minds treading carefully.
But the cosmetics, and sleight of hand, isn’t the whole story. There genuinely are factions in the police, and to some extent a battle has taken place within the Met, especially in London, and particularly in Brixton, liberal experimenting has become de rigeur for the force.  It’s interesting to read in the ‘Impossible Class’ the tale of David Webb, liberal cop turned would be Liberal politician – prefiguring the career of Brixton favourite, veteran PC of 1981, later Commander in Lambeth, Brian Paddick, who followed a similar trajectory 25 odd years later… Though in much changed times for the Met, his battles with a hierarchy that both promoted him and undermined him reflect the old liberal vs authoritarian debate in the police…  It’s not always easy to tell which is which – PR or genuine liberalism. When Lambeth’s top cop virtually tows the line that the 81 riot was a necessary community uprising, (see report of the 2006 ‘commemoration 25 years on’, later on), is it good PR or a deeper change? It’s funny how policing seemed to parallel the political changes – Paddick and Macpherson and all fitted perfectly with Blairite New labour era-spin, and concerned classless vague-centre-leftism. Now aggressive upper class war is back on the agenda, changes in policing may be starting to reflect this, if the reaction to the Sarah Everard vigil in London and the Bristol anti-policing bill demos is anything to go by.

‘Cause liberal gloss or not, the true nature of policing hasn’t changed. For many young black people, the idea that the police have substantially changed since 1981 is a joke. 30 years after April 81, police stop and search of young people on spurious grounds is still endemic, and ratcheting up tensions.  Police shootings… killing people on demos… the list goes on A crucial sentence in the 1981 text is “everyone is potentially guilty” in Brixton – this turned out to be just not true. Or at least, the council and the police were more adept at splitting rioters, squatters, etc from more respectable, especially white respectable residents, and more adept even than that in ‘Secondary Control’ – defusing further rebellion with money, schemes and jobs for the right people; as the text does point out. The Economist’s analysis and projected solution to the riots, and the inner city crisis it suggested they represented, is interesting, because to some extent it very accurately forecast developments: aspects of it were adopted, in Brixton, and elsewhere, in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting for those of us who from 1993 noted what happened to the money that flooded into Brixton in the 1990s as part of Brixton Challenge (for example) on the grounds that it was designed as ‘secondary control’, in part at least, to read that, as we suspected, it wasn’t unconsciously divisive, or altruistic, but had a theoretical basis from (at least one faction) of our rulers: to divide, to keep us down, to keep us from rebelling.  But long before Brixton Challenge, the Urban programme, other inner-city aid schemes, were finely tuned to achieve this (Black radical magazine Race Today criticised what they called the ‘black bourgeoisie’ in Brixton, the buying off of ambitious activists and ‘leaders’ by integrating them into the local state or ‘voluntary’ sectors. This needs a wide discussion though, as there’s a real debate to be had about the value that state funding, rented premises, paid workers were gave to many projects, community groups, women’s, black, gay organisations, (just as a few examples). It wasn’t just black community leaders they needed to buy off, to some extent it was an underground culture that needed co-opting, wooing, integrating, in order to both defuse and contain rebellious possibilities, and also to create more avenues for profit and exploitation (how much money is there in hip hop, graffiti and their spin-offs these days? In ’81 they were almost entirely outside of mainstream capitalism).

Another important change ‘The Impossible Class’ did not reflect is the massive restructuring of work. “Only a small, declining section of the working class has been able to sustain its job security and living standards (and even those workers only through increased overtime), while the rest get relegated to menial, insecure and part-time jobs. The restructuring in industry is fast removing the material basis for an identity in paid work, especially the link between effort and reward – reward both in terms of job enjoyment and wages. Unlike the 1930s, not only are few unemployed people willing to blame themselves, but their passive exclusion from wage-labour is gradually turning into an active rejection of such work, or at least of officially paid work.”  Well yes, the restructuring of work that had already begun did result in some of these effects – and a half. The problem is their projection of a growing mass resistance to work itself as a result of this… 30 years later the precarious nature of everyone’s work, compared to say the 60s or 70s, is the defining feature of many of our lives. In a wider sense much of what defined ‘work’, say in the 1960s, has been almost turned on its head, or turned inside out. Traditionally middle class careers have been relatively ‘proletarianised’; job security has become a sick joke for millions; industries where unionisation was almost compulsory, in some cases where workers (at least through union structures) had sizable power over their conditions of labour have been decimated, and “savage management practices” have become almost universal. (To name but a few of the changes)

Agency, contract, ‘gig’ economy workers now make up a massive proportion of the workforce, making the line in The Impossible Class about reversing “the bourgeois relation of future/present by replacing deferred gratification (of National Insurance or pension payments) with immediate gratification in wages” a dark irony – many now exist on instant ‘gratification’ only, being unable to access the benefits of being on the cards. The gratification of being a paycheck from destitution.
And in a savage reversal of the lionisation of the cash in hand or black economy in the Impossible Class, million now subsist on terribly paid part time work on precarious or no contracts, only surviving by receiving state top-ups of ‘in-work’ benefits to scrape by.

Other sectors of the workforce bought wholesale into right to buy and mortgaging themselves to the hilt, encouraged by the state one the one hand as social housing was dismantled on the other. The profits now tied up in mortgages and private sector renting would make reversing this trend so catastrophic for UK capitalism that only a full-scale and sustained uprising would be powerful enough to rebuild cheap and universal social housing in the face of it… And people are hostages to fortune, too scared or tired to ‘rebel against work’.

But resistance to work, as a conscious political decision, has all but vanished in the UK. If only… People’s identification with their work, the sense that it is part of who they are fundamentally may have declined, cynicism and disaffection with the daily grind is rife… (But that was there before!) People have to diversify more and more, acquiring wide-ranging skills to enable them to balance on the edge of the precipice, one re-organisation or takeover away from redundancy, disaster… New migrant workforces, new rightwing grassroots anti-immigrant campaigns, have given the recent financial crisis a dark and (to those who lived through the 70s) familiar edge. That in many places (at least in London) what little remains of council housing is fast becoming a ghetto for migrants is another factor in this mix.

Structural changes in capitalism have gone hand in hand, with both gentrification and the reduction of social hsouing in inner city areas like Brixton, and a ruthless imposition of dole schemes that have militarized signing on, forced the unwaged into crap jobs or educational nowhere schemes. In the end the idea that a massive oppositional community based on conscious avoidance of the mainstream economy just didn’t pan out, though millions flitted between the dole, occasional work, some acquiring enough skills to gain a foothold, but footholds on a shaly slipface.  There is of course an underground parallel world of dealing, cash in hand work… but our desires aside, it’s not resistance to wage labour – though we can take some small satisfaction in the flexibility it can allow, when we have better things to do, and the small joy of paying no tax at all when we can get away with it.  On top of this, first the lack of work in the ’80s led some people into education as the only choice, then the boom times in the economy, and the injections of cash into education (especially under New Labour) did expand opportunity and possibility for many working class people. Trouble now is, that the current crisis has re-ordered the needs and priorities of global capital – hence we now have a surplus of graduates all learned up with nowhere to go. Much of the recent restlessness and increased political activism among graduates, actually an increasing phenomenon, allegedly a factor in such diverse events as the Arab Spring, Occupy and UKuncut and the ‘pay your tax’ campaigns, and most recently unrest in Brazil and Turkey… Although some of this has probably been over-emphasised.

Lots more could be written about the vast inflation of the sectors that administrate education, benefits, IT and consultancies etc – a huge subject that we can’t really cover here…

No go areas, dual power, spaces where community power might edge out the state and begin to run an area themselves, were discussed in the Impossible Class, as a realistic possibility. “Peaceful co-existence is impossible because one side or the other must win”. – well yes, the state can’t abandon an area and say openly it ain’t gonna police it. But the main reason why Brixton’s old frontline is now transformed into a largely peaceful, squat-free, nicey middle class street, somewhat empty of people (by 1981, or even 1991, standards), is that the state didn’t stop pushing – on many fronts – and we, to be frank, didn’t push hard enough back. Whether or not the majority of rioters, rebel youth, squatters etc consciously saw themselves as creating a new class, a new culture – which is debateable – its certain that such a project (or even just as contested space between state and urban disaffected) could survive only by keeping expanding , both in physical space (beyond the limited streets around Railton Road), and in social and economic terms, by the breaking down of boundaries, prejudices, class differences, more radical experimenting in communal living, shared survival techniques, racial and gender politics, and so on… A minority may have envisioned this and wanted/attempted to carry it out, but across the board it didn’t happen, or only for a fraction of time. But the mainstream of capitalist existence did keep expanding; in fact it continued to permeate the alternative ways of life and reign them in, bringing all sorts of cultural, political ideals back to the commodity economy. The middle class background of many of the 70s idealists who created many of these alternative lifestyles, the networks and social links they had, had a powerful influence here too; but this can be over-emphasised. In fact, whether for middle class activists, outside agitators, or leaders thrown up by the community, the gravitational pull of co-operation with state forces, in their myriad and sometimes disguised forms, proves very strong. When the movement for autonomy and insurgency falls back, fails to keep expanding and exceeding its own ambition, the ideas, interests, influence of this level of leadership and spokespeople enters into the vacuum.

You can’t create socialism in one country, the left used to repeat when the Soviet Union’s ultimate failure to give birth to communism was discussed. True. Nor in one London postcode neither. Brixton, Notting Hill, Stoke Newington, Peckham, St Pauls, parts of Nottingham or Manchester, many more, may have seemed to some at one time like they were embryos of a new society, but around them new social relations were in fact being created – from above, against us, by a clearer thinking, class-conscious cadre who knew how to transform the world in their interest, and take millions of working class people with them. The consequences of which we are still dealing with.

“Perhaps the impossible class can’t be found – until the next uprising.” To some extent, this is the most interesting point in the whole text – that such a class grouping might not be permanent, or always identical, a shifting  community, flowing, mixing, evolving… and disappearing and re-appearing according to people’s needs. Needs being operative – the 81 riot came out of people’s immediate need – to fuck the police off and make them wary about tactics like Swamp ’81. The process of coming together may, yes, have created – temporarily – such an oppositional community, though it fell back into its constituent parts as the immediate uprising faltered.

It faltered because the only possibility for an uprising to survive is to push outward; but this could only have happened if there was (a) real potential for corresponding upheaval in other areas, and (b) a transformation of the social relations between people to go beyond fighting unity against the police.

There wasn’t (in April 81, though to some extent there may have been in July), a general spread of rebellion; and people may well just not have known how – or wanted – to take things forward. Uprisings are hard to sustain, but especially when they are taking place in relative isolation. The most glaring sentences in “We Want to Riot Not to Work’ are those reflecting how people immersed in the riot ventured out into the wider area and were shocked to find things hadn’t changed out there.

Brilliant as the riot may have been to those taking part, and as inspiration to many in other areas, and as effective it may have (debatably) been in reining in the cops in some, the jump from one upsurge to a more generalised social revolution, or even an attempt at one, needs a wholly different set of economic factors, relationships… This kind of ‘revolutionary upsurge’ may never happen in the way that anarchists, communists etc have traditionally pictured it – in the old nineteenth/twentieth century ‘first lets seize the telephone exchange’ pattern.

But to return to the idea of a disappearing and re-appearing class, which only exists, or at least only shows its existence, in moments of crisis for ‘capital’ and rebellion or rejection of the normal bounds for us, from below. To go beyond this impossible class only coming together in riots, we have to go beyond riots. To some extent, without being defeatist, the only ‘communism’, or liberated society, however you want to think of it, we may see, could be the moments, days, we grab and hold, snatching in defiance of the daily desperation. As much as we long for it, a Paris Commune or 1917-style mass uprising that actually ushers in a lovely new age for humanity is probably a long way off; if it ever comes about. Stretching things a bit, rather than there being an impossible class, could it be more like we sometimes create an impossible classlessness, an existence that can’t exist under the current conditions, yet it sometimes DOES spring to life when we make it. For a short while we break from relations defined by work, alienation, etc, to be able to connect with each other on a truly human level. Then we are forced by circ-yuk-stances back into the ‘reality’ and normality.

Just a theory…? but I have experienced it, in riots, dancing, sex, working with others on co-operative projects for ourselves, brill games played with kids and adults, most especially when I should have been working but threw it over for a bit.

I haven’t had time yet to think much about the issues raised in ‘The Impossible Class’ about street space as a battleground and issue, or long-term effects on social policy. Also I would be interesting to relate all of the above to the potential for collapse of a modern economy – see Argentina, for example, or to Occupy, etc. We’d be interested know what you think.

Omasius Gorgut

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past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

You can’t fool the youths: Paul Gilroy on race & class formation in 1981

You can’t fool the youths …

Race and Class Formation in the 1980s

Paul Gilroy

Theoretical/analytical responses to Brixton and the other urban riots of 1981 – Part 1. An article written in 1981, originally published in Race & Class, Winter 1981/2.

…………………………………………………………………………

You teach the youths to learn in school
that the dish ran away with spoon
You teach the youths to learn in school
that the cow jumped over moon
So you can’t blame the youths of today
you can’t fool the youths
(Pete Tosh)

There is nothing more to organise. you can organise workers as workers. You can create a special organisation of revolutionary workers. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organisation as we have known it is at an end.
(C.L.R. James)

Where marxist science has stooped to provide accounts of racial conflicts, it has been at best race blind, and at worst eurocentric. Socialist politics driven to the edge of popular nationalism by the crisis are incapable of solving the complex problems posed by the articulation of race and class. yet the-economic, ideological and political struggles over the meaning and relevance of .race, have effects on the formation and reproduction of classes.

Racism is not a transhistorical essence, and not least because the biology of racial characteristics has no relation to ‘races’ in political struggle; there can be no general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’. The 128 racial classifications of the French Imperial code noir, the structured racism of today’s South Africa and the popular racism which forms the backdrop to the latest legislation on British citizenship do not make for theory. Different racisms are found in different social formations and historical circumstances. To paper over the specifics of each historical conjuncture with a general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’ is misguided; to acknowledge simultaneously that the biology of racial characteristics has nothing to do with races as constituted in politics is dishonest. In each case, racial differences, whether wholly imaginary or anchored in the raw material of biology, are magnified, systematised and rationalised into vehicles of political dominance. And it is this ‘malleability of the concept of ‘race’ which qualifies its use as a scientific category of social analysis. Its very meaninglessness, on the other hand, should continually refer us to the precise but changing conditions in which racial groups become possible in politics, ideology and economic life. And it is to this unique dialectic of race and class at the centre of contemporary British politics that this article addresses itself
– not so much for what it reveals of how real structural phenomena are misrecognised and distorted by racial prisms, but for what it enables us to perceive about our historical period. It is precisely because race binds the processes by which ethico-political hegemony is presently reproduced that focusing analysis around it offers a privileged view of unfolding state authoritarianism, the stage of capital accumulation and the balance of forces in political struggle.

Unlike the sociologists, the British left has remained reluctant to concede any depth to racial divisions in the working class, let alone approach that Pandora’s box. With few exceptions, it has been cheerfully unaffected by sixty years of black critical dialogue with marxism, presented, most notably, by Garvey, Padmore, James and Wright. The theoretical and political contributions of these authors, particularly their early critique of Stalinism and their dogged anti-reductionism fashioned in the awareness that black liberation required more than economic transformation, make recent European discovery of non-economistic socialism less than startling. Yet their insights have been bypassed, and the left has adopted a peculiar national perspective which obscures the role of black struggles in the development of the British working class, all the way from abolitionism to the factory gates of Imperial Typewriters. It has remained stubbornly blind to the fact that, even though rendered invisible, black labour power has conditioned the most intimate structures of British daily life. ‘It is the sugar you stir, it is in the sinews of the infamous British sweet tooth, it is the tea leaves at the bottom of the British cuppa.’1

Having waved away the political analyses of autonomous black groups with a few fashionable insults such as ‘economistic’, ‘reductionist’ or ‘abstentionist,2 the left’s recent writings on the subject of racial politics remain paralysed by an inability to conceive race and class as related. Race is either shorn of all determinacy and allowed to ascend to the rarified heights of ideological autonomy, from where it ‘only subsequently’ intervenes at the level of the economy, or it is subsumed entirely to class. The experience of racial domination is so distorted that its class character evaporates. Variations on the latter theme present the struggle for black liberation as a ‘democratic’ issue to be secured by the simple assertion of a ‘pluralist national identity3 or more predictably, as a divisive danger to the achievement of true class consciousness parallel to the threat posed by fascist organisation.4

On the contrary,

The class relations which inscribe the black fractions of the working class function as race relations. The two are inseparable. Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced.5

That is not to say that ‘race’ can be miraculously hitched on like an extra railway carriage to the locomotive of non-reductionist marxism.The extent to which blacks have become part of the working class demands more than that the left should simply note their presence and register the resultant ‘multi-cultural tones of metropolitan class struggle. Though even this may have polemical value, it woefully underestimates the transformation of political culture brought about
by post-war black settlement.

Marx’s famous remark that ‘the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ acquired new poignancy as the great-grandchildren of martyred slaves and indentured labourers set up home in the land of those who had tormented their progenitors. The mass of black people, who arrived here as fugitives from colonial underdevelopment, brought with them legacies of their political, ideological and economic struggles in Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub continent, as well as the scars of imperialist violence. Far from being fixed or unchanging, the accumulated histories of their far-flung resistance have brought a distinct quality to class struggles in their new metropolitan home. For, as Cabral points out: ‘If imperialist domination has the vital need to practise cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.6

Developing this theme, Sivanandan has argued that a disorganic articulation of capitalist relations of production with vestigial political and ideological forms tends to generate a contradiction between the political regime and the people, with culture as the expression of their resistance. And it is cultural resistance which … takes on new forms … in order fully to contest foreign domination.’7 It is in the embers of that furnace that the now-transplanted political consciousness of post-war black settlers was forged. It is with that tradition that they and their British-born children have preserved organic links, in their kitchens and temples – in their communities. Though their new struggles at the centre are diffused throughout a different structure in dominance, the lingering bile of slavery, indenture and colonialism remains, not in the supposedly pathological forms in which black households are organised, but in the forms of struggle, political philosophies and revolutionary perspectives of non-European radical traditions, and the ‘good sense of their practical ideologies. The contradiction is, of course, between the people and the power bloc8 – but because in this case it is bounded by racial division, culture assumes a central importance. Hence, in opposition to those theorists who would reduce ‘race’ to custom or “ethnicity’, we must locate racist and anti-racist ideology as well as the struggle for black liberation in a perspective of culture as a terrain of class conflicts – in the same way that Richard Johnson does for the working class as a whole:

‘working-class’ culture is the form in which labour is reproduced … This process of reproduction, then, is always a contested transformation. Working-class culture is formed in the struggle between capital’s demand for particular forms of labour power and the search for a secure location within this relationship of dependency. The outcomes of such necessary struggles depend on what ideological and political forces are in play.’ 9

Except that – and it bears repetition – the struggles of ‘black’ people appear in an intensely cultural form because the social formation in which their distinct political traditions are now manifest has constructed the arena of politics on ground overshadowed by centuries of metropolitan capitalist development, thereby denying them recognition as legitimate politics.

To put it another way, the politics of black liberation is cultural in special sense: Coons, Pakis, Nig-nogs, Sambos and Wogs are cultural constructions in ideological struggle. Cultures of resistance develop to contest them and the power they inform, as one aspect of the struggle against capitalist domination which blacks experience as racial oppression. This is a class struggle in and through race. Black struggles to refuse and transform subjugation are no ready answer to class segmentation, but because they are ‘against capitalism, against racism’, they do attempt to constitute the class in politics where ‘race’ is no longer relevant; whereas the racist ideas and practices of the white working class become ways in which the class as a whole is disorganised.

The division of humanity into social classes explains its history infinitely better than its division into races or peoples. Yet the racial fragmentation of the British working class is a powerful warning against any view of classes as continuous or homogeneous subjects which, once formed, develop in a linear manner as political actors on the historical stage. The marxist concept of class refers primarily, but not exclusively, to the location of groups in production relations. The effect of capitalism’s tendency to generate surplus labour power which is excluded from employment by revolutions in the productive process and changes in accumulation should emphasise this.10 At the social formation level, this labour power is actual men and women expelled from production – ‘black’, ‘unskilled’, ‘old’, ‘young’. But there are intense political struggles over the composition of this surplus population. It is never determined mechanistically by the objective conditions (development of productive forces, phase of accumulation, etc.),
which only delineate the range of possible outcomes. Even the commonly understood definition of unemployment itself reflects this. For example, at present it refers disproportionately to males, while the possibility of waged work for women is suppressed by ideologies of domesticity. Patriarchal capitalism can accept the ‘unemployment of women marooned at home, but as the crisis bites, black youth on street-corners become a ‘visible political problem’ which prompts new forms of state intervention and social control. The way in which this surplus population becomes organised politically has implications for the segmentation of the working class, and is clearly relevant to racial politics. It serves to remind us that the privileged place of economic classes in the marxist theory of history is not the same as a simple assertion of their political primacy in every historical moment.

“We cannot conceive of the class struggle as if classes were simply and homogeneously constituted at the level of the economic and only then fractured at the level of the political. The political level is dependent – determinate – because its raw materials are given by the mode of production as a whole.”11

Marx makes it clear that there are periods in which the proletariat is unable to constitute itself as a class in politics, even though “the domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests’.12 Recognising the problems in the effective entry of classes into politics is the first step to understanding that: ‘Classes must be viewed as the effects of struggles structured by objective conditions, that are simultaneously economic, political and ideological.13

These objective conditions change, and the unity between the ‘economic movement and the political action of the working class not the same in 1981 as it was in 1871. The working class is different. This is a place where we can restore some of the determinacy which class struggle has lost in much recent marxist writing. We must re-draw the boundaries of the concept “class struggle’ so that it includes the relentless processes by which classes are constituted – organised and disorganised – in politics, as well as the struggles between them, once formed. In this way, to synchronise the movement of different class fractions with discontinuous but related histories becomes an object of struggle itself. This unity is now less than ever pre-ordained in economic positions. A complex view of class formation which gives due weight to the struggle to organise classes in politics takes us far beyond the simplistic ‘class in itself/class for itself’ dichotomy. It poses the question of forms of struggle and political organisation. This has become important not simply because blacks have introduced new political traditions into the British social formation, but also because in many instances in the 1970s the immigrant workers have not only participated in labour’s struggle: they have led it. They have not only participated in existing forms of struggle, they have invented new ones.14

Working-class black communities

Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Castles and Kosack,15 recent avowedly marxist approaches to analysis of the black working class have centred myopically on the shop-floor. Phizacklea and Miles16 have shown a dogged determination to impose their own restricted conceptualisations of political organisation on the blacks whose political consciousness they have quantified on the basis of questionnaire material. In doing so, they ignore the fact that the specific character of the black struggles they describe has often resided in the support such struggles have drawn from the surrounding black community.

Localised struggles over education, racist violence and police practices continually reveal how black people have made use of notions of community to provide the axis along which to organise themselves. The concept of community is central to the view of class struggle presented here. For it links distinct cultural and political traditions – which have a territorial dimension to collective action and consciousness, and operates within the relations of ‘economic patterns, political authority and uses of space’.17 The idea of a racially demarcated collectivity of this type underlines the fact that community cannot be viewed as either static or as determined by the essential characteristics of the class or class fractions which have come to constitute it.

The cultural institutions which specify community have not been a continual feature of working-class life. The history of working-class communities, into which we should insert the particular experiences of post-war immigrants and their children, is entwined with the processes of industrialisation and social discipline18 which established the city as a site of unique political conflicts. The form and relevance of community have therefore fluctuated with the changing social character of capitalist production. Even while the British proletariat was still being formed, attempts to assess the political relevance of community required that attention be paid to the dynamics of class formation and political organisation . The history of the Minters, the Costermongers, the Scuttlers and their Molls19 all show the strengths of the working class organised on the basis of community in urban struggles long before blacks became a replacement population in areas which, despite the demand for labour power … failed to attract sufficient white population.20

In an influential discussion which anticipates the direction of the argument here, Gareth Stedman-Jones has pointed to a growing separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere as an important determinant of both the cultural and political life of urban workers in late nineteenth-century London.21 His example of the disruption of community in fact illustrates the concept’s value in connecting the spheres of waged and domestic labour. To make this connection pays dividends not only where leisure practices are found to impinge on the labour process,22 but also where political organisation forged outside the immediate processes of production (for blacks with police, racists or profiteering ghetto landlords) has effects on the struggle at work and vice versa.

The making of classes at work is complemented by the making of classes where people live; in both places adaptive and rebellious responses to the class situation are inevitably closely intertwined.23

The notion of community is also important for the way it can be used to re-establish the unity of black people in answer to the divisions which state policy, race relations sociology and common-sense racism have visited on their experience of domination. All of these fragment the cohesion of black people, united in their opposition to the power bloc by cultures and languages of resistance. In its place, they have created the image of the respectable and hard-working first generation of black immigrants locked in struggle with their children, whose ‘identity crises’ and precarious position between two cultures’ impel them into deviant behaviour. Rejecting the parental culture while reproducing its pathological characteristics, these young people, whether of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, are presented as divorced from their parents’ concerns. This powerful stereotype unites self-proclaimed radical and openly racist theories of black life. It must be met with a concept of community which reveals the ties between the struggles of blacks outside the workplace and those who remain within the wage relation. Unemployment is increasingly affecting all black people, regardless of age, and where community has broadened the base from which they successfully fought the unholy alliance of employers and racist trades unions, there is every reason to suppose that it may now provide the means to take on the state itself in defence of local services and amenities. Where generational conflict is visible, it expresses deep debates over political strategy rather than aberrant familial practices.
Such conflicts are always premised on the fundamental unity of the community in question and conducted within the repertoire of its political traditions, which make the common ground on which discussion is possible. Tension between Asian youth movements and the Indian Workers’ Association organisations is a clear example of this process. It reveals the struggle between corporate and autonomous modes of struggle in a complex fashion, informed and affected by the peasant political traditions in which both aspects of the movement have been formed.

The interrelation between production and the political space in which community develops is not satisfactorily understood at the level of production’s immediate processes. The need to periodise class struggle and relate it to phases of accumulation requires detailed consideration of the organisation of surplus labour power. This is inextricably fused with the formation of workers into a class. It should be obvious that the move from full employment to structural unemployment heralds fundamental changes in the way surplus labour power appears as surplus population. In the context of organic crisis, the importance of community in these processes is highlighted by the use of new mechanisms of social control and surveillance which, recognising the strength of communities, attempt to penetrate them in new strategies for containment24 – ‘control is shifted from the criminal act to the crime-inducing situation, from the pathological case to the pathogenic surroundings, in such a way that each citizen becomes, as it were, an a priori suspect or a potential criminal’.25

The political traditions of black people expressed in the solidarity and resistance of their communities have determined such a territorialisation of social control. This is visible in the use of ‘Sus’ laws to confine black youths to particular areas,26 and in the particularly brutal police operations which have become commonplace in black neighbourhoods. In the past, community relations apparatuses fused political representation with state intervention to channel black grievances into ‘quasi-colonial institutional structures which would deal with the issue of race outside traditional political arenas’.27 Now, ‘community policing’ initiatives reveal new dimensions to the urban struggle in their attempt to redefine community so that it is counter-posed to ‘crime’ rather than to the police.

Corporatism vs autonomy

All this means that forms of struggle cannot be taken for granted. Mass unemployment generated by crisis and the microprocessor revolution demands reassessment of the institutions of political representation. These must be understood as historical phenomena. Posing the problem of political organisation in direct form invites the separation of corporatist modes of struggle from the diverse attempts to repoliticise the process of class formation. All this is taking place in the face of a new imposition of authority, new ideologies of the crisis and the mobilisation of the law in political struggle. Corporatism is defined as:

“political structure within advanced capitalism which integrates organised socio-economic producer groups through a system of representation and cooperative mutual interaction at the leadership level and mobilisation and social control at the mass level. Corporatism is understood here as an actual political structure, not merely an ideology (emphasis added).” 28

Black political traditions fall outside the ‘contradictory unity’ of corporatism/parliamentarism. There is also overwhelming evidence to support the view that the political institutions of the white working class have consistently failed to represent the interests of black workers, both abroad29 and at home, where black rank-and-file organisation has challenged union racism at every level since the day the Empire Windrush docked. Nor are blacks alone in the marginalisation they suffer. The experiences of female, young, unemployed or even unskilled workers present similar examples. The growth of rank-and-file militancy and conflict between the shop floor and union bureaucracy only hints at the struggle in these institutions. Indeed, they do not represent the class as a class at all. Their failures must be set beside the rapid growth of new movements with an autonomy from capitalist command as well as from the disabling political perspectives of the labour movement. The movement of the black communities is but one place among many where a patient listener may discern:

The dialogue between a young social movement, still searching for its identity, and the movement which preceded it but which is now growing old, dying, or being converted into its own antithesis by becoming an agent of the authorities.30

Such a claim requires that we demonstrate that black struggles are not merely political in a broad sense, but approach the task of social transformation not from a transplanted disorganic politics alone, but in forms and with ideas which relate directly to the immediate historical conjuncture in which they have developed. Rastafari, which appears where blacks are supposedly least class conscious, provides useful but by no means unique evidence of this.31 It is an example which must be treated with care if it is not to reinforce the peculiarly powerful racist image of intransigent black youth, whose previous incarnation, ‘the mugger’, has been brought up-to-date in a new folk-devil, ‘the criminal Rasta’. Sociologists who identify the movement exclusively with young men have done nothing except reinforce this view. Their definition of the movement is crude and empiricist – offering a shopping list of dogmatic tenets to which the true ‘cultist’ is subsequently found to subscribe. Instead, we should locate the symbols of dread-head wraps, long skirts, Ethiopian colours and dreadlocks – by which researchers have identified ‘cult affiliates’ — at one end of a continuum of belief which encompasses both age and gender difference. Avowed Rastas maintain that all black people are Rasta whether they realise it or not. This points to a broader idea of the movement than sociological orthodoxy allows. To see it as a distinct expression of the contradiction between black people and the power bloc lays bare its real structure as a movement organised around a political and philosophical critique of oppressive social relations – identified by the Rastas as a cohesive human creation – ‘Babylon system’. That this critique appears partially in religious form should not lead us to underestimate the degree of political transformation it represents. Though religion has always supplied weapons in the struggles of the colonised, downtrodden and enslaved, the ‘religious’ elements in Rasta discourse comprise a sophisticated criticism of a people’s paralysing encounter with religion. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than by the Wailers:
Preacher man don’t tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know
what life is really worth …
Most people think great god will come from the sky
take away everything make everybody feel high
but if you know what life is worth
you will look for yours on earth
now you see the light you stand up for your rights.

The Rastas’ insistence that heaven is on earth and nowhere else, and the denial of god which comes with their belief that ‘God is I and I and has always been’ are the kindling of the process in which: ‘The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.32

The sharing of linguistic devices and political concepts marks the limits of a community bonded by a particular conceptualisation of the people’. The confrontation in style which has developed where open signification of dreadness transforms the unacceptable attribute of blackness into a source of collective strength and inspiration acts as a focal point for dread and baldhead alike. The immense scope of the movement is obscured by continual preoccupation with the stylised and flamboyant defiance of its younger adherents. Once dread style has been abandoned as the essential qualification for ‘cult’ membership, it becomes clear that many older people share the movement’s pan-Africanist sentiments and take pride in its rejection of racial domination. For older West Indians have encountered the discourse of Rasta before.

Black culture, white youth and class struggle

The ‘youth culture’ dimension to Rasta mobilisation has created an important space for dialogue between youth from different racial backgrounds. Asian youth movements have been as inspired by the combativity of Afro-Caribbean young people as the Afro-Caribbeans have been by the Asians’ tenacious defence of their communities, however much this has been concealed by a persistent stereotype of their passivity. At a demonstration against racist violence in Coventry in May 1981, which was under-reported for this very reason, young Asians chanted ‘Brixton, Brixton’ as they charged the ranks of police who protected the racists. And in Southall in 1979, Afro-Caribbean youth came out with the Asians against the Nazis (and the police who protected them) in the defence of their common community.

The effects of West Indian culture in general, and, through reggae, Rastafari in particular, on white youth are seldom considered. It seems that this may have had a profound impact on the racism of young Britons who were not, like their parents, weaned on an unadulterated diet of Empire. There are new limits to the adequacy of racial explanations for the ravages of the crisis. The arrival of black settlers proved to be both catalyst and inspiration to the grandchildren of jingoism who were quick to ape, absorb and adapt the styles and cultural practices which were black relics of a distant colonial engagement with their foreparents. Dick Hebdige has established the connection between white youth cultures and the presence of black citizenry: ‘We can watch played out on the loaded surfaces of the British working-class youth cultures a phantom history of race relations since the war.33

By extending this argument, we can begin to see the fundamental class character of black cultural struggles in a different dimension, and the articulation of ‘race’ around the contradiction between capital and labour in ways obscured by the dominance of corporatist political representation. Since the incorporation of reggae into the sub-cultural repertoire in the late 1960s, political themes began to displace moral and generational conflict as the raw material for the cultural expressions of young whites. The progression from The Who’s ‘My Generation to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK’ and, more recently, the self-conscious anti-racist politics of the ‘Two Tone’ movement ex-emplifies this process. It has been fuelled at each stage by youth’s own perceptions of economic crisis and the consequent crisis of social relations. The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, which was the number one record during the unprecedented week of rioting in British cities in July 1981, provides a chilling image of national decline observed from inside the oppositional culture of urban youth.
This town is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving youth on the shelf
This town is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more, people getting angry
This town is coming like a ghost town.

The mass mobilisations of white youth thrown up in this process, though always both cultural and political, have not always been anti-racist, like the important but short-lived Rock Against Racism alliance. Though it contains no guarantees of a progressive outcome, the fact that neo-fascist and nationalist attempts to win young whites have been forced to recognise the political power of black culture as an obstacle to their success indicates the relatively precarious nature of the youngsters’ commitment to race and nation. 34

Regardless of the ultimate direction of the popular struggle of white youth, we should recognise that its forms have been prefigured in the resistances of black communities – in much the same way that the movement of black Americans in the 1960s determined the patterns of autonomous protest which followed it:

Without Black Brotherhood, there would have been no Sisterhood; without Black Power and Black Pride there would have been no Gay Power and Gay Pride. The movement against the abuse of powers of the state … derived much of its strength and purpose from the exposure of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims … only the Environmental Movement did not have the Black Movement as a central organisational fact or as a defining political metaphor and inspiration.35

The mass politicisation of youth cultures, which has followed from their encounter with black cultural forms and leisure practices, bears witness to the survival of African traditions which do not recognise the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Armand Mattelart has reminded us that: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into a means of instruction.”36 Non-European traditions have never recognised this separation in quite the same way, and consequently do not have to be readjusted.

Rastafari is a sophisticated expression of the critical consciousness which informs black struggles, commentating on society and the state and extending into analysis of the post-colonial scene as a whole:

Africans a bear the most pressure, because you find that the people that are controlling them are the white people them. They try to be superior over black people. Not all of them, but certain of them ones as is gods and seat up in high places: All those system, you just see them big notches who a control. Certain of them captains and them big pirates from long time is them family. Some of them people really have the world in their hands, so them keep up various kinds of isms now. Them stop slaving the Africans alone, but them slaving everyone else still. Is the people them to come and unite now, that’s the only way. 37

The consciousness of exploitation provoked in the experience of racial oppression, both inside and outside production, is not some preliminary phase in the development of a mythically complete class consciousness sometime in the future. Though for the social analyst ‘race’ and class are necessarily abstractions at different levels, black consciousness of race and class cannot be empirically separated. The class character of black struggles is not a result of the fact that blacks are predominantly proletarian, though this is true. It is established in the fact that their struggles for civil rights, for freedom from state harassment or as waged workers are instances of the process by which the working class is constituted politically, is organised in politics. Classes are not static or continuous subjects of history, they are made and remade in a continual struggle. It is only the ancient heresy of economistic marxism which stipulates that the relations of commodity production alone determine class relations. The struggle for hegemony
cannot be reduced to economic determinations or vulgarised to refer to solely cultural phenomena, and class analysis cannot be restricted to those positioned in the immediate processes of production.

Conclusion

The resistance and oppositional symbols provided by Afro-Caribbean political culture are central reference points for the struggles of other young people. Like feminist organisation, the anti-state movements which have been at the heart of urban communities’ opposition to increasingly authoritarian forms of social control demand critical self-scrutiny from the left. In both cases, distinct political practices force the ‘heretical realisation that the movement for human liberation and social transformation must itself be viewed as an historical phenomenon.

The young people who set British cities alight are no more a ‘reserve army of labour’ or a “lumpenproletariat’ than they are the criminal hooligans’ that the state has branded them. Their situation exists where are of many of Marx’s concepts – which were themselves historical limited use. Their actions must be examined on their political merits, as far as possible outside the moralistic categories which so much contemporary socialist thinking shares with common-sense ideologies. Racial segmentation places this problem at centre stage: too often the working class is divided into reputable and disreputable strata, personified, on the one hand, by the honest trades union stalwart and, on the other, by black youth whose alienation is manifest in their criminal inclinations. This is dangerous because it dovetails with the state’s own strategy of criminalisation as a response to these new political challenges. The urban ‘race rioters’ strike out at oppressive power materialised in the particular institutions and structures in which it bears down upon them, ‘[in] its capillary form of existence, at the point where power returns
into the very grain of individuals, touches their gestures and attitudes, their discourses and daily lives.’38

The simple point here is that power is not confined to the labour process. Understanding new political movements new class struggles requires analytic concepts historically appropriate to the new forms they take. These spontaneous struggles may sometimes become violent, but this does not render them irreconcilable with a strategic long-term ‘war of position’. The workers’ movement has always struggled with laws and law officers pitted against its own interests.

Bearing in mind the way that C.L.R. James has demonstrated the interrelation of spontaneity and organisation,39 we must also realise that forms of political action and organisation developed in previous struggles offer no guarantees of efficacy in new circumstances and relations of force. The ahistorical fetishisation of organisational forms which have outlived their adequacy in the dogmatic prescriptions of omniscient bureaucrats and party officers is both a fetter on progress and a set of blinkers preventing useful analysis of the present. From this perspective the struggle for black liberation and the related struggles of black and white youth may assume a place parallel to popular feminism and, at a greater distance, political ecology and anti-militarist initiatives. They are not the same, but their critiques of the movement which preceded them are similar. The marginalisation which they suffer at its ageing hands may even be the basis of new alliances and collective actions. Each group’s powerlessness is potentially resonant for the others. All these group’s discourse of movements extend the boundaries of politics beyond the social democratic focus on policy. They represent themselves in politics and denied by corporatist political institutions and patterns of state intervention. The ‘cultural character they share signifies the way each reaches into the future, as a dynamic complex unity of political, ideological and economic concerns, from which heterogeneous struggles form a new working class inside and outside the workplace.

References

This article is based on ‘Steppin’ out of Babylon’, chapter 7 of The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (in press) CCCS/Hutchinson 1982. I would like to thank
Kathy Bor, John Solomos and Vron Ware for their comments and criticisms.
1 – Stuart Hall, ‘Race and moral panics in post-war Britain’, in Commission for Racial Equality, Five Views of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1978).
2 – J.G. Gabriel and G.S. Ben-Tovim, ‘Marxism and the concept of racism’, Economy and Society (Vol. 7, no. 2, 1978).
3 – Martin Rabstein, ‘Why Britain needs national liberation’, in G. Bridges and R. Brunt (eds), Silver Linings (London, 1981).
4 – Annie Phizacklea and Robert Miles, Labour and Racism (London, 1980).
5 – Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis (London, 1978), p. 394.
6 – Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (London, 1973), p. 43.
7 – A. Sivanandan, ‘Imperialist and disorganic development in the silicon age’, Race & Class (Vol. XXI, no. 2, 1979).
8 – Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London, 1977).
9 – Richard Johnson, “Three problematics: elements of a theory of working-class culture’, in J. Clarke et al (eds.), Working-Class Culture (London, 1979).
10 – Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (London, 1969), Vol. I, ch. 4.
11 – Stuart Hall, ‘The political and the economic in Marx’s theory of classes’, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London, 1977).
12 – Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, 1975), p. 159.
13 – Adam Prezworski, “Proletariat into a class: the process of class formation from Karl Kautsky’s the class struggle to recent controversies’, Politics & Society (Vol. 7, no. 4, 1977)
14 – Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Authority and foreign labour: some notes on a late capitalist form of capital accumulation and state intervention’, Studies in Political Economy (No. 2, 1979), p. 50.
15 – S. Castles and G. Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe (London, 1973).
16 – Phizacklea and Miles, op. cit.
17 – Ira Katznelson, ‘Community capitalist development and the emergence of class’, Politics & Society (Vol. 9, no. 2, 1979).
18 – A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp. 296-8.
19 – R. Roberts, The Classic Slum (Manchester, 1971); E.P. Thompson, Whigs and
Hunters, (London, 1975); Henry Mayhew, London Labour and London Poor, Vol. 1 (New York, 1968).
20 – Ceri Peach, West Indian Migration to Britain (London, 1968), p. 62.
21 – Gareth Stedman-Jones, “Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900′, Journal of Social History (Vol. VII, no. 4, 1974).
22 – Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, 1977).
23 – Katznelson, op. cit., p. 232.
24 – J.C. Alderson, Policing Freedom (Plymouth, 1979); see also G. Howes and J.
Brown (eds), The Police and The Community (Saxon House, 1975).
25 – Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London, 1978), p. 186.
26 – Institute of Race Relations, Police Against Black People (London, 1979) and Clare Demuth, ‘Sus’ (London, 1978), pp. 37-8.
27 – Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities (London, 1973), p. 178.
28 – Leo Panitch, ‘Trades unions and the state’, New Left Review (No. 125, 1981); see
also ‘The development of corporatism in liberal democracies’, Comparative Political Studies (Vol. X, 1, 1977).
29 – D. Thompson and R. Larson, Where were you brother? an account of trades union imperialism (London, 1978), and P.S. Gupta, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64 (London, 1975).
30 – Alaine Touraine, ‘Political ecology – the demand to live differently now’, New Society (8 November 1979).
31 – See Horace Campbell, ‘Rastafari: culture of resistance’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII,
no. 1, 1980), and Colin Prescod, ‘The “people’s cause” in the Caribbean’, Race & Class (Vol. XVII, no. 1, 1975).
32 – Karl Marx, ‘Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right’ in Early Writings (London, 1979).
33 – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style (London, 1979).
34 – See Bulldog (paper of the young National Front), issues 7, 10, 16, 17, and 18.
35 – David Edgar, ‘Reagan’s hidden agenda’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII, no. 3, 1981).
36 – Armand Mattelart Mass Media, Ideologies and the Revolutionary Movement (Hassocks, 1980), p. 54.
37 – Hugh Mundell, interviewed in Black Echoes (8 November 1980).
38 – Michel Foucault, interviewed in Radical Philosophy (No. 16, 1977).
39 – C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (London, 1980), p. 115.

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past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The April 1981 Brixton Riot (2): The Aftermath, and Defence Campaigns

After years of street crimes and brutality, and despite the infiltration from outside of thousands of paid provocateurs. the Brixton police have finally been taught a short, sharp lesson by the local community. It has been a constant source of amazement to observers just how long the local population have allowed these professional scare-mongers to roam the streets unchecked, harassing and heating up the youth and terrorising the residents.

Over the last three years, there has been a marked increase in the street crime and violence carried out by these so-called ‘protectors’. The local population has stood by helplessly while their children been snatched off the streets by these over by racist and sexist gangs of thugs – kidnapped under the sinister ‘sus’ law which they operate.

At least one recognised public execution * has already been carried out by these murderous thugs’ paramilitary wing, the Special Patrol Group, whilst dozens of unsolved murders, which have happened behind the closed doors of police stations and prisons, are readily attributable to these state-styled stormtroopers and their cronies.

Relative calm returned to the streets on Sunday only after they adopted their by now unfamiliar ploy of following an afternoon of unbridled mayhem with a swift withdrawal at twilight. (Lewisham residents are all too aware of this tactic). But the remarks of one of the thugs ‘guarding’  Stockwell station sums up the measure of their defeat; in a dejected tone he muttered to his mates. ‘The whole world will be laughing at us..’ But he was wrong. The world is not amused at having these gangs of thugs strutting around its street under the guise of law ‘n’order. The world will want to know:

¥ WHO ARE THE SINISTER BRAINS BEHIND THE BRIXTON RIOTS WHO PLANNED AND EXECUTED MASSIVE ACTION AGAINST THE COMMUNITY?

But above all, the question remains:

¥ JUST HOW ARE WE PREPARED TO PUT UP WITH THESE ARROGANT, MARAUDING THUGS WHO ANSWER TO NO-ONE BUT THEMSELVES??”

FROM THE FRONTLINE BRIXTON BULLETIN Monday 13 April 1981

…………………………………………………………………………………

In the immediate aftermath of the April 11th 1981 Brixton Uprising, while the media teemed with racist nonsense, and Lord Scarman was hired by the government to launch an Inquiry into the events, the most pressing question in the area was supporting the 285 people arrested on the day (though a fair number were nicked and released without charge, mainly as there was no cell space to hold them all. More people were arrested later: between April and July there were some 70 raids on local homes). Interestingly, given the police and press hoohaa about the riot being planned and carried out by outsiders coming into the area, 90% of the arrested proved to be from Brixton; 65 % were Black. Other bare statistics: 50% were under 25. In the end some 18 % were jailed for ‘offences’ arising from the uprising, 17% acquitted.

The Brixton Defence Campaign was formed to organise a political defence of the arrested. It was formed mainly by the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Black People Against State Harassment (BASH). BASH had been launched in 1978, partly as a result of the repeated Special Patrol group invasions of Brixton (see In the Shadow of the SPG).

In its own press statement, the Brixton Defence Campaign stated that it formed to ‘co-ordinate the defence of those arrested during the Brixton Uprising and to support those who continue to be victimised’. The campaign group worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group.

 “The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

The Defence Campaign held regular meetings, help the arrested collected evidence for their defence, contacted lawyers, helped defendants and witnesses get connected, collected images to help people.

Viewing Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the cause of the April Riot as a whitewash, aimed at legitimising characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, the Brixton Defence Campaign called for a boycott of the proceedings. Their position was that any support for or even taking part in the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’.

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

The Brixton Defence Campaign calls for a total boycott of the state’s inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981 set up under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman with terms of reference: To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.
There is no escaping the fact that the Scarman Inquiry, but particularly Phase 1, very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried.
Lord Scarman has seen fit to divide his inquiry into two phases: Phase I – Examining the ‘immediate causes’ of what happened in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981; Phase II – Assessing the ‘underlying reasons, looking specially at the problems of policing multi-racial areas’.
Why do we say that Phase I is but a deadly weapon aimed at our hearts?
First: Because Lord Scarman himself had positively to agree, that Phase I will ‘prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts’. His promise to take evidence in such a way that individuals will not be named or identified cannot be carried out.
Second: What, it must be asked, are these ‘immediate causes’ into which Scarman is going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. It was the MP for Norwood (John Fraser) who said, quite correctly, that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton are well understood’.
Third: Instead of looking at the real ‘immediate cause of the Brixton Uprising, Scarman will be seeking to give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist views so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher – that the Brixton Uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order, and, on the other, mainly black criminals!
The Brixton Defence Campaign is satisfied that Lord Scarman is disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which are already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. In the past five years there have been repeated requests to the Home Secretary for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice. To none of these calls was there a positive response by the state.
There are no benefits to the black community to be derived from Phase II of Lord Scarman’s inquiry. First, it is not aware that Lord Scarman has any expertise in the field of social policy and is not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient given the other factors which apply. Second, there are no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state is a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Third, the Campaign is satisfied particularly that where the black communities’ grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them are concerned the state has no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. A mountain of evidence has been ‘submitted and ignored.”

The Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. However, some notable Brixton activists, and many community organisations, did co-operate with the enquiry.

There were proposals for an inquiry that could take a more alternative approach.
A joint statement from local organisations – the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, the Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club – claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

There was also the fear that anything said in evidence given to Scarman’s inquiry might help incriminate defendants when it came to court cases.

“On the fifteenth day of the Inquiry hearings, 3 July, the Brixton Legal Defence Group notified the Inquiry that application was being made to the High Court for an order to prohibit Lord Scarman from hearing any further evidence or submissions in public or from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 until the various criminal proceedings pending against the applicants arising from the disorders had been tried. Application was also made to prohibit the Home Secretary from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 pending conclusion of the criminal
proceedings. On 10 July Mr Justice Webster dismissed the application saying that ‘it has not been established either that the continuance of the Inquiry in public or that the publication of the report which follows is in either case an act calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice’.”

However, the Brixton Defence Campaign was not without its own contradictions, as the following article recounts (This was published in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, by a group of Brixton anarchists, 1982)

FROM OFFENCE TO DEFENCE TO….?

Where?

Recognising the centrality of black resistance to racism in the uprisings, we describe how such resistance became a larger entry point for our own refusal of mere survival as waged or unwaged workers, as women, etc. Although we have experienced exploitation, harassment and coercion in somewhat different ways than black and Asian people, we came to fight the same battles in the streets against the same enemy – the police. At the same time, we are all too aware that tensions between blacks and whites, men and women, persist after the uprisings.

This section approaches the problem in view of the aftermath of the uprisings. Although a riot can’t continue indefinitely without a general revolutionary upheaval, it can nevertheless contribute to bringing about such a situation. However, so far we have seen our riots followed mostly by repression, isolation and division among those who, for a while, joined together as an insurgent community. How do we get beyond this dead-end cycle?

Just after the July 81 riots, for example, the crowd in a Wolverhampton courtroom almost succeeded in freeing their mates from the dock. However, during the winter, hundreds of people faced prison sentences in the same kind of isolation which prevailed beforehand. Capitalism will continue to defeat us if rebellion remains confined to the warmest months, to special anniversaries or to counter-attacks against only the most blatant police provocations – ultimately leaving the initiative with the state.

With these problems in mind, the article looks at the inability of the Brixton defence groups to sustain the ‘creative moments’ of the revolts, instead expressing a disorganisation and powerlessness which limited the July uprising as much as did the advance in police tactics then. The article makes tentative suggestions for possible new organisational forms for defending the targets of state repression and for generalising the rebellion of the oppositional community. Whenever we do reach a point of confrontation leading to the next uprising, the groundwork could already be laid for taking it beyond defence of ghetto territory, towards transforming the whole of daily life, destroying the rule of capital and the state.

Looking back, it is now apparent that what was absent from last year’s struggles was the development of organisational forms which fully corresponded with the new practices made explicit at the height of the fighting. Certainly there were organizations – the defence committees – but subsequent events have revealed that none of these encouraged the development of the new relations already created. Of course they solidly did the work of obtaining speedy legal assistance for those arrested, issuing information and acting as rallying points, etc. However, by and large they applied stale orthodox models of resistance to the fresh tasks confronting metropolitan proletarians when such models had, to a certain extent, become already superseded by the very events upon which the organisations based themselves.

For what had started out in April as an attack on racist policing developed into an attack on policing as such, on commodity exchange as such and, by implication, on the whole process of production and consumption in capitalist society. Also, the mode of the attack was itself a living critique of the usual mediations by which political parties and trade unions contain and regulate class struggle. Further, it enabled us to break through the usual roles and half-rotted ideologies and, for a brief but ecstatic moment, to transform social relations. Such transformations which remain at the heart of the communist project and which, within the limits of time and space of Brixton, that weekend, became a form of mass practice needed a broad-based and flexible form of organisation in which to bloom. (For example, in times of social upheaval this form has very often been that of general assemblies or councils, soviets. But the organisational forms which arose in Brixton did so on the basis of only partial critiques, only limited visions, seeking to defend those arrested without having to delegitimise the state which was criminalising them in the first place.

Undoubtedly the defence committees’ criticisms of the racist state were expressed more forcefully than previously, but this was largely a difference of degree and did not mark a qualitative shift in oppositional critique or practice. (For example, they might have identified the ways in which the uprising went beyond an attack on racist policing methods, so as to incorporate the knowledge gained into their defence strategies.) Their limitations suggest that, of all the proletarian layers which participated in the fighting, none had a thoroughgoing awareness of the significant changes which had taken place in the composition of the proletarian groupings themselves. So when those of us who took to the streets concretised the latent and embryonic aspects of ourselves shaped by this recomposition of social relations, we were unable to grasp and develop that process collectively. Overtaken by the enormity and rapidity of events, we nevertheless were inspired by the forces unleashed to create practices of struggle in which we found ourselves confronting the now-realised aspects of ourselves. Yet, as in a dream, we did not fully recognise ourselves. Therefore, we fell back upon analyses and their corresponding forms of organization which our very own actions had rendered obsolete. This is understandable insofar as consciousness often lags behind events, especially events of such qualitative rupture.

But what were these ‘new aspects’? In short, the practical unity of black and white proletarians forged in action against both the state and the reign of commodities. There were no cries of ‘black and white unite and fight’ as we were too busy doing exactly that to bother with such sloganising. Moreover, we were not just ‘fighting the state’ but were transforming social relations, making real the communistic project by realising the communistic potential of ourselves, albeit briefly. At that point in the process, the struggle went beyond a physical confrontation with racist policing by (mainly) black youth, even if that had been the detonator and main component of the struggle. However, that step beyond was not reflected in the committees which reproduced fragmented and partial analyses. The temporarily visible, concrete relations receded from consciousness, back into invisibility. After one step forward on the streets, two steps backwards were taken in the committee rooms.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things. in creating something which has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.’ -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

it was at the point when the decisive actions on the streets had broken down many (though not all) of the ideological barriers that keep black and white proletarians in close but different orbits that the whole spectrum of political activists stepped in with their ‘traditional’ analyses. In the heat, speed and confusion of the moment, the regressive aspects of their intervention went un-noticed and prevailed by default.

The first ‘spirit’ that was ‘conjured up’ was the division on colour lines. The quickly-formed Brixton Defence Campaign (BDC) was open only to blacks. While that restriction could be seen as an attempt to curtail the influence of the (predominantly white) party-builders and to exclude possible police agents, its immediate social effect was to divide the streetfighters. Furthermore, the BDC itself immediately divided on class lines between the street youth and the older professionals & politicians on the platform. These differences resulted in one faction of the ‘leadership’ cancelling the public rally called for the following weekend – fearing, no doubt, to lose control of the situation to the streetfighters eagerly anticipating the rally. Falling on an Easter weekend, the rally would have ensured broader participation by local people and also supporters from elsewhere, thereby providing an opportunity to extend the struggle and overcome Brixton’s isolation. As it happened, that weekend – just a few days after the uprising – passed in silence. (The BDC opened itself up to white participants shortly afterwards, but only temporarily.)

These initial divisions by colour and geography from within the proletariat had a ‘domino effect’ as they strengthened – not weakened – the left groups, who now had a fragmented and confused mass to pick over and recruit. Soon there were no less than five defence group s/committees: The BDC included most black people. The Brixton Legal Defence Committee (BLDC), although formed essentially to cover court cases, reflected the involvement of leftist professionals/politicians, mainly Labourites. The Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton came from the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. South London Workers Against Racism (SOLWAR) was the local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in another form. Lastly, People Against Police Occupation (PAPO), by far the smallest group, consisted of socialist-feminists, radical gays and libertarians.

The BDC saw the uprising only as a black issue. While it is clearly undeniable that it was police racism which sparked the uprising, and that this was but one more example of the manifold attacks made on black people – economic, legal, social, physical, etc. – it should also be clear that the surge of (mainly black) proletarian anger in response went far beyond the initial objective of attacking racist police. The BDC’s attempt to contain the struggle within a solely ‘black people vs. the racist state’ framework turned out to complement the state’s own strategy of delegitimising any protest outside the scope of a narrowly defined ‘racial discrimination’. It is precisely within such terms that the state, especially its would-be reformers, have attempted to contain the struggle.

Another problem with the BDC’s approach was that it did not take account of differences within ‘the’ black community. As soon as the BDC was formed, the class differences surfaced and persisted as the campaign developed. An explicit proletarian standpoint from the start (which would have included the vast majority of black people anyway) could have avoided the confusion surrounding such issues as the collaboration with Lord Scarman by certain petty-bourgeois black groups and the collaboration with the police by such ‘community leaders’ as Courtnay Laws and Ivan Madray. Also, in order to advance the struggle on the ground, perhaps more faith could have been put in mobilising black proletarians in Brixton than in lobbying Caribbean diplomats.

Of course the BDC, as the biggest of the defence groups, helped the most defendants, and its limitations in no way detract from that achievement. Also, these criticisms should not been seen as a criticism of black autonomy. The ‘multi-racial’ developments of the uprising did not challenge the basis of black autonomy; on the contrary, they reaffirmed the need for autonomous organising by everyone. However, we need to re-think the ambiguity between autonomy and separatism, so that autonomous organisation strengthens everyone’s autonomy from the state rather than facilitating the state’s containment strategies. Perhaps future developments will bring some practical clarification to this delicate area.

What of the other defence groups?

The Brixton Legal Defence Committee made interventions only on the legal level. The most notable was the attempt to halt the Scarman Inquiry on the grounds that the proceedings endangered defendants in certain court cases. As there was no chance that the legal establishment would stop Scarman from performing his liberal exhibitionism, the Committee’s attempt failed.

The Militant Tendency, wearing the ‘costume’ of the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. used the ‘borrowed language’ familiar to most of us by now. According to them, the uprising was due to the policies of Thatcherism and ‘uncontrolled’ policing; therefore, more public expenditure on social welfare programmes, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and police ‘accountability’ would somehow keep the lid on. This committee, too, assisted defendants financially. Also, it was the only committee willing to sink ideological differences by offering at least some assistance to the arrested anarchist Patrizia Giambi – so far the sole explicitly ‘political’ case to result in conviction from the uprising.

SOLWAR applied to the situation a class analysis containing a critique of racism (both in the state and in the labour movement). They called for resistance to the Police raids which happened after the fighting, with the resistance to be carried out by ‘militia’ similar to their anti-fascist squads in Fast London, but that proposal was not implemented. SOLWAR also helped defendants financially and – with the slogan ‘Police in the Dock’ – assisted some black families to prosecute police for assault.

Like the proposal to resist police raids, this was another attempt to take the struggle onto the offensive against the police.

PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. Like SOLWAR, they too sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people.

Even this brief look at the approaches of the defence committees & groups gives us a glimpse of the potential which a general assembly could have had, especially one which recognised the historically new aspects of the uprising. But what we had instead was a proliferation of groups which precluded open political debate about the nature of the uprising and the formation of a collective ‘ strategy. These divisions reflected not only the divergences on the local political scene but also an (unconscious) acceptance of the state’s divide-and-rule tactics.

In the uprising the state’s tactics were made explicit in the ravings of Commissioner McNee (and in July in those of Kenneth Oxford and James Anderton), who attributed the uprising to ‘black hooligans’ (common criminals) and to ‘white anarchist agitators’ (political criminals). That political line was followed through into the courtroom and can be seen in the more or less straightforward criminalisation of black youth and the more overtly political criminalisation of, for example, the anarchists Patrizia Giambi in Brixton and Simon Los in Nottingham (For the charge of ‘threatening behaviour’, Patricia Giambi was sent to prison for a month and almost deported. In her appeal against the court’s recommendation for deportation, it became even more obvious that the police wanted to see her deported because she was an anarchist, whose deportation would provide prima facie ‘evidence’ for their conspiracy theory of the riots. In Nottingham, Simon Los was sent to prison for 3 years for ‘inciting to riot’, i.e. putting anarchist leaflets into people’s mailboxes.) Of course, the state is trying to have it both ways with the Bradford 12 conspiracy charges *, which themselves reflect the state’s growing fear of organised black proletarians.

The most negative effects of the insurgents’ fragmentation were the competition between defence groups and the attempts by some of them to appropriate the struggle as their own. An example: When the Scarman Inquiry opened at Lambeth Town Hall, the BDC called for a picket. This call was supported by all the other defence groups. However, SOLWAR brought along their own banner and, when asked by BDC stewards to take it down, refused. This refusal was heavily criticised by the other pickets and was seen as RCP vanguardism. But it can be seen another way as the BDC attempting to limit the struggle and subordinate other initiatives, such confusion was due to the lack of prior debate. The lack of open political debate meant that, whatever differences in political approach did exist (and such differences are always bound to exist), they got expressed in terms of crude competition. Thus it appeared that such competitive divisions were consciously desired, or at least self-perpetuating, rather than resulting from everyone’s earlier failure to come together for mutual clarification and collective decision-making. In effect, then, the BDC, which was seen as the ‘authoritative’ defence group, became the superior arbiter and sole source of legitimacy for initiatives. (Hence the absence of the BDC as the BDC from the PAPO picket of the police station.)

A second example: It became impossible to discern the pattern of, much less to resist collectively, the police raids which continued for months after April, largely because there was no common reference point for information about them. The information which was gathered was not made freely available. During the raids in June, people seemed gripped by a sense of powerlessness which in turn heightened the feeling of fragmentation and isolation. So, when there was street fighting again in July, it was not simply the fact of the police being better armed (than in April) which enabled them to clear the streets so easily. The events in July were an example of one way in which the proliferation of defence groups had compounded the decline of the April solidarity.

It is worth dwelling further on the differences between the July fighting and that in April. The main difference was that in April the police were taken by surprise. That gave streetfighters the time and space in which to gather for large-scale confrontations, which became the material basis for the unity. By contrast, in July there were uprisings taking place throughout the country but the police everywhere were better prepared – with riot helmets, short & light shields for extra mobility, the possible backing of water cannon and CS gas (used in Liverpool) and the political instruction to ‘go on the offensive’. In Brixton their chief tactic was mobile squads racing around attacking any semblance of group formations. That tactic kept those of us on the street running around in circles and prevented any large-scale gathering. Hit-and-run tactics were the only feasible form of resistance. (As used in St. Paul’s and Toxteth in early 1982.) There was little scope for united collective action like that of April. And now that police riot squads have been formed in all the large Metropolitan Police divisions with the back-up of gas and water cannon, the tactics of ‘isolate and disperse’ will again undoubtedly be the order of the day should there be any more streetfighting. Should this prove to be the case and should they succeed, then it may be even more difficult to recover the ground lost since April.

But, to return to the proliferation of defence groups – how did this come about?

Of all the social changes of the 1970s, one of the most significant was the growth of black people as an organised force. Black groups organised themselves around opposing the many attacks from the state and racist groups. A combination of the two – the Nationality Bill and the New Cross Massacre – meant that, at the time that the police implemented their ‘Operation Swamp ’81’, black people were on a combative footing and in no mood to tolerate yet more provocations. But this process goes back to the period immediately after World War 2  and is connected with other relevant historical developments.

The changing needs for new types of labour power by post-war capital gave rise to two trends. Black people were invited over here as a source of cheap unorganised labour at a time of a shortage. Also, with the decline of traditional industries (coal, steel, ship-building and so on) and the growth of service and light industries, women – another source of cheap, unorganised labour – became a larger part of the labour force and structurally more integrated into it. (For a concise account of this, see lrene Bruegel, ‘Women as a Reserve Army of Labour’, in Feminist Review no.3.    Also, A. Sivanandan, ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’, in Race and Class, Autumn/Winter 1981 and his ‘Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain’, Race and Class pamphlet no. 1. See also the series in Race Today by Darcus Howe, ‘Bobby to Babylon’.)

Both groups also received a large impetus from the liberation movements of the late 1960s – the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Linked with appositional developments of the late 1960s was the growth of a whole range of revolutionary groupings, from Trotskyists through to anarchists. Also, since the mid-1970s there has been a growing reserve army of young people, black and white, excluded from the labour process. Unlike the reserve army of the 1930s, however, there is a tendency to turn its exclusion into a rejection of normal ‘success’ models. Many of these people feel themselves to have little stake in reforming capitalism and have proven themselves willing to defend physically any encroachment upon their ‘non-work oriented’ subcultures.

All this reflects changes in the composition and self-perception of the working class. Such changes are inevitable given that classes are not fixed groups but social processes. For example, the large expansion of office jobs has ‘bourgeoisified’ traditionally working class people and has ‘proletarianised’ traditionally middle class people. The expansion of higher education has given some of the working class a passport into the middle class. Black people (especially first-generation immigrants) have been doing menial jobs while a certain portion of the white working class becomes upwardly mobile. The welfare state – designed to individualise class conflict and isolate people – has been nevertheless used by refusers of wage-labour to gain time and space in which to move outside the wage-slave cycle and develop their opposition through new practices. And so on.

What all the above-mentioned groups have in common is that they organise and express themselves outside of the usual channels of political parties and trade unions (even if the organised left tends to channel people back in again). To a greater or lesser extent they are all marginalised politically, socially or economically – and, in the case of most women and blacks, in all three spheres. This is due mainly to objective conditions, some of which – for example, the structured individualisation of officially ‘unemployed’ people – were challenged by last year’s uprisings.

But the forces at work are not only objective. In such a world, people who are antagonistic to the norms are only too pleased to find like-minded people. Such groups become the reference points for identity, safety and support. Gradually, people come to accept their marginalisation, and this ‘self-ghettoisation’ cuts off people from other oppositional groups, and not merely on ‘Ideological’ grounds. That is, there is a certain degree of (unconscious) complicity with the tactics of divide-and-rule. Friction occurs among groups as each either explicitly or implicitly claims to hold the key to real social transformation, to be the subject of history. (Isolation and vanguardism are often mutually inclusive.)

So, despite changes in social relations that had taken place in the streetfighting, when the task of organising presented itself there was an in-built tendency for people to revert ‘automatically’ to the roles they knew best, thus reproducing the old divisions. However,

‘Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest and pursue the struggle for any other section. The formal organisational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.’ (Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Falling Wall Press/Race Today, 1975.)

Since those words were written almost a decade ago, this problem has become even more pressing. Yet one major attempt elsewhere at its resolution – the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conferences – is doomed to failure. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ failed not just because it attempted to create unity only on an ideological level, but also because it sought to ‘breathe life into some Frankenstein monster constructed of the decaying remains of the political movements of the last two decades’. (Beyond the Fragments Or Beyond the Left, in Authority, 1980)

That is, it failed to recognise what is new in the general proletarian refusals of this society and especially the role of the left in domesticating such refusals. What is needed most is an attempt at unity on a practical and continuous basis, a basis which recognises the new and breaks through old ideological barriers. (Last year’s uprisings could well provide the beginnings of such a basis.)

But these are not the sole reasons for the proliferation of defence groups and partial analyses. The spontaneous nature and the scope of the actions took most people by surprise. Before events and their potential could be fully grasped, the moment had passed, the state had regained control of the streets, and the resulting ‘vacuum’ favoured the people with worked-out analyses and organisational models – almost any analyses and models. As the focal point of the struggle shifted from the streets to the committee rooms, it became blurred and less intense through that process. And here is a perennial problem of periods of social rupture – the division between ‘fighters’ and ‘organisers’- which can be seen as the ‘division of revolutionary labour’. We must constantly identify and challenge such division. However, it is not enough to challenge it formally, because it persists by default, from our failure to articulate the historically new needs expressed in insurrectionary practice yet still lacking the new language required to counterpose those needs to the old ‘socialist’ models.

For all those reasons, the earlier suggestion of ‘general assemblies’ is not without problems. The main difficulties to be surmounted would be: the different histories of the various members, the different levels of commitment, the different goals desired, the fear and mistrust among member groups, and now the more dispersed ‘guerilla’ tactics required to counter a better-equipped police force. Yet we need to tackle these problems – now if we are to cease reaffirming our ‘marginalised’ misery and instead advance ourselves as a class, to advance from defence yet again to offence.

– M. Brique, March I982

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Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work

THE CASE OF PATRICIA GIAMBI

To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

We want to bring to your attention the case of Patricia Giambi, which arises out of the events which took place in Brixton on April 1lth. Her story began, like many others, on Saturday April 1lth, when she was caught up in a police charge near her Brixton home and charged with having an offensive weapon and of using threatening behaviour and words. Here again her situation was similar to hundreds of others, police accusations resting on contradictory elements of identification in what was a crowd situation in a narrow unlit street.

It did not take police long to single her out for special treatment, however, when they discovered that she was living in the same house as someone on whom they had a political file and who was also arrested that evening. From that moment on, there has been a deliberate and unconcealed attempt to single out these two women and frame them in the role of outside agitators in an event which has been widely recognised as a popular uprising against survival conditions and police provocation. The role attributed to Patricia, prompted by her Italian nationality, is that of the imperative ‘foreign link’ – an Italian one to boot – where police, through the organs of the daily press, have made repeated references and innuendos to the Red Brigades, international terror links and so on.

As an EEC citizen, she left her local government post for a year, using her full rights of mobility as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, to find employment here and to study the English language. Language difficulties and ever-increasing unemployment made it difficult for her to find work, but she was eventually engaged as a cleaner in a local hospital, where she worked six mornings a week. She has also gained an intermediate English certificate at Westminster College, which she has attended since January.

Over the past few months, since her arrest in April, she has appeared in court on numerous occasions and while on bail was granted her passport to go to Italy to visit her sick father. She returned early in September to face trial and now finds herself serving a sentence of 28 days in Holloway Prison and on completion faces deportation. This is as a result of being found guilty of threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Upon conviction police presented the magistrate with an album of enlarged colour prints of the study of the flat where Patricia was living. The photos had been taken during a raid following her arrest and showed bookshelves containing, among others, books dealing with anarchist theory and history which are freely available in libraries and bookshops. These, plus a photograph of a poster in the same room with the slogan (in Italian) Bread, love and struggle, were taken as being conclusive evidence that she was a national security risk, so justifying the deportation order. Patricia made no attempt to conceal her interest in anarchism which, as far as she knew, was not illegal in this country.

When the deportation order was contested by her barrister, lan McDonald, police overtly reinterpreted EEC law by saying that she was not a bona fide worker (an expression which does not appear in the act) or student, and therefore could benefit from no rights. She has been working for over four months and studying at Westminster College in the evenings. She was also at one time part of a libertarian book collective and worked voluntarily one afternoon per week. This was distorted by police and presented as further evidence as to why she should be deported.

She is appealing against her sentence and in the meantime we feel her case should be brought to the widest public attention, as it sets an ominous precedent.

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

After she went back into prison upon being sentenced on September 17, Friends of Patricia Giambi distributed the above leaflet (among others) to organise a support campaign for her appeal against the Magistrate Court’s recommendation, that the Home Office deport her. Finally on October 15 she won her appeal at the Inner London Crown Court. Thus her case did not go to the next step, where the Home Office would have decided to accept the Magistrate Court’s original recommendation that she be deported.

Despite that victory, we should not forget the precedents set by this case for criminalisation of revolutionaries, in particular: 1) Of all the EEC nationals who were arrested on similar charges in the Brixton uprisings, Patricia Giambi was the only one who received a recommendation for deportation in addition to a prison sentence. Obviously, then, that overtly political treatment was due not to the criminal charge as such but to her choice of housemate. It’s not what you’ve done but who you are, how you live. 2) The courts’ refusal to grant bail meant that there was little point in pursuing an appeal against the prison sentence, as Patricia completed the 28 days before the date of her appeal anyway. The prosecution arguments against bail were that she might abscond and that ‘there is evidence to show she is an anarchist’. 3) Even though she completed the 28 days before her appeal date, she wasn’t permitted to leave the prison until she won the appeal – apparently on grounds that she might evade an eventual deportation order. Since it is common practice for the British state to imprison potential deportees only after they have received a deportation order, the judicial system was treating Patricia as if the Home Office had already decided to deport her – indeed, almost as if her appeal could not succeed. Thus her additional imprisonment served in effect to confirm the police theory that she was a politically dangerous person.

4) When the magistrate at the appeal hearing incredulously challenged the respondant’ (the prosecution) to prove their suggestion that Patricia was part of a dangerous anarchist conspiracy, the police declined to make their accusation any more specific but instead went as far as to argue that she should be deported as an ‘undesirable’ because of her association with other people who are themselves ‘undesirable’. (Unfortunately for the police, most of her London friends hold British citizenship and so cannot themselves be deported.)

Although the courts ultimately did not accept the wilder police innuendo about Patricia having organised the riots, this was partly because of the support which had to counter not only the police but also the mass media, (See for example the Daily Mail 17 October 1981, in which a journalist enthusiastically promotes the police arguments – quoted in full – as to why she should have been deported.) Furthermore, the police succeeded in setting the terms of reference: on the key issues of bail and deportation, they forced the defence case to refute grave criminal accusations (e.g. organising riots), yet without the police having to mount a normal prosecution case on such charges. So the entire affair, especially Patricia’s imprisonment while awaiting the appeal hearing, served to lend credence to the conspiracy theory of the uprising, even in the absence of any concrete evidence. Instead the police pressed forward their case entirely on the basis of Patricia’s life, particularly her ‘associations’. Perhaps the British police are following the lead of developments in Italy, where the state (especially the Italian Communist Party) is putting away thousands of revolutionaries into prison on charges of ‘subversive association’ – for which they can be kept imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial. Upon a later visit back to Britland she got a xmas tree of alarms at Customs courtesy of Special Branch and stooges.


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past tense’s series of articles on
Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981:

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

 

 

Today in radical history, 1982: a day of action during the Nurses’ Strike

‘Nurses Are Worth More’: The 1982 Health Workers’ Dispute

An account by Dale Evans, NHS worker

The 1982 pay dispute was the largest strike in the history of the NHS and greatest show of solidarity across the trade union movement since the 1926 General Strike. Unfortunately this complex and often contradictory dispute that coincided with the Falklands/Malvinas War has been forgotten. Historians of trade unionism and the Thatcher era have not recorded it. This is not hard to understand, after all nurses and other women health workers rarely count in the arena of male dominated trade unionism; their disputes – because they lack ‘industrial muscle’ are hardly noticed. But the 1982 health service pay dispute is a great story. It was a strike that involved the workforce of the single largest employer in the whole of Europe, lasted for several months, challenged new anti-trade union legislation, gained enormous public support, received solidarity action from across the trade union movement and was the largest pay dispute of the Thatcher era.

Background to the 1982 dispute

From the beginning of the NHS in 1948 nurses’ pay was regularly falling behind comparable occupations in other sectors. Nurses found themselves campaigning to catch up as their salaries were eroded by government policies on wage restraint and post war price inflation. In 1974 the Halsbury enquiry into nurses’ pay awarded them increases of between 20 and 40 per cent. The severe inflationary period of the 1970s quickly undermined the gains of 1974 and a further enquiry – the Clegg commission of 1979 – awarded nurses 9% plus additional payments. The new Tory government of 1979 implemented the Clegg awards. However, by 1982 continuing inflation and limited public sector pay increases had left the nurses’ pay lagging behind again.

There were other paternalistic and structural reasons for successive governments not taking the remuneration of nurses seriously. Nursing was overwhelmingly staffed by women and nursing was viewed as an extension of caring for a family, that is not a professional occupation. Nurses’ pay was viewed as secondary income for families where the main income was provided by men. However nearly one third of nurses were single, and in places where the economic recession of the early 1980s hit hardest nurses became the main family wage earner. The NHS policy making mechanisms were dominated by doctors and their interests came first. On a structural level the NHS was expanding. Between 1976 and 1983 the number of nurses increased by 16% to nearly 400,000. At the same time the hours worked by nurses also decreased hence increasing the overall wage bill. In 1950 they worked 48 hours per week, by 1982 this had been reduced to 371/2. Successive governments fought to contain the costs of the NHS by restricting pay increases to nurses and other non-medical employees in the NHS, by far the largest section of the NHS workforce. By 1974-75, nurses real income had increased by only 9% since the beginning of the NHS. From this peak the real value of nurses went into decline and by 1982 had decreased by 18% since the mid-1970s.

In order to redress the decline in pay for nurses and low pay for other NHS workers the unions argued for a 12% increase across the board for the 1982 pay round. However, the Tory government had already announced that public sector pay increases would be limited to 4%, but by March Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Social Services, issued a statement that more money was available for nurses, midwives, and the allied health professions (radiographers and physiotherapists etc.) and that an offer in the region of 6% would be made. All other non-medical staff (that is porters, cleaners, ambulance personnel, clerical staff) were to receive the 4%. To what was an obvious provocation, the health service unions had to respond.

Beginnings of the Dispute

The trade unions responded to the offer with derision; one NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) official denounced the offer as an ‘unacceptable prescription which will do nothing to alleviate the problem of low pay affecting thousands of health service workers’.

In 1981 health service trade unions affiliated to the TUC had formed the TUC health services committee under the chair of Alan Spanswick from the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE). The 1982 date for the pay round was April 1; for the first time in NHS all staff except doctors were to receive their annual pay increase from the same date. This gave the unions an organisational advantage in being able to organise and negotiate for all employees on the same basis from the same date. The unions believed that their claim of 12% for all NHS staff was reasonable. The rejection of this claim by the government quickly led to industrial action by the TUC affiliated unions.

All the unions were conscious of the fact that public support for their campaign was paramount; they had no wish to alienate the public as they believed the public workers’ dispute had done in 1979’s ‘winter of discontent.’ Although an all out strike was discussed most action in the course of the dispute consisted of work stoppages by nurses and nursing auxiliaries, porters, cleaners and other staff that would not endanger patients. This was the course taken by COHSE and NUPE and the other TUC unions. The first days of action took place in May. These actions were varied across the country. In some places the NHS only offered emergency services on these days, in other areas staff worked by only performing limited duties.

At a local level unions officials received support from other public sector workers. As the summer progressed the Scottish miners came out on strike in support of the day of action. By the end of June sympathy strikes had taken place with miners, shipyard workers, factory workers and staff from government and council offices all taking part. Examples of this solidarity action came from all over the UK. Shipyard workers joined a demonstration by health workers in Glasgow, 77 schools in Nottinghamshire were affected, swimming pools in Yorkshire were closed, stoppages occurred at some of the major power stations in Yorkshire, council workers in Hackney and Tottenham also took action. By July 750 hospitals had only emergency cover. In Wakefield 4 hospitals did not have any services at all on days of action. Further solidarity action saw seamen stop a ferry leaving Felixstowe for 2 days. All of this action was in breach of the 1980 Industrial Relations Act that outlawed secondary action by one group of workers in support of another. However in August the Electricians Union managed to stop the Fleet Street printing presses rolling with a 24 hour stoppage. Sean Geraghty, the shop steward involved. was fined £1300 for contempt of court after ignoring an injunction banning the stoppage. Hundreds of health workers demonstrated in his support on the day of his hearing.

In spite of the stoppages and inconvenience to patients the dispute was widely supported by the public who perceived that the nurses were being given a raw deal. Of course patient care was compromised as waiting lists soared and operations were cancelled but this did not undermine public support.

Divisions between the unions

Outside of the TUC affiliated health service unions were the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) who represented 180,000 nurses, and other smaller unions such as the midwives, health visitors and those representing the allied health professions. These organisations were also professional bodies as well as trade unions. As professional bodies they had a regulatory role over members, provided education, and set professional standards just as the BMA (British Medical Association), and the Royal Colleges do in medicine. For these reasons the RCN did not sit easily with trade unions affiliated with the TUC, COHSE and NUPE, which had 135,000 and 80,000 nurses in their membership respectively and were also the unions representing tens of thousands of other NHS workers. This split between TUC affiliated bodies and non-affiliated unions such as the RCN was to prove crucial in the conduct of the dispute, and its final resolution.

The RCN argued that because of the public support shown for the nurses’ cause it was not necessary to engage in industrial action. Indeed its president Trevor Clay later wrote:

‘The nurses had the high moral ground through balloting at a time when the government were lambasting other unions about their lack of balloting and unrepresentative activity.’

During the days of action members of the RCN worked normally, because strike action would have been in breach of its rules (Rule 12). The RCN had only become a trade union in 1977 and in 1979 its membership had rejected the opportunity to join the TUC. A debate in 1982 concerning amending Rule 12 came to nothing.

Throughout the dispute the RCN acted independently of the TUC health unions, often meeting ministers and engaging in talks without any acknowledgement of the need for greater unity. The RCN only paid lip service to supporting non-nursing NHS staff but made it apparent that it wanted a settlement whereby porters, clerical staff and nursing auxiliaries would receive a lower pay rise than qualified nurses. Unlike the TUC unions it was willing to support the government’s idea of establishing a permanent pay review body (PRB) for nurses that would be similar to that already set up for doctors. The PRB would annually compare nurses’ pay with other sectors of the economy and make recommendations to the government.

The RCN wanted to have its cake and eat it. Its President Trevor Clay genuinely believed that its position of no strike action and talking to the government whilst constantly balloting the membership of the RCN on various matters was the most productive way to settle the dispute. This of course allowed the government to split the campaign effectively into two camps, those for and those against industrial action. Norman Fowler’s statement to the House of Commons on 18 October 1982 clearly thanked the RCN for continuing to work and lambasted the TUC unions.

COHSE and NUPE felt that the RCN was only gaining advantages with the government because of the strength of their action. Without industrial conflict the RCN would not have been invited to the negotiating table. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of NUPE, diplomatically expressed the differences:

‘I think that the RCN line ….has been that whilst they are still talking there is still hope. I don’t wish to drive any more wedges between ourselves and the RCN. It’s fine to say that whilst we are talking there is still hope, but less people would be hurt if we all threw our weight behind the industrial campaign to get proper talks.’

For both COHSE and NUPE it was a matter of principle that all the health service workers received 12%. They had major concerns about low pay in the NHS that they felt the government should address. These unions had a different approach to striking. COHSE’s 1982 conference rejected an all-out indefinite strike and supported the call for extra days of action with emergency cover only. NUPE’s conference on the other hand voted in favour of an indefinite strike with only basic emergency cover. COHSE’s position was strongly influenced by the winter of discontent. After that the union had drawn up a code of conduct for disputes whereby its members were expected to provide emergency cover and ensure that the dignity and welfare of the patients is paramount. Both unions rejected the idea of the government’s PRB, as both unions believed in annual pay negotiations based on the principles of collective bargaining.

During the course of the dispute the RCN balloted its membership on two offers both of which were rejected by the membership. From the views of the membership its seems clear that the RCN wanted to extricate itself from the dispute as quickly as possible. The members of one RCN branch wrote to the Nursing Times:

We find it distasteful that you [Dame Catherine Hall, an RCN negotiator] held a press conference without first referring the detail of your discussions with the secretary of state to the RCN labour relations committee for a vote….There is no mention in your misrepresented statement of referral back to the membership.’

And another member complained

‘I have just received my RCN News. Cutting through the waffle it seems that the College is attempting to sell us out for an extra 11/2p in the pound.’

Such was the divergence of views that the RCN issued a leaflet in which it fully defended its position against the accusations levelled against it.

The government also exploited the split to argue that the TUC unions had a political agenda, that is that the strike was not about health service pay but was to undermine recent trade union legislation and re-establish the former power that the unions supposedly enjoyed. On the 21 September the Health Minister Kenneth Clarke said:

‘The TUC hopes to smash the cash limits of the National Health Service in order to end pay restraint in the public sector and prepare the way for bigger claims for miners and others this winter. They are taking secondary action in order to challenge the Government’s legislation and defend their old immunities above the law.’

This lack of unity and the government’s endorsement of the RCN’s position undermined the strength and purpose of the TUC unions after the largest day of action on 22 September.

22 September 1982

22 September saw a huge show of solidarity for the NHS dispute right across the country; an estimated 2.25 million people took part in one form or another. In London 120,000 demonstrated, Aberdeen 12,000, Edinburgh 10,000, Liverpool 20,000, Norwich 2,000, Derry 3,000 – and these were just some of the many demonstrations that took place all over the country. Strikes were evident in many hospitals with only emergency cover provided. Some ambulance crews walked out and refused to provide emergency cover.

Secondary support for health workers was also very significant, 80% of the mines were closed as were 43 of 65 docks. Fleet Street workers stopped the publication of the national newspapers and many local newspapers were disrupted as well. There was some disruption to television programmes broadcast by Granada and Ulster TV. Local government services were affected with many schools being closed for part of the day. Supporting strike action was also taken by car workers at Ford and Vauxhall, and Post Offices were closed.

This day was an undoubted success and was the high point of the whole dispute for the TUC unions. Such enthusiasm would be difficult to repeat and the time for indefinite strike action had passed. The RCN was still talking to the government and seeking a way to end the dispute. And the government, very much buoyed by it victory in the Falklands/Malvinas war, took a hard line, proclaiming that the day of action had changed nothing. As many nurses pointed out the government could always find money for wars but not for funding the health service.

The fact that this historic day of action had failed to move the government left the unions in a quandary: what to do next?

The end of the dispute

Attempts to organise further days of action petered out. The dispute dragged on with only a few local actions occurring. COHSE called a delegates’ conference for 14 December to discuss the possibility of an all-out strike. In reality the split in the nursing profession between the RCN and the TUC unions had undermined the possibility of further action. Most of the action had been carried out by the other health workers. As one participant commented:

There was considerable resentment among the ancillaries about the nurses. The press had gone on about the nurses this the nurses that. The cleaners knew that they had stayed solid for months. Most of the nurses had crossed the picket line time after time. The cleaners felt used’.

Many of the nurses did however recognise the contribution to the dispute by other NHS workers:

‘The ancillary workers are helping us by taking action, as well as themselves…

Nurses do not have the power to fight the government on their own, they need other workers’.

By December the RCN was effectively leading the dispute with most of the discussion centred on the establishing of the PRB, which the TUC unions still rejected. The government improved its offer to 12.3% for nurses over 2 years with 7.5% to be received in the current year, and the promise of a pay review body for 1984. The RCN put the offer to its members, 80% of whom accepted. NUPE and COHSE tried to scupper the deal by recommending to its members 6.5% for the coming year without any conditions for future years. The membership rejected this. NUPE and COHSE also found themselves outvoted in the TUC health services committee where each member (14 in all) had one vote even though NUPE and COHSE represented the majority of health service workers between them. Furthermore the RCN and the other professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives had a slender majority on the national negotiating committee, the Whitley Council. NUPE and COHSE had been effectively outmanoeuvred. Ancillary staff received a 10.5 % deal over 2 years, receiving 6% in the current year. Both pay deals were only backdated to July even though the date for a new pay rise was the 1 April. No doubt this was an extra punishment for a workforce that had fought for a living wage.

Aftermath

The conservative government won the 1983 general election and the PRB was set up. Nurses were awarded between 9 and 14% in 1985 and 8% the following year. Work done by ancillary workers (porters, cleaners) were increasingly privatised with two thirds of contracts awarded to private contractors by the end of 1984. This section of the workforce was reduced by 40,000 by 1988. COHSE’s membership had peaked at 231,000 in 1982 had fallen to 218,000 by 1988. The RCN membership which had been 162,000 in 1979 reached 282,000 in 1988.

Sources used

The Times

The Guardian

Marxism Today

New Statesman

Nursing Mirror

Nursing Times

Christopher Hart, Behind the Mask: Nurses, their Unions and Nursing Policy, London 1994

Jonathan Neale, Memoirs of a Callous Picket, London, 1983

Trevor Clay Nurses, Power and Politics, London, 1987

Mick Carpenter, Working for Health: the History of COHSE, London 1988

COHSE (Britain Health Service Union) blog 

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Lifted from ‘The NHS is 60‘, a collection of radical articles on health, working in the health service and the history of the NHS, published in 2008 by the Radical History Network of North-East London

According to the COHSE history blog,

“Wednesday 22 September 1982 was one of the largest acts of solidarity in the British trade union history, with millions on strike and a national rally in London with 120,000 taking part. There were demonstrations in the following towns (not full list)

Aberdeen 12,000

Inverness 1,000

Elgin 500

Lerwick 400

Oban 100

Stornaway 500

Dundee 10,000

Edinburgh 10,000

Kirkcaldy 2,000

Glasgow 20,000

Dumfries 1,000

Newcastle 5,000

York 1,000

Sheffield 10,000

Barnsley 1,000

Leeds 6,000

Hull 4,000

Chesterfield 3,000

Manchester 2,000

St Helens 2,000

Liverpool 20,000

Bolton 2,000

Blackpool 400

Wigan 5,000

Leek 300

Coventry 2,000

Gloucester 500

Hereford 400

Swindon 1,000

Milton Keynes 1,200

Cambridge 2,000

Colchester 1,000

Braintree 100

Norwich 2,000

Kings Lynn 300

Harleston 500

Fakenham 100

Southampton 1,500

Bournemouth 1,000

Eastbourne 500

Yeovil 1,000

Belfast 3,000

Derry 3,000

Armagh 300

Ballymena 200

Enniskillen 350

Swansea 1,000

Aberystwyth 200

Rhondda 500

There were also many rallies/marches in London eg in Hackney and Hillingdon.”

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1985: Anti Fascist Action founded, ‘to fight fascism physically & politically’

Anti-Fascist Action was an important organisation that took a position of fighting the far right on the streets as well as combatting their ideas politically wherever they arose. Founded in 1985, AFA effectively ceased to exist around 2000-2001.

Here’s an account of Anti-Fascist Action in their own words, published in 1999, as the organisation was in effect winding up – or as they saw it, moving on to other arenas of the struggle against fascism…
Some thoughts in AFA and their winding up follow their text.

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From the day Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was founded fourteen years ago, we have always been best known for the use of physical force against fascists on the streets. While being rightly proud of this record the present situation requires that militant anti-fascists develop a political strategy that is just as effective as the physical one has been in the past.

There has never been a blueprint for militant anti-fascism, either political or physical, and AFA has had to develop its own strategies. As the general political situation changes anti-fascists need to move with the times. In Britain, where the main fascist threat comes from the British National Party (BNP) who have withdrawn from ‘street activities’, there is a danger that if anti-fascists don’t follow the fascists in to the political mainstream then we will be outflanked.

Some anti-fascists think that adopting a political strategy means the physical side of the struggle has been abandoned, but the key to AFA’s future success lies in our original founding statement which commits the organisation to “physical and ideological opposition to the fascists”. The physical side of the strategy has been implemented so successfully that the fascists were forced to withdraw from the streets in 1994 – now is the time to develop and implement a political strategy with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
To understand the position we are now in it is helpful to look at the history of AFA as it has developed over the years.

1977 – 1985 The beginnings…

Although AFA was formed in the summer of 1985 the roots of the organisation can be traced back to the anti-fascist squads in the late 1970s. The squads were the physical force wing of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which had been launched in 1977 to counter the growing threat of the National Front (NF).

The NF had made inroads into the white working class, and in 1974 they set up the NF Trade Unionists Association and were actively involved in a number of industrial disputes. This growing support among the white working class led to increased opposition from the Left and the Trade Union movement and when the National Party (a split from the NF) won two council seats in Blackburn, in May 1976, it was clearly time to turn the growing anti-fascist protests into something more dynamic.

By 1977 organised opposition to the NF reached new heights, in particular at Lewisham in south London where an NF march came under heavy and sustained physical attack from several thousand anti-fascists.

Shortly after this the Anti Nazi League was formed by the SWP arid every fascist activity was now opposed.

The ANL strategy combined imaginative propaganda and physical opposition. Popular bands, sporting celebrities and other individuals with a high profile were used to endorse the anti-fascist message, making sure it had a wider appeal than the usual left-wing campaign. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were dished out, badges sold, stickers and posters put up. The message was simple but effective; the NF=Nazis.

In the 70s this message was still effective, bearing in mind that the Second World War had only ended 30 years previously, and Britain was very much out of step with the rest of Europe where the Far Right were small and isolated and could only dream of reaching the level of support that the NF had. Indeed the French FN sent activists over to Britain to study the methods of the NF which they have subsequently put to good use.

The propaganda on its own would never have been enough, and the ANL squads provided the necessary physical opposition. The previous years had seen the NF pursue a traditional fascist strategy of trying to control the streets. Left-wing paper sales were attacked, public meetings smashed up and demonstrations harassed.

Between 1977 and the general election in 1979 the ANL squads systematically turned the situation around – attacking fascist paper sales, meetings and marches. The damage that was done to the NF at Lewisham was methodically reproduced around the country. The middle classes would no longer turn out in public, women and old people found it increasingly dangerous to attend activities and anti-fascist successes in the street battles drove away many more. The tide had turned and the fascists were starting to become isolated.

Many original members of AFA learnt their ‘trade’ during this period and saw how the effective combination of mass propaganda, carnivals, stunts, and physical confrontation could be However the political situation was about to change dramatically as the Tories won the 1979 general election, playing the race card as Thatcher talked about understanding people’s fears of being “swamped” by an alien culture; the NF vote collapsed.

The NF split into 3 smaller organisations and entered a period of reorganisation, but anti-fascists remained active. The first problem to be dealt with was the closing down of the ANL, the only active anti-fascist organisation. The ANL’s main sponsors, the SWP, had themselves entered a period of reorganisation and started to close down all the campaigns they had launched which had succeeded in drawing in significant numbers of working class people, like the ANL.

With regard to the ANL, the SWP’s argument was that now that the NF vote had collapsed and the organisation disintegrated, the Tories were the real enemy. The squads were to be disbanded and the organisers, many of them SWP full-timers, were withdrawn. The only problem was that many of the activists refused to go. Although the NF was in decline the fascists were still active, and now that their electoral prospects had disappeared there was a new intensity to their violent attacks on the ‘opposition’. Apart from attacking political opponents they also maintained high profile paper sales at places like Brick Lane and Chapel Market (in London), held demonstrations, recruited among the disillusioned young working class at football grounds and around the punk/Oi/ska music scene. As well as maintaining this high level of activity they provided the political justification and motivation for the rapidly increasing level of racist attacks.

This provided the ‘squadists’ with the necessary reasons for keeping up the momentum that had been built in the anti-fascist movement. The fascist gangs could be confronted and beaten and the squads were able to attract working class support. The importance of challenging the racists and fascists in working class areas should not be underestimated, and when the middle class leadership of the ANL/SWP, with absolutely no understanding of the situation on the ground, decided to expel the `squadists’ in 1981, the future became much clearer. The so-called ‘squadists’ were never just `streetfighters’ and had always had wider political ambitions – and becoming independent of the conservative Left started the process of challenging the traditional left-wing blueprint of how to achieve progressive social change which now sees AFA in the forefront of a new attempt to build a genuine, independent working class movement.

The early 1980s was a period of intense anti-fascist activity, without the media coverage of the late 70s and involving smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the battle for the streets was still being fought. The ANL still existed in name up to 1982, but the occasional activity they called would simply be a protest march on the other side of town from the fascists. While this sort of non-confrontational activity had no effect on the fascists, it also failed to attract anyone else to the anti-fascist movement.

Increasingly, independent groups of anti-fascists were taking the initiative, with solid bases in Manchester, Hatfield and London. In Manchester eight anti-fascists were jailed in 1981 for taking a firm line on fascist intimidation while in London a year-long campaign saw the NF driven off their prestigious sales pitch at Chapel Market. Hatfield, a small town north of London, was an example of how anti-fascists, based in the community, could win popular support for their views and when the ska band Madness played there in 1980 a large contingent of fascist skinheads who had travelled up from London were severely beaten by the locals who turned out in force.

At this time there were also high profile campaigns in support of young Asians in Bradford and Newham who had been arrested for defending themselves and their communities from racist attacks. Although there was no national co-ordination there was militant opposition to the racists and fascists. This increased level of militancy inevitably led to growing police interest in those responsible, causing further problems for anti-fascists who were in danger of being isolated and picked off.

While militant anti-fascists were having increased success on the streets there was no political strategy running along-side that would have allowed them to fill the political vacuum that was being created with the removal of the fascists. Getting rid of the fascists seemed sufficient. After the ‘squadists’ were expelled from the SWP in 1981 a decision was taken to form a new organisation in order to stay politically active. This group was Red Action and was the link between the anti-fascist activists in Manchester, London and Hatfield. Militant anti-fascism was consistently promoted in the Red Action paper and not surprisingly it was Red Action who, out of practical necessity, were soon to initiate the launching of a new, national anti-fascist organisation.

1985 – 1989 AFA’s Early Years

As the fascists started to reorganise (the British National Party was launched in 1982) and with racist attacks increasing, it became clear that anti-fascism needed to be put back on a wider agenda and a new national organisation was required. One incident in particular led to its formation.

In 1984 the Greater London Council organised a large open-air rally and concert as part of their campaign against unemployment. Halfway through a group of 70 or 80 fascists appeared and attacked the audience and the bands on stage. Initially taken by surprise anti-fascists quickly reorganised and drove the fascists off. A retaliatory attack was launched on a fascist pub that evening to make up for the earlier lack of preparedness. The point was that the fascists were getting bolder, attacking large left-wing activities in broad daylight, and Red Action decided this had to be dealt with.

A leaflet was drawn up and circulated to anyone interested and as a result of this discussions took place with a variety of groups about launching a new anti-fascist organisation. A conference was called in the summer of 1985 and attended by 300 people representing a wide range of groups. The militants, represented by groups like Red Action and the East London Direct Action Movement, made a crucial mistake at this conference because although it was their initiative, acting on information received that the fascists would attack the meeting, they spent the whole meeting outside on stewarding duties. This meant that from the very outset the political orientation was being dictated by others.

Political naivety played a part as well, the militants wrongly assuming that regardless of what was decided in meetings everything could be rectified on the streets, and when the fascists were themselves ambushed after the meeting this seemed to underline the point. Despite this error, which wouldn’t be resolved until the relaunch in 1989, the new organisation quickly set about achieving some important results.

The first activity took place in November 1985 when AFA took over the assembly point for the annual NF Remembrance Day parade. These parades were an important part of the fascists’ activities attracting several thousand at their height, providing an annual focal point for their supporters and frequently gaining media coverage. On this occasion the fascist stewards were unable to remove AFA and the NF march had to assemble elsewhere and was delayed for an hour. Not that dramatic but a signal of intent for the future.

It is worth looking at the Remembrance Day marches over the next few years because they illustrate the differences within AFA. Although the larger left-wing organisations did not join AFA (eg. SWP, Militant, Communist Party, etc.) it was made up of some smaller socialist and anarchist groups, various groups active within the race relations lobby like the Newham Monitoring Project and the Refugee Forum, Searchlight, and non-aligned individuals. It ranged from militant anti-fascists who had seen the effect of physical confrontation on the fascists to groups who wanted to put pressure on the government to change various laws and fund particular projects.

Initially the contrasting agendas worked together and when AFA called a National Demonstration on Remembrance Day 1986 over 2,000 people responded, making it the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation since the 70s. It made the front page of the Daily Mail on the Monday morning which was a significant step in putting anti-fascism back on the agenda. The struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, fought on the streets around the country since the collapse of the ANL, had been almost completely ignored up to this point.

The following year another march was called, basically because the previous one had been so successful and after the NF march a large contingent of fascists would make their way to Trafalgar Square to attack the Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid picket outside South Africa House. The AFA march was a way of getting a large number of anti-fascists into the area to confront the NF, which was successfully achieved.

By 1988 there was an argument about a third march; around the question of what was the point of having the march. The march was getting smaller, the media had lost interest, and it was becoming an annual event with no discussion about its effectiveness. The militants were keen to oppose the NF on Remembrance Day but felt a march wasn’t the best way.in the interests of ‘unity’ the militants-went along with the march again, and scored another notable success against the fascists afterwards.

By 1989 the Remembrance Day march caused a split. The liberals called a march which attracted less than 300 (compared to 2,000 in 1986) while the militants took over the fascists’ assembly point and controlled much of the surrounding area. A number of fascists were prevented from reaching their march and the NF were seriously delayed. Such was the pressure they were under, coupled with the defeats they had suffered in Trafalgar Square over the previous 2 years, that for the first time the NF didn’t try to attack the anti-apartheid picket afterwards, presumably relieved just to get out of the area in one piece.

For the militants this episode highlighted a key component of anti-fascism – to be effective. There is no blueprint but any mobilisation must have a specific purpose. While the liberal agenda called for protests against fascist violence, for more police involvement, and for the State to deal with the problem of a growing Far Right, the militants were developing a strategy that would stop the fascists being able to operate openly and challenge them in the constituency they had most success in – the white working class. Rather than appealing to the victims of fascism the militant strategy was aimed at the potential recruits.

The first four years of AFA’s existence weren’t negative, the decline of the NF Remembrance Day parade being one example of AFA’s success. In 1986 an NF march in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was so thoroughly disrupted that the then NF leader Nick Griffin (now a senior BNP figure) actually stopped holding demonstrations altogether.

Another area of fascist activity was the NF’s White Noise Club, set up to promote fascist bands, but ‘financial mismanagement’ soon saw the bands break away from the NF to set up their own Blood and Honour organisation (B&H). By 1988 they had established themselves in London’s West End, getting two shops just off Carnaby Street to stock their merchandise and using local pubs as meeting places. At this time the European situation was changing rapidly with the Far Right gaining support in many countries. In Europe the fascist skinhead scene was an integral part of these moves and many European delegations arrived in Carnaby Street to meet Skrewdriver and B&H supremo Ian Stuart.

AFA set up Cable Street Beat (CSB) in 1988 to address the problem of B&H and of fascists attacking gigs by bands they considered a problem – the Pogues (Irish), Desmond Dekker (black) and the Upstarts (socialist). Some high profile gigs were organised and got national media coverage which allowed AFA/CSB to highlight the growing problem of fascism at home and abroad, and to promote a strategy to deal with it – no platform.

The key date in the campaign against B&H was 27th May 1989. The fascists had booked Camden Town Hall for a thousand strong rally, which at £10 a head would raise a fair bit of money. AFA discovered the venue and got it banned, despite opposition from Searchlight who wanted to monitor the event, and called a counter-demonstration at the fascists redirection point, Speakers Corner. Hundreds of fascists were attacked and chased off and never made it to the rearranged gig in Kent, and later that evening one of the fascist shops was attacked and ransacked. So on one day B&H’s boast of being in control was cruelly exposed to an international audience and the last of their shops was forced to close down. Shortly afterwards lan Stuart moved to the Midlands. Their efforts to operate openly and move into the mainstream had been defeated.-

The other important point about 27th May was the hundreds of anti-fascists who rallied to AFA’s call to confront the boneheads. This highlighted another internal problem which was having an organisation but no structure that could accommodate activists. AFA had been ‘run’ by individuals who represented only themselves. This meant that in London, for example, half a dozen individuals could outvote the two Red Action delegates who represented 100+ stewards!

Apart from the lack of democracy there were other hostile agendas at work, and at the very first national conference in 1986 a Searchlight-led anti-anarchist smear campaign was launched which led to Class War being suspended and all the other anarchist groups and Red Action walking out in solidarity. Red Action returned later to prevent the initiative being lost altogether. The following year there was an attempt to get Red Action expelled on a host of trumped up charges. These were defeated but clearly signalled that there was a fight on for the future direction and effectiveness of anti-fascism.

The 1987 conference also saw a proposed name change for the organisation, from AFA to Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action (ARAFA). The significance of this was that it was an attempt to change AFA from having a very practical, sometimes physical, strategy designed to fight fascism that was meeting with growing success to a more conservative lobbying group, grant-funded and establishment friendly. This strategy is still familiar today, one of putting race above class. This move was also defeated.

By 1989 these internal disagreements had come to a head over the Remembrance Day march and the good response to the May 27th mobilisation showed there was a receptive audience for militant anti-fascism.

London AFA called a conference and relaunched itself around the original founding statement with the additional point that we were not fighting fascism to maintain the status quo but from a pro-working class position. On this basis the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM) rejoined (after the Class War walkout) along with the Trotskyist Workers Power. The liberals withdrew.

So with Red Action, the DAM, Workers Power and non-aligned individuals AFA started to reorganise. Branches were set up to accommodate activists and a structure implemented that meant AFA was run from the bottom up; in other words controlled by the activists. AFA was now democratic and had an agreed strategy.

While the Left spent most of the 80s failing to ‘kick out the Tories’ the militants in AFA recognised that it was the Far Right who had the potential to recruit in the white working class. The first step in trying to build any progressive working class movement was to remove the fascist influence from these areas. Only then, once the space was created, could the Left fill the vacuum. The Left’s failure to prevent the fascists from physically dominating them meant that anti-fascism assumed a key role.

The early AFA years had succeeded in getting anti-fascism onto a wider agenda and as the Far Right started to grow in this country and especially Europe it was an important achievement. This period had also shown that it was not possible to have an effective anti-fascist organisation with two contradictory strategies. The liberal anti-fascist strategy is ‘Anyone But Fascists’ (ABF), as seen on the Isle of Dogs where a Labour council’s corruption and indifference to the local working class population led to the situation where the Far Right, in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative, was able to get a councillor elected in 1993 (the BNP’s Derek Beackon).

The ABF response was to campaign vigorously for the Labour Party in the next election, which succeeded in unseating the BNP, but leaves the situation unresolved with Labour back in power who were responsible for the problem in the first place. The militant strategy is more ambitious: create an independent working class alternative to Labour and the BNP.

Although this example is more recent, it summarises the contradictions that existed in the 1985-89 period. It is often wrongly assumed that the difference between liberals and militants is simply about the use of physical force, but in AFA’s case it was a political difference.

With three national organisations on board it was now planned to expand AFA’s field of operations. Although there were other AFA groups around the country the only group outside London organised around a militant strategy was in Manchester. Of the other groups the two best known were Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (funded by the local council) and Leeds, both active but following a Searchlight pro-State agenda.

1990 onwards

Almost as soon as AFA had been relaunched the BNP initiated their Rights Far Whites campaign (RFW) in 1990. Starting in London’s East End when a white boy was stabbed by Asians, it soon spread around the country and focused on the bad conditions experienced by an abandoned white working class. The BNP started to work in local areas, dealing with local issues, and by August 1990 they won 25% of the white vote in a local election in the East End. While the electoral strategy showed a level of support for the Far Right, because the BNP held public election rallies and meetings it allowed AFA to play havoc with their organisation on the ground.

In September 1990 3 AFA activists were jailed for a total of 11 years for an attack on a prominent fascist skinhead; clearly meant as a deterrent. The level of fascist violence against AFA was also increasing, with a bomb being thrown into an AFA public meeting in east London in November 1990. (No one was injured.)

The BNP had completely overtaken the NF as the dominant fascist party now and their activities started to cover the whole country. In Scotland they became active focusing on support for Ulster Loyalism rather than the traditional anti-black racism south of the border.

As the temperature increased it was obvious the rest of the Left would become involved. Left-wing paper sales, especially the SWP, were being regularly attacked throughout the country and as the fascists continued to pick up support the Left would suffer if AFA was seen to be the only organised opposition. Initially AFA’s attitude was to approach these groups with a view to co-operation. Although there was no intention of surrendering AFA’s independence or strategy it was felt the increased forces available to these groups could, if working to an agreed plan, increase the pressure on the fascists and help to stop the State picking off the militants. AFA’s approaches were rejected out of hand by the entire Left.

Despite this, 1991 saw AFA’s most ambitious campaign to date being launched in east London, which had been made a national priority by the BNP. 60,000 leaflets were distributed on the estates, work was done with schools and community groups, the Unity Carnival attracted 10,000 people, the fascist paper sale at Brick Lane was put under pressure, the BNP were forced out of local sympathetic pubs and in November 1991 a 4,000-strong AFA demonstration marched through Bethnal Green – the supposed BNP heartland – completely unopposed. Young white Eastenders had seen the ‘lefty’ stereotype challenged and the BNP turned over, and contact was made with groups of young Asians. As 1991 drew to a close the situation looked promising, but all that was about to change.

The Left did get involved, but not with AFA, and having withdrawn from anti-fascist politics since the 1970s they now launched their own anti-fascist [organisations]. Instead of filling the political vacuum they simply tried to duplicate what AFA was doing. The SWP relaunched the ANL, Militant set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), and the Labour Party, Communist Party and black careerists established the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).

April 1992 saw the national relaunching of AFA which was now vigorously pursuing the strategy particularly in Scotland and the North West. The BNP were very active around Rochdale, Oldham, and Burnley, towns just outside Manchester’s fascist – free zone. The success of AFA in disrupting the BNP’s efforts can be seen by the response of the police who arrested two AFA organisers the night before a planned activity in Rochdale. They were released without charge once the day was over.

The level of confrontation was very high during this period, which included the now famous Battle of Waterloo in September 1992. B&H and the BNP were working fairly closely together at this time and had hoped a successful gig (pre-gig interviews were arranged with the Press on Waterloo Station) would enable B&H to operate openly with all the political and financial advantages this would have created for the fascists. The anti-fascist victory once again put paid to their plans.

AFA had deliberately adopted the single issue approach because when it was relaunched in 1989 around a pro-working class position the political composition of the organisation ranged from Trotskyist to Anarchist, Stalinist to Social Democrat. To keep the necessary unity on the streets for the important battles at the time there had to be an agreement that AFA’s role was to create the space for a progressive working class organisation to fill; it wasn’t AFA’s job to fill it. By the time the BNP had won a council seat in 1993 it was becoming increasingly clear that no one was willing or able to fill the vacuum. This was underlined by the Left’s support for Labour in the subsequent election 6 months later which saw the fascists lose their seat. The wheel had turned full circle, the Left had capitulated.

Although the BNP lost their council seat they actually increased their vote by 30%. This continuing electoral success led to a radical change in policy by the BNP, and in April 1994 they called what in effect was a ‘cease-fire’. They issued a statement saying that there would be “no more meetings, marches, or punch ups.” They would now concentrate on a Euro-Nationalist electoral strategy, hoping to emulate the success of the French FN.

The intensity of this period proved too much for some of the groups in AFA. For some the physical demands proved to be too much, but politically it was becoming clear that AFA would have to break with the traditional Left and this also caused problems. It was Labour’s indifference to the white working class that allowed the BNP to appear as the radical alternative, and yet most of the Left wouldn’t break with Labour. Those that did had absolutely no credibility; to illustrate this point the Communist Party of Great Britain (formerly the Leninist) got 1/10th of the BNP’s vote when they stood in Tower Hamlets in the 1992 general election.

The situation in London was slightly different from the rest of the country, partly because the BNP felt they could build on the political base they already had without the public activities, and partly because AFA was more established. The battle on the streets continued elsewhere for about a year. After B&H got smashed in London on May 27th 1989, Ian Stuart moved to the Midlands to run the B&H operation from there because the fascists were relatively strong.

By 1994 the tide had turned and both east and west Midlands were being fiercely contested with AFA setting its own agenda. In the North West the experienced BNP organiser ‘retired’ at the beginning of 1995 due to the continual pressure from AFA and later that year the BNP’s public activities ceased in Scotland and the Midlands. To some it may seem that the war had been won, but the reality was that the conflict was simply moving into a new arena.

The BNP’s change of strategy inevitably meant that AFA needed to adapt to the new situation, but the emergence of Combat 18 (C18) kept the prospect of street confrontation alive. Although it is now clear that C18 were set up by the State, primarily to examine links with Loyalist paramilitaries, there was also an attempt to divert AFA away from addressing the major political issue of the BNP’s growth by getting involved in ‘gang warfare’ with C18. Although they had previously existed as the BNP’s stewards group from the outset they were promoted by Searchlight and the media as something new and extremely dangerous.

Something didn’t add up. C18 published hit lists and bomb manuals that broke every law possible and yet they were allowed to continue. It was clear the State were pulling the strings and it was also clear that Searchlight and their supporters were heavily involved.

AFA helped discredit the myth of C18 on the ground, in particular by disrupting the Ian Stuart Memorial concert in 1994 and a UVF march in Central London in 1996, but the role of Searchlight in promoting them showed a greater allegiance to the State’s agenda than the anti-fascist movement.

As pressure on the street forced the BNP to make political adjustments, by 1994 AFA was also making changes. AFA recognised it was a three-cornered fight against the fascists, the State and the conservative Left. The damage that groups like the ANL did to anti-fascism has already been mentioned, but when they started claiming responsibility in their propaganda for AFA victories like Waterloo it was felt they must be publicly attacked. A 4-page leaflet called ‘Don’t believe the hype’ was produced to answer their lies and expose their strategy as being counterproductive.

From this point on AFA was quite prepared to attack the conservative Left. In the past AFA had been reluctant to get involved in what were seen as being internal arguments, but the result of this was that AFA was either written out of history or completely misrepresented. When John Tyndall (BNP leader) stood in an east London by-election in the summer of 1994 AFA produced a leaflet which took ‘anti-fascism’ as far as it could go. It described the BNP as being ultra-conservative and showed their policies as being to the right of the Tories.

In an area where people don’t vote Tory this was the best propaganda AFA could produce, and yet it was becoming increasingly clear that AFA was fighting the fascists with one hand tied behind its back. No progressive working class forces were moving in to fill the political vacuum that existed in working class areas aid just being ‘anti’ BNP was not enough. On top of that the police actually prevented AFA from distributing this leaflet while the BNP were allowed to canvass door to door. Militant anti-fascism was being criminalised.

As the BNP’s public activities petered out, where there were clashes the police came down hard on AFA. An AFA mobilisation in Kirkby in the Midlands (April 95) was attacked with extreme force by riot police, one activist’s leg being broken in 5 places. In Edinburgh shortly afterwards a plainclothes police squad attacked a small group of AFA activists and only revealed their identity when they started losing. Ten AFA members were arrested.

More recently public AFA activities have been subjected to heavy policing -suspected activists stopped in the street and photographed, special squads assigned to monitor AFA, coppers on the street armed with mugshots of suspected organisers, AFA groups surrounded on the street and held for hours.

Interestingly, an anti-fascist protest in Central London (May 98) called by the ANL but not supported by AFA, had a very low key police presence; precisely because AFA wasn’t there. So although there is very little public fascist activity, when there is, a great deal of time and money is spent by the State to prevent AFA from making an impact.

Politically AFA addressed the problems thrown up by the BNP election successes, particularly in east London, by developing a new strategy. ‘Filling The Vacuum’ was agreed in May 1995 and still remains the key to the future. Essentially `Filling The Vacuum’ recognises the limitations of only being ‘anti’ fascist and not being ‘for’ something else. Now it is up to the anti-fascists to take the initiative and fill the vacuum in the absence of anyone else. The alternative is to allow the fascists a free run.

The ‘single issue’ aspect of AFA, introduced in 1989 to maintain unity as we entered an intense period of street activity, has run its course. Although AFA will always maintain its independence, militant anti-fascists must now see it as their duty to ensure that the vacuum is filled. The election of a Labour government in 1997, with the Tories discredited and divided after 18 years in power, gives the BNP the opportunity to pose as the radical alternative.

The battle for the streets has been replaced by the battle for hearts and minds, and it is in the direct self-interest of militant anti-fascists to get involved. The ‘revolutionary programmes’ of the Left are not relevant to working class people and the fascists know this. An independent working class movement can fill the vacuum if it addresses the concerns of ordinary people as its priority.

In different parts of the country AFA activists have got involved with, or initiated, campaigns around working class issues. This is the territory that the BNP have chosen to work in, as the Front National has successfully done in France, and this is where the new chapter of anti-fascism begins.

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Some thoughts on AFA, and on the decision to effectively move on from AFA ‘s single issue stance.

It’s worth pointing out that the above article, while giving a good overview of Anti-Fascist Action as an organisation, its origins and development, was written at a very particular time – when dominant forces within the organisation had decided to move away from AFA’s ‘single-issue’ concentration on combatting organised far right activists, and towards a strategy of winning working class support away from rightwing ideas to a left wing class-based program. This led to the founding on the Independent Working Class Association. The push towards founding the IWCA came largely from red Action, who had been instrumental in founding AFA, and remained a dominant group within it throughout its existence. But some anarchists and other activists also joined the IWCA, which did attempt to organise within a number of working class communities for a number of years tough now seems largely defunct. Red Action had a vision of a clear strategy of departing from the practice of what saw as a leftwing scene paralysed by dead ideas, dominated by middle class activists, and identified in many working class minds with the problems they encountered in daily life. Despite many positive activities in some areas, the IWCA did not live up to this vision; though the rise of first the BNP in its electoral period (post-1993), the EDL, and subsequent far right activists and groups, have to some extent confirmed the fears that motivated its creation. To what extent is Brexit and current surge in rightwing, racist and British (English?) nationalism an outgrowth of the failure to challenge these ideas effectively from the left?

AFA and the IWCA were always going to struggle to challenge rightwing ideas in the working class across the board; despite the best intentions of groups of activists whoever they are, ideas are usually wider spread in general society than can be pinned down to the influence of fascists. AFA had an undeniable impact on keeping organised far right groups from gaining a foothold on the streets, but fascists swim in a sea, and the sea of racism was larger and more pervasive. The 1999 analysis that running around constantly after boneheads was not completely addressing the problem was not off the mark; but just as a few hundred anti-fascists cannot be the answer to rightwing organising, leftwing organisations generally are not going to be able to adequately tackle that whole mindset, which has a long history, tied up with British imperialism, the island mentality, a clever ruling elite that always played ‘native’ working class sensibilities against migrants. Where anti-fascism and/or left ideas have been most successful is where they have developed organically, evolved through struggle, grounded in people’s experience of daily life. If that made for a more collectively-self organised and self-conscious working class which resisted fascism because it identified its fundamental anti-working nature – those days have gone, and can’t be easily rebuilt, and not by small groups of lefties. No matter how (rightly) critical of other lefties they may be…

Some of us also who has involvement with Anti Fascist Action and anti-fascism in the 1980s-90s ended up with some criticisms with some AFA practices, and with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense.

AFA at its most dogmatic saw itself as having the key to all problems with fascists; Red Action generally saw itself as the guiding spirit of AFA, and was intolerant of dissenting opinions. This led to a number of rifts within AFA ranks (later than the early disputes with liberal types detailed above) not mentioned in the above text. Many of these were with thoughtful, long term anti-fascists who came to view some of AFA’s practices critically and tried to discuss problems. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough. Some Red Action members responded to this with denunciation, threats and bullying. A leading irony of several of these disputes was that non-Red Action activists were often accused by RA cadres of wanting to water down AFA’s physical approach to the Nazis, of being liberals, of wanting to be the ANL – usually for basically suggesting a more political approach, in ways which in a number of cases pre-figured the direction RA too when launching the IWCA…

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members or those who were not hard or experienced streetfighters were often isolated within AFA or felt alienated from it.

AFA’s structure became increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 it had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, and Trotskyist group Workers Power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

AFA activity also tended to become all consuming; to the exclusion of other struggles. You couldn’t be part time. There was quite a lot of pressure to be committed full time to the exclusion of other political activity, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, and be considered lightweights.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, including information being kept tight to some people’s chests, and some areas being considered important to work in, not others. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people, on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

There were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies, admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the nazis were beatable on the street, and undermining their claim to be the hardest political thing in town. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but in reality, AFA ended up downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had been an attempt to construct a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… Though AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they came in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the 1980s-early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fascist efforts and preventing events from taking place: overall, AFA did have an important impact.

Some further info:

Links: Heroes or Villains gives a good intro to the history of anti-fascism in Britain.

For some AFA actions see Bash the Fash, by Kay Bullstreet

ANTI NAZI LEAGUE: A Critical Examination 1977-81/2 and 1992-95 is good on the ANL’s two periods of existence and AFA’s origins.

Anti-Fascist Archive generally is very useful

Some Books worth reading: Beating the Fascists, The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall

No Retreat: The Secret War Between Britain’s Anti-Fascists and the Far Right
by Dave Hann, Steve Tilzey

Anti-fascist action: an anarchist perspective, by an ex-Liverpool AFA member.

Some of this post duplicates (partly) a post we wrote about South London AFA’s opposition to the British National Party in Camberwell in 1991 and related matters.

Today in London’s anti-racist history, 1981: Southall youth burn down the Hamborough pub after racist skinhead provovations

On Friday 3 July 1981, several ‘Oi’ (streetpunk) bands were set to play a gig in Southall, an area of west London with a large South Asian population. The line up at Southall’s Hambrough Tavern included the 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. Oi may not itself have been a solely fascist movement, for sure, not all its bands and adherents were racist. It was quite distinct from the White Power music scene around bands like Skrewdriver. But gigs by Oi bands did often attract skinheads with neo-nazi sympathies, and their presence in an area like Southall was asking for trouble. (The 4-Skins in particular had close links to nazi groups like the British Movement).

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the Commonwealth: many were Sikhs from the Punjab.

This was an area where racists attacks had taken place: in 1976 a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, prompting the formation of the Southall Youth Movement. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. The widespread belief that the police were generally sympathetic to the National Front, and institutionally (and in many cases personally) racist, was heavily reinforced in April 1979, when 1000s of police swarmed the area to protect a National Front election meeting. 100s of the demonstrators who came to protest the NF provocation were battered by the Met’s paramilitary Special Patrol Group, and anti-racist teacher Blair Peach was killed when police hit him over head. After the killing, a whitewashed inquest covered up evidence of police involvement, and a report which found a wide range of racist and fascist sympathies among the SPG officers – and identified the officers suspected of killing Peach – was suppressed (until 2010).

Rage in Southall was matched only by the solidarity of youth in the area. They knew police would not defend them against racists. One incident which particularly angered young Asians in Southall was an attack on Satwinder Sondh, by three white racists who carved swastikas on his stomach. The police did not believe the victim and charged him with wasting police time. Racism had been institutionalised in Southall Police Station for years.

The Southall Youth Movement formed in 1976, emerging from a meeting at the Southall Dominion theatre the day after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, where various groups of local youth came together in anger.

For the background to the Asian youth’s anger against racism – watch Young Rebels – The Story of the Southall Youth Movement – a great film made by Southall young people more recently interviewing people involved in the events of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those who formed SYM had experienced ‘bussing’ in the early 1970s- Asian schoolchildren from Southall were transferred to schools across the borough of Ealing, dispersed after protests from white parents. Most were sent on coaches every day to school where they would be the only Asian child or one of a few, and all faced racist attacks and abuse on daily basis. School, police, authorities, did nothing. Many of their parents were keen to keep their heads down, not cause or attract trouble, to respect authority – a theme that emerges was youth feeling their parents had accepted racism and violence, but that they were not going to knuckle under…

The Southall youth organised self-defence and kept their memories sharp. So, when in early July ‘81, reports of racist incidents involving skinheads heading to the gig in the Hambrough spread through Southall, the youth quickly took to the streets.

The Hambrough landlord had helpfully warned shopkeepers near the venue that racist skins were coming and they might want to close up early. However, when one went to the police his warnings were ignored… Busloads of Skins on their way to the pub arrived in the area all day{ they harassed people, shouted NF slogans, smashed windows of Asian shops, abused an Asian shopkeeper, and kicked an Asian woman and threw a shopping trolley at her. This kind of racist provocation was routine in many areas with Black and Asian populations in the 1970s and early 80s. This time, though, the racists would not get it all their own way.

An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Hambrough. The police formed a cordon around the pub, protecting the skins (many of who  were sieg heiling and shouting abuse) and tried to disperse the ant-racist crowd by using truncheons on them. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was set on fire.

The police then herded the skins out towards Hayes, barricading the route behind them to prevent further attacks on them, but allowing many to fan out into the area and carry ut random attacks on Black and Asian people. Police also harassed and arrested passers-by.

A running fight between police and the angry local youth ensued. Cars and police vehicles were overturned, and a police coach was burnt out. Walls were demolished to provide bricks for ammunition. 61 policemen were injured and at least as many civilians; there were 70 arrests, 68 of black or asian people.

There’s some footage of the riot on youtube in the course of an old documentary about Oi

After the riot, police said they had no evidence that the white youths were members of the National Front, but locals begged to differ:

“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” said a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”

The police claimed later they had been tipped off that there would be racial violence in West London, but their informant sent them to Greenford instead, two miles away. (Wonder if the tip off was deliberately misleading? And who was the informant? A copper with NF links? An – as yet unexposed – Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer embedded in the nazis?) Conveniently leaving the area free for skins to rampage?

The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. “It became a shrine for the Asian community,” said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta…

The week of the Hambrough riot saw riots sweep across the UK, from Liverpool, to Brixton, Hackney, and many other parts of London and elsewhere… here’s a commentary on the 1981 riots written shortly afterwards: Like a Summer with 1000 Julys

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In the aftermath of the Hambrough incident, the Oi band the 4-Skins struggled to book gigs – understandably! – which contributed to their breakup in 1984. Some enlightening (?) debate can be read here on whether they were a racist band…

Here’s also a post linking to an article on the reggae and punk scene in Southall and its involvement in anti-racist movements.

There’s some photos of anti-racist demos in Southall here

Today in London anti-racist history, 1981: the Black People’s Day of Action protests the New Cross Fire

On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson, at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross.

The victims of the New Cross fire were Humphrey Brown, 18, Peter Campbell, 18, Steve Collins, 17, Patrick Cummings, 16, Gerry Francis, 17, Andrew Gooding, 14, Lloyd Richard Hall, 20, Patricia Denise Johnston, 15, Rosalind Henry, 16, Glenton Powell, 15, Paul Ruddock, 22, Yvonne Ruddock, 16, and Owen Thompson, 16.

Twenty seven others were seriously injured.

Anthony Berbeck, caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide following the trauma of the event, in July 1983.

The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade.

“The suspicion was that it was a racial attack. A lot of that was happening in the country at the time, in the East End of London, everywhere. So it seemed perfectly reasonable to believe the place had been fire-bombed. I genuinely believe that, and everybody believed that at the time. A policeman told Mrs Ruddock on the night of the fire that there was a fire-bomb – from his mouth came the words.” 

Over the preceding two decades, elements of the political class and the media had stoked a climate of racism in which horrific levels of brutality, including murder, became routine. The incidence of racist attacks was closely related to government and media-inspired resentment against immigration; of the 64 racist murders between 1970 and 1986, 50 occurred in the five years – 1976 and 1978-81 – when immigration scares ‘reached fever pitch’.

The New Cross fire occurred in the context of racist arson attacks across South London, particularly in New Cross and Deptford. In 1971, three petrol bombs had been thrown into an African-Caribbean party in Sunderland Road in Ladywell. The immediate response of the police was to arrest eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party on their way home from visiting victims in Lewisham hospital. Both the Moonshot youth club in New Cross and the Albany centre in Deptford had been burnt out by fascists in the preceding few years.

After initially suggesting that the New Cross Fire might be a racist attack, the police quite quickly back-pedalled on the racial aspect of the tragedy. Police officers had told Mrs Ruddock twice, within the first couple of hours of the fire, that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer to point to arson was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. Other witnesses reported the suspicious behaviour of a man who pulled up and drove off in White Austin Princess. Four days later, the South East London Mercury reported that the police were trying to trace the driver of the vehicle which was parked outside the house (22 January 1981)

Survivors and witnesses were grilled by the police and treated with suspicion, and hostility, even at the inquest: “I was one of the last people to give evidence, and so I had to watch everyone – you know, all my friends go in and do their bit, and then it was me. And I was scared. But I used the inquest as an opportunity to let everyone know what had happened the night when the police did interview me, ‘cos I felt as if they were asking me the questions and then they were answering them themselves. So I used that as an opportunity to say, Well, okay, this was what was happening. But I think the build-up to it was a lot worse than the actual day was. Bishop Wood was a big help. And he was in there with me, and I suppose I needed someone in there with me, anyway. And he was my support, really, yeah. It was an experience, for my age. It was an experience, and not one I’d like to go through again in a hurry. Yeah, it was terrible. Every morning, you’d pull up at the court and it would be sort of, like, cameramen and all that, every day…. There were times when I did feel, especially when 1 was being interviewed by the police, I felt like, Hold on, I am the victim here, yet I feel as if I’m a suspect.”

Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. Police fed stories to the media about gate-crashers and cannabis at the party, detained black youth for questioning and twisted evidence at every turn to ‘prove’ that the fire was not started by racists. Despite the fact that the New Cross massacre was the worst atrocity suffered by black people in Britain, it took the Day of Action to force MPs to raise it in parliament. Local Labour MP, John Silkin, said not one word in the House of Commons and for three weeks did not send even a message of condolence to the families. As one woman stated at a press conference, if the fire had taken place in a dog’s home and killed 12 dogs, there would have been more response.

“The action committee – which was Darcus Howe then, and Mrs Phoenix – they wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and one to the Queen. And they never get a reply until six weeks after. Six weeks after! That’s when they get the reply. But, I think it was two weeks after the New Cross march, they had one in Ireland and forty-eight died. That was a Sunday, too, ‘cos that happened this Saturday night, some disco, and forty-eight people die. And straight away condolence went from here to there, and we had to wait for six weeks reply. That was bad! Bad, that very bad. Something happen in your country and you write to the authorities and you didn’t get no response from them. And six weeks after the time, that couldn’t look good, and 1 felt very bad about that. That wasn’t good enough, six weeks.”

To the families, friends of the dead, and wider communities they came from, the lives and deaths of black people were considered unimportant; black lives did not matter.

Racist attacks on black people in Britain had been part of black communities’ lives since the 1950s; the activities of fascist groupings like the National Front and the British Movement had been both capitalising on white British racism and encouraging and whipping it up though the 1970s.

An inquiry was launched, led by South London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell This enraged black activists, as Stockwell had been instrumental in reinstating the incitement to riot charges against the Mangrove Nine (including Darcus Howe). Stockwell’s form was not lost on the campaigners. Darcus Howe was convinced that the decision to put Stockwell in charge of the investigation was essentially “a political decision, because he knew some of the characters in the game”. Relations between the police and the local community were already strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency.  There was a rejection of moves by police to bring the black community behind the Community Relations Councils (CRCs) and the Commission for Racial Equality, as this was seen as undermining an independent struggle for justice.

The NCMAC also established a Fact Finding Commission on 20 Jan 1981 to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved.  It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information.  Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements under pressure. The Fact Finding Committee discovered that the police were detaining the young survivors of the fire, in some cases without their parents’ permission, and pressurising them into signing statements saying the fire was the result of a fight at the party. 11-year-old Denise Gooding, whose 14-year old brother Andrew had died in the fire, was questioned in a police station for many hours before finally being released at 1 a.m. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told by officers not to lie, just to tell them there was fighting in the house. NCMAC would eventually expose how child witnesses were made to sign false statements under police duress at the Inquest into the fire, by which point the Met had abandoned the theory of a fight as the cause of the fire altogether. However, as La Rose later pointed out, the movement had been forced to “exercise every ounce of alertness and vigilance to stop the police framing a group of young blacks who were at the party”.

Rumours of a racist attack carried out by far right groups were too easily overlooked by the police.

For many Black Londoners the New Cross Fire was the last straw. The fire was to have a long and traumatic impact on black consciousness in the UK – in the short term it galvanised a sudden and angry movement in response. New Cross was after all, the arena for mass resistance to a National Front march in 1977: locals were less and less prepared to be pushed around by racists or treated like shit by the police.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.  Fuelled by a history of attacks on black people, including several incidents in the Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford areas, suspicions soon arose about police methods of detection and inherent racism.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee coalesced around three members of the Black Parents Movement – Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris, together with Alex Pascall – who formed a delegation and visited Mrs Gee Ruddock, owner of 439 New Cross Road, at the house of black community leader Sybil Phoenix.  Mrs Ruddock had lost both of her children in the fire.

“’I was in a meeting of the Black Parents’ Movement. There was an alliance between the Black Parents’ Movement, Race Today, which I edited, and the Black Youth Movement. That would be at Finsbury Park, around John Larose’ and the New Beacon Bookshop, and we were there on Sunday night and a phone call came, I think it was via Sibyl Phoenix, to tell us that this terrible thing had happened on the Saturday. And the first thing we did was to stop the meeting, adjourned it, and went. And we met Mrs Ruddock and Sibyl Phoenix and they invited all of us down on the Monday to the Moonshot Club, youth club.” (Darcus Howe)

The Pagnell St/Moonshot Youth Club in Pagnell Street, New Cross, was a local community centre established for and by black youth: survivors had gathered here in the early hours of Sunday morning. Sybil Phoenix, who ran the Moonshot, had arrived at the scene of the fire while bodies were still being carried from the building. Phoenix had been asked by the police to try to find people who had been at the party to help identify the badly burned bodies. She was to play a crucial role supporting the bereaved through the devastation of the days and weeks that followed.

On the Sunday after the fire (20th January 1981), a mass meeting was held at the Pagnell Street Community Centre in New Cross, attended by over 1000 people.

“And we thought, or I certainly thought, Well, we’re going to meet a committee of about ten people. When we got there there were three hundred people. John and I were, by and large, two of the major figures in that alliance, so I said, “John, this is trouble. This is it.” But, you see, I wasn’t surprised that much, because the black people were starting to gather.” (Howe)

At the beginning of the meeting, Lewisham Police Commander John Smith arrived uninvited to address those present: his words were drowned out by angry shouts of ‘ Go away murderer! ’. Smith, visibly shaken, by the experience, later called his reception ‘ rather sad ’. Flanked by Scotland Yard Press Officer, Bob Cox, he left the building without speaking. So much anger against the Met was hardly surprising – police had failed to investigate a string of suspected racist attacks in the area properly. The Met’s failures, particularly when dealing with suspected arson, were legion. The Moonshot club itself had burnt down in December 1977 a few weeks after reports of it being identified as a target for attack during a local meeting of the National Front. Nonetheless, the police excluded arson as a possible cause. Similarly, the police’s decision to rule out foul play when The Albany Theatre in Creek Road, Deptford, burnt down in August 1978 caused rage locally.

“And then we decided to have a public meeting. This is Monday, for Saturday, and when we went down there were about three thousand people.”

The second meeting ended with a demonstration to 439 New Cross Road, which blocked the main road (the A2) for several hours.

A series of public meetings were held across London to encourage support.  There were also regional committees set up across the country, in Leicester, Manchester and Rugby, as well as committees in North, West, and South East London.

“And we started to meet every Tuesday. It was a kind of black assembly – hundreds of people came every Tuesday. John Larose was chair. We had a committee which I was on, the officers were officers of Race Today in Brixton, by which time we could organise. We took a political decision to do that, for one simple reason: every single week you would hear clashes between the police and blacks all over London and it was becoming something of importance. There were other issues at large, and I said, “Well, if they’re going to kill so many kids in a fire, we have to mobilise and show them we got some power in this place, and only way to do that is to call a general strike of blacks.” That was at the back of my mind. I discussed it with Race Today people. I said, “Let’s see how it goes ‘cos I think we can pull this one off.” (Darcus Howe)

It was the Black People’s Assembly which decided on holding a Black People’s Day of Action, on a working day, set for Monday 2nd March 1981. The committee planned a campaign of support for a demonstration on that day.

“So we decided to call a day of action, the meeting, and they decided it should be on a weekday, a working day, and I thought, “Well, let’s see how it goes.”

John La Rose, the chair of the NCMAC, recalled in an interview:

‘People would be saying, “Man we have got to do something about this thing. The police cannot get away with this thing!” That kind of talk went on. And they said, “Yes we’ll go on a march.” “Where are the guns?” That kind of talk…And I said, “Have you heard of a man called Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations? If you haven’t read his book then you should read it. Because if you are talking about going to Parliament with guns then you have to take on Kitson.” He had been the Commander in Northern Ireland, he was GOC in Britain. I said, “Let’s talk seriously, you are starting at the end, let’s start at the beginning.”

‘We had that sort of interchange all the time at the meetings, very open, free meetings. So they said, “OK we’ll go on a march.” We said, “Well, what day are we going to march?” Because the normal marches took place on a Sunday, when nobody’s working, everyone’s home, the people said that they wanted it to be on a day when the British are bound to take notice. So what day? We had to disrupt British society; that was absolutely clear. That is what we were saying in that movement. We wanted to snarl up traffic all over London.

‘So we decided it must be a Monday; that came from within the audience. We wanted to make this place realise that we’re serious and we’re going to disrupt the whole of British society. We aren’t going to work that day…

‘What demonstrations in the past usually did was to march on Hyde Park into Whitehall. We said we were going to go where the people are going to know that this is happening, we’re going to march in all those areas – like Peckham – before we come to Blackfriars Bridge. That way you are going to hit that area of London with all those people who are really concerned about what’s happening in the whole New Cross area, and then march through the financial centre, the City, and shake up the place, terrify them.x

The Black People’s Day of Action saw the biggest political mobilisation of black people seen in Britain up to that point. 20,000 black people and their supporters marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park in New Cross, through Peckham, Elephant and Castle, across Blackfriars Bridge, into Fleet Street, Regent Street, then Cavendish Street and finally into Hyde Park, with banners and placards with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover‑Up’, ‘Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come’, ‘New Cross Massacre Cover Up’; ‘Forward to Freedom’, ‘Babylon will fall’; ‘No stopping us now we are on the move’; ‘No Rights, No Obligations’.

Attempts by the police to control and restrict the scope of the march had failed. As the Day of Action drew closer, Darcus Howe entered into tense negotiations with the authorities over the route and date of the march. Howe and John La Rose headed a small delegation which met with Inspector Pollinghorne, who had been placed in charge of policing the march, at Brixton Police Station in late February. The NCMAC proposed route of the march went from New Cross over Blackfriars Bridge, through the City and Fleet Street, past Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament before finishing in Hyde Park some 17 miles later.

The route was symbolic. It had been picked so the protestors could express their disapproval at the distorted press coverage of the fi re, protest at the police’s handling of the investigation and so that the parents of the dead and members of NCMAC could hand in a statement to Parliament voicing concern at the lack of a government response.

Inspector Pollinghorne objected to the length and route of the march and said it should go through the Old Kent Road, a route which the campaign had already rejected. Howe defended the NCMAC’s preferred route, which had been designed to maximise the support and participation of the black community by going via Camberwell and Peckham. Pollinghorne demanded to know how long it would take the protestors to walk the 17 miles. Howe replied: ‘ you’re a military man, Inspector, we plan to advance a mile a day ’. At this, Pollinghorne walked out. The meeting lasted barely 5 minutes.

The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

Darcus Howe recalled that the weather on the morning of Monday 2 March was beautiful; not cold but temperate and bright. He arrived at Fordham Park next to the Moonshot in good time and watched the marchers assemble in awe as wave upon wave came down the hill into the valley to join him in the park. Buses, organised by the NCMAC, kept arriving carrying black people from across the country. Hundreds of school children walked out of their schools to join the demonstration.

“The start of the demonstration was in a valley. You came down a hill in this little valley. And I was there, commander in chief, really, on the day, dealing with the stuff. I was in charge of the big truck, and I was in charge of the mike. So I was settled in. I was there on time, and beautiful weather, not cold, just temperate, bright sun, and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves of black people coming down that hill. It was a Charge of the Light Brigade… And off we went: “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” That was the slogan. “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” So the whole organisation of the march was around the fact that we can’t get an explanation from anybody.” (Darcus Howe)

“In the wake of the New Cross Fire we took a decision very early in the first meeting that it was a massacre politically. We decided that the protest would be Black~led and we decided that we would mobilise the whole country from a central co~ordinating group. I can remember very vividly being part of the debate. It was clear that we didn’t want it to be part of a commission or whatever because those bodies are not political bodies. If we were to wage any struggle, it had to be a political struggle, purely based on the resources of the community. You don’t apply for grants to take political action!” (Trevor Sinclair)

The march had been planned carefully. The stewards, who wore identification berets, were briefed by Howe to show discipline and restraint in the face of police provocation, ‘otherwise the march would collapse into a mass violence and the point would not be made’. With the Collective acting as chief stewards, he knew that if anything went wrong ‘ we would be held responsible ’.

The police had said they wanted the march to start at 11.30 a.m. At 11 a.m., Howe called over to one of the officers and said ‘ Let ’ s go ’ in the hope it would upset any plans they might have to disrupt the march along the route. It was tactical flourishes like this which led Linton Kwesi Johnson to christen Howe with the nickname ‘ General ’. Tactics aside, Howe opines that the police were unprepared in a second sense. From studying James, from his experiences in the Caribbean and America, from travelling the country during the Lindo Campaign, from the Basement Sessions, and his run-ins with the police, Howe was prepared for the Day of Action. The event was unprecedented, but Howe’s years of experience organising campaigns and his theoretical understanding of the dynamics involved in mass protest meant that he was as prepared as anyone for the march. The police, by contrast, had no idea what they were dealing with. “They underestimated us. . . . They thought we were a load of little, stupid, black people.” The police were caught off guard by the scale of the march and the sophistication of the organisation. “There had never seen that size demonstration of black people before. So the police didn’t know culturally what to do”. (Howe).

As the march set off along New Cross Road, Howe could see that many thousands had missed school or work to protest. By the time that the front of the march arrived at the remains of 439 New Cross Road half a mile away and stopped to pay its respects to the 13 young lives lost in the inferno, the tail end of the march had not yet left the Fordham Park.

“… undoubtedly, [it was] black people, in the leadership of the march. In the main, if you look at street demonstrations, even street demonstrations around issues that affect black people, you get a sense that white people were somehow in command of events. They’d organised it. This was black organised, black led and you felt that. So it was very much a black community event. And then the numbers who joined it, that was significant, as you went along. But also in some parts of the march the hostility, directed by people who were undoubtedly racist…” (Darcus Howe)

As the mass of people passed through Southwark towards Blackfriars Bridge, the organisers reckoned that somewhere in the region of 25,000 people may have been on the march. When the chief stewards tallied their numbers together at the end, the final figure they arrived at was a little over 20,000. There was a sense that the police were frightened, that they had never seen anger from the black community on this scale before and that the movement which had mobilised that day ‘shook them to their roots’ .

When the march got to Blackfriars Bridge, it started to rain. A small delegation consisting of John la Rose and the victims ’ families left the head of march to take their protest to Parliament. A group of about 50 young people at the front of the march pressed ahead and overtook the lorry only to find they were confronted by rows of police blocking the entrance to Blackfriars Bridge. The police were determined to stop the demonstration from crossing the bridge. The bridge was symbolic. This was the first protest march since the Chartist Procession of 10 April 1848 to attempt to cross Blackfriars Bridge and the police were determined to block it. As a result, fighting broke out as the youth struggled to break through the police lines and fought to free comrades arrested by the police. “. . . Runners amongst the stewards were despatched to bring forward the truck trapped way back from the pitched battle. Chaos was increased as contradictory directives were issued by the police commanders. As Lewisham police tried to ease a way for the truck to move forward, the City police continued with blocking manoeuvres. The impasse was broken as the truck nosed its way through the seething mass, Rasta flag flying aloft. Strengthened now by the presence of the lorry, the crowd with one last heave laid siege to the police line, and with a resounding cheer, broke through the cordon.”

Among those arrested during the melee by police officers who called him a ‘ cunt ’ and ‘ bastard ’ was the Policy Studies Institute undercover researcher who was writing a police-funded study of young black attitudes towards the police….!

“We come across Blackfriars Bridge. No demonstration had crossed that bridge since the Chartists and, suddenly, the police threw a cordon across the road and say, “You are not going anywhere.” And the driver of that huge wagon, I said, “Drive!” Just leant towards him. “Drive that.” Brrrrm! And the police . . . “What? Are you going to stand before a truck?” I don’t know any police officer that brave. And we crossed the bridge into Fleet Street, running…” (Howe)

Once they had crossed the Thames, the protestors regrouped and continued their demonstration through the City and into Fleet Street. Marching in tight formation past the Red Tops and broadsheets, the protestors offered up the cries of ‘ Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said ’ and ‘ Fleet Street Liars ’. All the participant accounts concur in reporting abuse that the marchers received from the offices in Fleet Street.

“And then as we came up Fleet Street there, the taunting and the abuse that rained down upon us from the Express building in particular, I will never forget that.” (Paul Boateng)

As they passed by The Sun‘s offices ‘ there was a torrent of racial abuse from people working in the building . . . “ Go Back Home you Black Bastards ” , the usual banal kind of things that these people say ’… people leaning out of windows making ‘ monkey noises ’ and throwing banana skins at the crowd.

Against the chants of ‘ Justice, Justice ’ and the jeers of journalists, Fleet Street also saw renewed confrontation between the protestors and the police.

“In Fleet Street the whole mood of policing changed. The police imposed themselves on marchers, pushing, shoving, and kicking people off pavements. Scuffles broke out up and down Fleet Street, and, unlike Peckham, it was the police and not the stewards who stood guard in front of shops.”

In an isolated incident, which the vast majority of protesters were oblivious to, one small group broke off from the demonstration to smash and loot a jeweller’s shop. As police tried to stop them, an officer was injured. Obviously this was the incident that dominated the newspapers the next day. Despite the aggressive police tactics, of the thousands who marched that day, only 25 were nicked and charged with minor offences by the police.


There continued to be clashes and altercations with the police for the remainder of the march. Police rode horses into families with young children at Cumberland Gate in an apparent attempt to break up the march and stop it reaching Hyde Park.

Notwithstanding the provocative methods used to police the march, it did finally reach its destination at Hyde Park 7 hours aft er it had set out from Fordham Park. Thousands of protestors gathered around the lorry to listen to speeches by Howe and others.

From New Cross to Hyde Park, traffic in central London was brought to a standstill. Youth fought to break through police lines at Blackfriars Bridge and the march surged into the heart of the City… ‘city gents cowered in their offices terrified at the sight of the oppressed demanding justice’. The symbols of wealth – a bank and a jeweller’s shop – ‘fell victim to a hail of bricks and stones: journalists who quite rightly are seen as siding with the racist British state got rough justice…when a youth was arrested the march came to an immediate halt shouting “Let him go!” which police were forced to do as the marchers refused to move without their captured comrade.’

The racist response of the millionaire press to the 2 March was predictable. The Sun raved of ‘a frenzied mob’. Headlines screamed ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’.

For many on the black communities, the Day of Action felt like the birth, or rebirth, of a large-scale black people’s movement in the UK; the sense of strength it gave people in the midst of the horror and tragedy of the fire help cement community and political unity of a kind…

If many first generation West Indians who moved to the UK responded to the racism, police attacks, discrimination, they faced by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) As their children grew up, however, a new angrier attitude evolved.

“Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain; to force institutions and society to respect black people and their rights.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.” (Race Today, 1982)

The feeling of a growing widespread resistance to racism, both organised and unofficial, murderous and repressive or simply daily harassment, was amplified five weeks later when Brixton erupted into uprising in response to years of racist policing and in particular Operation Swamp ’81.

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Postscript: Inquests into the Fire

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee closely monitored the Inquest proceedings, which began at County Hall in London on 21 Apr 1981.  Four theories were advanced from the police: 1) a firebomb attack from outside the building; 2) an opportunist arson attack from outside the building; 3) a deliberate fire from inside the building; 4) an accidental fire from inside the building.  However, it was soon clear that racial motives were being ruled out as theories 1 and 2 were abandoned, despite the revelation from forensics that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene.  The speed and force of the fire had also caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house, but this theory was dismissed.  The Coroner, Dr. Arthur Gordon Davies, refused to take any notes of evidence during the hearing, preferring to read from police statements.  The jury returned an open verdict.

Families with the support of the NCMAC appealed for the inquest verdict to be quashed and demanded a new inquest, considering the hearing to have been biased.  The fact that the Coroner refused to take notes during the hearing was ruled illegal under Section 6 of the Coroner’s Act 1887, and the Attorney General authorised the Appeal lodged by the relatives of the dead.  The integrity of the initial investigation was also called into question.  On 10 May 1982, the relatives won leave to Appeal, and an Appeal date was set for 5 July 1982.  However, the inquest jury refused to quash the open verdict. Despite attempts by the courts to avoid a second inquest, the NCMAC and relatives of the victims demanded that a new inquest should take place.

An International Commission of Inquiry was also planned by the NCMAC, although it never took place.  In an unfortunate decision, the Courts decided to hear the Appeal during the same period planned for the International Commission of Inquiry.  The latter had already been postponed from Jan 1982 due to the unavailability of some of the Commissioners chosen.  In Jun 1983, the NCMAC was at last planning to hold its own independent inquiry, but decided to postpone it again after detectives suggested that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. This subsequently turned out to be misleading.

The Committee also established a Fire Fund to support the families involved, to raise money to help families to bury their dead, and to care for the injured.  The fund was chaired by Alex Pascall, member of NCMAC, and broadcaster of the daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme.  Access to broadcasting proved invaluable for interviewing relatives and members of the NCMAC, reporting on the New Cross Massacre Campaign, encouraging public support, and analysing social and political tensions.  A total of £27,000 was raised.

Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was also set up in 1981 by the families of the victims.  Following a request from black community leader Sybil Phoenix, Lewisham council erected a memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997.

Despite repeated requests, the opportunity for a second inquest did not come until 1997, when the police re-opened the investigation.  Calls for a new inquest were twice rejected, until the High Court finally agreed in 2002.  A second Inquest began in Feb 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred.  An open verdict was again returned.

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online