Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Toxteth Uprising of July 1981.

The Toxteth uprising of July 1981 was a civil disturbance in Toxteth, inner city Liverpool which arose in part from long-standing tensions between the local police and the black community. They followed the Brixton riots earlier that year. At the same time there were outbreaks in Birmingham's Handsworth, Chappletown in Leeds, and Manchester’s Moss Side.
Underpinning these outbreaks were the themes of discrimination against black people in an increasingly precarious economy, bitter hostility in the inner cities to the government of Margaret Thatcher and several years of assaults on black and Asian communities by the National Front, which had in turn provoked the formation of the Anti-Nazi League, street-fighting by anti-fascists and, in 1977, the "Battle of Lewisham" in London. The 1976 Notting Hill carnival had ended with running battles between the police and black youths chanting: "Soweto, Soweto", after the uprising there and repressions in apartheid South Africa earlier in the year. Strong cultural currents flowed through the period, including the influence of American ghetto soul music, and arrival of songs by Bob Marley especially, gave young people  living in the inner city a sense of the justice denied them, as well as strength and purpose.

Get up, stand up
Stand up for your rights
Dont give up the fight!
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’ll look for yours on earth

 2-Tone music from bands such as the Specials and Selecter fused elements of ska, punk rock and reggae also provided much of the soundtrack to these years.  In their songs, British reggae bands like Misty in Roots, Aswad and Steel Pulse linked the tribulations on the streets at home with struggles in Africa and elsewhere.
But the overt reason for the serial disturbances was the ubiquitously appalling treatment of black youths by the police. Harassment, intimidation and wanton arrest were integral to the fabric of young black life, invariably applied by flagrant abuse of the so-called suspected persons, or "sus" law, a section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act that permitted police officers to arrest anyone loitering "with intent to commit an arrestable offence" – which in Britain's ghettoes had come to mean almost anyone between the ages of 13 and 30.
This combined  with the activities  of the Mersyside police force which had, at the time, a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under these "sus " laws .Perpetually, young men of different races and black citizens were complaining about how the authorities were treating them. Prior to the uprising, there were lots of incidents of harassment, drug planting, people being criminalised for trivial reasons and heavy handed policing.
One of the other root causes was that with the economy in recession. unemployment in Britain was at a 50-year high in 1981, and Toxteth had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.Liverpool 8 had long suffered a range of social, economic  problems, also official figures confirm that out of 22,000 people working for Liverpool City Council at the time of the riots, only 169 were black. It was estimated that unemployment was running at something like 60% in the black community and in areas where blacks had been employed elsewhere in the UK, like public transport, there was hardly a black face to be seen. In Liverpool’s schools, only two governors were black and poor academic performance was endemic.Liverpool's black population was concentrated in Toxteth. Many feeling a sense of abandonment.
This combined  with the activities  of the Mersyside police force which had, at the time, a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under these "sus " laws .Perpetually, young men of different races and black citizens were complaining about how the authorities were treating them. Prior to the uprising, there were lots of incidents of harassment, drug planting, people being criminalised for trivial reasons and heavy handed policing.
On the evening of Friday July 3rd the police had attempted to arrest a young, black motorcyclist at the junction of Granby and Selbourne Street. An angry crowd had gathered, leading to a fracas during which the motorcyclist escaped but a different black youth, Leroy Cooper whose brother had been acquitted on what the local community regarded as a trumped-up charge in the Crown Court only the day before, was arrested for assault on a police officer.Incensed by what they had witnessed  they started  name-calling, this grew into jostling and within minutes there was a full-scale fracas that saw three police officers hurt..It did not stop there. Police mounted extra patrols in the area and early the following evening, July 4, there was more trouble when they came under attack from a crowd armed with bricks and petrol bombs.
The existing tensions between police and people had already been noticed by respected local magistrate and councillor  Chairman of the Merseyside Police  Committee, Margaret Simey  She worked ceaselessly to hold the police force and its Chief Constable to account for their methods, both before and after the riots.  She once remarked that in the face of such conditions the people of Liverpool 8 would have been ‘apathetic fools’ if they  didn't protest".
It  was the events of Sunday 5 July that launched ‘Toxteth’ (as outsiders commenting on the events always called the area) into the national headlines. Over the days that followed, disturbance erupted into full-scale rioing, with pitched battles between police and youths in which petrol bombs and paving stones were thrown. During the violence milk floats were set on fire and directed at police lines. Rioters were also observed using scaffording poles to charge police lines. The Merseyside Police had issued its officers with long protective shields but these proved inadequate in protecting officers from missile attacks and in particular the effects of petrol bombs. The overwhelming majority of officers were not trained either in using the shields or in public order tactics. The sole offensive tactic available to officers,the baton charge, proved increasingly ineffective in driving back the attacking crowds of rioters. At 02:15 hours on Monday 6 July Merseyside police officers fired between 25-30 CS gas grenades for the first time in the UK outside Northern Ireland. The gas succeeded  in dispersing the protestors but should never have been deployed on crowds of people.
In all, the rioting lasted nine days during which 468 police officers were injured, 500 people were arrested, and at least 70 buildings were damaged so severely by fire that they had to be demolished. Around 100 cars were destroyed, and there was extensive looting of shops.Further serious rioting occurred on 26-28 July when, at the time of the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, a young local disabled man from Wavertree  boy David Moore was killed  a police van dispersing rioters. Police officers were accused of his manslaughter, although they were eventually acquitted. . Such was the scale of the uprising in Toxteth that police reinforcements were drafted in from forces across England including Greater Manchester Police, Lancashire , Cumbria, Birmingham and even Devon to try to control the unrest.

A second wave of rioting began on 27 July 1981 and continued into the early hours of 28 July, with police once again being attacked with missiles and a number of cars being set alight. 26 officers were injured. However on this occasion the Merseyside Police responded by driving vans and land rovers at high speed into the crowds quickly dispersing them. This tactic had been developed as a riot control technique in Northern Ireland by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and had been employed with success in quelling the Moss Side riots by the Greater Manchester Police.
The riots, like those around the same time in Brixton, Handsworth, and those in 1980 in Bristol were generally seen as race riots, but there are many reports of similarly frustrated white youths travelling in from other areas of Liverpool to fight alongside Toxteth residents against the police.
One facility looted in the riots was a sports club called the Racquet Club, which was opened in 1877 on Upper Parliament Street, when Toxteth as an upper-middle-class area. When the riot started, the clubhouse included 3 squash courts  and 12  bedrooms e riot, the clubhouse and all of its facilities and records was burnt and destroyed, and it did not reopen until 20 May 1985, in another building.
Dozens of senior citizens were evacuated from the Princess Park Hospital during the riots.
Thatcher sanctimoniously condemned the rioters, denying any link between the uprising and social conditions. Nevertheless, Michael Heseltine, then the darling of the Tory Conference, was rushed to Merseyside as a new Minister for the area.He launched a garden festival site, which is now a wasteland. Millions of pounds were poured into the area but with little or no effect in terms of jobs for native Liverpudlians. In 1981 Liverpool, amongst other cities, was given the “benefit” of an Enterprise Zone. Companies were offered relaxed planning requirements, exemption from rates for non-domestic property, and 100 percent capital allowances for industrial and commercial properties. Liverpool’s Development Officer at this time declared: “With no rates to pay, it is a tremendous bargain”. Those who benefited were mostly “out of town” contractors with their own specialized labor. Patches of green field were laid down throughout the Toxteth area and plenty of trees were planted. Moreover, what was given with the one hand was more than cancelled out with the other.
The subsequent Scarman report , though primarily  directed at the Brixton Riot of 1981 recognised that the riots did represent the result of social problems, such as poverty and deprivation. Acknowledging  "racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life" and concluded that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest". Lord Gifford, tasked to report on Liverpool, found that racial discrimination had been "uniquely horrific" in the city.
10 people (including three police officers) were injured in a second riot in Toxteth on 1 October 1985, after gangs stormed the district's streets and stoned and burnt cars in response to the arrest of four local black men in connection with a stabbing. The Merseyside police Operational Support Division was deployed into the area to restore order and were later criticised by community leaders and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Warlock for their "over zealous and provocative tactics" which including the drumming of batons on riot shields.
The riots took place whilst The Specials song "Ghost Town" was topping the UK singles chart , the song had been written earlier in response  to  riots in Coventry and was released at a time when unrest had broken out in several parts of London and the rest of England.

The  Specials - Ghost Town

Two songs by local bands responded to the 'uprising' of 1981 shortly after the event: Public Disgrace's hardcore punk 45, "Toxteth",

Public Disgrace - Toxteth (1982)

and Cook Da Books' 12" single "Piggy in the Middle Eight", its haunting dub side, "Gone to Black", with reggae producer Dennis Bovell at the controls, including many theme tunes from TV cop series. Both records were issued on Liverpool's Probe Plus label.

Cook Da Books - Piggy in the Middle Eight

Cook Da Books - Gone to Black  ( Dennis Bovell mix )


A lot of healing has since gone on in Liverpool 8 , a story of hard work and optimism, people looking ahead, while painfully being aware of the past.We should  remember that uprisings/ Riots do not happen for no reason, they are usually spontaneous responses to a simmering resentment to how people have been treated for a number of years. People with a sense of worthlessness, disenfranchised and dissaffected in times of desperation and social deprivation with nothing left to lose will respond and kick off. Currently poorer members of inner city communities feel rising anger in the sense that they have been abandoned once again.Lets hope the Tories don't drag us back to riot scenes like those from the 1980's.

Liverpool 8 Documentary exploring the 1981 Riots 1999              

documentary in about 1999, it's a reflection of what happened during the 1981 riots. Much of the commentary, comes from perspectives of Liverpool 8 community members, their thoughts and what they witnessed. (originally broadcast as part of Channel 4's - Untold Series) John Longman

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