December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

NME in Liverpool after the 1981 riots

3 min read
The NME (New Musical Express) visited the Toxteth district of Liverpool after the 1981 riots and got a very frosty welcome from local youth
Toxteth riot

At the start of August 1981 – just days after the July riots had simmered down – the NME (New Musical Express) went to Toxteth in Liverpool to find out what locals were really thinking. They might have wished they hadn’t.

Police still patrolled every street corner and there didn’t appear to be a single shop in the area that had not been looted.  A woman called Anna sat behind a makeshift stall beyond which was a pile of rubble that had once been “Anna’s Fruit Shop”.

“They’ve just created more unemployment by putting shopkeepers and their workers on the dole.  They haven’t hurt the police – it’s just their own community that they’ve destroyed.”

While middle aged and older residents were aghast at what had unfolded in their community, some younger interviewees told the NME were enjoying the breakdown in law and order.  There was a cocky bravado in this part of Liverpool at getting goods they couldn’t normally afford free of charge.

“We just do it for what we can get out of it – to see what we can nick.”

“Just ‘cos I enjoy every minute of it.  I only do it for kicks an’ so I can rob cars.”

But there were more thoughtful youngsters who said the situation had been building up for twenty years.  The police had always treated black and white youth in the area with suspicion, searching their bags, getting a bit rough with them.  “People were bound to fight back one day.”

The death of David Moore (the only person to die in the riots, see my other blog posts on him) seemed to validate their actions as he was a defenceless, disabled man mown down by a police van. 

Continuing its visit to the Liverpool, the NME went to talk to the police who, it noted, had received 1,631 complaints (mentioned in their annual report) resulting in formal disciplinary action against just two officers.

In spite of its trendy-left reputation, the paper took an even-handed view towards the constabulary pointing out that while there had been allegations of harassment, the police themselves had been subjected to daily provocation including being spat at and called ‘pigs’ to see if they would react.  As one garage attendant stoically remarked to the NME – “there’s good and bad on both sides”.

Talking to members of the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee, it became clear that well known comments about the local Toxteth community being the product of liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes were now widely attributed to the Merseyside Chief Constable Ken Oxford himself – though he denied it vehemently.

DISCOVER: 1979 Southall riot and the death of Blair Peach

The exchange between the L8DC and the NME was frosty in the extreme and things only got worse when the reporter arrived at the Carribean Community Centre to be told “no white press in here”.  About twenty local youth quickly arrived on the scene to ask why the music paper only came to see them when there were bad times and crisis.

Promoting Merseyside bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark didn’t endear the NME to these black teenagers who saw that as “only another example of discrimination against blacks – in this case by the predominantly white-controlled music business”.

Clearly not having a good time in Toxteth, the NME reporter then alleged that he had been frisked as he moved along by inept pick-pockets and four other youths were now bouncing up and down on the bonnet of his ten year old Escort van.  Remonstrating with them, he got this stark response.

“You come into a trouble-torn area with your fancy cameras on your back an’ your slick tape recorders an’ fire questions at black people under pressure.  An’ then you wonder why they want to hit you over the head an’ steal your equipment an’ leave you on the ground.”

Describing himself and his cameraman as “white boys in the wrong part of town”, the NME reporter decided to exit the city. And so its ill-starred trip to Liverpool came to a rapid conclusion.

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