We have not forgotten
‘ … at the present time blacks are really very much inside British society … no longer on the periphery’ – John La Rose, 2003.
The most significant date in the history of the black experience in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century is the year 1981. It began inauspiciously in the early hours of 18 January with a racist arson attack on a sixteenth birthday part in south-east London, which resulted in the deaths of thirteen young black people and twenty-six revellers suffering serious injuries. The response of the police, aided and abetted by sections of the media, with the implicit approval of the government, was to use their power to deny justice to the survivors of the fire, the bereaved and the dead. The shock, sorrow and outrage felt by black people throughout the country found expression in concrete political action. On 2nd March, some six weeks after the fire, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by the late John La Rose, mobilised 20,000 people for a march through the streets of London. That Black People’s Day of Action was an unprecedented demonstration of black political power. It was a wake up call for the authorities, a watershed moment that signalled a paradigm shift in race relations in the UK. Moreover, with the Day of Action came a leap in Black British consciousness of the power to bring about change.
Then in April came the uprisings which began with the Brixton riots and spread to inner cities throughout the country. After three decades of racial oppression and marginalisation, second and third generation young blacks made it abundantly clear that things would have to change. We would not longer tolerate being treated as third class citizens — if citizens at all; we were no longer prepared to remain on the periphery of British society, and were willing to fight fire with fire.
In 1981 Britain was undergoing deep structural changes in the wake of the economic crises of the 1970s. It was a turbulent time of class conflict. Racism was rampant and racial prejudice permeated every institution of the state. The new Conservative government of the day, led by Margaret Thatcher, had launched an assault on the gains won by the British working classes after the Second World War. It was a time of racial tension, exacerbated by right-wing politicians like Thatcher, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric fanned the flames of hatred and emboldened racist and fascist organisations. By then there was a mass movement of politicised young blacks and several autonomous organisations engaged in the struggle for racial equality and social justice.
Racist acts of terror against blacks and Asians did not begin with the New Cross arson attack, but coincided with Caribbean migration to the UK in the 1950s. There were the Notting Hill and Nottingham riots of 1958 and 1959, where blacks fought back, and the murder, also in Notting Hill, of Antiguan worker Kelso Cochrane. After the Conservative Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, made his infamous inflammatory ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, demanding the repatriation of black Commonwealth immigrants, there was a marked increase in racist attacks and the rise of fascist organisations such as the National Front, the British Movement and Column 88. In 1971, a decade before the New Cross fire, there was a similar arson attack on a West Indian party in Forest Hill in south-east London where, luckily, no one died. The New Cross area, in particular the London borough of Lewisham, was notorious as a hotbed of National Front activism and racist arson attacks. In 1977, the Moonshot, a black youth and community centre, was fire-bombed. That year Lewisham also witnessed street battles between National Front supporters on the one hand and anti-racists from the Anti-Nazi League, supported by black youths, on the other. In 1978, the Albany Theatre in Deptford was fire-bombed in a suspected racist attack, as was the Lewisham Way Centre in 1980. The New Cross fire was, therefore, not an isolated act of barbarism, but the latest and most devastating in a history of racist terror.
There were two inquests into the New Cross fire, both of which returned open verdicts. If the first, held with indecent haste just three months after the fire, was a travesty of justice where crucial evidence was suppressed by the coroner, then the second inquest, held in 2004, was a farce, as no new evidence was produced. However, on both occasions the police failed to convince the jury that the fire was the result of ‘black on black’ violence. The open verdicts have not allowed closure for the bereaved and the survivors of the fire, but the Black People’s Day of Action and the uprisings that followed in 1981 and again in 1985 were harbingers of change. These dramatic demonstrations of black self empowerment left the Conservative government of the day with no alternative but to implement policies that would accelerate the emergence of a black middle class and a move towards inclusion.
The New Cross Massacre Story: Interviews with John La Rose is the only authoritative account of an important juncture in recent British history. As Chairman of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC), John La Rose was able to give a detailed account of the black communities’ response to the fire, the formation of the NCMAC, the conduct of the police and their collaborators and the Black People’s Day of Action. This publication also includes an appendix, with the ‘Declaration of New Cross’, the public statement made on the Black People’s Day of Action; letters to the Prime Minister, the Commissioner of Police and the Speaker of the House of Commons; the Early Day Motion signed by some Labour Members of Parliament; a statement to the Press Association; the names of the thirteen young black people who died in the fire; and a public statement on the inquest and the appeal against the open verdict.
Documents and papers from the New Cross Massacre Action Committee’s campaign for justice for the victims of the fire are stored in the archives of the George Padmore Institute and can be accessed by the public.
Linton Kwesi Johnson