The week we welcome guest author Miriam White, who is currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Here Miriam discusses the social and political environment that led to the 1981 uprising In Chapeltown, with first hand accounts from the people there. You can find similar articles on our heritage trail page: Power and Protest.
The year 1981 marked a series of uprisings that took place in major cities across the country. The scale, pitch, and extended period of time over which these events took place meant they produced – and still continue to produce – fierce debate over what exactly they meant.
When we use the term ‘riot’ to describe the events of July 1981, in Chapeltown, Leeds, it comes loaded with connotations. For sociologist Max Farrar, rioting means ‘losing it big time’ (Farrar, ‘Rioting of Protesting? Losing It or Finding It?’ p.25). ‘It’ here being the loss of order. It conveys a sense of mindlessness perpetrated by a mob mentality – chaos, rebellion, violence. The government, typified by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, denounced the summer uprising in Lambeth as ‘criminal,’ and further argued in relation to the wider series of uprisings that ‘nothing but nothing justifies what happened on Saturday and Sunday nights’ (Benyon, Scarman and After: Essays Reflecting on Lord Scarman’s Report, p.13). This characterisation of the events fits with an image of rioting as meaningless, and more importantly, illegitimate.
Voices from within the community itself took a different meaning from the events. Community advocate, Claude Hendrickson described the uprising as a kind of catharsis:
That’s what was being expressed by the young people, they were frustrated. They were frustrated with the education system, they were frustrated with the college system, they were frustrated with the working system, they were frustrated with their parents, because everybody’s on them.
Community newsletters, Come-Unity News and Leeds Other Paper (LOP) concurred. Come Unity News quoted Martin Luther King, posing the question ‘how long must we suffer under the iron boots of oppression?’ (Come Unity News, Issue 3, August 1981). Similarly, LOP quoted Martin Luther King’s argument that rebellion was ‘the voice of the unheard,’ drawing similarities to the civil rights movement, and the struggle for racial justice’ (Leeds Other Paper, 17 July 1981). Come-Unity News also detailed the perceived causes of the events in Leeds, citing the failure of police to exercise their duty in a democratic and impartial way, destruction of property, attacks on Black people in the streets, and racist harassment (Come Unity News, Issue 3, August 1981). It articulated clearly held motivations. From this perspective, the events were explicitly political; the actions of oppressed minorities fighting against wider societal hostility.
While both LOP and Come-Unity News were themselves left wing newsletters, their positioning within the community they represented provides us with valuable insight. LOP, in particular, was reliant on people within the area relaying news to the editor (Leeds Other Paper, 17 July 1981). In conjunction with Claude’s description, their claims indicate a wider understanding of the events beyond a reductionist reading of them as merely ‘criminal’ in nature.
It has been argued that what is needed is a re-imagining of the term ‘riot’ to account for protest and struggle (Chambers, ‘Reading the Riot Act,’ p. 241). However, a problem emerges when we place ‘riot’ in its social and racial context in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Riot’ was part of a wider pattern of fear generated around Black criminality. Black men, specifically, were commonly portrayed as highly visible threats to society – described as terrorists, rapists, guerrillas, and particularly, muggers; innately savage with a capacity for destruction and violence (Chambers, p. 240.) Stoked by media depictions of Black crime, these ideas filtered down to everyday perceptions in areas with Black populations. Here, Claude discussed the effect:
because I’m Black and the media says we’re this, so straight away it’s like you can be walking in town and you’ll be walking behind a white lady, and she looks ‘ooh, ooh, ooh’ because she’s frightened you’re gonna rob her bag. Sometimes you have to step quickly and walk in front of them and think ‘God I can’t take this.
By the late 1970s, the fear of the lone Black mugger shifted into the fear of the ‘Black mob’– a more plural, collective image which was seen to explain why public order problems had become so routine in inner city areas (Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, p.99). In this light, Black protest itself was looked on as inherently criminal. Coverage, for example, of the march protesting the police handling of the New Cross Fire, in which thirteen Black youths died in a house fire, was described in the Daily Express as ‘a frenzied mob [that] took part in an orgy of looting and destruction in the West End’ (Kettle and Hodges, Uprising! The Police, The People and the Riots, p. 21). In this context, rioting was perceived as an outbreak of more adolescent Black hooliganism – gang behaviour on a mass scale, which was to be dealt with through harsher policing.
The presence of Black people at the ‘riots’ meant that events were immediately racialized. In the reporting of events, ‘hooligans’ became ‘Black hooligans’ and ‘mobs’ became ‘race mobs’ (Murdock, Scarman and After: Essays Reflecting on Lord Scarman’s Report, p. 82). Following the events in Chapeltown, Bernard Dineen’s comment piece in the Yorkshire Post stated, ‘we repeatedly witness rioting and mugging by predominantly black youngsters in poor inner-city areas’ (Yorkshire Post, July 20 1981). The term ‘riot’ – its connotations of mindless violence, savagery, and sprees of criminality – played to an already established picture of the threat Black people posed.
So, what do we do with our language when referring to these events? Looking at the descriptions used within the community may point us in a useful direction. Come-Unity Newsletter referred to the events in the headline ‘The Leeds Uprising’ (Come Unity Collective, Issue 3, August 1981). Here the term ‘uprising’ at once evokes an element of legitimate political struggle without the racialized baggage of ‘riot,’ and evades the problem posed by the many different interpretations of what a ‘riot’ might be.
Further, when I posed the question to Claude, he responded:
In the community we say it was an uprising because we were sick of what was going on, we’re sick – we had bad houses – we’re sick, we’re sick, we’re sick. We didn’t want to do this. We’ve been telling them. They didn’t listen. This is a product of it. But then the papers say, ‘a riot.’ So who do you want to believe?
Miriam White is currently a PhD student at the University of Leeds. As part of a project, Miriam is looking to interview people from Leeds to ask about their appreciation of music and their experiences of growing up Black and British in the 1970s and 1980s. If this sounds like something you may be interested in, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.