About us | Contact us

Handsworth Disturbances

Two men died during 48 hours of rioting in the Handsworth district of Birmingham in September 1985. Hundreds of youths attacked police, firefighters and property during the disturbances which occurred against a background of rising tension between police and the black community in the area.

Trouble began on the afternoon of Monday September 9 when a group gathered around a black man who was allegedly being racially harassed by a police officer. A scuffle occured in which a woman was allegedly punched by the police officer, and two men were arrested.

A few hours later firemen were attacked with bricks and petrol bombs while attempting to put out a fire at a disused bingo hall in the same area. The disturbances quickly spread and some streets remained inaccessible to police and firefighers for several hours as youths made barricades of burning vehicles and threw bricks and bottles to force back police lines. Witnesses said several hundred youths, predominantly Afro-Caribbean but also including Asians and whites, were involved.

Thirty police officers and 230 firefighters were injured during the first night and over 50 shops were either looted or burnt to the ground, along with a church, garage, public house and the bingo hall. Police made 137 arrests during the two days of disturbances and the damage caused was estimated at between £2 million and £5 million.

Two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning and asphyxia caused by fumes when their sub-post office was set alight. Contrary to widespread reports, the coroner could find no evidence that they had been beaten and left to die by the arsonists. Witnesses said they had refused to leave their property after being warned by police and firemen that they were in danger.

The unrest continued during Tuesday September 10 but 1400 riot police were able to 'dampen down' any trouble and prevent a repetition of the rioting on the scale of the previous night, according to the West Midlands Chief Constable, Geoffrey Dear.

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, who was attacked by youths when he attempted to visit the area on September 10, said the riots were not a 'social phenomenon' but 'criminality pure and simple'. They were not a 'cry for help but a cry for loot'. The Government's response would be 'firmness' and not 'false sympathy', he said.

Chief Constable Dear described the riots as a 'lust for blood' an 'orgy of thieving' and 'pure, naked hooliganism'. He said they were 'nothing to do with community relations. We have to recognise that there are many people, many of them West Indian, who see a great time in looting. It's a matter of pure open criminality and hooliganism, which is an unfortunate trend in our society.'

Most Labour and Alliance MPs saw unemployment and social deprivation in Handsworth as contributory factors leading to the outbreak of violence. Labour Home Affairs spokesperson Gerald Kaufman said we had to ask ourselves why these 'crimes' occurred in Handsworth, Birmingham and not Witney, Oxfordshire (the Home Secretary's constituency). He added, 'crimes have been committed... but the Government have committed their own kind of crime against our inner city areas', by doing nothing about unemployment and by depriving those areas of funding through rate support grant penalties.

Liberal leader David Steel urged the Government to find 'the humanity and wisdom' to launch a new partnership in inner city communites. 'If they do not, our social fabric will be torn apart and ugly anarchy will rule.'

| Share

millipedia :: ethical digital