On Friday 3 July 1981 at around 9.30pm, a young black man on a motorbike, Leroy Cooper, was chased by an unmarked police car. At the corner of Selbourne Street at the junction of Granby Street the motorcyclist came off his bike and two officers tried to arrest him. Eight police vehicles arrived as a group of young men challenged the arresting officers, suspecting wrongful arrest.
Leroy Cooper’s arrest was to become known as the incident that sparked the most serious unrest of the 20th Century as Liverpool 8 joined the uprisings that had swept across UK inner cities and towns.
The ‘Toxteth riots’, as they were dubbed by the media, were the longest and most devastating; 500 people were arrested and 70 buildings destroyed, with the damage estimated at £11m. David Moore died tragically after being crushed by a police vehicle. Protesters were tear gassed and, for the first time on the British mainland, police fired rubber bullets at demonstrators.
On the second day of the disturbances Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, Kenneth Oxford made the following statement to the press,
“This was completely different from Southall or Brixton. There was no racial connotation at all. It is just a group of black hooligans, with some criminal element among the whites streaming in to help, who were hell-bent on provoking the police.” (Liverpool Echo, 4th July 1981).
Despite Oxford’s warning that the rioters ‘cannot win’, the police could only stand by and watch helplessly as The Liverpool Racquets Club, an elite private members club, the National Westminster Bank and then Swainbank’s Furniture Store, formerly the Rialto picture house, burned beyond rescue.
The high level of organisation within the protest was demonstrated when rioters facilitated the evacuation of 102 elderly patients by ambulance and taxi, as staff at the Princes Park Hospital & St. Joseph’s Hospice feared the spread of fire from the Racquets Club next door.
Many would argue that the uprisings were unavoidable and even a necessary response to the injustices suffered by black and Asian communities. A parliamentary report into racial disadvantage in Liverpool, written one year earlier, concluded, ‘Time is running out’. A combination of one of Britain’s bleakest employment areas with one of Britain’s most disadvantaged black communities could be disastrous’
In many ways the events were disastrous, but they were also a watershed in the policing of black communities and the nation’s understanding of institutional and structural racism. The positive legacies across the UK are seismic.
Here in Liverpool the Liverpool 8 Law Centre emerged from the embers of ’81 and became a central part of the community infrastructure. Those involved with the law centre were activists, involved in a myriad of struggles that affected black communities. Their acute understanding of racism and its manifestations ensured that political activity had an international as well as local perspective.
There were many more community organisations that emerged out of the uprisings, including Positive Action initiatives such as Merseyside Skills Training which began to address the discrimination in education and employment faced by black and racial minority communities.
While the Black Lives Matter protesters have highlighted that racist over-policing of black communities is still very much an issue that has to be fought, the police do not act with the same level of impunity as they did in the 1970’s. While racist attacks are on the increase, young people do not fear leaving the ‘boundaries’ of Liverpool 8 for fear of assault.
The uprisings shone a spotlight on the plight of the inner city and Liverpool in particular, where Lord Gifford concluded in 1985, that racial disadvantage was ‘uniquely horrific’. The scale of the uprisings forced the establishment to invest in the city, which benefited many institutions. Tate Liverpool exists because of the actions of the L8 Community.
In 2011, WoW marked the thirtieth anniversary of those monumental events with “Rioting on the Wall”, a day-long event featuring panel discussions, performance, a photographic exhibition and a ‘rebels ball’ featuring the legendary DJ Don Letts.
Sadly, COVID-19 prevents us from coming together to mark this 40th anniversary, but we hope that you appreciate our short film in which we speak to some of the giants from the community, whose shoulders those who have been inspired to continue the struggle for justice and quality stand upon.
Huge thanks go to the activists featured in the film: Maria O’Reilly, Alan Gayle, Patricia Harvey, Linda Freeman, Sonia Bassey, Ray Quarless, Patrick Graham, Erroll Graham and Laurence Westgaph. While for decades Liverpool 8, was branded as lawless and demonised by the media, their testimony speaks of the bravery, creativity and tenacity of the community.
Thanks also to our partners the Anthony Walker Foundation and the very talented filmmakers at the Guide Liverpool.
Watch the video below: The 40th Anniversary of the Toxteth Riots Uprising