Growing up working-class and black in the L8 area of Liverpool was to be inherently political. Margaret Thatcher had abandoned our city to a policy of ‘managed decline’, sending unemployment skyrocketing to double the national average by the mid-eighties. On top of that, the consciousness of the black community was sharpened as a response to Liverpool’s unique history. Our city once dominated the transatlantic slave trade, a fact which shapes a strong and deeply personal sense, passed down through generations, that the wealth of the city was built on the backs of black people.
The 1981 uprisings in Liverpool 8, which happened forty years ago this summer, are often dubbed the Toxteth riots by politicians and pundits who have never set foot in the area. They were sparked by police brutality, but were fundamentally a political response to the class and race wars being waged in our city at the time.
As the first black MP for the constituency where I was born and have lived all my life, my political consciousness was fundamentally shaped by these events — but my journey into politics was far from straightforward.
Growing Up in L8
The eldest of five children, I grew up in a small terraced house without a bathroom or an inside toilet — just around the corner from where the most hostile pitched battles took place between the local community and the police. My primary school was across the road from the Rialto building, the former ballroom and cinema made famous by iconic pictures of its exterior engulfed in a blazing inferno at the height of the uprisings.
Like so many mixed families in Liverpool, racial tensions in the community and in our family were unavoidable. My dad’s parents were Ghanaian seamen, my nan was from Dublin. When my parents fell in love it was far from plain sailing, and my mum was ostracised from her family for daring to start a relationship and a family with a black man.
We lived in Liverpool 8 along with 90 per cent of the black community of Liverpool. We had a clear north-south divide in the city and there were no-go areas if your skin was the wrong colour. Skinheads and black youth fought on Windsor Street, the dividing line between what was known locally as L8 and the Dingle.
Travelling north to visit my nan, I’d face a barrage of verbal abuse, and the same was true on my commute to sixth form in Garston — a predominantly white community just a few miles away, where I was the only black pupil.
This was the daily reality for black people who travelled outside of the community, even to the city centre which was a short walk away from where I lived. As I got older and started to go out I discovered the ‘colour bar’ on clubs in town, but had no problems getting into the Timepiece or the Babaloo — two black clubs that played the funkiest music and had the best dancers.
Many black families in L8 tried to leave the area to seek better housing, schools, and opportunities. However, they often faced systemic discrimination by the council, which was exposed in an investigation in 1984 by the Commission for Racial Equality. Their report found that the council was twice as likely to give white people a house rather than a flat, that they were four times more likely to get a newly-built house, and almost twice as likely to get a home with central heating.
But even when they were able to overcome this discrimination, those who did manage to move away faced relentless harassment and abuse. As Teresa Hill, a Liverpool City Council housing officer at the time recalls: ‘L8 was classed as a no-go area for the council, where properties were in a state of total disrepair with lots of overcrowding, no streetlighting maintenance, no bins or refuse services, no upkeep, and no new properties.’
Behind the Uprising
It was this unique context that laid the groundwork for the 1981 L8 uprisings, which made it different from the others that swept the country from Brixton to Moss Side to Handsworth that year. While those uprisings are often framed in the context of second-generation immigrants demanding a fair stake in the society they were born into, Liverpool had the oldest and most established black community in the country. Our experience of enforced racial segregation and oppression over multiple generations meant the conflict in L8 struck a deeper chord, one which contributed to making it the most brutal of all the insurgencies of that time.
This all helped to spur my political consciousness. I regularly attended the Methodist Youth Club, where the leaders would discuss black politics and talk about what was going on in the United States. I’d attend demonstrations and listen to activists talk about the Black Panther movement.
I began volunteering at the Merseyside Community Relations Council with Maria O’Reilly, providing support to those who had been arrested and their families. The SUS (now Stop and Search) laws allowed the police to harass our communities with complete impunity — including my own cousin who was arrested and beaten up by the bizzies — and tensions were building to boiling point.
In the words of Leroy Cooper, whose arrest famously sparked the uprising, ‘it was an anti-police reaction, not a race riot as some tried to twist it. The people were not fighting each other, black and white youth joined forces to battle them.
‘The idea that the police were a public service that our community could trust was ridiculous … Young people both black and white would fear being pulled by the police. You would be verbally abused and you might get slapped about in the back of a police van by four or five men in uniform and then get done for assault,’ he continued.
‘They would target your body and not your face. You would be kicked out in lonely spots where no-one would witness and told to tell your friends that there was more of the same waiting for them.’
The ensuing acts of damage and destruction that occurred were not random, they were highly symbolic response of the racism, hostility, and violence of Liverpool both past and present. They targeted the police, the despised Racquets Club, the Rialto building, the NatWest Bank, and many shops and buildings in the area.
The power of the people on the streets was such that the Chief Constable of Merseyside Kenneth Oxford — backed by Margaret Thatcher — authorised the use of CS gas against the crowds for the first time ever in mainland Britain. In the following weeks, David Moore, a white disabled man, was killed after being rammed by a police car. Still now, no one has been held accountable for his death.
Forty years on, with the next generation taking to the streets in the Black Lives Matter movement and raising their voices against systemic and violent racism, these events contain important lessons and an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come.
As the first black MP for Liverpool, I’m proud that we now also have a black woman running the council as a city mayor and more black councillors than ever before. Massive investment has been put into giving the docks a facelift, especially since Liverpool was made the 2008 European City of Culture.
David Clay, chair of the L8 Law Centre at the time of the uprisings, talks about the progress that was made in the years following the events, which saw initiatives at a council level to address some of the worst systemic failings facing the black community in Liverpool. However, he also describes how just last year, at the age of sixty-nine, he was accosted by police and handcuffed for simply sitting in his car.
While important, these changes have not improved things for most black people in Liverpool. Gentrification of the city has driven out much of the existing community who can no longer afford to live there. Granby Street, where my mum used to work in Hallets cake shop, was once the centre of a thriving and busy community. But today, much of it has been closed down, aside from the famous monthly Granby Market.
Teresa Hill describes the gentrification of the area as ‘a systematic and conscious effort since the uprisings to break the community up through pricing out local people.’ Many of the organisations that existed no longer do, dissipated along with the sense of community that provided such a barrier against the police brutality of the 1980s.
Black people remain under-represented in politics and employment, and over-represented in the police and criminal justice systems. Even before coronavirus we faced systemic inequalities in these areas. Now, we are seeing unemployment rates for black young people rise at three times the rate of their white counterparts, hitting levels not seen since the 1980s.
Even though Merseyside Police have developed more initiatives to improve their relationship with the local community — much of them with their roots in the response to the 1981 uprisings — black people are still three times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. There is still a strong and deeply personal sense that we are an ignored and invisible community, despite there being generations of black families with strong ties to the city.
My dad was also taken from us in 1981. Aged 51, he passed in November of that year. He taught me to be aware and proud of my heritage — ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!’ While he didn’t live long enough to see his daughter make history, his principles guide my politics and drive my fight for the change that I’m hopeful will come.