It was 30 years ago: Toxteth burned in a riot of its own

Thirty years ago, July 4 did not have much significance for me.
by Ian Williams
Friday, July 1st, 2011
I was still based in Liverpool and was on the executive of what is now the RMT. While the union’s annual general meeting was on, we were stood down and so I was catching up with friends in pubs of what was then known as Liverpool 8, but by the following morning was immortalised as the “Toxteth district of the city” by a police press announcement on the riots.After some earlier scuffles, the police were engaged in a show of force throughout the district, banging provocatively on their riot shields in a neightbourhodd with the largest concentration of African-Caribbean Liverpudlians.
It’s worth noting that most of them were deeply rooted in the city whose economy made immigration a pointless exercise. It’s indicative that in its old established Chinatown, Liverpool was one of the few places where Chinese restaurants often employed locals as waiters. Being long established did not mean integration.
Unemployment was high, along with social problems. I had been engaged in a scheme to make jobs available on British Rail where unsocial hours and low pay meant that railway jobs were always available. But we ran into an immediate problem. “As long as they don’t have a criminal record, there should be no problem”, I reported. The pursed lips and shaking heads of the local community leaders confirmed that this was indeed a problem for local kids. Liverpool had an ill-deserved reputation for racial harmony, but it was mostly based on residential segregation in some, clearly-defined parts of Liverpool 8.
And it was those relatively safe havens the police were now threatening with their provocative phalanxes. In the pubs, locals were plotting. This time they would not get away with it. So when, later that evening, myself and a neighbour were meandering up the hill from the city centre, we walked in on a maelstrom. Those serried ranks of police were scampering down Upper Parliament Street under a hail of bricks and poles and had been driven down towards the Anglican Cathedral.
It was not a “race riot”. While, as canny observers at the time noted, it was true that the police ranks were all white, the opposing side was a model of multicultural rainbow harmony. Everyone hated Merseyside cops, who had inherited from Liverpool City police the reputation of the finest police that money could buy outside Hong Kong. It was the first night that tear gas was used on the British mainland – to little effect apart from the one unfortunate hit in the stomach by a round.  After the first choking lungful and crippling reaction, a wet T-shirt across the mouth and nose seemed to work.
Almost the only used building that was set on fire was the Racquets club. Built in the days when the area was inhabited by the mercantile elite this exclusive establishment had few if any local members of any hue and its burning was naked class warfare of the kind that Margaret Thatcher was evoking. The fire inadvertently seeded an outbreak of caring communitarianism that I don’t believe has ever been recorded.
Next door to the Racquets was a nursing home for old ladies, some of whom I believe had been committed for “moral insanity” half a century or more behind. The conflagration next door was threatening the building, and while the police held their ground down the hill, Liverpool black cab drivers hailed on the radio drove into the battle, and with “rioters” evacuated the hospital floor by floor.  One visual image that sticks in my mind is one the leaders, a huge black guy with semi-Afro, cradling one of these frail patients in his arms like a baby uttering soothing comments as he raced downstairs.
The riots had a wake-up effect. Michael Heseltine spent a lot of time in the city, Liverpool got a garden festival – but it alsogot Derek Hatton. Now the erstwhile City of Culture is transformed. But 30 years on, with a neo-Thatcherite regime going far beyond her neo-liberal dreams, there is a disturbing sense of déjà vu .
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