Toxteth's toxic legacy: Liverpool is still feeling the impact of the Toxteth riots

Thirty years have passed since Liverpool's poverty-fuelled riots destroyed parts of the city. Stephen Kelly, who covered the violence in 1981, reports from a city that still feels its impact

Michael Heseltine, former "Minister for Merseyside" was back in Liverpool last month, to reopen the site that was once home to the International Garden Festival, Heseltine's pet project back in the early 1980s; his answer to the Toxteth riots, when the most serious rioting on mainland Britain highlighted poverty and racism in the city's police.

The politician's visit may have been a time for celebration, but not everybody welcomed him back warmly.

It was a hot, sticky July evening in 1981 when Leroy Cooper was subjected to a 'stop and search' all too familiar in Toxteth. A watching crowd intervened and the incident turned into a fracas with three policemen injured.

Tensions mounted and that night the first wave of serious rioting began.

Over the next nine days Liverpool 8 became a no-go area as pitched battles erupted, echoing rioting that had torn apart Brixton earlier that year.

"We started by bricking the police station and then bricked every police car that came into Liverpool 8," recalls Darrin Rawlins. "Rioting was emancipating. It's on my list of 10 things you should do before you die."

Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan saw it differently. He was a young PC then and was drafted in as the rioting escalated. "It was terrifying," he says. "We had no protective equipment: just these round shields and an ordinary copper's helmet with a flimsy plastic visor. We had no tactical awareness or skills in riot control."

Rawlins says: "The police were lined up in their dozens, banging on their shields and making monkey noises. Our adrenaline was flowing."

As police struggled to stop the riot spilling over into the nearby city centre, CS gas was used for the first time on mainland Britain. In the end police succeeded in containing the riots, but 450 officers were injured, 500 people arrested and extra police drafted in from around the country. One man was killed, though as Rawlins says, it's a wonder more didn't die. Some 70 buildings were demolished. Such was the scale of destruction that it was likened to the Blitz. Hundreds of cars were torched and damage to property was put at over £11m. But the cost to community relations was higher.

Liverpool is not unused to trouble. Multiculturalism has long been a crucial feature of the city. Its Chinatown is the oldest in Britain and the black community can trace its roots back to the 18th century. The city's history is peppered with race riots, political struggles and sectarian skirmishes.

By the late 1970s Liverpool's black population was estimated at 8 per cent with more than half born in the city. But segregation in housing meant they were confined to Toxteth.

However, probably the most crucial element in the mix was unemployment. "The Mersey [used to be] full of ships, waiting for a berth in the docks," recalls Derek Hatton, former deputy leader of Liverpool City Council.

"But then trading patterns changed and Britain turned towards Europe. The docks went idle, with nothing to replace them."

And then came the Tory cutbacks of 1980 with few regions experiencing the effects worse than Merseyside. Between 1974 and 1981 unemployment among whites doubled in Liverpool, but among blacks increased threefold. In Toxteth, one in two men were without work. Black people constituted less than 1 per cent of council employees, while in city centre shops and factories it was even less.

The black population had, after successive confrontations over the years, retreated into Toxteth. It was rare to see black people in city centre shops or at either of the football grounds.

Nor did they frequent the city's clubs, where an unofficial no-entry rule was in force. Instead they set up their own, such as the Somali and the Sierra Leone.

"I think in 1981 many in the city were totally unaware of its black population," says Hatton. "Liverpool's black community was different to most in one important respect. It was not a new immigrant community – it had been there for many years. They wore the same clothes, spoke the same Scouse and many were mixed race."

But to describe the events of 1981 as a race riot would be an easy but misguided judgement. "It was not a race riot," insists Rawlins. "If you saw the numbers of white people involved you could see that race didn't come into it. It was about unemployment, housing, education, equal rights and so on."

Indeed similar rioting also kicked off that weekend in Norris Green, a predominantly white area.

"A sense of worthlessness and anger had been built up," he says. "The SUS laws were just an excuse for the police to go out, stop anyone, give them a going over. All the time we were being picked up. That's why we never went into the city. You knew what would happen."

The political response to the rioting showed distinct signs of panic. Mrs Thatcher crept into Liverpool unannounced at 8.00am one morning and was gone before anyone realised. Environment Minister Michael Heseltine was drafted in as special Minister for Merseyside. He was visibly shocked at what he found – an intransigent Chief Constable, a racist police force, mass unemployment, poverty, poor housing and, above all, despair. But while Heseltine may have been a Tory grandee, he won many over with a seemingly genuine determination to help. Community liaison bodies were established and money was earmarked for development, but as Hatton says, "it didn't come from central government, instead it finished up coming off the city budget".

Reclaimed land in the Dingle was given over for Heseltine's idea of an International Garden Festival. The Albert Dock was also transformed and houses were built.

So, 30 years on what's changed? "Well, we ended up with more cherry trees than anywhere in the country," says local black Labour councillor Anna Rothery. "We did get a law centre, but that's closed and we had a few boys' clubs, but there's been no real continuity of investment. And as for the Garden Festival, well it was left to rot after a couple of years. We got no jobs from it then and I doubt we'll get any with the new venture," she adds.

But she agrees that there have been strides in terms of integration and people do venture out of Toxteth.

"But much more needs to be done," she says. "We are still not a visible community. Liverpool is a tale of two cities."

Walk around the city centre or down the docks and you will see major investment in shopping, housing and construction. But many feel that the developments have done little for the black community. "I get pissed off with people saying: 'Oh yeah, Liverpool's really on the up now," says Rawlins. "But you go into the new Liverpool One shopping centre and you won't see any blacks there. We had the Year of Culture, but it was hardly inclusive. What did we get from it?"

"Look at some of the city's biggest employers," says Rothery. 'They have hardly any Liverpool-born black staff. They may have some who have come into the city, but few from Toxteth.

"The university is filled with black overseas students, who we welcome, but where are the black students from Liverpool 8? And it's the same with the health service."

She also points out that there are just three black councillors out of 90 on the city council and no Chinese councillors.

"Up until a year ago there was only one black councillor and that was me. All the parties still have some way to go to ensure they become inclusive and truly reflective of Liverpool society."

For the police, the riots were a watershed. Attitudes had to change. Black recruitment targets were introduced. "We now have 140 black officers on Merseyside, just above our target level," says Detective Superintendent Tim Keelan.

"In hindsight, yes we did abuse SUS and we were heavy-handed, but we do liaise more with the community nowadays. Then it was a police force, now it's about police support. Things have changed massively."

In 1985 there were further riots and Darrin Rawlins claims there have been skirmishes most years.

Unemployment in the city may not be at 1981 levels, but it is still desperately high at around 8 per cent. Walk around Toxteth and you see youths on the streets, boarded-up houses, drugs, demolition; social deprivation stares you in the face. Rothery is concerned economic forces are aligning dangerously, but: "Despite everything I still remain optimistic," she says.

Rawlins is not convinced.

"As unemployment rises, people will become more politicised. It could kick off at any time and next time it'll be worse. A lot worse," he says.

Stephen Kelly is a writer and broadcaster, who reported on the Toxteth riots for Granada Television

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