‘Thirteen dead, nothing said!’

Militant supporters (forerunner of the Socialist Party) on an anti-racist demo in 1978. Photo: Militant

Militant supporters (forerunner of the Socialist Party) on an anti-racist demo in 1978. Photo: Militant   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

April Ashley, Unison national executive council, black members’ rep (female) (personal capacity)

On 2 March 1981, 20,000 young black people demonstrated in London against police and Tory government failures over the deadly New Cross fire which occurred on 18 January of that year.

The ‘New Cross Massacre’, as it was termed in the black community, was an outrageous and shocking attack which enraged the whole community. 13 black youths aged 14-22 lost their lives at a party believed to be firebombed by racists.

It was a birthday party, as portrayed in Steve McQueen’s ‘Lovers Rock’ film (see BBC iPlayer), and therefore felt very personal and direct. 27 other people were seriously injured and one of the survivors killed himself two years later.

The march was an historic event, the biggest demonstration of black workers in Britain at that time. It was the first demonstration that I and many young black people had ever attended. It marked the political awakening of many black youth.

Huge mobilisation

The ‘Black People’s Day of Action’, as it was called, saw coaches coming from all over Britain to demonstrate against the police and the Thatcher government who were completely silent over the deaths. School students jumped school and college gates, and workers left work, to attend the march as people were determined to protest against the police.

The community was furious as it felt disrespected, ignored, and treated as if their lives didn’t matter since the government did not offer any condolences to the victims’ families.

“13 dead nothing said”, was one of the main chants of the demonstration.

The establishment papers were also silent and supported the initial police view that partygoers had caused the fire themselves!

The march signalled that young black people were fighting back against terrible police racism, who used the ‘sus’ laws (‘suspicious persons’ stop and search), to harass and oppress young black people.

It was a powerful march as black youth swept over Blackfriars Bridge where police deployed snatch squads to grab youth from the crowds, and then tried to provoke the demonstration by stopping the march with riot shields despite previously agreeing the route.

I remember the power and solidarity of thousands of young black people with rough and ready homemade placards angrily demanding justice and an end to racist attacks.

The march pushed through the police lines of riot shields and was overwhelmingly peaceful despite the media headlines, such as “Day the blacks ran riot in London” (the Sun) and “Rampage of a mob” (Daily Express), to describe the minor skirmishes provoked by the police.

No one was ever charged in connection with the fire and the inquests returned an open verdict. The case remains unsolved and so led to a complete lack of faith in the official investigation, very much like the Grenfell inquiry.

The demonstration was in the era when the fascist National Front (NF) was very active and carrying out violent racist attacks. A few years earlier the NF had claimed responsibility for the burning down of the Albany Empire theatre (which had hosted anti-racist gigs) in Deptford. They had tried to march in Lewisham but were driven off the streets in a mass movement of the local community, Labour Party members (largely the Labour Party Young Socialists), trade unionists and socialists in the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in 1977.

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in power presiding over the 1980s recession as she began to destroy manufacturing industry with her capitalist monetarist policies, which led to over 3 million people unemployed. It was a period characterised by mass youth unemployment, with black youth hit the hardest. Nearly 30% of black workers were unemployed at this time.

Therefore, black youth felt under siege on all sides, with mass unemployment, police racism and fascist attacks – they had to fight back. A month later this anger exploded into the Brixton Riots.

40 years after the New Cross Massacre we are still fighting poverty, unemployment and police racism. Those involved in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are the inheritors of the militant black youth marching across Blackfriars Bridge.

‘No Justice, No Peace!’ is the new battle cry in the fight against racism and social inequality. Police racism is just as bad today, with black youth nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white youth. And still black people are dying in the hands of police, including Mohamud Hassan in Cardiff and Moyied Bashir in Newport, south Wales.

Many people are asking why, after 40 years, little has changed for black youth. Social conditions have worsened with Covid-19 further exposing the shocking racial inequalities: black men are four times more likely to die of the disease than white men.

The ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ on 2 March 1981 was not only demonstrating against police racism but also marching against the hated Thatcher and her capitalist policies, which were destroying the lives of black youth and deepening poverty for all workers.

Similarly, the BLM demonstrations, with black and white youth, are marches against racist discrimination and police brutality, but also against social inequalities which have a disproportionate impact on the black community.

But how can we end racism? The Socialist Party Black Workers’ Charter charts the statistics of racism but also discusses a programme to end it.

Black youth are very open to discuss the fight against capitalism, the role of the working class, and the fight for socialism. Join us in the discussion.

  • See ‘Black Workers’ Charter: A programme to fight racism’