Through the Wire: Black British People and the Riot

LONDON. APRIL 11 (AP)—POLICE VEHICLE ATTACKED—Black youth overturn a police vehicle in the Brixton area of South London, Saturday. In the second day of racial rioting in Brixton, ten policemen have been injured, one seriously, following renewed fight with hundreds of young blacks hurling bricks and gasoline bombs. (AP WIRE PHOTO) UNITED KINGDOM OUT

With this appended text, a news wire photograph was sent down a transatlantic telephone line from the London offices of Associated Press to appear in the US print media. The photograph was as dramatic as can be, depicting a group of young Black males (often referred to as “West Indians” by mainstream media) overturning a Ford Transit Black Maria, recently abandoned by the retreating police, who fled the immediate vicinity. The hapless, sorry vehicle is presented as a pitiful, wounded behemoth, its windshield smashed and gone and its headlights suffering a similar fate. And a press photographer captured the moment of the vehicle’s ultimate indignity, after it had gone well beyond any sort of saving, as the group, full of collective and youthful strength, sought to upend it. From any angle, it is an extraordinary photograph. Earlier, the police van had mounted the sidewalk, its driver perhaps having lost full control of it, and most certainly suggesting a preceding moment of high drama as police sought to contain whatever situation of urban unrest had recently erupted. In the photograph, located on Acre Lane, one of the main arteries of the South London district, the protruding shop signs point to the sorts of familiar establishments around which the scene of violence and conquest is being played out. One shop has a Coca-Cola sign, while the one next door advertises itself as a restaurant, fully licensed. One or two properties along, just above the head of one of the young men, a Wall’s Ice Cream sign juts out. The scene is not one of exuberance. Nor is it in every respect a scene of great violence. Instead it depicts a group of young men (some of who appear to be wearing school uniforms) determined, quite literally, to overturn what they regard as an oppressive, tormenting presence in their lives, in their community, and in their midst.

For these youngsters, April 9, 1981, might have been just another day in Babylon, but April 10, as evidenced by this photograph, was to be decidedly different. Several months earlier, in January, a horrific incident occurred, shaping the mood and character of the year, at least as far as many Black people A suspicious house fire in New Cross, South London, not far from Brixton, claimed the lives of thirteen Black youngsters. With caution, one can advance the notion that this event contributed to the tension among Brixton’s youth on April 10, 1981, when their cup ranneth over.

This tragedy became known among many Black people as the New Cross massacre. The thirteen Black youngsters were attending a birthday party when the fire started. Mystery surrounded the cause of the fire, galvanizing the Black community, acutely increasing its sense of injustice, identity, and purpose. Among many Black people, at least, speculation was rife, pointing to the work of racist arsonists. Such arson attacks on the homes of people of African and Asian backgrounds were not uncommon in parts of London and elsewhere in the country. As Peter Fryer has noted, Deptford, where the tragedy occurred, was “an area where other black homes had been attacked and a black community center had been burned down. As usual, police discounted the possibility of a racial motive; but the entire community, not just the anguished parents, were convinced that the fire had been started by fascists.” In other quarters, an accident or the malicious work of a disgruntled partygoer were cited as possible causes of the fire. One thing, however, was certain. The aftermath of the tragedy threw into sharp focus an apparent widespread indifference shown to these (and indeed other) Black deaths by the mainstream news media and important religious and political figures of the day. Even the Queen, as both reigning monarch and head of the Commonwealth, which included countries from which the parents of the thirteen dead had emigrated, declared no condolences for the bereaved. This comprehensive expression of indifference deeply offended many within the Black community.

The full version of the above text by Eddie Chambers “Through the Wire: Press Photographs of Black-British People and the Riot” was published in Nka Contemporary African Art journal, spring 2015 issue, no. 36, June 2015: 6-15