41 years ago today, 13 teenagers were killed in a fire that swept through 439 New Cross Road, in a suspected racist attack. While most of the country remained silent on the events of that day, Black people the length and breadth of Britain organised, their efforts eventually leading to the Black People’s Day of Action. Despite 41 years having passed, many of the issues raised by the fire and the subsequent protest remain with us today. While the UK has undergone a great deal of change within the intervening years, it is important to remember the legacy of the 18th January 1981. Writer and poet Ionie Richards reflects upon the events of that day and the subsequent Black People’s Day of Action.
Today, 18th January marks the 41st anniversary when thirteen young Black people died in a house fire in New Cross, London. I remember my flatmates and I, from our student flat in Edmonton, North London were appalled at hearing the news.
I was a young 20-year-old student, just beginning to find my own voice and explore my identity. Yet many of those who died were around my own age and some not much younger than me. They had the hope of a future before them too but was suddenly cut down in a way that was unimaginable. It resonated as it could have been me or any of my friends. There was no internet or social media at that time but, by word of mouth, we heard about the People’s Day of Action was to take place in London on the 2nd March 1981. We knew we had to be there to show solidarity with the families and to voice our concerns.
I remember the defiance we all felt, the shared hurt that the Government, Police and the whole British establishment seemed keen to be silent on how or why thirteen young people lost their lives in a house fire. There was an indifference not only to acknowledge the tragedy but in the investigation that followed. Thirteen dead and nothing said.
The morning of the march it rained. Undeterred my flatmates and I were determined to join the protest. It was important for us, like so many others, to show our unity, express our anger, and be heard.
I joined a swelling crowd of women, men, and young people that grey morning. We assembled and the march wound its way through London streets and over Blackfriars Bridge. As we walked, more and more onlookers left their doorways, bus queues, workplaces and joined us. Spirits were high, traffic stopped and loudspeakers blared. Beating drums echoed our chants, "thirteen dead nothing said". Placards and banners with images and names printed on each, of the young people who died, protruded high above the umbrellas and heads of the crowd. Those who had lost their lives were someone’s son, daughter, brother or sister. They mattered. For the first time, I felt part of a community fighting for justice and honouring our dead. That day our collective presence demonstrated that we were not going to be ignored or silenced.
I felt a sense of empowerment and pride as shouts of “freedom” filled the air. I remember we marched through Fleet Street en masse to the heart of the British press. Our chants echoed, "Black People united we will never be defeated." White workers hung out of windows in this vanilla part of the City where Black people were only ever seen in early mornings or late at night as office cleaners. The daytime occupants of those high-rise fortressed offices stared wide-eyed back at us, an estimated 20,000 throng of Black people. We had come together, to make an impact and be the voice of our community. Banners waved as we hissed and shouted, “Blood ah Go Run, if Justice Na Come,” over and over again. The sound reverberated back at me as we squeezed through the narrow streets. A sudden surge in the crowd heightened fears, my heart pounded as we scattered momentarily losing friends in the crowd, then regrouping linking arms. Despite the grey wet skies, my shrinking afro and tired legs, nothing could have dampened my spirits, as we marched on to Hyde Park like an unstoppable train.
At the time I didn’t realise how portentous those words “Blood ah Go Run”, would be or how tensions would boil over into other disturbances in 1981. The Brixton Riots, Tottenham Riots and other uprisings took hold in towns and cities like wildfire across the UK’s mainland. The unexplained deaths of mainly young Black youths while in custody, the SUS laws, the rising unemployment rate and the general feeling within our Black community of inequality was raw. This was the context of the anger, tensions and explosive emotions that year and throughout the early 1980s.
The New Cross Peoples Day of Action was my first experience of activism and the first of many protests that followed. Yet 41 years have passed. Plaques and memorials have been put up in memory of those that died. Still, no one has been charged for the death of thirteen innocent lives or the many others who were injured. The Day of Action may have been seen as a pivotal day in our struggle, as Black people fighting for justice and equal rights yet I wonder just how far we have come in race relations.
In 1985, just four years later, I was walking in Birmingham city centre one evening having left work late. A police van pulled up alongside me with a load of police officers in riot gear. Stunned, I could feel the unease rising in my chest. An officer in the front seat leaned out the window and asked if I’d notice any suspicious Black men in the area go past. It was a quiet street with just me walking to a nearby car park. What I hadn’t realised then was that a riot was raging just three miles away in Handsworth, Birmingham and somehow, they found a lone Black woman to seek directions to hunt for my Black brothers.
The death of George Floyd in the USA in May 2020 and the recent Windrush Scandal shows the continuing disregard of our Black community by the State and their agents. The rise of Black Lives Matter has brought race equality and social justice back into the nation’s collective consciousness. Despite this, the threat of the imminent Policing Bill being made law in its current form would restrict people’s right to protest and entrench racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Many dangerous sections of the Bill were voted out in the House of Lords yesterday, but the government has not given up. If the Bill was law in 1981 it is likely that the People’s Day of Action would never have taken place. It all feels regressive and shows how we, as Black people, still have a long way to go not only to defend our right to protest but to claim our space and equal rights just to be.
Ionie Richards - Activist, Writer, Poet
Image credit Alamy