Following the recent disturbances in England in inner city areas of high unemployment and poverty it is expected that the final count of those arrested for riot and looting could reach as high as 4000. Reasons suggested by the press for the scale of the unrest include recreational violence, criminal opportunism, social irresponsibility, gang culture, greed, and cuts in public services, including the closure of youth clubs. But the prime factor that caused the mayhem to spread must come down to local tensions with the police, and their fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man travelling in a minicab.
Similarly, in the early 1980’s young black men in Brixton were victimised by the widespread use of the “sus” law, which enabled police officers to stop and search members of the public even if they had no hard evidence that a crime had been committed. And the shooting of a black woman, Cherry Groce, in her own home by police investigating a robbery in September 1985 was the trigger for a simmering resentment to explode.
I was living in a squat in Brixton at the time. We were just getting ready for supper when news came on the television about the shooting. Apparently, in a search of her flat for her son who was wanted on a suspected firearms offence, Mrs. Groce had been shot dead in bed by a policeman. (We learned later that she wasn’t killed but had been paralyzed from the waist down from the shot.) The news said a group of protesters had gathered at the local police station chanting anti-police slogans and demanding disciplinary action against the officers involved. I said we should get down there and join them. While my squatmates hummed and hawed I decided not to waste any time and set off for Brixton Police Station. As I approached the center I met people coming from it warning me to go back as the protest outside the police station had turned into a battle which was spreading through the streets, but I decided to continue. I saw people coming out of smashed shop windows with goods, people running, throwing stones at lines of charging police, a few cars and buildings burning, lighting the night with orange flames. Police cars and vans rushed around wailing.
Not everyone was out on a riot. Many like myself had just come to see what was going on. (I had my right arm set in a plastercast anyway from an earlier accident.) Halfway up Railton Road, the notorious ‘Front Line’ a barricade of bins and boxes was being erected by rioters. I found a large pile of old discarded newspapers and added them to the defence in solidarity, then went to visit two young women friends, Helena and Rachel, who lived in a flat nearby. We had a chat and a drink and I persuaded them to come out and see what was going on. There was a good view of Railton Road across a tarmacked park from the end of their street. A crowd of mainly black residents had congregated there and were watching the scene. The barricades across the road were now burning and molotov cocktails were being hurled at the charging shield and baton wielding army of crash-helmeted police force. The mood of the onlookers was excited and friendly and they laughed and cheered when I shouted across the tarmac at the police, telling them to get out of Brixton and leave us alone. A few voices joined me.
Helena suggested we go back into the flat and listen to the police radio she had hacked into and learn what was happening. Apparently Brixton was out of control and people were being arrested all over the place.
When we went back out a bit later the barricades were smouldering and the riot police were having a breather, seated with their shields in front of them on the benches on the other side of the park. The onlookers were still crowded together watching. When one of them saw me they said “Ah, here’s Rambo again! (In reference to the small black cyclist’s helmet I was wearing.) Give them some more jaw, Rambo!”
So I made my voice reach the resting cops across the square.
“Do your mothers know you’re out? Isn’t it time you were home in bed? Get out of Brixton! You’re not wanted here!”
Suddenly the gang of police stood up and started drumming their batons against their shields. At the same time one of the crowd shouted a warning.
“There’s a police van coming up the street! Run for it everyone!”
The onlookers began to scarper in every direction, and at that moment the line of bobbies began to charge towards us. I began to run but suddenly stopped and began to walk instead. Why should I flee? I hadn’t done anything wrong.
One of the charging policemen reached me and grabbed my arm.
“Let’s hear you shouting now, Rambo!” he said, and another cop grabbed my helmet and chucked it away. I was bundled into the back of the police van which had now arrived and was driven back into the heart of Brixton, stopping and picking up other young men, black and white, along the way, who had been arrested. The van was soon full and we were driven to a police station where we were made to line up outside while they dealt with detainees ahead of us. An officer handed out leaflets.
“Read and inwardly digest,” he said. I took one and shoved it into my mouth, biting and chewing. It didn’t taste very nice so I didn’t pursue the joke. Inside mug shots were being taken of all those arrested. One guy’s nose was pouring with blood as his picture was taken. Then it was time for fingerprints. I refused to have mine done. When asked why not, I said it was my right, and a senior officer confirmed this, but he said it might make matters difficult for me later. Then I was put into a small cell with about ten other guys and we were there for the rest of the night, most of us seated on the floor. At one point two policemen came and removed one black guy and made him take his trousers and underpants down outside the cell before putting him back in again.
In the morning my cellmates began to be released one by one, collecting summons for their court appearances on various charges connected with the riots of the previous night. Finally there was just me in the cell, and when, by lunchtime, I demanded to know why I was being kept, I was told that if I gave my fingerprints I would be released. What else could I do? I gave them and got my summons to appear in court a couple of days later.
Before that, the next morning at about seven the front door of our squat was battered down by police officers saying they were looking for goods looted in the riots. We were confined to our rooms while they searched. I objected when they started going through my letters and private documents, saying that none of them had been stolen, but there was nothing I could do. After combing the flat they took away one of my squatmates, Frank, to question at the station because he had a suspiciously large amount of rolling tobacco, but he hadn’t stolen it and no charges were brought.,
Meanwhile I got Helena and Rachel to come along to my court hearing, and a neighbour of theirs who had been in the crowd that night to act as witnesses to the fact that I had done nothing wrong. A lawyer was provided. After I talked to him he said that considering my list of previous arrests there was a possibility I might be facing time in prison. I was a little worried at first, but when the judge heard the circumstances presented as police evidence against me he quashed the charge.
I was charged with ‘Incitement to Racial Hatred’. The story that the arresting officer told in the dock was extraordinary. He said that the accused (me) had been in the company of a gang of black youths. When I had appeared on the scene where the police were resting I had pointed to them and announced: “There they are! Kill the devils!” And my little gang had proceeded to throw bricks and stones at them.
“Just a minute,” said the judge. “This man is white. Him telling black people to kill white people cannot be classed as ‘Incitement to Racial Hatred’. It only works if you are inciting hatred of another race, not your own. This is a waste of time. Case dismissed.”
And so to my relief I was free. Free? Well, at least not in prison.
In 1987 Inspector Douglas Lovelock, the officer who shot Cherry Groce was acquitted of all charges, including malicious wounding, and was reinstated. Mrs Groce received compensation but remained paralyzed for the rest of her life. She died in May 2011.
Meanwhile, the identity of the policeman who shot Mark Duggan remains unclear.
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website –http://yabanji.tripod.com/