The Strangled Embrace

A "Merseyside" street sign which has been graffitted to read "Merseyslide"

BM Blob on the 1981 riots in Liverpool.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 15, 2022

The rioters caused the Pound to fall something only powerful sectors of the working class have succeeded in doing. But there was no instance of rioters directly calling on the employed working class to join in, bringing the strike weapon into play. The bridge must somehow be made and employed and unemployed must be prepared to meet each other over a pint of home brew, maybe a box of matches and a cement mixer. Although the riots were more destructive and extensive than those in France in May '68, they lacked the clarity of the French insurgents and when the smoke cleared there were no occupied factories to be seen.

In the nights of rioting, a spontaneous coming together, particularly in the Northern cities was definitely a distinct, if distant possibility. Rioting took place next to industrial complexes in cities like Manchester and Hull. Moss Side isn't that far from the wound down industrial estate of Trafford Park (still amazingly the biggest in Europe) and tactically it might have been better to go there than suggest moving on to loot the Arndale center situated in Manchester's city center.

In Leeds, a fatigued police force could have been pushed back over a mile or so of industrial old bones and planning blight separating the city centre from Chapeltown. However Leeds is the commercial and financial capital of the region, insulated even in the '30s from the surrounding catastrophic levels of unemployment, so it is unlikely the rioters would have met with a ready response. (Incidentally in Chapeltown a sex shop was torched and flaming rubber dollies floated into the warm night air - although it wasn't quite women's lib because many other commodities were coming in for the same treatment.)

In the south the action in towns like High Wycombe and the Medway towns in Kent wasn't really big enough to make any immediate impact on industrial workers. And London is so vast and disparate and so unlike any other English city that comparisons are futile.

The Mersey Beat 20 year on
Liverpool 8 - Coppers 0

If the Old Bill were petrified in London, in Liverpool the scuffers got the hiding of their lives. Friction with the police is not new in Liverpool. Some 20 years ago, it was said the police were more like an army of occupation. It was said that the three worst police forces in Britain were Belfast, Birmingham and Liverpool.

The Scuffers conventionally refer to Liverpool youth as the 'bucks'. This does not necessarily refer to anyone who has reputation for violence. It means common. In its widest sense it refers to accent, dress and general life style. It is a term of pure class contempt and most likely to be used by people from the upper working class and lower middle from whom most police recruits are drawn. They are the people most anxious to disassociate themselves from those elements in the working class they see as not respectable. Thus justifies a permanent open season on them.

This applies to young whites but blacks are treated with even greater contempt. Here racism compounds class contempt. Because of the high level of petty crime in Liverpool 8, the police follow the usual pattern and regard all youth as criminal elements and because they regard them as a lower form of life any sort of brutality and harassment is justified. As one kid put it: 'we hate them and they hate us, it's as simple as that'.

Conditions in Liverpool 'the Bermuda triangle of British Capitalism' and the particular nature of the Liverpool police have combined to produce the most intense urban violence on mainland Britain since the 18th century.

Many youths involved in the riots had been involved in mugging anybody from old age pensioners to Liverpool dockers with the Thursday night wages packets in their pockets. There's no point in pretending otherwise. Attacking any business is commendable but unfortunately people living above the row of shops in Lodge Lane were also burnt out. They deserved better than this. However neither in Liverpool or Brixton did people whose places had been burnt down show any animosity to the rioters. They seemed to sense the rioters were merely poking the fire. One member of the Liverpool 8 Defense Committee accused top cop Ken Oxford of incompetence in not have police at hand to prevent 'the burning of our Lodge Lane'. Our feeling is that this person was pretty ashamed of what happened in Lodge Lane but preferring not to grasp the nettle tried to shift the blame.

This negative emphasis was all The Guardian could see bemoaning a lack of class consciousness which would have stamped on that paper if it had been fully matured. 'Surveying the scene, counting the costs, the saddest thing is that the victims of much of the destruction were ordinary citizens of the area. Though a couple of chain stores were attacked most of the shops destroyed or looted were owned by local people living on the premises and struggling to make a living. If the riots had had a political character one might have expected a more direct attack on the symbols of capitalism. Capitalism has destroyed the social order in the inner cities but no real class identity has emerged.'

Traditional, smug, self satisfied such is The Guardian and contrary to their opinion (which was later corrected by a concerned academic) some of the targets were consciously selected and for good reasons. The Racquets Club was torched because as one black youth said, 'My father used to tell me it was where the judges went to dine after they had sent black people to prison. It is like a hotel for the people who run Liverpool'. An antique furniture warehouse was burnt out owned by Swainback a former Tory councillor who had shown hostility to black youth in the area. One youth questioned by a radio reporter while the riot was in progress said, there was no reason for anyone to be frightened. 'We do not hit family homes' 'What about the garage on the corner, people work there' - 'Yeah but they don't own the place, it's owned by Shell'.

And Liverpool 8 has a strong and close family structure and as any Liverpudlian knows 'Me Mam' is a much loved and respected figure. A Daily Star journalist said a child hurling bricks stopped to ask the time. 'Eh! - I'll have to get home soon. Me mam will kill me if I'm late'. Parents also tend to stay solid with their children whatever they do. A Sunday Times report on Kirkby a few years ago mentioned a youth who had been arrested a number of times for vandalism. When asked what his parents thought about it, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said 'me mam loves me'.

One of us spoke to a middle aged woman in Sefton Park at the start of the anti-Ken Oxford march. She was not going on the march herself but said: 'I've got a gerl who's terrible militant. I've brought her cardy down 'case she catches cold'. A good example of family disintegration as feared by the Tories if ever there was one. These comments are not intended as a defense of the family; it is simple the case of Liverpool 8 that the family does not conform to the nice respectable middle class ideals of Jill Knight, Tory MP for Edgbaston who was much moved at the time of the riots to say: 'The family has been derided, debased and weakened by trendy permissiveness but it is the cornerstone on which a nation's strength rests. In a good and loving family a child learns unselfishness, responsibility and respect for other people's property. He loves his parents, cares about making them proud of him and is strongly deterred from behaviour which will distress or disgrace them'.

Above and beyond all the issues and separations, in Liverpool there's the irrepressible scouse humour which adds real spice to all proletarian revolt there. After the riots a scuffer stopped and searched a kid and found a brick in his pocket. The kid came back… 'that's not a brick officer but a deposit to put down on a telly.' Although this joke was born in the Liverpool riot, it rapidly found its way into northern club-land humour and finally wound up as a TV crack on a fairly sentimental Alan Bleasdale TV documentary on Liverpool a few months later. Ripped off from its source, only to improve the image of Bleasdale's hip populism as smart alec playwright.

A merseybeat soviet?

What happened in Liverpool during the early hours on Monday July 4th amounted to the greatest missed opportunity industrial Britain has probably known. The police were clearly losing the battle. The rioters were moving towards the main arteries of communications. (Lime Street, Pierhead, the Mersey Tunnel) used by 1,000's and 1,000's of workers. If the police in terror of their lives hadn't fired CS gas around dawn contact would undoubtedly have been established between the rioters and early morning shift workers. Camaraderie between employed and unemployed is more out in the open in Liverpool than in any other English city and the explosive ingredient of an aroused working class might well have proved near lethal. To then have gone on to loot, even arm in arm, the shopping precinct on the site of the old St John's Market would have been a diversion. With the police utterly beaten and disarmed, the entire city would have lain at their feet. A local 'soviet' unique in the history of Soviets might well have materialised. It would have thrown into the public forum in no uncertain manner issues like the break-up of the family, the right of kids and tiny tots to self determination, the refusal and growing irrelevance of work - all issues which were hardly present in the past experience of Soviets. Considering the galvanic effect of the riot on the rest of Britain this example could easily have been followed elsewhere. The day this happens (or something like it) revolt is turning into revolution.

During the riots there had been limited examples of working class intervention. The fire brigade in Liverpool refused to intervene 'against the community' and allow their hoses to be used by the police. Like fire brigades elsewhere, they had been stoned by the rioters. It says something for their class consciousness that local fire brigades refused to become, under intense provocation, an arm of the police force. Also even in the thick of the fiercest rioting on Upper Parliament St rioters talked to ambulancemen and made a truce with the police so that old people could be evacuated from the Princess Park geriatric hospital next door to the burning Racquets Club. (Later it was discovered that some of the old people's lockers had been looted.) This inexcusable and pathetic incident was not in the least typical of the riots and a saddening reminder of just how maimed people have become under the necro weight of capitalist dominated daily life.

In the months prior to July 1981, strikes in Liverpool had been at an unusually low ebb. Still Liverpool dockers would have been returning to working on that glorious Monday morning after a ritualised 24 hours union strike over manning levels. The warehouses adjacent to Toxteth where they once worked are now empty awaiting conversion into a museum, leisure center or luxury flats (no doubt on Man Power Services Commission grants). The majority of dockers are now employed in the container port of Seaforth down the Mersey estuary but they still meet in the stadium in the city centre.

Later in the week, Thatcher had the cheek to foist the blame for the high levels of local unemployment oh the Liverpool working class. This lady really is for burning. It wasn't the coolest thing to say and for the second time in a week the Liverpool working class didn't respond in a fitting manner even though they are quite steadfast in their belief that capitalism is running Merseyslide into the ground.

'All the peace makers turned law officers'

On the Monday night social workers finished what CS gas had started the night before. The Merseyside Community Relations Council toured the riot areas in vans with loudhailers lent by the police asking the crowds to go home. Home to what? At best telly, a spliff, a few cans of ale, at worst to desperation, tranquillisers and endless numbing bed. This mockery of what real community relations could be was no different from the united appeal of Liverpool church leaders. Considering that social work arose out of church relief in exchange for humbling penitence it is hardly surprising. As for the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, the Rev D. Sheppard, that oh so understanding liberal, ex England cricketer, he would do well to ruminate on the rioters transcendence of cricket outlined in Brixton later in the week when cricket bats looted from sports stores were used to spar with police batons.

Street fighting man………………

The rioters were very well organised. Within the space of a few hours, the rioters became skilled and tactical street fighters inventing techniques as they went along. In Liverpool, they covered the road with oil between barricades which could then be covered with petrol and torched once the police had made a successful assault in the first barricade. At the same time people made petrol bombs in the back of vans as they travelled around the cities. In Nottingham, Inspector Colin Sheppard was moved in awe to say… 'there was no end to the imagination of the mob used to vent their feelings on the police' (Daily Telegraph July 14th 1981) adding, they were 'Nottingham's blackest ever days'.

……………Plus radio and CB

The use of radio as a guerrilla medium has been a new and all but unprecedented speciality of insurrectionary revolts over the last few years - in particular Italy 1977 and Britain 1981. In both countries come the moment of revolt radio broadcasts in Italy and CB intercom in Britain were snapped back into focus. Trouble in the streets halted the drift into merely being exotic, ear-catching supplements to the established news media and run of the mill telephone conversations.

The Mao-Dadaist 'Radio Alice' in Bologna had any number of taped 'subversive' cultural infils combining music, poetry and comment that were used as sandwiching between phone-in programmes. It is a well known fact more commercial radio stations play top 10 hits during peak hours to harness listeners. But during the Bolognese events the cultural bullshit (a mixture of commedia dell'arte, cultish 'artistic' parallels drawn from the Russian Revolution and mind blowing illusions about multi-millionaire pop musicians) was laid aside and the radio station used to inform insurgents of police manoeuvres.

Technically CB has more democratic potential. It is also a transmitter as well as a receiver. With radio programmes there is a greater editorial control. A flick of a switch and a caller is cut off mid sentence. And it is never possible to instantly canvas listeners for their opinion on the matter.

The use of CB during the riots must also be linked to the mobility of the rioters. They came in from miles around to the riot hot spots even utilising car hire firms. In London home-made transmitters needing only a modicum of electronics know-how to construct interrupted Capital Radio and LBC with messages like..'This is a warning: there's going to be a riot on the Kings Road.' As a spokesman for the Independent Broadcasting Authority said. 'there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.' This development does seem to suggest infinite possibilities. Like jamming broadcasts with material transmitted from the back of moving vans making it doubly difficult for Home Office radio spies to pin them down.

This dismantling of the State monopoly of the airwaves carries its own penalties. Assuming CB does become accessible to everyone what's to stop police and other authorities listening in and becoming as proficient as anyone else in CB jive? As a consequence of the riots and many related incidents the police are now being told to learn the 'language'. This is why CB glossaries and dictionaries are self defeating because 'CB' must constantly be on the move if it is to retain its subversive potential. But always being one step ahead could easily result in the total privatisation of the language. In this event opposite extremes meet because CB was fast becoming anyway a 'safe' one up exchange of unfathomable secret codes. As one enthusiast put it 'If I'm talking to someone on CB and he's using the slang words I don't know he might as well be talking Serbo Croat for the good it will do our conversation' (letter to CB magazine).

To overcome this, close networks of friends who have been told beforehand of changes in handles could become important. On a Warwickshire council estate recently a rent collector had failed time after time to gain admission to households owing back rent. Eventually someone snitched. Rigs had been installed in flats to warn tenants of his approach. Now the rent collector has been equipped with his own CB so he can also pick up any advance warning. Next time he won't be put off by people pretending not to answer the door. But it's possible to get even. By inventing a secret code known only to trusted tenants the rent collector will be thrown off the scent.

Though now legal there are well over 1/4 million illegal CB radios in the UK broadcasting on forbidden wave bands. The government has outlawed them claiming they block vital messages which for instance hamper ambulances from functioning properly. This may on occasion have happened but the converse is also true that in the event of an accident, heart failure etc, help might arrive sooner.

No-behind concern for the 'public good' there was a real fear that CB freaks might block police radios. This happened for …[unreadable]…police recently were unable for some time to alert the fire brigade to save a factory from burning down. Their radios had been blocked by a breaker calling himself 'Yankee Bucket Mouth'. Later it was discovered that the fire had been caused by an arsonist. 'Yankee Bucket Mouth'? Police weren't sure but 'YBM' had better sign off double quick.

There's plenty new under the sun but CB lingo when used for subversive ends renews in London a much older tradition recapturing the forgotten essence of cockney rhyming slang. In the days of the much feared London mob in the 17th and 18th century, government spies were sent into proletarian quarters to earwig. The quick witted cockneys improvised a constantly amended parallel language to avoid unwelcome eavesdropping.