Contemporary Black history in the UK is underlined by resistance; combating harassment and violence from civilians, white supremacist organisations and institutions like the police alike. Brutality was an everyday reality that needed to be factored into navigating a nation-state that sought to invisibilise and malign Black people, despite once beseeching them to mobilise on behalf of the “Mother Country”.
In the late 20th century, conflicts and riots became commonplace in response to relentless state-sanctioned murders and beatings and hostility from white Britons, as the country attempted to piece together a now-fractured post-war national identity. Decades on, these events have left an indelible mark on the lives of Black British people who lived through them. Here are their stories in their own words.
BROADWATER FARM RIOTS, 6TH OCTOBER 1985
Riots took place in Tottenham following the death of Cynthia Jarrett after her home was raided by police in search of her oldest son, Floyd. This also came one week after Cherry Groce was shot by police in her Brixton home. After the day of rioting, a police officer was murdered near the estate.
“I had just turned 18 and I used to just hang out with my friends on the street, as you did. We’d just heard the news that there was a riot going on in response to Cynthia Jarrett’s death. We didn’t live far from Broadwater Farm – I lived near the Tottenham Hotspurs’ Stadium.
“We raced over to see what was happening and I remember being on the farm and looking down from one of the balconies. I saw the police with all their barricades and guys throwing petrol bombs and all that. It was after the riots and much later that evening when PC Blakelock was killed.
“After the riot calmed down, that’s when the police began a massive programme of arrests where they’d just grab people in the early hours of the morning and take them in for questioning. If you said you were there, you were automatically in trouble. It was payback. We were getting picked up left right and centre. I had cousins who lived on the farm as well and one of them got arrested because he had spoken to police and told them that he was there – he got 18 months in prison.
“A few days afterwards, I was at home at my mum’s and they knocked on my door at five in the morning. Seven or eight police officers entered my bedroom, I was bundled into the back of a van and they took me to the police station. They said to me that they had evidence that I was there and involved in the violence. I think they did a lot of fabricating to try and get us to implicate one another. My parents gave alibis saying that I was at home so that’s why they couldn’t get me.
But even so, they still kept calling me every few years and asking to speak to me about the incident up until four or five years ago – that’s a whole 30 years. I’m still on their records. They’ve not given up on it, especially because there were a lot of knife wounds inflicted on Blakelock, so they know a lot of people were involved.
“It had a massive impact on me. I was dead frightened. I wasn’t involved any murder or anything, I wasn’t involved in the affray apart from being there. You were walking on eggshells because you knew that police were watching you and you could be arrested at any time. Even now, I know this is always going to be something on my record. I’m always a bit paranoid. I guess it’s a pressure you learn to live with.
“I think maybe people don’t realise or forget why this riot came about. It was due to harassment and Black people were just being singled out. It was a community that had reached breaking point - they’d had enough.” — Paul*, 55, from Tottenham, London
NEW CROSS FIRE, 18TH JANUARY 1981
During a time of intense racial tension in south London’s New Cross, a fire at a house party killed 13 young Black people aged between 14 and 22, with one suvivor committing suicide two years later. After initial suspicions that the party had been firebombed, it was concluded that the fire had been started inside the house accidentally, much to the frustration of the victims’ families.
“I was 17 and it was actually Gemini, my sound system – a group of DJs, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady and reggae – playing at the party at the time. I knew Yvonne and Angela, the girls whose birthday party it was. The party started off later than it should’ve, thanks to loads of stuff going wrong with getting our equipment there. However, I will say to this day, because I never stopped DJing and I’ve played all over the world, that party is still in my top five best events I’ve ever played at.
“The atmosphere was electric: it was everything that us as teenagers wanted in those days. A lot of us were from the Caribbean and we were trying to find an identity for ourselves back then. Reggae music belonged to us, those were our roots, so that party was everything.
“Throughout the night, people were coming in and out to start partying. We were playing a tune, it was a song called ‘Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall’ by a group called The Wailing Souls and I could smell smoke, I could smell something burning. And I was speaking to the rest of the guys in the sound so we kind of looked behind the set to see if it was our amps – back in those days, nothing worked properly and an amp could blow up just like that.
“I wasn’t the engineer so while they were looking, I walked off and said I was going for a drink. In that house, there was a basement, ground floor, first floor and second floor – the party was on the first floor. The ground floor had the front room and a joint dining room and kitchen, all the drinks and food were in the latter while the former was out of bounds. I started walking down the stairs to get my drink and I could still smell smoke but I didn’t take much notice.
“Halfway down the last set of stairs to get to the kitchen, I noticed that the front room door was open, instead of being closed like before, and I could see wisps of smoke coming out of it. I came down a bit more then I saw more smoke coming out and I was now smelling this thing properly.
“I turned around and ran back upstairs and into the main room. I closed the door behind me and shouted ‘fire’. It might have been a few seconds but it felt like it took an eternity for anyone to take notice of me. After a while, people started to take note. By the time I had gotten everyone’s attention, the fire was already coming up the stairs. The house was now full of smoke.
“I remember I had a sheepskin coat that I had thrown behind the speaker boxes which were set up behind the door. I grabbed it and put it on backwards to try and run through the fire to get out but when I went back outside, I couldn’t get out. It was too much smoke, plus the lights had gone out.
“I don’t know if you’d ever watched one of those old black and white Charlie Chaplin movies where everything is just going really quickly, but that’s how it was. It was like there was a strobe light on everything. There were people going all over the place, trying to break the windows to get out, jumping out of the windows, pulling each other back in an attempt to get out. It was chaos.
“I remember standing there and feeling like I was sweating, like the sweat was pouring off me because obviously the house was really hot. I put my hand to my face and I wiped my face – it felt like gravel or grains of sand. But no, it had gotten so hot that I was actually wiping skin off my face. People were fainting and screaming, it was going nuts. It was like a horror story.
“I ran through the door and up the stairs to the second floor. There were two rooms, I went to the first room which was looking out over the front of the house and there were loads of people fighting to get out of the window. So I went to the second room and I couldn’t see anything except the smoke which was going in one direction so I figure that was where the window was. I eventually got to it and got onto the window ledge and there was another guy in the room, he must’ve followed me, coughing and spluttering. I used the ledge to climb onto the drainpipe and make my way down it. The guy followed me onto it and it pulled away from the wall.
“Now remember, we’re on the top floor. He clung on for dear life and landed in the garden. I let go and I fell through an outside toilet, straight through the roof and smashed myself up on the porcelain toilet bowl. My right hip shattered into a hundred odd pieces. I ended up with my leg halfway up in my stomach because I landed like a ballerina on one leg. In all honesty, they thought I was dead.
“One of my friends, Robert, was standing up outside waiting to see who got out and realised that me and a few others hadn’t come out. He ran down to where I lived to tell my mum that there had been a fire and I didn’t make it. My mum’s boyfriend was there and he came up to the house and got one of the firemen – incidentally one of the first Black firemen in south London – to go around the back and look. That’s when they found me unconscious.
“I was in the hospital for six months. I spent two weeks in a coma, three months in a traction on a bed where I couldn’t move. I have extensive scarring on my fingers to my shoulders on both arms, which was murder because burns contract quickly when they’re healing up. They used to send me a blind physio everyday because nobody else could deal with me. He could hear me screaming but he’d just put earplugs in while he manipulated my arms. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to use my hands or arms today.
“This thing impacted so many people in so many different ways. I’ve got a talented friend with a lot of ability who just can’t do anything because every year leading up to January, his head goes. I didn’t dampen my energy but it dampened my spirits. I lost my girlfriend in that fire and between her, my football and my music, I had been set for life. I’ve personally tried to turn the fire into something good. It might not be good for me but [it might be] at least good for other people. I used to go into schools and teach children not to play with fire, using my scars and experiences.
“Whether it’s my story or someone else’s story, the New Cross Fire must not be forgotten.” — Wayne Haynes, 57, DJ, from New Cross, London
THE IMPACT OF SUS LAW UP TILL 1981
Sus law, a stop and search law from the 1824 Vagrancy Act, gave police officers the power to arrest anyone they suspected had intent to commit an arrestable offence. Used disproportionately against young Black men, it was abolished after the 1981 Brixton Riots.
“The sus law was always based on suspicion, so at any point going through the early 70s to the early 80s, you could have been stopped by the police and just searched on the street without any form of information. They could just pull up next to you and say that they’ve got suspicion that you’re about to commit a crime. No crime has been committed but they had the right to search you then and there on the street.
“Those were the days when the police used to drive around in Black Maria vans – we used to call them ‘meat wagons’. There’d be up to 15 officers just pilling out of the back of the vans and they’d surround you. Kids nowadays have got more information and knowledge about the law and their rights in regards to what they can say and what can happen on the street but, back then, we weren’t really informed like that.
“Around 1979/80, I was nine and I remember that I was riding my bike during the day through Wembley. I was stopped by a police officer and his colleague in a car. They asked me if the bike was mine and I said yes. Those were the days when your parents wouldn’t really buy you bicycles, you’d make them yourself instead with spare parts from junkyards. I told the officers that I made it. They asked for my name and address which I gave them. There wasn’t a search but they left me after five to ten minutes. I remember being confused, wondering why they’d pull me over and question me for no reason.
“Fifteen minutes later, I was stopped by them again in another part of Wembley and went through the whole questioning process again. And then maybe about five minutes from my house, they stopped me for a third time and went through the process yet again. They knew I was the same person they’d stopped. By the third one, they were saying things like ‘oh here we are again.’ They were trying to get a reaction from me.
“That was the first interaction with the police where I felt picked on. In primary school, we had been introduced to our local community police officer and they were sold to us as people you can approach or who were out there to protect you without prejudice. And then as you grow up, you realise there’s something different about how you’re being dealt with by the police. As the years go on, the more interactions you’d have with them because of the sus law. One of my older brothers was arrested under sus law for suspicion of robbery without anyone being robbed. He ended up going to court and the junior officer actually broke down and admitted that he’d been told by senior officers to arrest my brother and his friends.
“My first experience of police brutality was around 1992 when I was stopped and accused of burgling a house on my road. It didn’t make sense, I lived there, why would I do that? Two police cars and a Black Maria van pulled up. I was surrounded by six or seven officers. One of them said a name to me and asked if it was mine, I said ‘who the hell is that?’ That’s the last thing I said because I got a punch in the mouth.
“I lay on the floor in the foetal position to protect my organs while they rained down blows before arresting me on suspicion of burglary. They held me at the police station for about two hours and then released me. Back then, it was a thing where you could either pursue as assault by a police officer or just be grateful you’ve got no broken bones. If you did the former, you knew you’d be marked for life.
“We grew up in the era of the National Front. Not only were the members of this group football hooligans or teenagers, we’re talking about school teachers, judges, doctors, all of these people were members of these far-right movements. This is what we were up against. You were constantly wary, particularly of the police. We couldn’t trust them.
“In my opinion, the sus law hasn’t changed – it’s just been changed in name. I hear children or young people speaking about how they’ve been stopped and searched because a police officer has information or intelligence that they’ve been involved in a crime or may be about to commit one. That’s exactly the same language that was used 30 years ago.” — Matthew*, 50, from Wembley, London
THE BRIXTON RIOTS, 10TH-12TH APRIL 1981
Described as the first serious riots in 20th century England, months of growing tension and hostility between the police and Black communities of Lambeth, as well as the frequent deployment of sus law, led to a violent clash that set Brixton ablaze.
“Racism at the time that I was growing up in the late 70s was horrendous, absolutely horrendous. I had people spit at me on the bus. I had people get up when me and my mum sat down on the bus. It was very very evident in those days, but you shut up and got on with it because your parents were like ‘we don’t want any trouble’.
“With the sus law, it became evident that it was targeted at young Black men and it was getting to the point where any racist policeman could do what he wanted because the word of a Black person didn’t matter.
“The Brixton Riot started because of the sus law. Me and my friend went down there. I remember standing outside Barnado’s, the shoe shop, it was being looted. I just stood there, watching people running around, witnessing police officers being really heavy-handed. Things were burning, people were getting beaten up. I remember one incident: we were directly opposite the police station and a van came and they just unloaded loads of Black youths. One of the boys was quite reluctant, obviously, and two policemen just started punching him.
“I was there for about two hours outside Barnado’s while all the chaos went on. I saw teenage boys being thrown into the back of vans, irrespective of whether they were spectators or protestors. A policeman came and told me and my friend to fuck off and go home.
“We just wanted an end to stop and search, as well as people getting beaten up, people getting framed with drugs. However our frustration was communicated to the rest of the world, via TV and media, as people just left their houses and just started looting for no reason. That’s not what happened. It’s important that people understand that these protests were always so much more than that.” — Nina*, 54, from Bexley, London
*Names have been changed