Gus John lived through the 1980s 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 1981 Moss Side 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. The committee 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 by Andrew Bowman just a week before the outbreak of rioting across England’s urban centres in summer 2011.
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 onto the streets of London to protest against the massacre of 13 young Africans in a fire, suspected to have been caused by racists, at a birthday party in New Cross in South London. Protesters 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, what were conditions like when you arrived in Moss Side?
I arrived in Moss Side on the 1st January 1971, having worked on youth and race in Handsworth in Birmingham for the Runnymede Trust. There was a vibrancy about it, in that people had organised themselves around a campaign to do with housing. The local authority was doing compulsory purchases and knocking down houses which were actually rather sturdy – some of them had fallen into disrepair but structurally they were pretty fine. There were campaigns to save these houses because people were not enamoured with what they had seen in Hulme – these deck access crescent buildings, which were not just an eyesore, they became very dangerous after a while.
But the two things that stuck out for me were, first, a lot of young people coming out of school and being unemployed for a long time. It was taking the average school leaver about six months to find any employment, and some of them simply joined an earlier generation of fathers or siblings who had not worked. The second thing that was obvious was the way in which the police operated within the community – they tended to see black people as exotic … and generally formed the impression that the older people were safe and sound: they shared commonly held values, they were disciplinarians keeping the children under control, and it was really the youth which were at odds with the establishment, and the police as the most visible arm of the establishment.
It is true that at that time many parents didn’t want to see the police having cause to come near their home – it was seen as a massive stigma. It took a long time for parents to understand, based on their own experience, that your child didn’t have to do something wrong for the police to appear on your doorstep. It wasn’t always that young person’s fault that the police got involved in their lives.
In 1972 I had got some money from the British Council of Churches to set up a hostel for young black people, because they were sleeping on their friends’ floors or sleeping rough in Moss Side, the reason being that their parents had been decanted to places like Sale and Partington, as part of the whole so-called ‘regeneration’ business. And they continued to gravitate back to Moss Side, they would be here until after the last bus left, some of them would be in the night time dives – shebeens as we used to call them – and there was generally a sense of drift and disaffection among them. That made them even more in danger of getting involved with the police.
How similar were things in Moss Side to other areas of the UK you had worked in?
The four issues I just mentioned were present in all inner city areas I had worked in. I had just come from Handsworth, and one of the reasons for the Runnymede Trust commissioning the research I did there was that the Birmingham Evening Mail had run a series of stories called ‘The Angry Suburbs’, and one of them I remember was called ‘Must Harlem come to Birmingham?’ There were issues highlighted in those reports of unrest between black and white people which I have to say were not what I found in Birmingham.
Yes, there were tensions, with some white people feeling that black people were coming in numbers, taking homes etc, but what happened in Birmingham as in other parts of the country, was that the newcomers, black people from the Caribbean especially, were coming to find employment in areas where there was already an established working class, a neglected working class. So the quality of accommodation that local whites had was pretty poor anyway. As is typical of these situations, and not just in this country, the incoming black people were blamed for the squalor that had existed for generations.
So there were nuances, but generally you could identify issues which were common to most of those former industrial towns and cities. Many black children were being sent to schools for the educationally subnormal, not because they were in any way deficient, but because the schooling system refused to believe that those children were coming with a language of their own that was not Standard English.
That early period of 1968-73 was also the time when psychologists were propounding theories of scientific racism – suggesting that the intelligence levels of black people were lower than that of whites for genetic reasons. You had to battle against that gunge, especially as it was being taught in colleges that were training teachers – it really was horrendous.
What kind of police harassment did youngsters face in Moss Side?
I remember the first situation in which I personally intervened after arriving here, the police had stopped a young boy of about 13 cycling along Moss Lane West by the Hyde Brewery for riding his bicycle without lights. They were aggressive, and he was frightened. Rather than calming the situation, they started telling him to “stop being cheeky”, and before long there was a confrontation. As you went up and asked what was going on, they would tell you to “mind your own fucking business” or they would arrest you as well, for “obstructing the police in the course of their duty”.
We became aware of how vicious the police were to young people, so that when an incident like this happened, we would begin to gather, because the community wanted the police to know that we were watching what they were doing. The police became very on edge about that, very intolerant of the idea that anyone would witness what they were doing and question their conduct.
Here in Moss Side, as I had also witnessed in Oxford, Birmingham and London, it was not just happening to young people. Caribbean families, the men in particular, were proud of their cars. To own one was prestigious, and these men worked hard and bought their cars, and they were regularly being stopped by the police, for daring to own a vehicle like that: “Is it yours? Can you prove it is yours? What is your address? What is the proof of your address?” Constant petty harassment! There was a level of crime in these urban centres anyway, petty criminals as well as organised criminals – who were white. That criminality had not contaminated the black community in any measure when I came to Manchester.
Yes, some people got involved in crimes, burglaries etc. I used to teach black history at Wakefield Prison, and I was astounded by the zeal and zest with which prisoners there took to an understanding of black history and its relevance to them. They were interested in what was happening in the United States at the time, as they were about the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I told them about the work that I and others who were members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination did. How I would pair up with a white person and we would go looking for a room to rent or something. The black person would go in first and typically would have the door slammed in their face: “The room’s gone.” Your mate, the white person, would then go and was told, “It’s five shillings, when are you moving in?”
We did the same in relation to job applications. The black person would present a form with the best qualifications, the white person would present a form with lower qualifications, and the white person would automatically be given the job. We did this research up and down the country, and we were able to present the government with incontrovertible evidence of the extent of visceral racial discrimination, and that caused the Harold Wilson government to enact the 1968 Race Relations Act and establish the Race Relations Board which was the precursor of the Industrial Tribunal.
All those people in Wakefield Prison had what I called arrested growth: very bright people. Some could give you the most horrendous stories about their schooling, and why they dropped out of school. In some cases they had had physical altercations with teachers, and were either expelled from school or never went back.
The fact is, there was not a high degree of engagement in delinquency or criminality among the African-Caribbean population … Now relative to our numbers in the population overall, the highest proportion of people in the prisons and young offender institutions are black people.
Ever since the beginning of the 1960s there has been systemic structural and structured exclusion of black people within the society, and that has got certain consequences. It becomes easy to believe that that is because black people don’t have brains, which of course is complete nonsense. All of that is an important back-story to what people in Manchester were experiencing and grappling with in the 1970s and 1980s.
How active were organised racist groups in Manchester during the 1980s? Groups like the National Front?
Very active. In the year of the disturbances in Moss Side there were running battles between us and the NF. They had the temerity to come and hand out leaflets in Moss Side and Hulme, trying to inflame the passions of white people and encourage them to blame black people for whatever social deprivation they were suffering. What was pleasing about that was that the white community determined that they wanted nothing to do with the NF, and joined political activists such as myself, deciding that they as a white community would not allow the NF to get one inch of space within the white community, and physically booted them out.
So you had the harassment of the police, and then you had the planned collective attacks by white racists – people would be physically attacked, have excrement and firebombs put through their doors, or there would be NF signs put up around the place. That didn’t come from nowhere – the neo-fascists became emboldened by the lead politicians gave…
Such as Enoch Powell?
Yes, such as Enoch Powell, but he could be seen as the extreme end of the spectrum. His problem was that he was open and honest about those matters. It was the people who were passing laws in Parliament, one more draconian piece of immigration legislation than the one before, who were constantly conflating immigration and race relations and holding up the spectre of an alien black force destabilising an assumed settled and cohesive society.
It was like a mantra: “You can’t have good race relations unless you control immigration”. In other words, if you don’t control immigration, the white population will get fed up that you’re expecting them to be too tolerant of these blacks. Or the black population would start creating mayhem. As a consequence, every year at a certain point, even before the Office for National Statistics published their reports; you would find some newspaper, principally the tabloids such as the Sun and Daily Mail, publishing figures about the number of live births to immigrants. It was all scaremongering, a moral panic about black people, and an insistence on keeping Britain white. And people talked openly about the need to keep Britain white.
You have to situate the 1981 uprisings in that broader context, and if you don’t, you fail to understand the structural relationship between the way black people experience living in the society, and the way they choose to resist.
And the resistance took many forms, it took political forms, it took cultural forms, through music, art, publishing or through soundsystems and travelling discos – people find ways of surviving, and not allowing their essential humanity to be debased, and expressing and affirming their creativity. Cultures of oppression inexorably spawn cultures of resistance.
Given all this background, how surprised were you when the riots broke out? A lot of the press coverage at the time, and now in reflection, talks about the riots being a ‘spontaneous’ event.
It wasn’t a surprise to me nor many other people in Moss Side. It could have happened any time before that July. It could have happened in March that year, when a cache of illegal weapons were found stashed in Moss Side police station. Those weapons were found to be knives, hatchets, coshes, clubs, and a considerable quantity of cannabis was also found.
We were alarmed because we knew the police planted cannabis on unsuspecting citizens, and would then throw the book at them for drug possession. They also used to give cannabis to prostitutes to sell, and if they didn’t comply they would be dragged in for prostituting themselves. Typically, when people got arrested and taken to Moss Side Police Station or Platt Lane Police Station, they were likely to get a good hiding from the police, to reveal the names of others or confess to some crime, or just for being ‘lippy’ and standing up for themselves, whether they did or did not commit a crime.
So it was alarming that this cache was found in the police station. What were the police going to do with them? No sooner did the reports come out than everything disappeared. That was on March 12-13 1981. Ten days earlier, six coach loads of people had left here for London, to go to the biggest march black people here have ever organised, the New Cross Massacre Black People’s Day of Action, on 2 March 1981, following the murder of those 13 young people in that Deptford fire.
That massacre did not take place in Moss Side, but it could well have. That became a metaphor for the experiences that we were having at the hands of the racists and fascists across the country, and the way the police dealt with those things. So the events in July in Moss Side could have happened at any point that year.
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.
Article by Andrew Bowman
This article was originally published in The Mule online newspaper in August 2011, and is reproduced by permission of the author.