In 1981 ‘riots’ or uprisings took place across the UK, most explosively in Brixton, Handsworth, Chapeltown, Toxteth and Moss Side.
In all those areas Defence Committees sprang up to defend Black young people from criminalisation by the police, courts and by the government.
In Manchester the Moss Side Defence Committee was launched at a mass meeting of 300 people, not only to oppose the criminalisation of Black youth but to challenge the establishment attempts to blame the community itself. Rather than recognise that both police racist harassment and racist government policies were the source of the rebellion.
In the aftermath of the riots, Gus John was a key figure in the Moss Side Defence Committee, which assisted with legal support to the youths charged by the police, challenged police violence and attempted to convey to the press and public a different interpretation of the events which had taken place.
In 1981, unemployment was rising fast, particularly among the young, reaching 12 per cent – 2.5 million, the highest level since the Second World War. Unemployment disproportionately affected Black and Asian communities and was specifically used by the Thatcher government to drive down industrial militancy and organised resistance to big businesses and government.
Alongside this was the scapegoating of immigrant communities. In a 1978 television interview for the current affairs programme World in Action, in the run up to the 1979 general election Margaret Thatcher claimed that British people feared being ‘swamped’ by immigrants from the new Commonwealth and Pakistan.
When asked by the interviewer how severely she would cut the immigration numbers if she got to power, Thatcher replied, “If we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”
Moss Side uprising
On 8th July 1981, a crowd of more than 1,000 youths besieged the police station in Moss Side in Manchester. All windows in the building were broken, and twelve police vehicles were set on fire. This happened because of the continual harassment of young Black people by the police.
The ‘sus’ law permitted a police officer to stop, search and potentially arrest people on suspicion of them being in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1924. The use of this law by the police was specifically used against Black and Asian communities, including racial profiling, with increasing frequency through the 1970s and this use was seen as the trigger for the riots of 1981.
‘Riots’ or uprisings
Dr Martin Luther King once described riots as “the language of the unheard”. The use of the term riots is to portray the protests as mindless acts of lawless people. Justified anger at racist policing is then described as a poor excuse for “irresponsible behaviour”.
The development of Defence Committees was a rejection of the media and establishment demonisation of their young people and communities.
Other tropes were also used at the time which many will recognise today. The attempt to blame “outside forces” for the rebellion was also claimed at the time. This is an attempt to blame anti-racist or socialist organisations for provoking the “disturbances”.
In modern form we can see this as Donald Trump’s attempt to blame “antifas” (anti fascists) for the protests against the murder of Black people in the US at the hands of the police. No evidence, either then or now, is provided for such an explanation. Uprisings are unorganised, spontaneous responses to injustice.
Let’s get organised
However, Defence Committees in 1981 showed the need for communities to be organised to try and achieve justice, not just in terms of policing but also housing, employment and health. They require leaders, like Gus John, to provide clarity of ideas in challenging structural racism. This is what today the Black Lives Matter Movement and Stand up to Racism are trying to achieve. In my view, to have the force to achieve genuine change we need a mass movement not just against racism but a capitalist system that uses racism to maintain their rule.
By Ameen Hadi
Ameen Hadi is Northwest Unison Chair of Black Members Committee, and an activist with Greater Manchester Stand Up To Racism.
First published in Manchester Stand Up To Racism’s – ‘Black History Matters – Made in Manchester’
Copies of ‘Black History Matters – Made in Manchester’ can be bought here.
Manchester Online Rally Against Racism – keynote speaker Prof. Gus John – 6pm Monday 1 March 2021 (zoom details can be found in event image in this article)
Feature image: Flickr (The Manchester Police Band marches through Moss Side on a Sunday morning a few weeks before the riot in July)