Les Misérables was in rehearsals when the so called Handsworth Riots took place. During 9–11 September 1985, Handsworth, an area to the north-west of Birmingham, experienced widespread protests and street violence. In this post, we’ll look at the context for that Autumn and see how the chronology overlaps.
These events were apparently triggered over the police’s attempt to arrest a man over an untaxed vehicle; complex ongoing socio-political problems were all but ignored in initial reporting of the event.
During the protests two South Asian brothers, Kassamali and Amirali Moledina, were killed in an arson attack on the post office they ran. This was positioned in the press as ‘an act of murder and as an example of alleged interracial war between Afro-Caribbeans and Asians.’[i] In the right-wing tabloids, ‘Good Immigrants’ (South Asians communities) were pitted against the ‘Bad Immigrants’ (Afro-Caribbean communities), South Asian communities were aligned with white sensibilities, and the reader’s sympathies encouraged towards ‘productive’ Asian immigrants.
Incidents often began after a specific incident of police brutality, which had followed a prolonged period of racist policing in an area (for example, ‘sus laws’ which allowed a person to be stopped by the police on suspicion of being about to commit a crime, and were used disproportionately against Black and Asian young men).
Sara Ahmed has noted that in understanding social protest, what comes after the breaking point (what she terms the ‘snap’) tends to be the focus of attention in public discourse, rather than the longer process that proceeded it: ‘a snap would only be the beginning insofar as we did not notice the pressure on the twig.’[ii] In the late 1970s, surveys of Black people’s experience of policing in the UK described oppressive conditions:
Such prolonged systemic violence was rarely addressed in the press coverage that followed the unrest, as Van Dijk has noted: ‘in the right-wing press, the social situation is mentioned only in order to reject it as a necessary or sufficient cause of the riots.[iv]
Previews open – 28 September and the shooting of Cherry Groce
On the day that Les Misérables opened for previews at the Barbican, in Brixton, South London, a bungled raid on the house of a young Black man, Michael Groce, led to the accidental shooting of his mother, Cherry. The shooting left Cherry Groce paralysed. News of the shooting spread in the community (Groce was initially believed to have died), and this led to protests outside the police station, and then increasingly violent stand-offs between protesters and police who had brought in the riot squad.
In the following days fifty people were injured, and over 200 people were arrested. Only in 2014 did the Met Police apologise for their ‘failings’ in the Groce raid, and for the ‘inexcusable fact’ that their apology had taken so long in coming, calling the shooting ‘preventable.’[v]
But at the time, the media narrative was that Groce’s shooting had been no justification: and police blamed ‘an unruly criminal element’ for the protests.[vi] Van Dijk argues the press placed ‘the blame for criminal riots […] in the Black community itself.’[vii] The News of the World blamed ‘gangs of masked black youths […] on a rampage of looting and violence.’[viii]
Two further nights of riots broke out in Peckham (South London) and in Toxteth, Liverpool.
On September 30, the Church of England’s radical report Faith in the City was completed and prepared for publication: it would call attention to the ‘acute human misery’ in deprived urban areas when it was later published in December.[ix] The report explained that such areas constituted ‘a different Britain, whose people are prevented from entering fully into the mainstream of the normal life of the nation.’[x] Faith in the City specifically addressed racism: ‘Black people continue to receive humiliating and discriminatory treatment from their white fellow citizens in many areas of daily life […] including the Church.’[xi]
5 October and the death of Cynthia Jarrett
The weekend after events in Brixton, on October 5, Cynthia Jarrett, a Black woman, died of a heart attack during a police search of her house in Tottenham, North London, which had been prompted by police suspicion of her son. Her family felt that her death was ‘precipitated by the tension caused by the police search.’[xii] This lead to protests in the nearby area Broadwater Farm the following day, which became violent confrontations between police and protesters (a police officer, Sgt Blakelock, was brutally stabbed and killed).
8 October – press night
Two days after the events in Broadwater Farm, on October 8, Les Misérables opened to the press.
That morning’s newspapers featured commentary on the protestors who were being roundly berated. The Daily Mail provided its readers with ‘The Black View’, ‘The Asian View’ and ‘The White View’ on Tottenham.[xiii] For the ‘Black View’ it offered a report on Bernie Grant, a Black councillor: ‘the Marxist leader of [the local council] refused yesterday to condemn the violence’ with the headline-as-quote ‘Who said the constable was murdered?’[xiv] The reader is left to attribute the question to Grant, although he himself had never said that.
The ‘Asian view’ interviews local residents, who are reported as saying ‘we must leave this place of perpetual fear,’[xv] aligning this community closer to the ‘White View’ and the same ‘nightmare of fear’ narrative. No Black residents’ opinions are presented. The same day, The Times reported that Norman Tebbit, then chair of the Conservative Party, blamed the riots on ‘human wickedness.’[xvi]
The Conservative Government’s response after the October riots was to minimise the chances of blame falling on social problems, or on structural racism in policing. After similar riots in 1981, Norman Tebbit’s said to the Conservative Party Conference that ‘I grew up in the 30s with our unemployed father. He did not riot, he got on his bike and he looked for work.’[xvii]
Four years later, Thatcher was advised by her ministers that social deprivation was not to blame, as ‘lower-class unemployed white people’ had lived for years in terrible situations without rioting, and that were any money to go towards helping young Black men, it would only end up helping ‘the disco and drug trade’ because of their ‘bad moral attitudes.’[xviii]
Black politicians and community leaders were blamed by official figures: Tottenham was blamed on ‘political agitators’; Home Secretary Douglas Hurd was reported as claiming that the fault had been with the Labour councillors Ted Knight and Bernie Grant under the headline ‘The High Priests of Race Conflict.’[xix] Grant’s refusal to blame protestors was seen as inflammatory, something which Hurd had intimated in parliament:
All responsible members of our society will condemn the disgraceful criminal behaviour which has occurred and all responsible members of our society will applaud the courage and dedication of the police in doing their job of maintaining and restoring order on the streets and the housing estates of our major cities.[xx]Douglas Hurd
Clearly, Grant is positioned as an irresponsible member of society.
This racialized language was compounded by the right-wing press and its full range of racist rhetoric, from dog-whistle racism to outright editorial incitement: on the front page of The Sun Keith Blakelock was described as ‘a brave bobby butchered by black rioters’,[xxi] juxtaposed on the following page with prominent coverage of a minor Tory MP’s suggestion to ‘Give Blacks £7,000 to Go Home’ to avoid ‘a violent backlash in the white community’.[xxii]
Simone Sessolo notes that in the press the rioters ‘were ‘in a subaltern position [and] performed acts of violence to be heard, but the media dismissed them as hateful and immature’,[xxiii] amplified by the prevailing Government position.
On the night of Les Misérables premiere at the Barbican centre, in a TV special report broadcast live from theopening night party at the Barbican, Joan Bakewell interviewed the cast about the show. Alun Armstrong (Thernardier) calls back to Tebbit’s earlier remark: ‘I think Norman Tebbit should come and see this and find out why people build barricades.’[xxiv]
Armstrong’s comment remains one of the very few connections drawn between the real life events and that of the musical from the period itself that this research has brought to light. The show received mixed reviews with no reference to the protests on the actual streets of London. The musical sold 5,000 tickets the following day, selling out the rest of its run at the Barbican.[xxv]
10 October – Command performance for Princess DianaEmbed from Getty Images
[i] Teun A. van Dijk, “Race, Riots and the Press: An Analysis of Editorials in the British Press about the 1985 Disorders.,” International Communication Gazette 43, no. 3 (1989): 233.
[iii] Ben Bowling, Alpa Parmar, and Coretta Phillips, “Policing Minority Ethnic Communities,” in Handbook of Policing, ed. Tim Newburn, 2nd ed., (Abingdon: Routledge [Willan Publishing], 2011) 611–641, 613.
[iv] van Dijk, 238.
[v] Vikram Dodd, “Metropolitan Police Chief Apologises over Cherry Groce Shooting,” The Guardian, July 10, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/10/metropolitan-police-chief-apologises-cherry-groce-shooting .
[vi] Gareth Parry, Susan Tirbutt, and David Rose, “From the Archive: Riots in Brixton after Police Shooting,” The Guardian, September 30, 2009, sec. From the Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2009/sep/30/brixton-riots-1985-archive.
[vii] van Dijk, 239.
[viii] “Flames of Fury,” The News of the World, September 29, 1985.
[ix] Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, “Faith in the City: A Call for Action by Church and Nation” (London: Church of England, Church House Publishing, 1985), xiii, https://www.churchofengland.org/media/55076/faithinthecity.pdf, accessed 18 September 2018.
[x] Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, 9.
[xi] Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, 351.
[xii] van Dijk, 234.
[xiii] “A Conflict of Race inside Riot Estate,” The Daily Mail, October 8, 1985, 1–3.
[xiv] “A Conflict of Race inside Riot Estate,” 2.
[xv] “A Conflict of Race inside Riot Estate,” 3.
[xvi] Anthony Bevins, “Labour Elements Help to Trigger Riots, Says Tebbit,” The Times, October 8, 1985.
[xvii] Staff, “Norman Tebbit in His Own Words,” The Guardian, June 2, 2000, sec. Politics, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2000/jun/02/uk.politicalnews2, accessed 16 July 2018.
[xviii] Alan Travis, “Oliver Letwin Blocked Help for Black Youth after 1985 Riots,” The Guardian, December 30, 2015, sec. Politics, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/30/oliver-letwin-blocked-help-for-black-youth-after-1985-riots, accessed 16 May 2019.
[xix] Charlie Reiss, “High Priests of Race Conflict.” The London Standard. October 10, 1985, Closing edition, 1.
[xx] Douglas Hurd, “Hansard Parliamentary Debates, Vol 84. cc.30-46, Inner City Disorders,” 21 October 1985, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1985/oct/21/inner-city-disorders#S6CV0084P0_19851021_HOC_198, accessed 31 August 2017.
[xxi] Hugh Whittow and Andy Parker, “I Pity the Mob,” The Sun, 8 October 1985, 1.
[xxii] Proctor in Simon Walters, “Give Blacks £7,000 to Go Home, Says Tory: Troops ‘to put down rioters’”, The Sun, 8 October 1985, 1.
[xxiv] Buttertartlover, Les Misérables 1985 Original Barbican Production, YouTube,https://web.archive.org/web/20140420205717/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYPSRzTmeTA, accessed 17 February 2019.
[xxv] Jessica Sternfeld, The Megamusical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 185.