Thirteen Dead and Nothing said
In the early hours of Sunday, 18 January 1981, a devastating fire raged through a birthday party being held at a family home at 439 New Cross Road in Deptford, south-east London. Thirteen young people aged between 14 and 22 were killed, twenty seven more were seriously injured; all were from the African-Caribbean community. A fourteenth victim, Anthony Berkbeck, who survived the fire, was tormented by the memory of what he had seen. Two years later he took his own life.
The political events that followed would have a dramatic effect on our understanding of what it means to be Black and British.
Who Did it?
Racist attacks in Britain had been part of Black lives since the 1950s. Throughout the 70s there was a significant far-right presence in south-east London with regular attacks on Black people, community centres and youth clubs. Lewisham, where the blaze occurred, was at the time a National Front stronghold.
The early 1980s were a turning point in British politics. Anti-immigrant sentiment gained new legitimacy with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979.
Speaking to Gordon Burns during an interview on TV’s World in Action, Thatcher made a point of addressing the purported grievances of those driven to voting for the National Front stating that she understood ‘that people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped with a different culture’ declaring she would not allow ‘false accusations of racial prejudice’ to stop her from tackling the ‘problem’ of immigration’. Clearly, the politics of race much like we still see today, played a significant role in Thatcher’s victory.
Those who opposed immigration were emboldened. On 2nd January 1981, right-wing Conservative MP Jill Knight, a veteran member of the far-right Monday Club was reported as calling for ‘noisy’ West Indian parties to be banned, following a New Year’s Eve party in her constituency which had allegedly ‘gone on for days’. Knight appeared to suggest that local Whites would be entitled to take direct action to stop such parties (The Guardian, 17 January 2011; Manzo 1998: 151).
Just two weeks later, thirteen Black young men, women and children were killed at a house party in an alleged racist attack.
Fire had been a staple weapon of racist violence in the area and it seemed likely that the tragedy had been caused by a firebomb, a theory advanced by the police in the early stages of their investigation.
Three years before the New Cross fire, in November 1977, a newspaper reported that a National Front meeting had included talk of burning down the Moonshot Club, a youth club in New Cross popular with young Black people. Weeks later, on the 18th December 1977, the Moonshot was destroyed in a firebomb attack and had to be rebuilt. Seven months later, on the 14th July 1978, the Albany in Deptford, a community centre of local anti-racist activity, including ‘Rock Against Racism’ ‘All Together Now’ and ‘Restless natives’ was also gutted by fire. The following day, a note was pushed through the door of the building saying, ‘GOT YOU’.
A coroner’s inquest in 1981 and a second in 2004 both returned an open verdict, refusing to rule that the fire was the result of a racist attack. Forty years on, no charges have ever been brought. In 2017 survivor and cousin of Yvonne and Paul, George Ruddock, made a fresh plea for a public inquiry.
Police, Media and Public Response
Throughout the Black community, this truly tragic event was greeted not only with grief, but also with anger at the perceived indifference by those investigating the cause of the blaze, the State and the media.
Amid rumours that this had been a racially motivated arson attack and an eye-witness account of a man fleeing the scene in a white van, party goers were interrogated as if they were criminals rather than victims and police were accused of conducting an insufficient and haphazard investigation. Press and media reporting was unfavourable and unsympathetic, and public reactions largely indifferent with victim’s families receiving racially abusive letters.
George Francis, who lost his son Gerry in the fire recalls “When the fire occurred, we weren’t very happy with the police because we felt they were a bit slack,” “The police back then didn’t push as hard as they should have done to get us an answer”.
As Linton Kwesi Johnson recalled ‘a lot of people were angry… not just about what happened, but about the way the whole business was handled by the police and the way it was reported in the press and the media’.
Ultimately, the response of the police and the press to the New Cross tragedy was the same as in every instance of racist violence – to deny that a racist crime had taken place at all.
In an article from 1990 entitled ‘ATTACK NOT RACIST, say police’, the Scottish novelist James Kelman wrote that: ‘In case after case, in crimes of racial violence…the first requirement of the State is to prove the crime did not take place; that it was another crime altogether, a crime which may well have been violent, a murder even, but not a crime that was racially motivated. Why is there such a requirement? This appalling breakdown of justice has forced members of the Black communities to act on their own behalf.’ [i]
African-Caribbean communities were already wary of the police who frequently, disproportionately and violently, harassed young Black men using legislation such as “sus laws” which allowed routine stops for suspicion of wrongdoing. Many Black families felt the time had come to stop being compliant with a society that didn’t accept them. The decision to mobilise was borne out of frustration in the face of state and public indifference towards the loss of thirteen young Black lives.
The Aftermath & Black Mobilisation
In the hours following the fire an impromptu grass-roots assembly formed with survivors, their families and the community coming together. Whilst local activists rallied to support those affected, there was little or no official support provided, not even the usual messages of condolence or sympathy from the Queen or Prime Minister. Local MP, John Silkin, said not one word in the House of Commons for three weeks.
The cold silence of the White establishment conveyed a brutally simple message that Black British lives were simply unimportant prompting a vocal outpouring of grief from Britain’s African-Caribbean communities. The tragedy generated music and poetry by artists including Benjamin Zephaniah and Johnny Osbourne. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massahkah’ conveyed in dub poetry perhaps the most enduring and powerful form of historical witness.
Out of the ashes of this terrible tragedy came an unprecedented political mobilisation led by the families of the victims, the wider Black community and the newly established New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC).
On Monday 2nd March 1981, a wet working day and six weeks after the fire, The Black People’s Day of Action march took place. Supporters descended into the capital from cities across the UK and beyond. 20,000 people marched from New Cross Road bound for the Houses of Parliament and Fleet Street to demand justice for the victims of the fire, calling on the establishment to listen to the Black community.
‘We had to disrupt British society; that was absolutely clear.’
Black People’s Day of Action
Over a period of eight hours, demonstrators made their way from Fordham Park to Hyde Park carrying placards with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover-Up’, ‘Blood Aga Run If Justice Na Come’. Thirteen red banners bearing the names of the victims were carried by the crowds in addition to a coffin which was to be left at No.10.
Authorities tried to halt the march at Blackfriars Bridge leading to a confrontation between police and demonstrators. Leila Hassan Howe said. “Once we’d crossed Blackfriars Bridge, we were in commercial London and the police didn’t want the disruption, even though they had in theory agreed to the route.” Though the march was largely peaceful, it was this clash that dominated news headlines the following day with stories like “Black Day at Blackfriars” “and “Britain Enters The Era Of The Great Terror!”
Accounts describe reporters on Fleet Street hanging out of windows shouting racist abuse, making monkey sounds and throwing banana skins at the crowd. Newspaper reports the following day were sullied with racism causing additional upset for grieving families. The Sun raved of ‘a frenzied mob’ with derogatory headlines such as “Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London”, “Rampage of a Mob” by The Daily Express, and “When the Black Tide Met the Thin Blue Line” printed by The Daily Mail.
The Black People’s Day of Action was of one of the most significant political demonstrations in 20th century British history and one which deserves to be better remembered.
Where are we now?
In 2021, Black and Brown people in Britain continue to endure one of the toughest periods in living memory, hounded by persistent inequalities in workplaces, schools and in health and criminal justice systems.
Black people are 4 x more likely to die of Covid
Black women are 5 x more likely to die in childbirth
Black Lives Matter
We ask what has really changed for Black people in Britain?
Black and Brown people still perish by flame as we witnessed in the events of the Grenfell tragedy. 72 people died, in a tower block which predominantly housed working-class Black, Asian and other minoritised residents, an important indicator of the UK’s disregard for Black and Brown lives. Grenfell Tower remains a statue, to British institutional racism.
In the summer of 2020 ‘Black Lives Matter’ became a global rallying cry against racism and police brutality and the protests became memorials to all those the system has failed. The gift of the Black struggle has always been its restless moving towards freedom for a greater humanity, and for all lives to finally matter. We all get free of these constraints together, or not at all.
As Coretta Scott King said, the struggle against racism is a never-ending process.
“Freedom is never really won…You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Remembering the victims. Rest in Power
The New Cross Massacre Story: https://www.newbeaconbooks.com/nbpublications/the-new-cross-massacre-story-yjjz4
‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’ Darcus Howe:
For full account and documentation, see New Cross Campaign Material in the George Padmore Institute Archive Catalogue (Ref: GB 2904 NCM)
Keith Tompson, Under Siege: Racial Violence in Britain Today (Penguin, 1988)
James Kelman, ‘An interview with John La Rose’
Reference:[i] James Kelman, ‘ATTACK NOT RACIST, say police’ in And the judges said… Essays (Polygon, 2008)