Last week a 40-year old man from Suffolk was arrested and questioned over the murder of PC Keith Blakelock during the 1985 Tottenham Riots. The new investigation has rekindled memories of one of the worst examples of police racism and injustice ever seen in Britain.
Twenty five years ago some of the most deprived inner cities exploded in riots against police harassment and racism, unemployment and neglect.
Handsworth in Birmingham, and Brixton and Tottenham in London were scenes of intense fighting between local youths of all ethnic backgrounds and battle-equipped police.
The Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, saw some of the most violent clashes. Tensions had flared after news of the death of Cynthia Jarrett filtered out. The black mother of two died of a heart attack after police raided her house – a death for which no officer was ever charged.
Riot police swamped the estate, using their truncheons to bash their shields while chanting, “Niggers, Niggers, Niggers.”
Cynthia’s death strongly echoed the police shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton just days before, itself sparking a wave of rioting. Such was the strength of feeling that the leader of Haringey council, and future Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant, spoke out saying, “what the police got was a bloody good hiding”.
As battle raged on Broadwater Farm, PC Blakelock was repeatedly stabbed and killed. The subsequent investigation was marred from the start with false evidence, manipulation and forced confessions.
The result was a horrific miscarriage of justice in which in 1987 three young men – Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite – were framed for the murder.
They were not the only victims of the desire for revenge that poured out from tabloid newspapers, politicians and the Metropolitan police. Officers rounded up hundreds of young people, brutally detaining and questioning them.
More than 3,000 police occupied Broadwater Farm for months afterwards. Squads of officers kicked in a third of the doors on the estate.
From the beginning it was clear that Winston Silcott, who had often defended local youth from police harassment, was their primary target.
Silcott was used to their attention. His mother Mary recalls that the police “blamed him for everything that went wrong in Tottenham”. At the time of the riot he was on bail after a man died during an altercation in which Silcott defended himself from a knife attack.
Silcott was rearrested after the riot. Police officers photographed him after bursting into his cell in the middle of the night.
To this day his startled image is used to further demonise him.
As part of the crackdown children as young as nine, many from a school for children with learning difficulties, were held almost naked for up to three days in solitary confinement. Their “confessions” formed the basis of the police’s murder case.
Thirteen year old Jason Hill was put on trial alongside Silcott. He had been held alone in a cell for 52 hours. When his mother found him, he was “huddled under a dirty old blanket, just wearing his soiled underpants. He smelled of vomit and was sobbing uncontrollably.”
Howard Kerr was 17. He was “so tired and frightened” by the ordeal that he signed a 57-page statement implicating himself and Winston Silcott in the killing. In fact Howard, who was illiterate and had a mental age of seven, was at a party in Windsor during the riot. He had never heard of Winston Silcott.
Prosecutor Roy Amlot claimed Silcott had tried to use a machete to “hack off” Blakelock’s head. But at the trial Amlot couldn’t produce a single witness – not even from among the 20 police officers who said they had seen the killing – to back up this claim.
Not a speck of blood was found on any of Silcott’s clothes, and Amlot was forced to admit that he did not appear in any of the more than 1,000 police photographs taken that night.
The case rested on confessions and witness statements extracted by the police from very vulnerable people.
Yet it took the jury just three days to bring in a guilty verdict, with the judge announcing that Silcott was a “vicious and evil man” who must serve at least 30 years in jail.
Four years later, following a sustained campaign for justice, the case against the Tottenham Three collapsed at the court of appeal.
Forensic tests on police notebooks showed that pages had been inserted into accounts of interviews that police had claimed were written during interviews.
Despite the Tottenham Three being cleared of Blakelock’s murder in 1991 the press and police continued to vilify them. Under the auspices of the Victims of Crime Trust policeman Norman Brennan said, “The name Winston Silcott is synonymous with the murder of one of our colleagues.
“We in the police service don’t believe justice has been done. Many of my colleagues, including myself, are convinced that the right people were convicted at the time.”
The police reopened the Blakelock inquiry in 2003 claiming they had new evidence – despite forensic scientists admitting that no new DNA can be extracted from his uniform.
Silcott responded at the time saying, “If a new investigation is going to use those old statements from 1985 in any way at all, it is going to be crap, because all they’re going to do is recycle the same old lies.”