Early in the morning of 18 January 1981, flames tore through a three floored combined house party at 439 New Cross Road, South London. 13 young black people lost their lives directly through the fire and the toll rose to 14, when a further party attendee tragically committed suicide, two years later. Within six weeks of the fire, London had been brought to a standstill by a 20,000 strong demonstration.
By the summer, through the length and breadth of the country, battles had raged between the police and black, Asian, and white youths. These young people proclaimed themselves as a resistance to official indifference, and to brutality at the hands of uniformed figures of authority. In Brixton that April, three days of the most intense disturbances of the 20th century in the UK took place, seen by many as akin to an uprising. These events have reverberated throughout the past 40 years and have a resonance far greater than often admitted, in the 21st century.
Uprising review – unflinching and unmissable
Broadcast in three parts on the BBC, appeared Uprising by James Rogan and Steve McQueen, of recent Small Axe drama series fame. If anything, this documentary was more powerful, disturbing and essential than the episodes of those acclaimed dramas. McQueen and Rogan spoke to survivors, family members, councillors, activists and police.
The programme impressively provided a freely spoken arena for the participants to tell both their intimate accounts and memories, and recollections of how these fitted into the political and cultural context of the time. Intercut with a backdrop provided by relevant footage, speeches, music and poetry, each contribution built up and entwined another, in a process that revealed a picture of many aspects of day to day life that was in equal parts, moving, upsetting, informative and shocking. At times, the viewer was also left impressed as to the resilience and determination of people to face even the most terrifying of times.
Wayne Haynes, DJ
Wayne Haynes, the only DJ to have lived through the tragic event, suffered third degree burns and a completely smashed hip from it. He smiled with pride as he told of the importance of sound systems to both his mates and the local community.
This turned to sadness and distress when he talked of the shock of seeing smoke rising among the dancing to his heavyweight selection of The Wailing Souls, “Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall”. Also, there was anger about how the police would stop, pick up, “search” (aka “beat the hell out of”) young black kids on a regular basis, and how the National Front attempted to intimidate entire neighbourhoods with the tacit support of a substantial proportion of society, including seemingly a number in the press.
With threats of “repatriation”, “it felt like they wanted to purge us from the streets,” said another contributor.
Music, vibrancy and trust
Denise Gooding, her brother Richard, and mother Ena, again highlighted the importance of cultural aspects, the dominoes, the music, the vibrancy and the trust people had in each other but never that of those in authority. Richard spoke of feeling too old for the party. Denise, not even a teenager at the time, of her sheer enjoyment of the early part of the party – the friends, the dancing, the great music, all the freshly cooked food, the fantastic atmosphere. This counterpoints the ensuing recollection of feeling like at only 11, she hadn’t seen enough of her life as she desperately tried to escape.
Sandra Ruddock told of her marriage to Paul and her excitement at learning she was to be a mother. Leaving the party early, it wasn’t until the next day that she learnt of the horror of the fire that was to eventually rob her of her husband and her children, their father. Paul is seen as a hero in recollections, as he bravely attempted to save others, including his sister Yvonne, whose 16th birthday party it jointly was.
Uprising: powerful, upsetting and human
Such detail made the programme all the more powerful, upsetting and human. Richard Gooding spoke movingly of his friend, Anthony Berbeck, committing suicide two years later, and having being “alright before” (the fire). His young brother (Andrew) meanwhile, we were told, was only identifiable from fragments of his clothing. Denise Gooding then stated, “It just tore the whole family apart, … (it was) very hard to recover from”. As the horror of the fire is described, emotionally shattering monochrome images of the youngsters appeared on to the screen, one at a time.
Uprising: a grief-stricken community and claims of a cover-up
With the community of New Cross left grief-stricken, many are convinced that the fire was the result of yet another racist attack. The police were seen to be trying to move the blame to the party goers themselves and talk of a fight amongst attendees (later discounted) appeared. Claim of a police cover up emerged. Two interviewees who were police officers at the time spoke of crass “jokes” about New Cross being renamed Black-Fryers (after London’s Blackfriars), of constant harassment and intimidation of the local community, of National Front badges being worn by police in the neighbourhood.
Footage of the then head of the Police Federation (Lee Curtis) appeared, claiming that no serving police officer should be dismissed for using the “n-word”.
Reaction from an apathetic or racist government
The reaction of those in power mirrored this. For at best it was apathetic, at worst downright racist. Margaret Thatcher had already aped the National Front and courted their votes when she said in 1978, “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”
When immediate condolences were sent by the Prime Minister and Queen to Dublin, following a tragic disco inferno there in February 1981, with none being seen by the bereaved families in South London, the implication appeared clear.
Black People’s Day of Action
Without change, in the UK, black lives would never matter. Galvanised by this, the Black Peoples Day of Action was organised. London stood still as 20,000 attended with a chant of, “13 dead and nothing said!”
A route agreed with the authorities became blocked by the police with riot shields at Blackfriars’ bridge. After skirmishes, the march got to Fleet Street, where it was racially abused by those in press offices. Reports of a “Rampage of a mob”, “The Day the Blacks Rioted”, a “Black Day at Blackfriars”, were printed. However, many members of the black community, particularly the poorer young working class members, felt empowered for perhaps the first time in their lives.
But what was the response of those in authority? The police were actively encouraged to instigate a massive stop and search operation, actually nicknamed, “Operation Swamp”. Targeting a community long demonised as muggers and now seen as out of control, any justification for harassment would do. As interviewees made clear on the programme, it usually involved violent intimidation, sometimes several times within a single day. In this oppressive atmosphere, first Brixton and then many of the inner cities burned.
For the police, it was perhaps for the first time a frightening experience, one where as an ex-officer put it, we definitely lost in what had often been seen previously as a game. Contrasting this, for those on the streets, it was a time of feeling unified, of finally “fighting back”. Wayne Haynes called the flames as ones of “freedom”, as opposed to the murderous ones occurring at the party. Others spoke of turning the tables on the “slave drivers”, in a proud uprising. Much of the footage on the then “frontline” of Brixton’s Railton Road, is homemade. This makes it feel all the more realistic and of contemporary importance.
Downplaying similarities with nowadays
Interestingly, journalistic reviews of the documentary have been largely very positive. They mention the toxic authority attitudes and the deeply divided nation of the time. And yet comparatively little is made of the continuation of this today, nor the role of the press in the prevalence of those attitudes. Activists on the programme highlighted a “moral relativism” in society, where street battles, even defensive ones, are initially disparaged. Meanwhile, the violence and intimidation by those in authority is often ignored or even condoned. Concurrently, the similarities of the society of then and now are often downplayed.
Mention was made of very limited changes, e.g. to police management and policy, but also of little serious action to findings of institutional racism and corruption. Within late capitalism, there has been continued tension on the ground, a lack of opportunity and racism, immigrant baiting, culture war provocations, increased surveillance and control mechanisms, and a vicious divide and rule policy.
Reactions to the 1981 battles, such as a regeneration game, only served to make life less vibrant, more expensive, and less cohesive for many existing communities than before. Ten years ago, Tottenham and then elsewhere, had major street disturbances, after closures of youth centres and the killing of Mark Duggan exacerbated the simmering anger.
A less unified society?
In 1981, targets were clear. Places such as The George pub in Brixton, were chosen for having long being associated with racist attitudes. In 2011, what began as protests outside the police station in Tottenham, unfortunately appeared to become more nihilistic with increasingly random attacks, as the battles spread outside that area. This maybe because in the intervening three decades, society had been encouraged to become more individualistic, more atomised and less unified?
Contemporary society is clearly still not at peace itself. It is easy to laud a programme on events of four decades ago, but it demands more uncomfortable honesty to resist a kind of contemporary cognitive dissonance, historical distancing, and a psychology of obedience that commonly exists. It is important to highlight the continuation of a problematic society and associated attitudes that exist to this day. Wayne Haynes spoke for many, when he said, “We need change now”.
Still fighting for justice
As to the New Cross fire, still no one has been charged for its causation. In the face of two open verdicts, the families continue to fight for answers and justice. Uprising is one of the most thought provoking, informative, and above all, human documentaries of recent years. It is not an easy watch but as the director McQueen states, to reach the joy, we’ve got to deal with trauma and “we’ve got to do the homework”. It is a fitting memory to all those who lost their young lives through that tragic early winter morning of 1981:
Humphrey Brown, 18; Peter Campbell, 18; Steve Collins, 17; Patrick Cummings, 16; Gerry Francis, 17; Andrew Gooding, 14,; Lloyd Richard Hall, 20; Patricia Denise Johnston, 15; Rosalind Henry, 16; Glenton Powell, 15; Paul Ruddock, 22; Yvonne Ruddock, 16; Owen Thompson, 16; Anthony Berbeck, 20.