Nearly forty years ago, a police officer was hacked to death during a night of violence in north London. Police Constable Keith Blakelock stumbled during a riot on the Broadwater Farm estate and never stood up again. His neck was hacked at with a machete and knives with one report suggesting he lost fingers as he tried to defend himself. This was an ultra-violent night in Thatcher’s Britain. During the year 1985 when civil disturbances once more rocked British cities echoing what had happened during the summer of 1981.
On October 6, 1985, the Broadwater Farm council estate in the Tottenham district of London experienced a massive civil disturbance. Blakelock and some firefighters moved towards a supermarket that was on fire. But they were soon driven into rapid retreat as the mob surged forward. The police officer didn’t move fast enough and tripped. As he fell on his face, the blows rained down in a frenzy.
One of the firefighters, a former police officer, went over and attempted to give the motionless Blakelock cardiac massage but was hit on the back by a petrol bomb. Bricks were also being thrown. Eventually, the bloodied figure was bundled into an ambulance and rushed to North Middlesex Hospital. But within 15 minutes of arriving, Blakelock died before reaching the operating theatre.
How did the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot begin?
The ferocity of the attack on PC Blakelock speaks volumes about the relationship at that time between the Metropolitan Police in London and the local black community – especially the youth. Despite all the hand wringing and official enquiries after riots spread across the country in 1981, many of the same problems persisted. In particular, low representation of black Britons in London’s police and heavy-handed policing in communities with high black populations.
The catalyst for the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot was the death of Cynthia Jarrett. Her son, Floyd, had been arrested by police with regards to his car tax disc. Police claimed it looked suspicious. At the police station, Floyd Jarrett was charged with theft and assault. He would be subsequently acquitted of these charges. But on the day he was stopped, police officers decided to search his mother’s house, apparently for stolen goods.
Predictably, what happened in the house varies between the police account and what the family later asserted. In the police account, Cynthia was very cooperative, let them search, and things only turned ugly when Floyd’s brother turned up. The police were pushed out of the house as Cynthia collapsed but convinced the family to allow an officer back in who attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which failed. Her heart had stopped beating.
Cynthia’s daughter had a different account. A police officer had shoved Cynthia to one side causing her to fall. She lay on the ground gasping for breath. Family members tried to contact a doctor and then phoned for an ambulance. Far from being dead, Cynthia took some tablets for high blood pressure and changed her clothes. But then collapsed a second time and at this point, she died.
The family held a demonstration outside the police station demanding a public inquiry and requesting the community to remain calm. But windows at the station were smashed, a harbinger of what was to follow. The family’s pleas for a peaceful demonstration were ignored as the riot brewed to boiling point.
DISCOVER: Memories of Liverpool in 1981
The rapid descent into riot
This riot didn’t simmer, it exploded. On October 6, 1985 at 2pm, the Jarrett family held their demonstration outside the police station but already, missiles were being thrown. At 3.30pm, police answered a call from the Broadwater Farm estate but then came under attack. One of the two police officers who responded was taken to Moorfields eye hospital.
At 6pm, the West Indian Standing Conference convened an emergency meeting addressed by the leader of Haringey borough council, Bernie Grant, and youth leader Dolly Kiffin. They appealed for calm but were told by those present that it was too late. The demand within the community now was for action. The death of Cynthia Jarrett had unleashed a tidal wave of hate.
After 9pm, Broadwater Farm was a riot scene. A full-scale battle between rioters and police. At 9.44pm, police claimed they heard gunshots in Griffin Road. It was at 10.15pm that Blakelock met his fate. The police later reported that they came under fire from every type of missile including – a tin of condensed milk. A week earlier, there had been a riot in Brixton but one officer who had been there described it as a “doddle” compared to being on duty at Broadwater Farm that night.
The use of at least one shotgun came as a shock to the police and the government. At that time, the use of firearms in civil disturbances was confined to Northern Ireland. Bombs and guns had long been used by Republican and Loyalist terrorists against the British Army, Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the public. The idea that guns might now feature in riots on the mainland, that had nothing to do with the Northern Irish “Troubles”, sent a collective shiver down the spine of Whitehall.
Broadwater Farm – the other 1980s: no Yuppies, no Sloanes, lots of poverty
Broadwater Farm opened in the 1960s as a model council estate and won a prize for its architectural design. This was a time of post-war optimism with a belief that decent modern housing could be provided for working-class people. Leaking old slums with shared toilets would give way to flats that families could live in with dignity.
But the dream had turned into a nightmare two decades on. Five thousand people were crammed into a mass of concrete. “Grey, grim, and ugly” as one tenant described Broadwater. About 70% of the residents were on welfare benefits and 90% in rent arrears. As was the case in many working-class areas of Britain in the 1980s, unemployment was very high.
The aftermath of the murder of PC Keith Blakelock
An image of the uniform of PC Keith Blakelock was released to the media by the Metropolitan Police recalling the bloodied toga of Caesar being put on display at his funeral. The public were invited to ask: what kind of people would have done such a thing? The media’s answer was black youth. But the court proceedings that followed against the rioters saw white Britons make up a third of those in the dock.
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Kenneth Newman told journalists the day after the riot that plastic bullets were going to be used against the rioters if the disorder couldn’t be detained. CS gas had already been deployed for the first time in mainland Britain during the 1981 Toxteth riots. Newman was up for using that as well.
Newman also claimed that “Trotskyites” and “Anarchists” had been fomenting trouble in the week after the earlier Brixton riots. This kind of assertion from the police also featured in the 1981 riots – far overestimating the influence of ultra-left sects in the affected communities.
The leader of Haringey borough council, Bernie Grant, provoked fury when he said that the police had received a “bloody good hiding”. Grant was the prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Haringey and a prominent black politician in London. This was a time when political figures from the black community where finally making their mark on the national political scene. But Grant’s comments proved incredibly divisive.
So much so, that trade unions at the local council took action over what Grant said. Blue-collar unions – NUPE and the TGWU – came out on strike demanding the leader’s resignation. While the white-collar NALGO union demonstrated in favour of Grant. There was the bizarre scene of a black trade unionist holding a “Get Grant Out” placard being barracked by NALGO members calling him a traitor.
In November 1986, over a year after the riot, the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock unveiled a monument to PC Keith Blakelock. The movie director and restaurant critic Michael Winner was also chairman of the Police Memorial Trust, which organised the event. He told journalists it was inconceivable that Grant would be invited to speak after the “bloody good hiding” comments. Winner’s films often had themes around vigilantism and taking the law into your own hands.
For the next thirty years, the Metropolitan Police sought a number of convictions against suspects over the murder of Blakelock. The long running investigation, and scrutiny of its tactics, even led to two detectives being charged with perverting the course of justice, though subsequently acquitted.
In 2014, yet another man was acquitted over charges of having murdered Blakelock. A rap poem written in his cell had been deemed to constitute a valid confession. Three people had been convicted back in 1987 but then set free after concerns over the police interview notes.