Profile: Is he icon or demon?: Peter Victor reports on a man vilified by the 'Daily Mail' but lionised as a victim by the left

WINSTON Silcott sits in Swaleside Prison in Kent, shaking his head in wonder. He is astounded by public reaction to the Home Office paying him pounds 10,000 as part compensation for the time he spent in jail wrongly convicted of the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. 'Outrage upon outrage. Shame upon shame,' roared the Daily Mail.

Silcott devotes most of his time to reading, listening to music and writing, mainly poetry. He is a keen dominoes and football player. Most people are surprised by his articulate speech and writing, expecting some Neanderthal grunt. Last week, after several TV and radio broadcasts and a letter in the Independent, Swaleside's managers decided he was too articulate and refused to relay interview requests.

Silcott, now 35, is 6ft 2ins tall, broad-nosed, lean and fit. His thinning hair is trimmed close, in contrast to what he has dubbed his 'peace beard', a 3ft growth that he has not trimmed since his conviction and will not cut until he is free.

There are many who think he should never shave that beard. They point out that he is a convicted killer, found guilty in 1986 of murdering Anthony Smith, a boxer. But nobody really cares about Smith, another black man. The issue is PC Blakelock.

Many people still believe that Silcott is guilty of Blakelock's awful murder. The grisly details of the policeman's injuries - he was stabbed more than 40 times - realised people's worst fears, but at the same time somehow reassured them. An evil black mastermind had murdered a brave, conscientious white police officer. He had a record of crime and violence; he didn't look very nice, judging by the most familiar photograph, taken by police when they arrested him in the early hours.

Then in 1991 the appeal court said that he wasn't guilty after all. The police were aghast. The notion spread that Silcott had got off on a technicality, thanks to clever lawyers and political pressure.

One Scotland Yard source said recently: 'He is an animal. I don't care if he is guilty or not. You should be glad he's in jail for the sake of your mother and your sisters.' Yet his supporters see him as a political prisoner, a symbol of oppression.

Icon or demon? His family see him as neither. 'Winston is no worse than plenty of men out there and better than some,' says his mother Mary. She is appalled at his conviction, appalled at at press coverage of the appeal and, now, the interim award. 'I never knew white people could be so wicked.'

So what is Winston Silcott really like? Clearly a man who is capable of violence; clearly, too, a man who has conducted himself with dignity (his detractors would call it arrogance) during his years in prison. To understand how he has become what he is, to see past the media image, we can ask his family and friends. They are bound to see him in a more sympathetic light than the police or Daily Mail leader writers.

BILL and Mary Silcott, devout Seventh Day Adventists, came to Britain in 1957 from the Caribbean isle of Montserrat. He became a labourer, she a factory worker. They moved into a bedsit in the East End, where Winston was born in 1959. His brother George was born five years later and the family moved to Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, north London.

At primary school Silcott was a good reader but at secondary school his academic record took a nose-dive. The reason - according to Stafford Scott, who has known him since childhood - was racist treatment from teachers.

One teacher abused several black pupils, screaming at them that they should go back to their own country. Silcott's parents wanted him to try for a career in medicine. But he knew this was an impossible dream for a working-class, black boy from a north London council estate.

'He went to Sunday school. He was in the Boys' Brigade. He was all right, right up to the age of 15,' his mother said. He left school and was apprenticed to a firm of cabinet makers. One morning, when he was cycling to work, the police stopped and searched him. They found nothing but he was charged and fined pounds 15 for faulty brakes, his first conviction. 'Since that day, for every little thing they pick him up,' said his mother. 'Like a cat playing with a mouse, they keep arresting him, then they let him go.'

The job ended after 15 months when he was wrongly accused of stealing from the staff canteen. Silcott and his friends hung around and turned to crime, mainly burglary. Silcott, Scott and 14 others appeared at Snaresbrook Crown Court in December 1977. Winston, charged with nine counts of burglary and theft, was sent to borstal.

What made Silcott really unpopular with the police, his family and friends say, was his attitude. This was long before 'racism awareness' training; the police still felt free to abuse 'the sooties'. Silcott answered back. 'He was never the kind of person who would take any nonsense from anyone,' his brother George said. ' A lot of people thought he was older than his age because of the way he spoke. If he saw someone being arrested he would always speak up and have his say.'

Silcott drank sparingly - Guinness - and mocked friends who smoked marijuana. But he lived in a tough world which most white people have never experienced. Young black men in inner cities build their reputations on how hard they are, how much money they have. Many carry knives; Silcott did, too.

In 1979 a man attacked him with a broken glass after a nightclub argument; Silcott jabbed him with a chair leg. He got six months in jail for malicious wounding.

He had been out less than a month when he was attacked at a party by a jealous boyfriend of a girl he had been talking to. Both men drew knives and sustained cuts. Driving home, Silcott was stopped by police. They told him that Lennie Mackintosh, a musician he said he had never seen, had been found stabbed to death outside the party. Silcott was charged with murder. After a year on remand in Brixton Prison and two trials, in which witnesses changed their testimony, he was acquitted.

By now, the police had him marked down as a troublemaker who had got away with murder. In 1980 he and a friend set up a sound system - a powerful mobile disco with huge speakers. He had ambitions in this field - his friend and fellow DJ Jazzy B founded the successful pop group Soul II Soul. In 1982 Silcott opened a greengrocer's shop on the Broadwater Farm estate. Tottenham police were convinced he was involved in crime: how else could a black man recently out of jail afford to own and run a shop? It was actually, say his friends, a co-operative started by the Farm's youth association, for which Silcott was the founding treasurer.

'We would never have given him that job if we had thought he was the kind to run away with the money or refuse to give it to us,' said Scott. 'He could be strong yes, and if you came to him for trouble, well . . . But he wasn't some heartless thug who went round hurting people. He was always willing to defend people. That was how he ended up involved in the Tony Smith thing.'

In 1984 Silcott broke up a row between some youths outside his shop. One of them was Anthony Smith, a boxer who led a gang called the 'Yankee Posse'. They swaggered around the Farm, showing off gun butts in their belts and robbing local youths of cash or jewellery. They swore they would 'take him (Silcott) out' before Christmas.

Smith and two fellow Posse members went after Silcott, knives drawn, at a party in December. He borrowed a knife, was slashed, but stabbed Smith twice. Smith died a week later. Silcott lied at the trial, claiming that he was unarmed. Witnesses have since come forward to say that he was acting in self-defence and Silcott is challenging the Home Office's refusal to allow an appeal.

Then came the Broadwater Farm riot. 'It was odds to sods they were going to arrest Winston for Blakelock,' Scott said. 'They arrested him for so many other things and each time he had made them look, well, stupid when they had to let him go.'

Silcott's appeal against conviction was upheld three years ago. But the trial on perjury charges of the two detectives who provided the evidence against him (which ended in acquittals two weeks ago) has reopened the whole question. Witness statements - some, but not all, from the original trial - convinced many that Silcott really was Blakelock's killer.

Yet, of more than 30 alleged eyewitness descriptions of Silcott on the night of Blakelock's murder, not one matched the striking red and white outfit he was wearing. Of more than 1,000 photographs taken on the night, he did not appear in one. Despite Blakelock's 42 wounds, there was not a single piece of forensic evidence linking Silcott to the killing. Tests showed his alleged confession was not reliable.

The damages, which still have to be assessed in full, are being determined by Sir David Calcutt, QC, the assessor under the Criminal Justice Act. Ironically, he reckons the sensational media coverage has increased the Silcott family's suffering and therefore the compensation due to Winston.

The 1985 riots were sparked by the death from a heart attack of Cynthia Jarrett, a black woman, during a clumsy police raid on her home. Silcott's supporters, reminded of the suffering caused to Blakelock's family, recall the suffering caused to Jarrett's family. Like many of the urban riots of the 1980s, the roots of Broadwater Farm lay in what young people, and especially young blacks, saw as oppressive policing. What made Broadwater Farm special was that each side had its dead martyr.

So, to his friends, Silcott is a political prisoner and a victim of racist policing. To the police and many white people afraid of another black uprising, Silcott is the embodiment of their worst fears: he represents brooding black anger waiting to launch chaos on the world, the terrible possibility of a policeman's head severed and paraded on a pole.

Silcott has expressed no desire for either role. He would probably have preferred to remain in anonymity in his own world, tough and violent though it was, nursing his ambitions to be a successful sound system DJ.

(Photograph omitted)

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