Monday, January 17, 2011

Darcus Howe on the New Cross Fire

Darcus Howe gave his perspective on the 1981 New Cross Fire in an interesting article in the Guardian today. Howe was a key figure in the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, and along with Linton Kwesi Johnson was involved in the Brixton-based Race Today Collective. In the article he provides some background on how the Black People's Day of Action demonstration came about:

'It was clear by the Tuesday following the fire that Caribbeans were on the move. An "assembly of the people" was declared by a crowd of about 500. All decisions about how we responded to the police and the authorities were to be taken at this forum. On the following Sunday 2,000 people gathered at the Moonshot Youth Club, paid their respects to the dead and devoted themselves to the struggle for justice.

The assembly took evidence from all those at the party. We were able to track the police investigation and discovered very quickly that they were forcing statements out of those who attended the party without lawyers or parents present...

Out of the blue a call for a public demonstration received a standing ovation and I was voted the organiser. The following morning I headed to Liverpool, then to Preston, Bradford and Leeds to gather support. Nottingham and Birmingham followed. The day before the demonstration the Daily Mail reported that several partygoers had been arrested and that charges would follow. It was a barefaced lie'.

Darcus Howe still argues that the fire was caused by a racist firebomb attack, a view he has consistently maintained down the years. He made similar points in a 2004 New Statesman article after the second inquest failed to resolve the cause of the fire, and in 1999 article, Why I still believe the New Cross Fire was a massacre.

As reported here previously, this view is not shared by some of the survivors and victims' families. However that does not mean that it can be rejected out of hand. Since the police failed at the time and since to solve the case, all possibilities have to be considered. The response to the article in the Guardian (see comments) shows that some people have seized on the possibility that the fire wasn't started by a racist attack to undermine the legitimacy of the anger that arose in 1981. As I have suggested before, whether or not the fire was actually directly caused by racism, the official response to it was shaped by racism just as surely as the reaction of black people at the time was shaped by their experience of racist attacks and police harassment.

Interesting in his 2004 article, Darcus Howe draws comparisons with the Stephen Lawrence case where some of the detectives involved were alleged to have some dubious if not corrupt criminal connections:

'I have lived at several addresses in Sarf London. I once worked as a gardener keeping Blackheath clean and tidy, and I taught at South-East London Technical College. I dived in and out of basement parties and carefully chosen pubs, carried a knife after dark, crossed the road whenever a group of white boys was coming from the opposite direction, and avoided the police like the plague. Police and whites alike enjoyed "nigger-hunting". At the time, Sarf London had only a handful of young blacks about and racism was writ large. When I reminisced with a senior police officer 30 years later, he intimated that the area had always contained a number of brutal and corrupt officers.

Villainy, one of the hallmarks of Sarf London, tempted officers into a world of greed. Both blacks and whites were good for a kicking and a frame-up. This state of affairs went unchallenged until second-generation blacks, born in the area, matured into adulthood. Stereotypes then hardened. Black resistance was deliberately misinterpreted. We were now violent and prone to disorder. Black youth was demonised. So when the Ruddock party exploded in flames, the police at once homed in on black youngsters. A fight between them had caused the fire, they said. Yet the first policeman on the scene told Mrs Ruddock that two white men had firebombed the party. He disappeared, never to be seen or heard from since. Stephen Lawrence's stabbing was at first seen by the police as the death of a violent black youth who had got his come-uppance'.

Again, whether or not there was a racist attack on this day in New Cross 30 years ago, there is a strong case that at least some police officers either didn't take it seriously enough or jumped to wrong conclusions that led them to miss other leads.

Howe concludes his article this week by stating that 'Over Deptford a racist stench continues to pollute the air. The educational institution built in memory of Stephen Lawrence was desecrated with racist graffiti most foul. Plus ça change'. He is right that racism still exists, but I'm not sure that nothing has changed. At the Albany event last Friday people acknowledged that there are new problems, most notably the fact of young people killing each other. But the open racists round here have at least been marginalised by a mixture of migration and shifts in people's ideas- there's no way the BNP could hope to win half the votes in a Council election, as their predecessors did in Deptford at one point in the 1970s.

See also:
New Cross Fire Remembered at the Albany
New Cross Fire: the Bleakest Moment

Also at Deptford Visions, a memory of a racist conversation in 1981


Bill Ellson said...

'Over Deptford a racist stench continues to pollute the air. The educational institution built in memory of Stephen Lawrence was desecrated with racist graffiti most foul. Plus ça change'.


The racist graffiti is news to me, has Howe been to Deptford in the last twenty years?

Transpontine said...

It is true that in February 2008 the windows were smashed in the new Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford. I don't think we should deny that there are still racists out there, but the position today is different to 30 years ago when violent racist attacks were more commonplace in South London.

Anonymous said...

The windows at the Stephen Lawrence centre were damaged by local black youths.I know it doesn't fit the racist agenda, but it's a fact.

Transpontine said...

Anon, I'm not sure you're right on that. Having checked this it seems that four people were suspected but were not charged because of lack of evidence (see Daily Mirror, 28 May 2008). Earlier police said that three suspects had been identified from CCTV, two of them white and one black (Mirror, 22 February 2008).

So it's unclear what the motives were for breaking the windows, it could have been plain vandalism and I don't recall there being any racist graffiti as part of this incident. I suspect Darcus Howe may have been merging/confusing the window breaking with the racist defacing of the memorail at the spot where Stephen Lawrence died.

Anonymous said...

Lawrence friend, 15, bailed for memorial attack