Article published: Thursday, August 25th 2011
The second part of Andy Bowman’s interview with Professor Gus John from the Moss Side Defence Committee about the Moss Side riots of July 1981.
1981 was the year in which British people of African descent protested against racism and police oppression as never before in modern history. The Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981 brought around 25,000 people on to the streets of London to protest against the massacre of 13 young Africans in a fire at a birthday party in New Cross in South London suspected to be caused by racists. They also attempted to highlight the misconduct of the Metropolitan Police force in their subsequent investigation, the bias of the press, the inadequate response of the government to the tragedy and the generalised racial discrimination in British society. Added to the problem of racial discrimination, the Conservative government’s economic programme was making conditions worse in many poorer communities in inner city areas.
Between April and August that year there was violent urban unrest in St Paul’s in Bristol, Brixton in South London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, and elsewhere in the country. Gus John lived through these years as a community activist and youth worker in Moss Side, having arrived in the UK from the West Indies in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the riots, he was a key figure in the Moss Side Defence Committee, which assisted with legal support to the youths charged by the police, challenged police violence and attempted to convey to the press and public a different interpretation of the events which had taken place. They would later undertake a detailed critique of the Hytner Report, established by the government to investigate the disturbances and their causes. Here Gus recalls his experiences of the times, in an interview carried out just a week before the recent outbreak of rioting across England’s urban centres.
Gus, what was the reaction among the press and political elites to the Moss Side riots? The MEN’s recent coverage refers to it as ‘an orgy of violence’ and a ‘spontaneous eruption of hatred’. Is there a sense in which there was, and still is, an attempt to depoliticise what happened?
Yes. And it is for that reason that I do not refer to those disturbances as riots, because that is to devalue and detract from the righteous political component of the whole thing. It was a violent eruption of protest, on the part of principally black people, but lots of white people as well, because they too had experienced for generations lots of vicious, disrespectful oppressive forms of policing.
The coverage in the media of Manchester, Toxteth, Brixton and St Paul’s, was just totally racist. The tabloids have a lot to answer for. They were echoing what senior police officers were saying. They were always eager to claim that it was pure criminality – that it came from nowhere. As if these criminals suddenly drank something and decided to go and create mayhem.
I say about that, as I say about the gangs and knife crime now, I cannot believe, I refuse to believe that black people have some kind of congenital propensity to evil. If you don’t believe that, you have to ask some searching questions about what predisposes people to do this, but that’s too sophisticated for these hacks. They display their prejudices, and in a sense mirroring the bigotry of the people in leadership positions in the country generally.
How did you attempt to get your message out about what was happening when the mainstream press was like this?
There is an invention called the Gestetner. Do you remember it? No? That places us in different age bands! The Gestetner was a domestic printing machine. You typed onto a stencil, and attached it to the machine, turned a lever to make sure ink covered the drum, and then you start rolling off your hundreds of sheets of paper. Political activists of my age were friends of the Gestetner. You always knew which people were very active, because they were always covered in ink!
So, we had meetings, for the Moss Side Defence Committee, we produced masses of leaflets and handed them out door to door, outside cinemas, and indeed outside the magistrate’s court. Picketing and handing them out. And we physically hand-delivered our statements to the news media. Some of them ignored it, some of them printed stuff. On a good day, the MEN wrote respectable articles, on other days, they had some very stupid headlines. There were some good journalists at the MEN though – Paul Horrocks was a good staff reporter, more reflective than the others who just wanted to print rubbish and get a story in the paper.
So that’s what we did: loads of community meetings that were very well attended and we handed these leaflets around. And that was our political practice. We organised and campaigned around education issues, we had anti-deportation campaigns. The man in this community, Anthony Brown, who now is one of the organisers of the Manchester Carnival – he was facing deportation in the 1970s, and we launched a campaign and succeeded in having him stay here.
What kinds of people were getting involved in these protests?
Lets differentiate a bit. The anti-fascist demos drew just about everybody: old and young, black and white, as well as people from the Asian sub continent. There were large groups of women, large groups of young people, the core of whom were political activists who were running organisations or members of organisations, who came together to work in solidarity with us to work towards particular ends.
That was a regular pattern. When we established the Moss Side Defence Committee in 1981, we decided there would be a subcommittee called the ‘Labour Movement and Trade Union Committee’. We tried to visit their meetings to get individual unions to pass resolutions and donate funds to the particular campaign.
For some causes, we had university students unions supporting – materially, and with cash. Some union offices allowed us to run off leaflets, some organised coaches to demonstrations. It became a loose coalition of progressive forces, including the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Particularly in the aftermath of the disturbances, when the police were just dragging people indiscriminately off the streets, we, the Moss Side Defence Committee, met the Haldane Society, and got pretty horrific reports about the how the courts were getting the probations service to write quick reports on individuals – used by the judge before he passed sentence. This was being done in a sausage machine mode, and the people were not getting the personal treatment they needed. It was all aimed at demonstrating to the public that the situation was in hand, and in the firm grasp of the state. As a result of protests, they discontinued this practice.
As far as the disturbances themselves were concerned, there was clearly not a conscious political decision made that this would be a form of resistance that we were going to engage in on this particular night. In any event, people would not do that, because they would be too scared of a Guy Fawkes movement: someone squealing to the police. So it was spontaneous, but attracted people who felt that they had been hard done by for a long time, and that they would take on the police.
On reflection, how successful was Moss Side Defence Committee?
We were moderately successful. Many of the people who were arrested trusted us implicitly to go and assist them in putting their case together, and in getting legal representation. We introduced a way of working with defendants where we ensured that the defendant remained in charge of the case. We took statements from people, saying we don’t care what you have told the police, you can make a statement here not under duress but it has to be truthful, and we will use that statement to organise your defence.
It sent a powerful message to the magistrates, and that was that we as a community are watching the decisions you make. We want to see evidence that you are taking as seriously the submissions of people from Moss Side as you are taking submissions from the police, and we will expose whatever endorsement you as a court give of police malpractices.
We organised ourselves and went to the court. Some of us went and sat in, some were outside giving out leaflets, and that worked pretty well. The only other thing I would say is this. We worked with individuals that had been arrested, and I believe the whole programme would have accelerated quicker if we had worked with other organisations to build a wider body of mass support. There ought to have been many more people on demonstrations outside the court.
It was a politically volatile period, but politically rich in a whole number of ways. I really had hoped that given the careful work we had put into challenging the Hytner Enquiry, boycotting the enquiry and writing a critique of his findings, having all these meetings around the place, picketing the courts every time somebody was on trial, I was rather hoping we might have built a mass movement around all of that, in pursuit of justice and against police brutality and harassment.
But I think people were happy to come together from their organisations as an alliance, which was effectively what the Moss Side Defence Committee was, rather than seeing themselves as integrally part of one collective group, seeking to build a movement of working class people around these issues. And I suppose people got tired: it had been an exhausting few months.
It has always been a regret to me that I personally and others didn’t return to our critique of the Hytner Enquiry and look at it more analytically, making the links to all that stuff I have been sharing with you, to make a more complete story that others today could look at. Young people particularly, should not be encouraged to see the so-called riots in isolation from everything else.
What changed after the disturbances?
Many, if not most young people developed – however temporarily – developed a greater sense of their own power. Many had the feeling that even if the state didn’t sit up and take account of the message they were giving on the street through these disturbances, they had made their presence felt. Not least to James Anderton and his Greater Manchester Police.
The fact that William Whitelaw, Heseltine and Thatcher introduced a range of projects around the place trying to consolidate the black voluntary sector and links with business, with the support of the banks, they gave start up grants for small entrepreneurs.
And then there was a large amount of refurbishment … and the regeneration of the centre radiated outwards towards Hulme and Moss Side, but while there has been a lot of physical regeneration, not as much has been spent on rehabilitating people.
And the demography of the community has changed: large numbers of Somalis coming in, Lebanese as well, even before the Polish started to arrive. There has been a process of constant adaptation to that.
I get a sense though that there is much less community cohesion now than there used to be. I just don’t get a feeling that communities are working together, with a sense of common purpose and a vision of the future. It is not that people are defeated as such – though Thatcherism had a toll on us all God knows – it’s that the climate is not necessarily conducive to civil action or protest, or change coming about through people becoming adamant that the status quo must change.
Maybe people don’t have a sense of their own strength?
Exactly. I tell that to young people all the time, I say, “You have got the capacity to be as organised as the teaching unions are, and within your schools you have got to sit down talk about issues, and find ways to hold the school to account. You don’t have to do it in a belligerent or antagonistic way, but simply to assert your right to comment on and influence the way the community of which you are a part functions.”
Headteachers run a mile when they hear that kind of thing. But I do feel that if all those young black people who are knifing and shooting one another on the streets had had their energies directed into serious political activism, where they consciously attempting to get their voices heard and influence policies on whatever issue it is, there would be such a sense of empowerment of the capacity to get things done and of achievements to be celebrated, people would have neither the time or the stomach for the kind of violence within our communities.
What can reflections on the disturbances tell us in the present? For people who are looking at problems of racism and police violence
Let me preface my answer by saying, I believe the greatest disservice the state does to its population is through the crappy schooling system we have. When you consider that there is such an emphasis on high level exam results, as if that’s the only mark of schools’ effectiveness, the debate about schooling is always about providing labour for the market, Britain’s economic competitiveness, and the extent to which schools and universities are churning people out.
It has nothing to do with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.
People fall prey to an opaque sameness, an assumed consensus in terms of the values we commonly share. Which allows clowns like Cameron to talk about the ‘Big Society’.
It is very important that we understand what led to 1981, and what gives rise to the peaks and troughs as far as the emergence of neo-fascist organisations are concerned. I would not be surprised if in the coming period as European economies begin falling in on themselves you have another upsurge of pan-European fascism.
We need to see ourselves as being in a continuity of struggle, and the struggle is never won until we are living in the kind of social democracies that do not place on a pedestal the market, with all the neo-liberal values that come with it; the rampant individualism, the greed, the abandonment of hope, the abandonment of idealism, the sense that the state has no role in regulating forces within society so those who want to prey on the weak in society have full vent to do that.
It has been taken to extreme lengths in terms of the way schooling is going now: the privatisation of everything that moves. Academies, trusts, and Michael Gove’s assertion that you can open schools all over the place, with no concern about cohesion, no concern about social inclusion.
And in due course all of that must implode upon itself, because it is not just in dictatorships that you find people being oppressed, it happens within so-called democracies as well, and we ignore that at our peril.
I’d like to think in reflecting on 30 years ago we can reflect on what happened since: why did the labour movement that had all these giants, why did it all suddenly get eclipsed? What happened to trade union basic education projects and the workers education movement? What are young people in Moss Side today grounding their sense of identity and purpose? What connection do they have with these lessons of the past? How are they being primed and equipped to make their mark in this present age as each generation has a duty to do?
If anyone tells me that those who are educated will find a way to do that because they have the social capital to do that, I would say that is complete nonsense. Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. The fact is, schooling is dumbing down people’s sense of history, if not their aspirations as human beings working together to shape a future. I believe the country lost a trick when there was a concentration on building a citizenship curriculum, without concentrating on the need to teach British social history: we need to understand the society, how we have come to be as we are, that rich tradition of fighting for rights. Expanding rights in the society, and with that the responsibilities people have in the present, to build a better future for those coming after them.
I don’t get a sense right now, that there is that level of awareness or political literacy.
I don’t know why people don’t ask the question more regularly, if the centralist tendency within the government is leading to the collapse of local government in safeguarding the rights of citizens, then if what matters to me is how my life in Manchester is regulated by those at the Town Hall, then why should I be concerned about what happens in Whitehall? And yet people in Whitehall feel they have the right to cut off local government and leave people to all kinds of forces without understanding that not everyone has the capacity to engage with the market in that way.
I find it a not very hopeful scenario, and that is why I spend a lot of time trying to connect people with that long sweep of historical struggle, and giving them some tools of analysis so they can better understand what is going on around them.
Part 1 of the interview can be found here
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