The long-awaited death of the Queen on 8th September 2022 has unleashed a wave of
yu not remembah
how di whole a black Britn did rack wid rage
how di whole a black Britn tun a fiery red
nat di callous red af di killah’s eyes
but red wid rage like di flames af di fyah
Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘New Crass Massahkah’
On 18 January 1981, a fire at a house party in New Cross, South-East London, led to the deaths of 13 young Black people including Yvonne Ruddock, who was celebrating her 16th birthday. One of the survivors later took their own life.
Police declared the fire to be an accident, but to this day many suspect it was a racist arson attack. The authorities failed to seriously investigate these claims, despite the fact that racially abusive letters had been sent to the homeowner, and an incendiary device found outside the house. The police treated the families of the dead like suspects, rather than victims, and the Daily Mail falsely suggested several Black people had been arrested in connection with the fire. The government, police and media expressed complete indifference at one of the single biggest losses of Black life in the country’s history. PM Margaret Thatcher didn’t even offer condolences to the bereaved families.
The suspicions of foul play were well founded – New Cross was known to many as the race hate capital of Britain. Many other Black homes in the area had been attacked by supporters of the fascist National Front, and a Black community centre was burnt down. Almost exactly a decade earlier, white racists had petrol bombed a Black people’s party in Lewisham, injuring 22 people.
Ever since the ‘Windrush generation’ had been brought to the country to help rebuild Britain’s post-war economy, they were met with hostility and violence. The police regularly raided Black meeting places such as the Mangrove restaurant, as well as the annual Notting Hill Carnival. The same year as the New Cross fire also saw the passing of the British Nationality Act, the last of a series of immigration laws explicitly targeting people of colour; tearing apart countless families in the process.
Black activists were unequivocal in their response: ‘Here to Stay, Here to Fight’. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee arranged a ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ for 2 March 1981. It was organised by Darcus Howe, a prominent member of the British Black Panthers and one of the Mangrove Nine (recently depicted in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe); and John La Rose, co-founder of the Black Parents Movement. Howe explained, ‘if they are going to kill so many kids in a fire, we have to show them we got some power in this place, and the only way to do that is to call a general strike of blacks.’
The Action Committee organised support groups from across the country. A staggering 15,000 attended on the day, making it the ‘largest demonstration of black political power Britain has ever seen’. Slogans included ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, and ‘Come what May, We Are Here to Stay’. The march consciously challenged the symbolic epicentres of the white ruling-class establishment; setting out from New Cross to Fleet Street, moving past Scotland Yard and then the Houses of Parliament.
Only a month after the Day of Action, the Metropolitan police launched ‘Swamp 81’ – a mass stop-and-search operation. Black residents responded in the Brixton uprising, and the following summer saw further inner-city disturbances by working-class Black, Asian and white youths across the country. For Howe, these ‘riots’ represented ‘an insurrection of the masses of the people’. Further such insurrections occurred in 1985 – partly in response to the police shootings of two Black women, Cherry Groce and Cynthia Jarrett.
Britain still not innocent
Today, the Tory government continues to do its best to maintain a ‘hostile environment’ for people of colour. The abuse of stop and search laws, racist attacks, cruel deportations, and Black deaths in police custody have all continued unabated. It is then unsurprising that the 1981 ‘riots’ resonated 30 years later, after the police killing of Mark Duggan. Both Labour and the Tories blamed the 2011 disturbance on ‘gangs’ and lack of family discipline. Keir Starmer, then Director of Public Prosecutions, fast-tracked the sentencing of protestors (and in 2009, he also approved the decision not to prosecute the police officers who murdered Jean Charles de Menezes).
The spirit of Black resistance has endured, from the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign, to Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, and now Black Lives Matter UK. Young activists of colour are increasingly applying lessons from the long history of Black political struggle in Britain. In Jay Bernard’s poetry collection Surge, a direct line is traced from the New Cross fire to Grenfell’s ‘towers of blood’, where 72 working-class people including many migrants from North Africa were the victims of corporate murder. The utter disregard for the lives of impoverished and racially oppressed people was again shown when Theresa May refused to meet with victims’ families, and denied amnesty to those migrant survivors facing the threat of deportation.
White supremacy is endemic to capitalism. The same logic driving Black death within Britain is the one that leaves African migrants to drown in the Mediterranean, and perpetrates neo-colonial violence against the anti-SARS protestors in oil-rich Nigeria. As Tania Apaza puts it,
‘We die by their bombs. We die by their multinational companies. We die by their fires. We die by their police brutality. We’ve died and we’ll keep dying until this parasitic government no longer has the power to kill us. Until we take that power away from them. This is capitalism-imperialism. Here, the lives of working-class immigrants don’t matter. We are displaced from our homelands and forced into slum housing wrapped in what is essentially solid gasoline.’
Forty years on from New Cross, the need to build a mass anti-racist, anti-imperialist movement is still paramount. No justice, no peace!