Toxteth riots, 1981

The riots of 1981 led to social and political changes that still resonate today, says Jamie Kenny

The night of 3 July 1981 started just like any other night in Liverpool 8. That was the problem.

Police had stopped and questioned a local youth riding a motorcycle on Shelbourne Road. Liverpool police made frequent use of the stop and search powers granted to them under the “sus laws” operating at the time to a point that local residents, especially among the black community, insisted amounted to systematic harassment.

There had been signs for a number of weeks that people were finally reaching their limit.

“It was kind of like a build-up – you had so many incidents of people just about having enough so rather than standing passively and shouting names at the police when they were arresting someone, there were a few incidents,” said local resident Michael Simon, who was 13 at the time.

On the night of 3 July, some friends of the motorbike rider came over to remonstrate with the police. One of them, Leroy Cooper, was put under arrest and driven away in a police van under a hail of stones from an increasingly large and angry crowd.

Three police were injured in running fights with crowds of local youth that night. Three days and nights of pitched battles followed. Police reinforcements were called in from all over the UK.

A stream of reinforcements also joined the rioters from elsewhere in Merseyside and beyond, each with their own grievances against the police. A self-reinforcing dynamic of violence took over. According to “Nick”, then a local 18 year old: “What was scary about it was the police standing there with these batons, and then banging the batons on these shields, as if it was a war. I suppose that’s the way they had to try and intimidate people to get them off the streets. But I think it did the opposite. I think people started saying: ‘Look, that’s a gang, and we’re a gang.’”

By the time disturbances finally guttered out some six weeks later, one man was dead, almost 800 policemen were injured, 542 people had been arrested and 70 buildings destroyed.

The events ‘destroyed at a stroke the myth of police invincibility’

The Toxteth riots, as they became known, were not the first that year. Brixton had erupted in April, with the sus laws again providing the proximate cause. But Toxteth set off a chain reaction. Two weeks later, rioting erupted in Manchester’s Moss Side, where the police station was besieged by angry crowds for three days. More major riots followed in Birmingham and Leeds. By 10 July that year, disturbances had been reported in Leicester, Preston, Blackburn, Sheffield, Newcastle, Luton, Wolverhampton, Stockport and – believe it or not – Ellesmere Port and Chester.

The consequences are still felt today. In their new book Liverpool ’81- Remembering the Riots, Diane Frost and Richard Phillips of Liverpool University write that the events were “called a ‘turning point in British politics’ because they ‘destroyed at a stroke the myth of police invincibility’, and because they drew attention to wider social and economic tensions that could no longer be ignored”. The rioting in Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere has helped shape the economic, social and law enforcement environment in which we all live today.

The people who actually rioted on those July nights had no knowledge of all that. Nor do they have any regrets. “I wouldn’t say the people we spoke to were proud of being rioters as such,” says Frost. “But they were very clear on the fact that they weren’t starting a fight: they were fighting back.”

Co-author Phillips adds: “There was a real distinction as well between the first night and subsequent nights, when people came in from other parts of Liverpool. For the people who were there on the first night, it’s very much a case of: that was the night we made a stand.”

Policing in Liverpool was informed by dubious attitudes at the top

That view is reflected in the experience of a man the authors call David, who was a 16-year-old youth at the time of the riots. “The only thing I can make the analogy with is like in a war situation, where you see people doing things which you’re just thinking ‘fantastic’… you’re actually inspired by these things, by what some people are doing and the solidarity – there was none of this leaving people alone. There were incidents where people were getting arrested and we’d surround the police van and pull them out.”

Policing in Liverpool was certainly informed by dubious attitudes at the top. According to then Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford, Liverpool had a problem with “half castes” who lived “well outside recognised society”. In testimony to Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the riots, Oxford spoke of the “natural criminal proclivities” of people in Liverpool 8.

Current police chief Jon Murphy, then a policeman on the beat in Toxteth, told the authors of Liverpool ’81 that the police “weren’t sensitive to racial issues in the way they are today. Inclusivity, diversity were not words in the police lexicon”.

That began to change after the riots. The Scarman Report, which was mainly concerned with the Brixton riots but also examined the situation in Liverpool, called for greater emphasis on community policing. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 also set out legally enforceable codes of practice for police behaviour and codified suspects’ rights.

Local police opened a station on Granby Street in the heart of Liverpool 8 five years after the riots. Toxteth, says Chief Constable Murphy, now serves as a model for the rest of Merseyside Police to engage with local communities. It’s also a model that has extended beyond Merseyside.

“In the wider policing world the 1980s saw a big ‘Anderton versus Alderson’ debate,” says Phil Edwards, lecturer in criminology at Manchester University, in reference to Chief Constable Geoffrey Alderson from Devon, the champion of community outreach, and James Anderton, Manchester’s famously hardline police chief. In the end, he says, policing adopted elements of both techniques.

“The police have the tactics and equipment to go in very, very hard if they feel the need,” he says. “But at the same time you don’t get the situation where communities regard the police as the enemy. If people see police stopping someone these days, they won’t intervene. That’s partly because levels of trust are higher, but also partly because the police don’t look like commissionaires anymore. They look as though they mean business.”

Soon the self-appointed minister for Merseyside was making weekly visits to Liverpool

Shortly after the Toxteth riots, then environment secretary Michael Heseltine commented that a Conservative government could do nothing other than support the forces of law and order. But, as this implies, it could do other things as well. “Heseltine already had a plan involving private sector-led redevelopment of inner cities and urban areas,” says Phillips. “What happened in 1981 gave him the opportunity to push these plans into a higher gear.”
Soon the self-appointed minister for Merseyside was making weekly visits to Liverpool, pushing ahead with plans to renovate the environment, rebuild the city’s crumbling infrastructure and attract attention-grabbing events, leading with the International Garden Festival of 1984.

Residents of Liverpool 8 were baffled as to why “a five month pageant of horticultural excellence” should be thought of as the answer to their problems. “As people said, it was a project which had nothing to do with them, which they couldn’t get jobs on, which charged too much for them to get in, and which they didn’t want to see anyway,” says Frost.

But Heseltine was after something much bigger: a template for urban development as a whole that was rapidly adopted outside Liverpool, a kind of stir-fry of high profile events, environmental beautification, extensive urban redevelopment and relentless public relations, often on the theme of “world classness”. Elected local authorities would be high profile advocates for their cities. But much of the work would be in the hands of development quangos with extensive private sector involvement under central government oversight.

Now the regeneration caravan seems to have halted altogether

Liverpool 8 saw some changes. The area’s worst social housing was demolished, policing improved and local public bodies opened up their recruitment processes. But, for the most part, the main regeneration caravan passed the area by.

Now it seems to have halted altogether. Thirty years on from the long, hot summer of 1981, there’s a Conservative-led government in power with austerity very much on its mind. Development quangos were among the first to feel the coalition axe. Cuts to police funds may make it more difficult to conduct the kind of end-to-end policing that evolved as a more sophisticated answer to the problems of public disorder. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to see the people take to the streets again.

“It’s always tempting to see the riots as a kind of easily repeated response to general economic circumstances,” says Phillips. “But we need to remember that these weren’t identikit rioters but individuals who felt pushed to act through a highly specific set of circumstances.”

Frost adds: “The community’s changed a lot since 1981. I’m not sure there’s the same sort of pressure or the same willingness to act. But what the riots did show is that when you push people to the wall they will fight back. That’s true then and it’s true now.”

Liverpool ’81 – Remembering the Riots, edited by Diane Frost and Richard Phillips, is published by Liverpool University Press. Photo: Goff Tinsley

‘It was pretty frightening stuff’

Cars had their accelerator pedals tied down, the cars [were] being set on fire, and driven straight at the police lines. I remember javelins being thrown. I remember a school being broken into, and javelins being taken out of the school sports cupboard and being thrown at the police cars.

I remember one went straight through the hood of a personnel carrier and hit the engine block. I remember axes being used and going through the sides of [vehicles]. We were in the back of the Land Rover and there was no light, and we would drive from behind the police line to try and relieve the pressure and then we could see nothing, we could just hear things hitting the side of the Land Rover and people trying to open the [vehicle]. It was pretty frightening stuff.

It’s a miracle that a police officer didn’t die

On one night there was something like 15 or 16 gas grenades thrown and probably 40 or 50 CS gas rounds. The clear view of the Chief Constable at the time was, if I don’t do this, some of my officers will die … and there’s no doubt about it, he genuinely believed that, and having been there on the ground, I thought that was gonna happen anyway. I thought it’s a miracle, frankly, that a police officer didn’t die.

Jon Murphy, then a constable, now Merseyside Police chief

‘Everyone was together’

Me and my mates in Salford, we’d seen the riots in Brixton on the news, then the riots in Toxteth, and then Moss Side. We were 17, 18, really into the vibe down there – the music, the clubs, the whole atmosphere – so this Friday night we thought we’d go down there to see what was happening and stand with the people.

It was incredible. There were hundreds of people besieging the police station, shops burning, cars burning. There were people from everywhere. We met guys from Liverpool and Birmingham.

We were all faced off against the police, us on one side of the road and the police on the other in their riot gear. Groups would take off from the crowd and run at the police, then the police would charge at us. It was organised as well. There were people who were obviously respected in the community saying you guys go over there, you guys do that. Everybody knew that the whole thing was being broadcast and they wanted to send a message.

There was a real sense of unity, of people amaking a stand

It was scary – you really didn’t want to get caught by the police – but it wasn’t a threatening atmosphere because everyone was together, everyone was on the same page no matter where they came from or their race or the colour of their skin. There was a real sense of unity, of people all together making a stand.

And, yeah, if you were a late teenager like I was it was a great craic as well. No denying it. But I was from Salford where in the late seventies there was a racist thing going on. We disagreed with that. We didn’t think people should be split up into black versus white but should overcome all that, and that was what happened in Moss Side that night. Whatever your culture, whatever the colour of your skin, you were all part of the community. People still think of it as a race riot but it wasn’t like that at all.

Barry Woodward remembers the Moss Side riots

‘It was a sense that we’d had enough’

Our family were police targets. Back when I was ten years old, I’d have police coming up to me and saying: “We know your family and we’re just waiting for you. Your time will come.” That kind of thing happened all over Liverpool 8. Families would be targeted, extended families. It wasn’t policing – it was an occupation.

There was a growing feeling in the weeks before everything started that we weren’t going to tolerate it. There was some politics behind it. Liverpool faces the Atlantic and there were influences coming over from America, the Black Panthers, that kind of thing. But it was just a sense that we’d had enough.

So when Leroy Cooper was arrested there were people trying to pull him out of the van. More police came and they got him away eventually, and the van got bricked. Then the panda cars came. Normally everyone would just run away at this point but they got attacked. Then the first Black Maria came, and that got attacked as well. By now we really thought that if we stopped then that the police would track us down and just kill us.

The next day nearly every male I knew in Liverpool 8 was there

There were about 50 people that night, but the next day nearly every male I knew in Liverpool 8 was there, a huge crowd of people outside the pub where the women’s hospital was built later. There were people making plans, breaking up bricks to be used later. And then a police van turned up, there was some provocation – by them or us I don’t know – and it all started again.

It was incredible. You had the police and all their riot gear, all the tear gas, but we just pushed them back and back. That was 2,000 yards, maybe, but eventually on the Sunday night we just pushed them out of the area. That’s when the crowd broke up and I went home. And then the police started sending snatch squads round. They’d pick you up and decide what they could charge you with. I was charged with looting a burnt-out shop, but that was dropped a year or so later. Really the idea was to come up with something so they could keep you on remand.

What we achieved over those days was to get people to start looking at British institutions differently. You had the Macpherson Report in the nineties which found institutional racism in the police. I think the process that led to that started in Liverpool 8 in 1981 and in all the other cities where uprisings took place.

Michael Simon, who witnessed the L8 riots as a teenager

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Interact: Responses to Toxteth riots, 1981

  • Remembering the L8 Uprising: 40 years on from the Toxteth ‘Riots’, has life changed for Liverpool’s Black residents? – Modern Times News
    30 Jul 2021 10:41
    […] unfair and began protesting, culminating in Leroy Cooper, a young Black friend of the motorcyclist, being arrested and carted away in a police van that onlookers pelted with […]

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