The Toxteth Riot in Liverpool 1981

The Toxteth Riot in Liverpool 1981


hello and welcome to the history hour
podcast from the BBC World Service with me max Pearson’s before next we move
forward in time and onto the streets of Liverpool in the English Northwest in
the early 1980s the Industrial and economic changes introduced by Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher had led to considerable social change and tension
in the summer of 1981 those tensions boiled over during the riots that
followed police used CS gas to control civil unrest for the first time on the
British mainland Claire Bose has been speaking to a man who took part in that
rioting. Liverpool 8 or Toxteth as it came to be known in the media a rundown part of
Liverpool with a mixed-race community poor housing and few jobs. In July 1981 it turned into a battlefield
“The Grove Street area along Parliament street there actually police in a rank there
with their riot shields”. The older residents of the area didn’t understand
why but the younger people knew Jimi Jaqne was 17 when the riots broke out
and he and his friends were afraid of the police when he was just 12 and a
keen student he’d been stopped by police on his way home from school. “And he asked
me in a kind of gruff voice you know where I was going I explained to him that
just come from school and I was on my way home so anyway he got out of the car
and he walked towards me and as he’s walked towards me he accused me being a
liar he opened my bag went through it and he told me that I had to come with
him to the police station”. But instead he drove Jimi to some wasteland and
racially abused him. “He kept pointing out that kids like me needed to be removed
from the street before we got old enough to break the law and then he kicked me
so that I fell over and I fell over into a pool of water and then he picked up my
bag and emptied the contents into the same pool of water,
he got into the car laughing and then the two of them just drove off”. Police at
the time had the power to stop and search anyone they thought looked
suspicious in early July 1981 a young black man was
arrested there was a skirmish and three policemen were injured the next day the
atmosphere in Toxteth was charged and there was a big police presence. By early
evening a full-scale battle had begun. “There were
lines of police with shields and there were all these guys, there must have been
about 150 to 200 guys just just just throwing bricks from one side and an
charged him with scaffolding trying to penetrate the line of shields, there
were vehicles burning everywhere there were people running backwards and
forwards, there were members of the press there were community leaders who I
recognized there was a coupla priests and these flames licking high from these
burning vehicles and people literally trying to kill each other I mean there
were no holds barred and I thought what the hell is going on”. “And there were friends running backwards and forwards, the only response I get from was `come on get down to the front
get down to the front, what you doing standing here?` I thought no I can’t do this isn’t
you know because my mind I’m I’m not a violent kid you know I read books”. But
then he spoke to a friend and asked him why he was joining in. “You know he just
reminded me of all the grief that we’ve been through and he explained to me
we’d just never ever get an opportunity to show these guys if you’re gonna make
our lives hell if we’re gonna end up in jail for walking on our streets then
let’s go to jail for the right reason and and that’s for sticking one on them
first I didn’t relate to the solution but I
understood the sentiment because we feared every day and I went to bed and I I
slept on this I ended up at some points convinced I can’t not be with my friends
going through this Britain was a completely different place back then to
what it is now we had no one listening to us it was
up to us to take control of our fate we had to do something. and out the Sunday afternoon and the
two guys who’d been out the night before they were geeing us up saying `don’t worry
don’t don’t be nervous everyone looks out for everyone and and don’t be scared`
we went out and I remember I was really frightened I felt as though I was
inviting all hell’s trouble once I’d thrown my first few bricks it all seemed
to be natural you were amongst a lot of people who were all doing the same thing
at the same time the police you’re up really close to them and they were full
of abuse, it was us against them and may the strongest survive and then
when the first petrol bombs started being thrown that really sorted out the
men from the boys so to speak it was really horrible to see men on fire and
it was really difficult seeing people in that sort of trouble”. And potentially the
possibility of really really hurting someone possibly to the point of death?
“It’s true there was times when I had to think about that you know I was I was
involved in everything I I, the only thing I didn’t do was manufacture or throw Molotov
cocktails, there were times when I was daredevil enough to go right up to the
front line with a piece of scaffolding and start smashing on a shield and if it
got through the shield and it hits someone in a certain way, where it would hit
them it was of no consequence to me was of no concern to me
I’d blinkered myself to it. I got involved”. “It wasn’t until first light this morning
that the full extent of the damage became known along upper Parliament
Street where some of the worst rioting occurred it looked like the morning
after a Second World War Blitz. Houses still smoldering shops, offices burnt out”.
The next night as the riots intensified the police decided to use CS
gas teargas for the first time on the British
mainland. “It was around 2 o’clock in the morning they fired the first CS canister
it landed on the corner of Catherine Street, a lot of smoke started to pour
from it and it caught me and I had to run off and to a house around the corner
where and knew the family and I washed my face out my eyes.
It was only the next day seeing the news that I realized the significance of
it all”. The Chief Constable of the local police force
Kenneth Oxford explained why he’d taken this drastic step. “It was a situation
where I’d almost reached a point of over running or no return or call it what you
will I mean these people had to be stopped and it was a last-ditch measure”.
There was one more night of rioting before it ended soon afterwards the
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the area and spoke with some of the
rioters to try to understand what had happened it seemed like change might be
on the way. “The noises that the community leaders were making they were trying to
make it clear to anybody who’d listen that you know this was a police
relations matter it had nothing to do with unemployment really it had nothing
to do with bad housing or poor education really, those things have being going on
for since God’s creation but you didn’t have riots every day and so we felt as
though this might pay off you know things might change but the problem then
was that over the next three weeks eventually police became more confident
about coming back onto the streets”. At the end of July riots broke out again
this time the police were more prepared they began to break up the crowds using
police vehicles, when a man was run over and killed the riots ended. Over 450
police officers had been injured and 500 people arrested. “It was fore the most
part a really frightening experience it involved acts of behavior on both sides
the likes of which I had never seen before or been a part of before but I
felt as though like most of us felt that there was so much at stake it was
unavoidable”. There was an inquiry into this and other riots across the UK that
year the report criticized the police and the government and called for more
community policing Jimi Jaqne graduated from University and is now a community
activist and teaching assistant he still lives in Toxteth. Claire Bose, well that
type of rioting which took place on the streets of
Liverpool in 1981 is pretty rare in Britain but there are certain themes
which crop up from time to time and result in similar tensions they revolve
around poverty housing policing and occasionally summer heat I’m joined now
by Professor Richard Phillips of Sheffield University who’s carried out
research into the Toxteth riots just for the sense of the general
context of what happened the relationship between the public and the
police we heard of Jimi Jaqne’s appalling experience being roughed up by
a police officer how common was that? “Much more common than you’d like to
think I mean the older person speaking in that interview was surprised by it
and I would have been surprised by it myself from where I was in this country
but me and my colleagues in Liverpool spoke to a number of people who’d been
involved in those disturbances they also spoke of being battered by the police of
being taken down to the police station and held without charge”. So how would you
assess the blend of causes if you like what were these anti police riots or was
there also that the poverty the deprivation the housing that fed into
them? “The easy answer is that it was poverty and it was housing and that was
the answer that was most graspable by the government so what mrs. Thatcher did
at the time was to appoint Michael Heseltine the Environment Secretary to
go to Liverpool and to investigate and to visit places she went herself as was
mentioned in that report as well but if you talk to people that were directly
involved in the disturbances those things were very much secondary the
thing that really upset people that really provoked people to riot was the
way that they and their friends had been treated by the police. The Liverpool born
black community had been in the city for four generations they’ve been there
since the 1880s in one form or another a mixed-race community so they’re very
very much Liverpool very much British the only difference between this
community and other people was their race”. What was the result of the the
Hesseltine inquiry into what happened and the attitude towards perhaps
inner-city areas similar to Toxteth in other parts of Britain? “Hesseltine was
focused on Merseyside he came up with all sorts of plans for environmental
improvements for detoxification for investment he launched the Merseyside
Development Corporation which came up with economic solutions but the real
inquiry into these issues wasn’t really conducted by Michael Heseltine it was
conducted by Lord Scarman Scarman really focused on race he acknowledged that
white people were involved as well but he said that there was a lot of angry
young men and most of them he said were black and he acknowledged that there was
discrimination in policing he acknowledged that there was disadvantage
in black communities he didn’t accept the charge that there was institutional
racism that was a charge that wasn’t accepted in relation to the police until
1999, but Lords Scarman went quite a long way and he came up with a number of
recommendations including employing more black minority ethnic community members
and the police monitoring racial abuse the sorts of things we heard about from
Jimi. Scarman wrote that report he came back to look at whether that had made
any difference a couple of years later he wrote a PostScript to it and he
concluded that in some ways it had”. So what’s Toxteth like now as compared
with back then 35 years ago? “There’s a lot less unemployment than there was
then the city has had something of an economic revival but one thing that
you’ll notice if you go to Liverpool 8 is that there’s quite a lot still of
dereliction there’s a lot of of houses of streets which are being demolished or
waiting to be demolished”. Professor Richard Phillips from Sheffield
University and his book on the subject co-written with Diane Frost is entitled
Liverpool 81

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