Remembering Toxteth, 1981 (Part Two)

Thirty nine years ago today, Toxteth was a battlefield with clear lines drawn between the police and its residents. Upper Parliament Street saw cars set alight to make barricades, rocks were piled high to create both barriers and a handy missile stock. Scaffolding and spiked metal railings were torn down to become makeshift lances to see off police batons. Even milk floats – throttles jammed down with concrete blocks – became mobile battering rams that would see lines of riot police scatter and retreat. But to understand why the Toxteth riots or the Uprising as I prefer to call it, occurred, one needs to understand just why the Liverpool 8 district had long been a tinderbox waiting for a spark in the first place.

The Toxteth Uprising was mostly contained in what is commonly known as the Granby Triangle, an area of Liverpool 8 that is resplendent with 19th century houses and snug terraces. Once the neighbourhood of wealthy industrialists and professional classes, the area had also long had a black community, but it was not, as is often commonly thought, as a result of slavery. The author Herman Melville once reflected in the 1830s that “In Liverpool the negro steps with a prouder pace, and lifts his head like a man; for here, no such exaggerated feelings exist in respect to him, as in America”. In reality, it was Liverpool’s role as a significant port, that saw the district attract migrants, with ties to shipping and the sea, from all parts of the Commonwealth and the Empire before it. By the 1930s, many of the well to do residents began to leave Toxteth for residences across the water on the Wirral Peninsula or in Liverpool’s southern suburbs. As the city began to build in the aftermath of WWII, many working class residents too began to migrate, seizing the opportunity of the modern council estates. By the 1950s and ’60s, with the arrival of the cheapening of accomodation in the area, Toxteth was a vibrant mixed community of made up of the cosmopolitan and bohemian; the white working class, immigrants from the West Indies, Africa, Asia and the Indian sub-continent and students (the former art student and future Beatle John Lennon famously lived on Falkner Street for a time) all living side by side. For a time, this community thrived, but the effects of a shifting population and rapid movement (between 1971 and ;81 alone, Toxteth’s population had fallen by a third) combined with Liverpool’s expansion elsewhere, had ultimately led to an atmosphere of segregation. The need for a new road to the M62 in the 1970s led to significant road closures across L8 and the newly created Selbourne Street (scene of the attempted arrest that sparked the disturbances in 1981) effectively amputated the area from the city centre. Town planning had pretty much turned Toxteth into a remote ghetto, where residents felt apart from what was occurring just a few miles away in the heart of Liverpool city centre. Likewise, custom began to disappear from Toxteth’s local business as a result of poor access and employment opportunities grew scarce. As Liverpool began to suffer the hardest blow from de-industrialisation and economic decline, failing Toxteth felt the blows even harder with 39.6% of the menfolk of L8’s Granby ward unemployed in 1981, according to the census that year. Cultural disconnection too was not an uncommon feeling in Toxteth, a sense of being other, not just because of the colour of your skin, but because you may feel isolated from the wider city at large. As a result, residents made their own entertainment, and relied heavily on community clubs and associations. But this cultural disconnection was further exacerbated by attitudes of the police whose handling of minority communities could be described, at best, as incompetent and, at worst, as inherently racist.

Speaking to the BBC Listener magazine, Kenneth Oxford, the then Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, gave his thoughts on what he called “the problems of half-castes in Liverpool”. In the interview, Oxford routinely refers to Toxteth as Liverpool’s ‘red light district’, scene of assignations between black seaman and white prostitutes which lead what he ignorantly referred to as ‘half-caste’ children. “The Negroes will not accept them as blacks and the whites just assume they are coloureds” he goes on to shockingly say, concluding that “the half-caste community of Liverpool is well outside recognised society” What Oxford didn’t seem to realise of course was that it was disgusting, narrow-minded attitudes such as his that ensured the ethnic groups within Toxteth were kept outside of Liverpool’s “recognised society”. He also seems wholly oblivious to the fact that, in impoverished communities, women often have no other recourse than to sell themselves to make ends meet.

Oxford, who died in 1998, has a particularly and rightly poor reputation, despite being knighted for his services in 1988. Appointed Chief Constable of Merseyside in 1975, he came under fierce scrutiny in June 1979 following the death of Jimmy Kelly in police custody in Huyton. The town’s Labour MP and the country’s former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was quick to call for a public inquiry into the matter but Oxford simply refused to meet with any representatives from either Labour or the Conservative party. An internal investigation was conducted however, though the results were kept out of the public domain. In 1980, a verdict of death by misadventure was found and the Home Office, rejecting all demands for a public investigation, considered the matter closed. In 1989, Oxford met with Margaret Thatcher – the Prime Minister whose funding for the police allowed Oxford to establish in Liverpool the highest police to population ratio outside of London – to brief her on the Hillsborough disaster which had occurred just four days earlier. In their meeting, Oxford blamed the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans on a crush instigated by ticketless Liverpool supporters and expressed that he felt “uneasy about the way in which Anfield was being turned into a shrine”. Make no mistake, this is a man whose obnoxious personality came to shape Merseyside Police from the top down. In 1981 and under his control, Merseyside Police consisted of some 5,000 officers, only four of whom were black. When briefing Michael Heseltine on Liverpool in 1981 he said that he believed “crimes of every sort were organised by powerful and ruthless gang leaders operating from Toxteth”. Oxford later announced that the Uprising which saw his force be the first to use CS gas on the British mainland (having previously been used in Norther Ireland during the ongoing Troubles) “was not a racial issue. It was exclusively a crowd of black hooligans intent on making life unbearable and indulging in criminality”. All ignorant comments when you consider the indisputable fact that of the 500 arrests made by his officers during the disturbances, only a small number actually had criminal records. He was the reason why, as Labour councillor Margaret Simey subsequently said, “Granby was habitually referred to as a criminal community and policed as such”. Under a racist Chief Constable, Merseyside Police were institutionally inclined to view every person of colour as a suspect and an easy target for intimidation under the stop and search SUS laws of the ridiculously outdated but incredibly convenient 1824 Vagrancy Act.

By the end of the first night of the Uprising, Toxteth was arguably a no-go area for a force that had suffered seventy injuries, seven of whom required hospitalisation. In this context, it is easy to see why.

Part Three continues tomorrow…


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