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Anger out of fear—the New Cross Fire remembered

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A documentary by director Steve McQueen remembers the black-led revolts of 1981—beginning with rage at the New Cross fire, writes Harold Wilson
Issue 2764
A protest in the wake of the New Cross fire
A protest in the wake of the New Cross fire (Pic: BBC/Rogan Productions/Getty Images)

“Children have been burned. Not West Indians. Black British! That is what I want said. They’re burning our children. Why hasn’t Parliament said anything?”

So rang out the voice of community campaigner Sybil Phoenix ­demanding answers to the death of thirteen young black people at a house party in south east London forty years ago.

It’s the opening sequence to Steve McQueen’s brilliant, absorbing documentary film, Fire.

Fire is the first in a three-part series, Uprising, showing on BBC1 this week.

The first chronicles the New Cross Fire of 1981, the second the fire’s aftermath and the third film recounts the Brixton revolt from that same year.

All three are compulsive and devastating in turn. There’s wonderful era-setting footage that handsomely frame the films.

Fire is masterful in its story-telling, seamlessly moving between detailed personal reflections and that of a wider social backdrop of the late 1970s.

The survivors’ testimony is ­harrowing and in parts graphic. Through the smoke Wayne Haynes staggered to a window and began a desperate descent down a drain pipe.

Lewisham 1977 - forty years on from when we smashed the Nazi National Front
Lewisham 1977 – when we smashed the Nazi National Front
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But it came away from the wall and he went crashing through the roof of an outside lavatory.

His leg ended up lodged in his chest and he sustained multiple fractures. He survived. He was just 16.

Some people jumped from the top floor and second floor windows, hoping they’d avoid the iron spiked railings below in the basement of the Georgian terraced house.

Wayne recalled New Cross in the late 1970s which he styled “a ghetto”, a neighbourhood with an overbearing police presence. Cops would mete out assaults and beatings on the street or back at the station.

It wasn’t the loveliest of places. Much of the public housing stock was a concentrated knit of unforgiving concrete high-rise blocks and maisonettes.

“Muggings” had become newspaper shorthand for exclusively black criminality, particularly where the victims were white women.

The reality was, as teacher and Lewisham councillor Russell Profitt points out from a footage interview, “the black community is simply a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills”.

In the summer of 1977 the police smashed down 21 front doors in dawn raids in an arrest spree, seeking 21“mugging” suspects. The Nazi National Front took the racist bait.

Its attempted march through Lewisham and New Cross in August 1977—and the resistance to it—is now celebrated anti-fascist history.

The footage and accounts in the film are a treat—the noise, the numbers, the smoke bombs, the rock ­hurling black youths and retreating cops.

You get a real sense of the scale of numbers involved in halting fascist marches particularly in the face of massive police protection.

In the wake of glory at Lewisham a rash of highly suspect arson attacks occurred.

It is impossible to think the BBC would have commissioned Uprising without the swelling injustice challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement

The Moonshot, a youth club immensely popular with black youngsters and situated in the heart of New Cross, was torched. Within seven months the Albany Empire Theatre in neighbouring Deptford was set ablaze shortly after hosting plays with a racial harmony theme.

Radical and black bookshops had become targets too.

Wayne maintains that the fire that took hold at 439 New Cross Road was a racist payback for the triumph at Lewisham.

It’s a link impossible to substantiate. Besides, simply ignoring the National Front threat would not have quelled fascist advance in the Britain of the late 1970s.

In Blame, the fallout of the fire comes under scrutiny and in particular police misinformation and scheming, newspaper collusion and establishment silence.

The photos taken by forensics of the gutted interior of the house are particularly harrowing.

The Brixton Uprising—when rage burned on the streets
The Brixton Uprising—when rage burned on the streets
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And it’s great credit to McQueen’s production team that they diligently revisited the contested accounts of how the fire started.

Wayne Hayes pulls back the sleeve of his top to expose to the camera the charred skin he still bears from 1981.

Black anger over the indifference to the deaths was vast. It was reflected in the turnout at public meetings.

Activists, including the Race Today collective conducted their own investigations and took testimonies.

A joint committee was formed and a Black People’s Day for Justice March was called.

It attracted 20,000 ­protesters in March 1981.

The wrath of Frontline, the final episode, had been coming.

Police harassment, particularly the racist application of “sus” laws was the fuse that sparked an uprising in Brixton that summer, 1981.

Many other cities in England revolted too.

It is impossible to think the BBC would have commissioned Uprising without the swelling injustice challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement.

McQueen’s Uprising is a rich chronicle of Britain 40 years ago which still resonates strongly today.

Uprising is on BBC1, 9pm, 20, 21 and 22 July and then on BBC Iplayer

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