Tuesday, April 04, 2017

13 Dead and Nothing Said - New Cross Fire Exhibition at Goldsmiths

The death earlier this week of Darcus Howe led to several mentions in obituaries of his role in helping to organise the Black People's Day of Action, a major demonstration called in response to the 1981 New Cross Fire.

Photograph by Vron Ware (Autograph ABP)

By coincidence an exhibition documenting that demonstration is currently on display at Goldsmiths in New Cross, just a few hundred metres from the scene of the fire. '13 dead and nothing said' 'presents a body of photographs taken by Vron Ware documenting the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981. The images bear witness to an historic moment of community organising and resistance in post-war Britain. In the early hours of Sunday 18 January 1981, a fire at 439 New Cross Road resulted in the deaths of 13 young black Londoners as they were celebrating the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock, one of the victims. One survivor died nearly two years later, bringing the total loss of life to 14.  In the face of public indifference towards and negative media coverage about the loss of 13 young black lives, as well as perceived inaction on behalf of the police to apprehend suspects, hundreds of people met on 25 January 1981 at the Moonshot Club and marched in protest. The New Cross Massacre Action Committee was set up and plans were made for the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981' in which 15-20,000 people marched from Fordham Park in New Cross into central London. 

Leaflet for the march, announcing the start in 'Fordham Park next to Moonshot Community Centre, Pagnell Street SE14'. The address of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee is given as 74 Shakespeare Road SE24 - this was the office of Race Today, the radical black magazine edited by Darcus Howe.

I have been to a few exhibitions in this space and was expecting more of the same i.e. a few photos hung on the wall. But this is different, a well designed and thoughtful display that squeezes a huge amount of content into this corridor. As well as photographs the exhibition features fascinating archive material loaned by the George Padmore Institute including documents from the New Cross Massacre Action committee, the Metropolitan Police and contemporary press accounts. It also includes reflections on the events from Linton Kwesii Johnson, Paul Gilroy and others.

List of the victims of the fire from exhibition and 'The Declaration of New Cross' made on the day of the demonstration: 'The national authorities in Parliament and Government... ignored the tragedy of the families of the dead and injured':

Stewards Instructions for the day, including the route of the march - it went from New Cross, through Peckham and Camberwell, up Walworth Road to Elephant, over Blackfriars Bridge, down Fleet Street (then centre of the newspaper industry) and into the West End, finishing in Hyde Park.

Relatively minor clashes near Blackfriars led to exaggerated and frankly racist press reports, and the exhibition reproduces some fo the headlines such as 'Black Day at Blackfriars' and 'Day the Blacks ran riot in London' (The Sun).

'What explains the silence that you see in the newspapers immediately afterwards is the fact that – I can't translate this into something polite really – that the deaths of 13 young black people don't matter because the value of their life is lower. And I think that at the beginning of 1981 we were trying to say that these black lives matter, you know? If our children die we feel the same pain that you feel'  (Paul Gilroy, 2015)

Flyer for an event the weekend before the march, organised by the Steve Biko Youth Organisation and featuring Ras Messengers and Jah Shaka, as well as a film about Malcolm X.  This took place at 190 Evelyn Street, Deptford.

I strongly recommend that you try and see this exhibition before it closes. It is located in the Richard Hoggart building that is the main old building at Goldsmiths on Lewisham way. Go into the main entrance and follow the corridor either left or right round to the back of the building where the Kingsway Corridor joins the left and right hand sides of the buiding.  It is free of charge and anybody can freely entered the building seven days a week from 9 am to 9 pm. I believe that the exhibition continues until 14 May, though note that the college is closed over Easter from 13th to 18th of April (full details here)

For more background on the New Cross Fire, see these previous posts:

.Les Back from Goldsmiths discusses the events and the exhibition:

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