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There’s Gonna Be A Riot! Toxteth Riots 25 Year Anniversary

by John Connolly 

In the run up to the anarchy of July 1981, tensions had been rising in the inner-city area of Liverpool . The Merseyside force of the time had a particularly bad reputation in the area for stopping and searching black youths under the infamous 'sus' laws. Michael Jackson was number one with “One Day In Your Life” and Prince Charles was about to marry Diane Spencer. The following week, parts of Toxteth would be in embers, Jackson was replaced at the top of the charts with The Specials “Ghost Town”.


Leroy Alphonse Cooper's arrest on Selbourne Street , near Toxteth's infamous Granby Street , was watched by an angry crowd. It is said every riot has a spark, and the chaos and destruction of Liverpool 's Toxteth riots were no exception. The Merseyside officers' treatment of 20-year-old Mr Cooper on the evening of Friday 3 July 1981 led to a fracas in which three policemen were injured. But instead of dying away over the weekend, disturbances rapidly turned into full-blown riots with pitched battles between police officers and youths throwing petrol bombs and paving stones. Officers were accused of planting drugs on youths in a practice known locally as "agriculture" or "going farming". Gideon Ben-Tovim, a member of the Community Relations Council at the time, remembers the backdrop to the 1981 riots. "There were a lot of incidents of harassment, drug planting, people being criminalised for trivial reasons, heavy-handed policing and the final spark was the heavy-handed arrest of Cooper." Once unleashed, the ferocity of the disturbances overwhelmed the authorities. Rioters attacked supermarkets, firebombed a bank and numerous other businesses, as well as looting art from a "gentleman's club" before destroying it. One witness jokingly observed that “They burnt down the Rackets club without evacuating the stuffed bears in the lobby first”. The rioters mainly targeted building they felt were part of the establishment and offered nothing to the community.


Wally Brown, a prominent black community leader mediating at the time of the riots, vividly remembers the burning of the Rialto , a complex of buildings around an old ballroom. "It had a cupola roof which must have been made of copper and was glowing." Many locals who had no doubt met their first love in the ballroom shed tears and sneered at the youth who laughed at the looters waltzing out of the premises with rolled up carpets. One of rioters said  “They had a three tonne stuffed bull near the entranced called Turbo, we wanted to get it out and put it on the back of a milk float we’d robbed but it was too heavy”. The first night of the riots, the gangs consisted of mainly black youths but the following nights the gangs swelled as all manner of opportunists flooded the area for serious high jinxs. The extra numbers gave the rioters the upper hand: "The police were being pushed back. That was the night they fired the CS gas." The use of these tear gas "ferret" rounds remains controversial, with the police accused of firing them directly at rioters. Jacquie Hardy, today secretary of Granby Residents Association, remembers the terror of the riots: "Things were out of hand and the police must have had some fear as well." Ms Hardy witnessed officers attempting to make arrests. "The police were grabbing people. I thought my brother had been grabbed by a policeman. Everyone's nerves were gone. I just attacked this policeman. I ended up swinging on this guy's back and realised he didn't have my brother."


The initial mayhem lasted for nine days and spread throughout the city with disgruntled white youths from other neighbourhoods joining the battles and started disturbances elsewhere. Police reinforcements were called from as far away as Cumbria , the West Midlands and even Devon in a desperate effort to control the burning streets. Later disturbances saw one man struck and killed by a police Land Rover and another injured as police attempted to disperse crowds: “Police from proper backwater villages were bussed in to help out. These young lads were shitting their kecks at the prospect of facing the rioters. The only agro they’d probably had to deal with involved chasing a runaway cow on a country lane – they now had to face brutal rampaging city kids, intent on stoving their heads in with half bricks. In some cases the police helped the rioter’s loot: “The police brought Land Rovers over from Northern Ireland . We were waiting outside the Farmers Pub on Park Road , opposite Stanley’s the jewellers. One of the Land Rovers come tearing up Park Road and slammed on – we were just about to pelt it with bricks and petrol bombs when all of a sudden it reversed through the side of the jewellers and sped off! We all dropped our bricks and raided the shop. A few of the blocks ended up getting torched because the police didn’t give a shit. I felt really sorry for the fella who’d owned a sweet shop called The Chocolate Box on the block for about 50 years, it was raised to the ground and he was wandering through the embers the next day in tears. Shops over the road had bought his stock from looters and were selling smoke damaged ciggies!”



After the first week of rioting, Merseyside Police Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford tallied the damage done. He said 468 police officers had been injured, 500 people arrested and at least 70 buildings demolished. The chief constable said it was the work of "thieves and vagabonds" who needed no excuse for violence and destruction. But he admitted the police's response to large-scale rioting had been "totally and utterly inadequate". Later estimates suggested up to 1,000 police were injured and doubled the number of buildings destroyed. Lady Margaret Simey was chair of the police authority during the riots and clashed with the chief constable over his alleged failure to acknowledge the possibility social issues were behind the violence. It was widely argued that police harassment had exacerbated chronic unemployment, racism, bad housing and poor education in an area with a large population of black and mixed-race residents. Lady Simey was herself the subject of criticism. She supposedly remarked that in the face of such conditions Toxteth's people would have been "apathetic fools" if they had not rioted.




More than a week of rioting in 1981 left Toxteth, an already deprived Liverpool neighbourhood, looking like a war zone. The severity of the disturbances, in which as many as 140 buildings were destroyed, sent shock waves across the country, even as far as Westminster. The aftermath of the riot saw the home secretary, William Whitelaw, tour the smoking ruins before Margaret Thatcher herself chose to visit. What resulted was a three-week stay by Michael Heseltine, dubbed the "minister for Merseyside" for his efforts at regeneration. But the development money that came with him failed to win over many critics. Lady Margaret Simey, chair of the police authority during the riots, says the funding effort was misconceived. “I’m sure Heseltine meant to do good by the city but his ideals were not shared by the city. He had trees planted on Parliament Street (worst hit by the riots), the landscape gardeners who done the work were from Manchester ! The area still had bombed out ruins from the second world war. After the riots, shops like Yaffeys and Cycle Exchange remained in ruin until around 1998 when new money started trickling into the city.”


No bed of roses


"They spent it on a garden festival and to this day it stands derelict (too many people had their finger in the pie, none of them from Liverpool ). "They knocked down a great deal of housing and built new housing, in the process destroying the Caribbean community, dispersing a very close-knit and strong community. The 95-year-old, who cut her teeth in the suffragette movement, sees a common thread running through the riots in Toxteth and more recent disturbances in Oldham, Burnley, Leeds, Bradford and even the riots in Paris. "If you analyse all these riots they are people who feel injustice and they are damned if they are going to suffer it. The answer is invariably that we will give them some money. But money won't cure injustice. The injustice in Toxteth is still as acute as ever." Race is still at the root of the area's woes, she says. "It is not the unemployment people resent - Liverpool 's has always been higher. It's that if you happen also to have a black face, there is no escape from the poverty." Wally Brown contributed to Lord Gifford's 1988 inquiry into policing and race in Toxteth which identified a "unique and horrific" breed of racism. He has now been principal of Liverpool Community College for a decade. But he still sees familiar problems on its rundown streets. "Physically, the Rialto complex (burned in the riots) has been rebuilt. But if you go down Granby Street , it is in a worse state than it was then. In terms of the road as a social centre, it is virtually non-existent."


Mr Brown is equally pessimistic about the current residents' lot. "In real terms, the young people who were involved on the street, their equivalents today are no better off than their counterparts 20 years ago." And he has been worried by the recent spate of riots elsewhere in the northwest. "The events in Oldham just remind us of the level of overt racism that is just under the surface." 





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