Unrest assured

Forty years since protests erupted on the streets of Liverpool 8, as well as other towns and cities in the UK, we ask residents and civic leaders what, if anything, has changed for black communities

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Two police officers are making their way to a tiny, two-room flat at the top of an old Georgian house, where a black man lies motionless on the floor.

On the landing, a boy, aged 11, is being comforted by a neighbour after seeing his father collapse and die without warning.

The policemen are following procedure in the event of a sudden death. As they pass the boy, one complains to the other: “All this way for a fucking n****r.”

Liverpool’s black community has many stories like this to tell – recollections of racism from nightclub owners, housing officials, potential employers, drivers, teachers, neighbours – and the police.

For at least a decade leading to 3 July 1981, conditions for unrest were simmering in L8

Forty years on from the so-called Toxteth riots, this is how one local remembers the environment when a minor incident involving the ownership of a motorcycle erupted into some of the worst civil disturbances seen on the British mainland.

Many take issue with the label the media put on the nine days of destruction when CS gas was used outside Northern Ireland for the first time. Liverpool 8, not Toxteth, more accurately describes the area just south of the city centre, and “uprising”, not riot, is preferred for the anger that exploded on to the streets.

For at least a decade leading to 3 July 1981, conditions for unrest were simmering in Liverpool 8, ethnically diverse and home to the majority of black residents born in the city.

Poverty, poor housing, high unemployment and the spending cuts of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government were exacerbated by tensions between the community and police, with complaints of day-to-day stop and search, harassment and beatings.

Other parts of the city had similar, or greater, deprivation, but the black inhabitants of Liverpool 8 faced another disadvantage – their colour, which affected the quality of their education, where they lived, job prospects, healthcare and, in the case of young black men especially, their ability to walk the streets.

At the start of the 1980s, Wally Brown was chair of the city’s Community Relations Council and a youth worker in Liverpool  8. Now 78, Brown remembers the struggle, as a young man with a new wife, to find somewhere for them to live.

He tells of going to an estate agent to see if an advertised flat was still available. “I was there in 10 minutes but the woman said: ‘Hang on.’” Brown watched as she consulted a supervisor. “He looked up. And I knew. She came back and said: ‘It’s taken.’ I walked out and cried my eyes out.”

A careers officer would arrange job interviews for black teenagers in Brown’s charge at the Methodist Youth Club, even bringing them a suit to wear, only to find employers would suddenly decide their vacancies had been filled. But in common with riots around the same period in Brixton, Bristol, Moss Side in Manchester and Chapeltown in Leeds – areas with large ethnic minority populations – police harassment was chiefly blamed for the mayhem that came.

The Merseyside force of the time – under the chief constable, Ken Oxford – had a particularly poor reputation in Liverpool 8 for stopping and searching young people of all backgrounds, but especially black youths, under the infamous “sus” laws.

Brown, who helped negotiate an end to the riots and was later honoured with an OBE for his work as head of Liverpool Community College, says: “They would pick people up coming home from school. Stop them and say: ‘What’s in the bag?’ Empty it on the floor, kick it around.”

A weekly disco took place at the “Methodist” and occasionally a police vehicle would be stationed on the children’s route home.

“The kids would come back and say: ‘Wally, there’s a police Land Rover on the boulevard. Watch us while we get past it, so we’re safe.’”

Liverpool’s first black lord mayor, Anna Rothery, recalls growing up in Liverpool 8 with four brothers.

“Most had a brush with the law and they’d done nothing wrong. My youngest brother had his fingers jammed in a car door. He was in my mum’s taxi, talking to his friend, and they came along and said ‘What are you doing?’ He said ‘It’s my mum’s taxi’, and they dragged him out and slammed the door. A lovely young man with a very promising future. It was like open season on our young black men.”

Among the black community Rothery says there was “a feeling of futility and that constant state of fight or flight because of always feeling fearful out on the street. Where do you go if you don’t feel safe? You go to the law. Well, what if you don’t feel safe because of the law?”

Gideon Ben-Tovim, former leader of the Labour opposition on Liverpool City Council, was a white member of the Community Relations Council, alongside Brown, dealing with “cases of harassment, discrimination, bullying, racist insults, many, many cases of planting of drugs”.

He says: “A well-known local singer got planted, and because people like that had support, and were able to present well, they got found not guilty. But there were a lot of young people who weren’t, who accumulated police records. We referred to this as the criminalisation of the many young black people in Liverpool 8.

“That was the relationship unfortunately built up between large sections of the community and the police. It was dire, really.”

The last straw came one warm summer Friday night when police responded in numbers to a black youth on a motorcycle. A crowd gathered, including Leroy Cooper, now an artist and photographer.

Brown says Cooper, his father and brothers, had faced harassment previously – “Mr Cooper would take no crap, he got solicitors on the case” – and when he was arrested for an alleged assault on police, an angry response followed.

Later that night Brown and a fellow CRC member went to the local Admiral Street police station to talk to officers who complained that their vans were being attacked on the streets. Brown says as they talked, Oxford walked in “in a dinner jacket and dicky bow” and his deputy explained that a communication problem had meant three divisions responding to the youth on the motorcycle.

Brown says: “We said, get the vans off the streets and the kids will go home. Eventually they did and we thought, that’s it.

“But on the Saturday, the police decided to mop up all the people they thought had been causing trouble the night before, so started going round to people’s houses and making arrests. That’s when people said: ‘We’ve had enough.’”

It wasn’t a race riot as such. Black people were joined on the streets by white neighbours, who also had grievances, but race was a major factor and the spark that lit the fuse.

As events spiralled out of control, cars were stopped on Upper Parliament Street, their occupants ordered out and the vehicles used as barricades.

Those initially involved in what they viewed as an insurrection against the authorities grew in number as others, with varying motives, joined in from other parts of the city. Rothery insists any looting was by outsiders.

“Those businesses were part of our daily life. We didn’t want to be looting their livelihoods.

“It wasn’t about that. We were living in a time when a black person in this city was a really difficult thing to be.”

Rioters threw everything they could get their hands on at the lines of police: bricks, petrol bombs, even, according to one officer, javelins from a local school, while milk floats were seized and driven at officers.

Buildings set alight and later demolished included the Racquet Club, whose membership included judges, lawyers and senior police, and which for many in the black community was a daily reminder of their oppressors.

CS gas was not all to be borrowed from the streets of Belfast. Long-time community activist Dave Clay, then a mature university student, recalls Northern Irishmen living in the area “passing on their expertise from the Shankill Road: this is how you bring down a lamppost, this is how you get ammunition”.

He says: “One of the officers said they only had thin visors and no riot experience, and neither did we, but in terms of strategy, we held all the cards.”

Brown puts it more bluntly. “I think the police were shitting themselves. They were losing.”

Certainly, flimsy riot shields used by the police were hopelessly inadequate and officers who joined the thin blue
line have talked of shock and fear as missiles rained on them.

On the other hand, one witness describes officers banging their shields and chanting “Zulu, Zulu” before baton charges, and, in lulls between disturbances, arresting anyone they came across. Bystanders simply watching events with grim fascination were caught up in the police net, guilty of being in the wrong place.

As the riots entered the early hours of a fourth day, police fired 25-30 CS gas grenades, dispersing the crowds. Sporadic disturbances continued for five more days before peace was restored. A resurgence of trouble later in the month saw a disabled man, David Moore, struck and killed by a police Land Rover.

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Although Oxford would blame “thieves and vagabonds”, academic Diane Frost, co-author of a book about the riots, said those they interviewed “were very clear that they weren’t starting a fight: they were fighting back”.

By the end, 500 people were arrested, anywhere between 450 and 780 officers injured, with, according to one reckoning, countless others hurt but not recorded, and up to 150 buildings burnt down or demolished.

Reports by Lords Gifford and Scarman pointed to policing methods combined with economic circumstances as reasons behind the riots, and the Thatcher government sent Cabinet heavyweight Michael Heseltine north, anointing him minister for Merseyside.

Under Heseltine, regeneration for an economically depressed city came in the form of an International Garden Festival, created on former landfill and opened by the Queen, and the transformation of the disused Albert Dock. But few, if any, jobs went to residents of Liverpool 8, and within a couple of years the festival site would be doomed to lie derelict for decades.

As those who led Liverpool’s black community through the grimly racist battleground of the 1970s and 1980s grow old, is life better for generations coming through?

One-off initiatives and small-scale projects have made a dent in huge racial inequalities, and in just the last two years, along with Rothery’s appointment as lord mayor, Liverpool has gained its first black MP, Kim Johnson, and first black city mayor, Joanne Anderson.

But look around the stores of the giant Liverpool One shopping complex and you still struggle to find a black face. The city council workforce remains overwhelmingly white, school teachers report black pupils being discriminated against, and there are numerous accusations of police harassment.

Writer Patrick Graham says most improvements came from “people within the black community, by constantly campaigning. Everything had to be fought for, nothing given willingly.”

Access to social housing has improved, in part due to the Steve Biko Housing Association, established after the riots by local black people and still highly regarded today.

Rows of sturdy Victorian terraces running off the once thriving hub of Granby Street went under the bulldozer, causing their black inhabitants to be dispersed across other areas of Liverpool. Neglect combined with failed regeneration plans have meant little to cheer.

In education, recent evidence suggests little has changed for many young black people at the city’s schools. Tracey Gore, who heads the Liverpool Race Equality Task Force, formed last year, says teachers are reporting that where black and white children display challenging behaviour, “black boys are more likely to be expelled, excluded from school, to end up in the alternative education providers and therefore less likely to get any kind of education at school.

“Nothing was expected of me, and that’s still going on. Our education system is still failing our kids.”

Rothery has been keeping race on the city council’s agenda for 15 years as a councillor but admits that until the authority pledged itself to an equality agenda last year “there had been very little done”.

It took the police murder of George Floyd 4,000 miles away to finally hold the attention of Liverpool’s power-brokers and lead to the establishment of the Race Equality Task Force. It has an ambitious target to radically alter the way businesses, schools, universities, healthcare, cultural bodies, the police and others recruit, promote and operate.

Asked how many of the issues that sparked the riots have been resolved, Gore says: “None. It’s not that attempts haven’t been made but what we know is that for racism and discrimination to go, you’ve got to tackle it at its structural level. This is what the Task Force is absolutely about.”

Relations with police are less tense now, stories of racist insults or abuse rarely surface. Graham, who still lives in the area, believes racism still exists in the police but it is “less overt”.

Gore says the Merseyside police force has built good relations with community organisations. “There’s a conversation – you can exchange issues. There’s still a huge gap between the officer on the beat and the community. What is still an issue is the way police speak to people.”

A GCSE student in Liverpool 8 – “a lovely lad,” according his youth club leader – says in the last year he has been followed, stopped, questioned and searched by police “about seven times”.

The boy, 15, says on one occasion, in a park with friends, he was put in handcuffs and taken to a police station for hitting a tree with a stick. Told the stick was a dangerous weapon, he was ordered to attend a youth offending team.

Clay, a past assistant director in the city education department’s race equality unit and now 70, might expect to avoid such encounters with the law. But he
says around two years ago, after getting into his car outside his home, a police vehicle pulled alongside and officers began to question him.

What followed ended with Clay being forced out of his car with his arm pulled towards his back, leaving him in agony and fearing it would be broken, then handcuffed while he and his car were searched. Merseyside Police subsequently apologised, telling Clay they were sorry to hear he had received “a below standard service”.

For the future, some are more optimistic than others. Talk of promises, recommendations and initiatives is taken with a pinch of salt. Black communities have heard it before.

Gore is determined that, in Liverpool at least, it will be different this time. “What I want is not another report that sits on a shelf.” And Rothery believes among organisations approached by the Task Force “the appetite for change is massive”.

Graham says: “I’m not going to say things in 2021 are the same as they were in 1981. There’s definitely been progress. Has there been enough? No.” Nevertheless, he insists: “You have to be optimistic.

“We had neighbours who used to smack our windows and call us this and that. My mum conquered that hate through love. She invited the neighbours’ children to my third birthday party and to this day those families are in contact.

“Once they got to know us, that was the end of that, and they would stand and fight the same cause. So people can change, and people do.”

Meanwhile, 40 years to the day since the arrest of a young man brought chaos to the area, the first post-Covid Granby Street Market took place, drawing stallholders and customers from many backgrounds to the heart of Liverpool 8. Community-led and a model of diversity, it is a bustling, happy affair – and a glimpse of what might be.

Policing in Merseyside, forty years on

In post since April, Merseyside Police Chief Constable Serena Kennedy says she believes policing has changed for the better over 40 years. She is determined to “provide a policing service that is built on respect for all the communities we serve”.

She says the local policing team in Toxteth has established good relationships with community groups and members.

“We will continue to tackle criminality to ensure that the majority of law-abiding members of the community can enjoy the area and the amenities it has to offer safely and without fear.”

Kennedy says she is committed to improving the recruitment and retention of groups currently under-represented, regularly meeting the Merseyside Independent Advisory Group and working directly with communities.

“Through our partnership with Liverpool’s Blackburne House we are delivering a three-week training course via Zoom for those who are looking to apply to join our apprenticeship programme, and it is aimed at people from under-represented groups who may be considering a role in the police.”

In June, 3.2 per cent of the Merseyside Police workforce were black, Asian and minority ethnic, up slightly from 3 per cent in May 2020. Kennedy says a new outreach and recruitment team will be set up to improve this figure but acknowledges it can only be achieved if under-represented groups trust the police.

“Every interaction we have with the public matters, and we need to ensure we get our policing style right for all our communities.”

Kennedy points out that policing cannot be carried out in isolation and calls for better housing, education and employment opportunities for under-represented groups, but she defends the use of stop and search, calling it a “crucial policing power” to tackle serious and organised crime.

She says the introduction of body-worn cameras for officers and community scrutiny panels to review random footage are measures introduced to ensure it is used fairly and properly.

From 1 January to 28 February this year, black people are 1.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched in Merseyside, says Kennedy. “While this figure needs to be improved, it is significantly less than the average across England and Wales for the same period, which shows that a black person is six times more likely to be stopped than a white person. Our figures for Merseyside also show a small but consistent drop over a three-year period: from 1.8 for 2020/21, 2.3 for 2019/20 and 2.8 for 2018/19.”

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