Forty years ago the Toxteth area of Liverpool exploded into nine days and nights of anger and rioting as the people of the area rose up in rage. One man was killed, hundreds were injured and CS gas was used together with the deployment of armoured Land Rovers. The events in Liverpool were only part of a wider rebellion across the cities of the UK as capitalism faced a profound crisis under the rule of a new Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher.
On the evening of 3rd. July, 1981 in the Toxteth or Liverpool 8 district of the city, a young black man on a motorbike chased by the police eventually lost his balance and fell off. The police, wanted him because they thought the bike was stolen; they tried to catch up with him but he disappeared quickly.
However a crowd soon appeared and grew rapidly angry at the aggressive tactics the police adopted. Patrol cars poured in, batons were drawn, bricks and stones were thrown and a well-known young black man Leroy Cooper was arrested. Leroy’s brother had been acquitted of a trumped up charge in the Crown Court only the day before. What the police were up to was obvious; revenge.
Enraged, groups of black and white youths then moved around the district throwing stones at any police vehicle within range. Within twelve hours an occupying army of police officers flooded the area to impose their authority on the local people. But this time the residents of Toxteth were not going to put up it.
So why was Liverpool a tinderbox? In the 19th.century merchants and traders got rich because of the slave trade and the exploitation of Black people. The city was at the heart of a trade in Africans who were taken as slaves to the southern states of the USA to be sold.
The Toxteth area had become quite prosperous and middle class in this period of economic boom. But by the 1970s Toxteth was grim, full of big houses neglected and subdivided into flats or boarded up. They were in poor condition and had been left to rot, often facing stretches of waste ground. Many were derelict and as no new employment had come into the area: the social deprivation was appalling. Liverpool’s population between 1971 and 1981 fell by a third. The city had lost its port jobs of the 19th.century but also the factory jobs designed to replace them were disappearing. Multinationals moved in, took huge government grants to bribe them to provide jobs, then shut down plants within a few years to move elsewhere for more free cash.
The Labour government which fell in 1979 had carried through a huge single national expenditure cut of £8 billion (£50 billion in today’s money) in 1977. Thatcher and the Tories built on this ghoulish work and enthusiastically slashed grants to councils from central government, cutting thousands of jobs and services. For much of the 1980s the real Black youth unemployment figure in the Liverpool 8 area was between 70-80%
Many large cities over the previous twenty years suffered population loss thus reducing their income from rates. Liverpool’s problems were huge, as it had experienced a 33% drop in population when the more affluent moved out. Total income for the city fell by 18%. A cycle of falling population, unemployment, loss of income and increased deprivation was well established.
In Liverpool 8 there was a further ingredient. Not only were the population working class but the majority were black. This led to a double oppression of both race and class. The Merseyside police force was riddled with vicious racism. Every black person had a story of abuse to tell, from racist language directed at them to school children being picked up in police cars, beaten and dumped on the outskirts of the city.
In 1981 Merseyside Police had four black police officers out of a total force of 5000. A major weapon they used against Liverpool 8 was the ‘SUS’ laws, a hated set of stop-and-search powers derived from the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which gave them the right to act against anyone on the street, pavement or even outside their own homes. So called suspects could be searched for drugs, stolen goods or knives. Victims could be charged with a range of offences from threatening behaviour to resisting arrest. For the racist police this legislation was a ticket to a carnival of harassment and violence against young black people.
In November 1978 the Chief Constable of Merseyside, the notorious Kenneth Oxford wrote in the BBC Listener magazine about
‘the problem of half-castes in Liverpool. Many are the product of liaisons
between Black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8…..well outside
He later became ‘Sir Kenneth Oxford’ as a reward for loyalty to the British establishment. But it was not just police attitudes which made life hard. Black people were not safe if they left Liverpool 8, even to go into the city centre. They were exposed to threats, taunts, abuse and violence by certain elements in society if they left this area. This lack of mobility together with a deep prejudice amongst employers made it even harder for young people to get work.
As always the right wing of the Labour movement had nothing to offer. Toxteth was represented in Parliament by Richard Crawshaw, a former Labour MP who had joined the SDP (Social Democratic Party) when they split from the Party. The sole purpose of the SDP was to ensure that a Labour government was not elected as it had a new leader Michael Foot who threatened to implement more radical policies.
Crawshaw stated that unemployment or poor living conditions were not the causes of the riots but they might have something to do with police racism. He had never organised or campaigned on these issues, he made no links with trade unions nor had he seriously worked with local community groups. He had no idea how to mobilise the local population or highlight the appalling problems of his constituency. He was the classic Labour careerist who went on to become deputy speaker of the House of Commons and a Lord.
A cutbacks council
In addition the council was run by a reactionary Liberal-Tory alliance, who when taking power in May 1980 had slashed spending by £7.5 million even before the Conservative government issued orders to make cuts. There was an all-out offensive against house building and repairs, employment and the care of the elderly and sick.
The anger of the local people turned to action. The street lights were put out, piles of rocks, bricks, planks of wood from building sites were seized along with scaffolding poles and iron railings from the older houses. A bulldozer was hotwired and used to build barricades. Tyres, vehicles, vans even a fire engine was used to keep the police out. Javelins from a local school together with petrol bombs were thrown at the police.
Up to 1000 police were at a time deployed in Toxteth from Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cumbria, Birmingham and even Devon. Most of the rioters were young men and some women, whilst the majority were black there were many whites as well. The police could not cope with them as the locals could escape attack by moving into the extensive alleyways in the area.
Looters moved to empty shops to take supplies of food. Old-age pensioners and whole families took what they could; many from other poorer parts of the city. 150 buildings were burnt down in the first four days of rioting including Britain’s first drive through bank and commercial properties like furniture stores or haunts of the rich and privileged which were irrelevant to local people. An old folk’s home was close to a building in flames so local people got the elderly residents out in taxis.
Language of the unheard
Martin Luther King Jr said a riot is the language of the unheard. Whilst a lot of buildings were randomly burned down some were targeted for their association with the Tories and the establishment. The Racquets Club was a private members club for the wealthy, when the area was better off. It was a retreat for freemasons, senior police and judges. Jaguar and Rolls Royce cars were regularly parked outside. As well as a drinking hole it offered gentlemanly sports such as racquets and Eton Fives. It was not a place for local people who were excluded by their class and race. The club was set alight and burned to the ground.
A prominent building in the area was the former Rialto cinema with its copper domes. By 1981 it was Swainbank’s second hand furniture warehouse selling basically rubbish. It was a sweet target for many living in Liverpool 8 as it was run by a notorious former Tory councillor where many, on social security, were forced to pay exorbitant sums for below standard furniture. The owner was notorious for his racism and abuse aimed at young people. There was a lot of joy when it went up in flames, its steel and copper roof glowing – a sight which could be seen all over the area.
Further evidence of the sheer hatred of the Tories was the petrol bombing of the Sefton Park Conservative club and Thatcher’s Tea and Coffee house run by the local Conservative association had all its window’s smashed.
During the riots, 781 police officers were injured and over 200 police vehicles wrecked or put out of action. Oxford decided that he would use more aggressive tactics. In the early hours of the 6th.July, the police fired tear gas against the crowd for the first time in the UK outside Northern Ireland. Not CS gas to disperse people in the open but inappropriate canisters designed to penetrate buildings for use in armed sieges. They were designed to detonate against walls and other hard surfaces but not human beings. Of course, this resulted in several serious injuries.
Oxford followed this up with armoured Land Rovers, similar to those used by the army in Northern Ireland. He ordered his officers to drive directly at the crowd breaking them up and forcing them to flee, followed up by the notorious snatch squads. Many were injured as a result. David Moore, a twenty-two-year old disabled man with a limp, visiting his sister and not a local, was crushed against a wall by a police Land-Rover. He died soon after from his injuries. This in turn led to more riots and conflict after his funeral. Later the officers involved were put on trial for manslaughter and of course acquitted. David Moore was not the only one to be struck by police Land Rovers. All Kenneth Oxford could say,”They can see the vehicle coming and they knew what will happen if they get in the way.”
Summer of riots
There were riots in other parts of the country in the summer of 1981 in Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Brixton in South London. In all the big urban areas of England there were ferocious uprisings as the youth vented their anger. The failure of the previous Labour government and the vindictive anti- working class policies of Margaret Thatcher together with unemployment and economic deprivation lay behind this fury amongst young people.
Margaret Thatcher was encouraged to abandon Liverpool after the 1981 riots to a fate of “managed decline”. Ministers were instructed not to spend money on the “stony ground” of Merseyside. Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe said” it would be like trying to make water flow uphill.” The capitalist class believed opportunities for exploitation were poor in this area and it was not worth the effort.
However the government had to be seen to be doing something and Thatcher decided to send Michael Heseltine one of her chief cronies up to the city to introduce market solutions. He stayed a total of three weeks and introduced limited projects such as doing up precincts, some sports facilities, repairing the Albert Docks for tourism, management training schemes for the unemployed and a few community workshops.
But what Heseltine is most famous for is providing luxury toilet facilities for the city’s dog population. He set up the first of many Garden Festivals in the UK. Million were spent on an area in which there were collections of display gardens complete with a Water Park and Festival Hall. The magnificent trees were soon visited by the city’s canine population who showed their appreciation by urinating against them. The cry “jobs not trees “went out and whilst a few temporary jobs were created the site is now mostly derelict.
The government spent £170 million of public money to attract just £25 million in private investment creating no more than 1500 jobs and making no impact on poverty or deprivation. Liverpool is one of many examples of the complete failure of capitalism to solve even the most basic of economic problems.
The worthless market based policies of Thatcherism were swept aside with the election of a new Labour council in 1983. It adopted the policies of the Militant Tendency, our predecessor organisation. The immortal 47 councillors built 5,000 homes, six sports centres, cancelled thousands of redundancies and created new jobs, opened six new nurseries, and rents were frozen. This opened up an exciting new chapter in Liverpool’s history which helped direct much needed new housing and jobs into Toxteth. Eventually, the councillors were defeated not in an election but by disqualification on the orders of a court, egged on by the witch-hunters from the Labour Party leadership led by Neil Kinnock.
The story of the struggle of Liverpool council needs to be told in a much deeper article and at greater length. Whilst the riots inevitably petered out, the people of Toxteth benefited from this socialist council. Their uprising had not been in vain.