For 30 years, there has been some activity on the anniversary of the New Cross Fire of 18 January 1981. This year saw more interest than I can remember for many years. It included the unveiling of a plaque at the south London address where the tragedy occurred.
This year has also seen the re-launch of The New Cross Massacre Story, first published in 1984.
It features interviews with John La Rose, who chaired the New Cross Massacre Action Committee that organised the Black People’s Day of Action (BPDA).
The book explains what had happened—and why black people responded with such rage.
The 30th anniversary edition has a prologue by Linton Kwesi Johnson and an epilogue written by me. It was re-launched in the same week that the Stephen Lawrence murder trial commenced.
People arrested after the massive civil unrest in August 2011 were facing trial in courts around Britain.
The government responded to the civil unrest by focusing on “gangs” in the black community.
But it is shocking on this anniversary to find how many young adults—whether black or white—have absolutely no knowledge of the fire.
They don’t know what black Britain was experiencing prior to the tragedy, which helped shape the response to it.
They are unaware of how that response helped define the relationship between black people and state institutions, especially the police, for the next decade or more.
Mass uprisings took place in Brixton, Moss Side, Toxteth, Handsworth and elsewhere in the summer of 1981.
They would probably not have occurred if the fire had not underscored the state’s treatment of black people—and if the BPDA hadn’t generated confidence.
For me, this highlights the importance of finding ways to connect our young people with our history.
This is especially true for those who, with the inimitable arrogance of youth, believe that struggle started with them.
They imagine that those who went before simply allowed the system to take liberties with black people.
The entire system, especially schooling and education, is following an undeclared and unwritten plan to write black people out of the history of this nation.
This is done to such an extent that many of us who made that history downplay our advances.
Instead we encourage our young people to feel that the freedoms they enjoy now were always there.
Black communities once had a vigilance and awareness in relation to police abuse of power, for example.
This alertness could lead to instant mobilisation in relation to oppressive police practices.
Today this has largely given way to a form of indifference, save for the spasmodic upsurge of protest in response to “stop and search”.
How do we keep the memory of the political activism of yesteryear alive and interactive, rather than iconic, for black and white young people alike?
As Frantz Fanon famously said, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”
Those who take to the streets and protest against police “stop and search”, criminalisation, deaths in custody and wagelessness can face jail.
Those the state validates as “community leaders” busy themselves discussing with the state about how to deal with the feral, gang-obsessed and lacking in fatherly attention.
In the aftermath of the August disturbances, some sections of “the community” have joined the lobby blaming “gangs”, “criminality” and “greed”.
They want to see the courts hand down even tougher sentences.
Others have no time for the notion of collective action in support of young people and their parents.
They would go even further than David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith in “dealing with absent fathers”.
They have no time for any suggestion that “the community” should organise itself in protest at what the courts are doing.
They have even less concern for the fact that the neck-lock the police has “the community” in will tighten as a result of government decisions.
The government is focusing on “gangs” and “criminality” as a way of stemming the “slow-moving moral collapse” for which we are seen as responsible.
This is leading to ever-worsening police militarisation and repression in the midst of a deepening recession and greater visibility of the wageless on the streets.
The government has committed vast sums of money to target, if not “take out”, gang members.
This is matched by government initiatives to involve experts on “gangs” in providing intelligence and planning intervention strategies.
All of a sudden, the government is conscious that “gangs” pose a major threat and that these experts and organisations have been doing “excellent work”.
It is now actively seeking to “bring them on board” and inviting select individuals to attend meetings and brief cabinet members and other ministers.
Those same government ministers are silent on the eight deaths in police custody already this year and the 300 since 1998.
There is similarly a deafening silence from professional groups such as the National Black Police Association, the National Black Crown Prosecutors Association, the Society of Black Lawyers and the National Black Probation Officers Association.
None of these organisations would have developed, let alone been given resources to function, but for the struggles waged by “the community”.
John La Rose says in the book, “The organisation to which I belong makes its position absolutely clear.
“We are part of the perspective of struggle to change British society—it is part of the working class, the black working class and unemployed perspective in Britain, and we are in opposition to the black middle classes whose function is to police that black working class—and act as intermediaries for the state…
“Our perspective says very clearly that Britain is a society of nationalities and ethnic communities: English, Scots, Welsh, Irish nationalities as well as the West Indian, Asian, and other ethnic communities.
“Inside both the nationalities as well as the ethnic communities there’s a fierce internal class battle raging in Britain.
“We stand for a horizontal alliance across classes to change British society. That’s our perspective. It’s clear as a political perspective.”
And that, too, is where I stand!
The New Cross Fire of 1981
A Sixteenth birthday party ended in tragedy as a south London house was gutted by fire in the early hours of Sunday 18 January 1981. Thirteen black partygoers were killed and another 26 suffered serious injuries. A further victim died later.
The police would not seriously investigate the theory that the tragedy might have been caused by a racist firebombing.
There had been similar attacks in the recent past.
The families of the victims and local black activists were outraged at the police’s investigation, which concentrated on blaming people who attended the party.
More than 1,000 attended a meeting a week after the fire. Angry people marched to the scene of the fire. The meeting set up the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which called a Black People’s Day of Action for Monday 2 March.
Some 20,000 people marched from south east London across to Hyde Park.
Outrage at the response of the police and the media led to emergence of a new layer of black leadership across Britain.
Two inquests in 1981 and 2004 both returned open verdicts.
The New Cross Massacre Story—Interviews with John La Rose, is published by New Beacon Books, £5.99. Gus John is a professor at the Institute of Education in London. He was a founding trustee of the George Padmore Institute with John La Rose. He was a member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and chair of the Moss Side Defence Committee following the uprisings in 1981