Place and Space concerning the New Cross House Fire and the Black People’s Day of Action

On Sunday 18th January 1981 a fire started in number 439 New Cross Road. 13 youngsters were killed whilst celebrating the 16th birthday of Yvonne Ruddock who also died as a result of the fire. This tragedy was ignored by the national media and most of the country. The Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, did not offer any condolences despite having sent her commiserations to white families in Ireland who had lost loved ones at a disco fire¹(http://www.eachoneteachone.org.uk/new-cross-fire/). This callous silence towards the black community sparked the Black People’s Day of Action on March 2nd 1981. The demonstration assembled in New Cross and marched to Hyde Park.

The importance of place and space in this protest should not be underestimated.

 

As this image shows, the black community were well aware of the importance of place and space in their campaign. They marched along Fleet Street, “where most newspapers are printed”, because the press was misreporting the facts and was publishing articles which were blatantly racist. They marched to Scotland Yard because they refused to investigate the fire thoroughly and the inquest resulted in an open verdict. This was despite a witness reporting that he saw someone throw an object into the house and drive away in a white Austin Princess. They marched to the Houses of Parliament because the fire was went completely unmentioned by all MP’s including the local MP John Silkin. In fact, when politicians did finally mention the fire, instead of empathy and compassion they responded with hostility and contempt. Conservative MP Jill Knight commented that West Indian parties were a nuisance and that they should be controlled. This fueled anger and disbelief in black communities who responded with the outraged but gleeful placard “Jill Knight we ah go rave tonight”. They marched on 10 Downing Street because, as previously mentioned, Thatcher ignored the deaths of 13 children in the fire. All these places took on a symbolic meaning. They all came to represent to the black community the institutions who had lied, cheated, and ultimately ignored the death of thirteen young black British children. As Professor Joan Anim-Addo says “That Sunday morning when we awoke to news of those children having died in that fire while celebrating a birthday, the blow felt like an almighty kick to the collective gut. The grief palpable, we imagined the moment of realising that it was your child dead. We pored over the newspapers. All day we listened and watched for that official moment of condolence. Nothing said, indeed, and our children dead”² (13 Dead, Nothing Said -Vron Ware).

David Harvey has written something that seems particularly relevant to the New Cross Fire and the Black People’s Day of Action. He posits that “one of the principle tasks of the capitalist state is to locate power in those spaces which the bourgeoisie controls, and disempower those spaces which the oppositional movements have the greatest potentiality to command.” (1989: 237). The black community of New Cross knew that by marching in the streets of New Cross they would be , in a way, preaching to the converted. To make a stand against the inherent racism in British society they would need to march in the halls of power. Therefore they marched through Fleet Street to indicate their outrage at journalism. Gilroy writes, “remember what Fleet Street was then – the concentration of opinion, of commentary. The newspapers that had ignored the fire, the newspapers who would write that “the blacks running riot” . . . they are all there. We know they are there and they know we’re coming.” (Paul Gilroy 2015, Vron Ware Exhibiton). This quote contains a real sense of confrontation. This air of contention would not have been as poignant had the protesters not marched to Fleet Street. Gilroy reminisces that journalists were “jeering at us and swearing out of windows” whilst the marchers shouted “’13 dead and nothing said’, ‘here to stay and here to fight'”. Darcus Howe also remembered marching through Fleet Street “We came running into Fleet Street. And do you know those huge buildings? And the noise is bouncing off: ’13 dead and nothing said.’ A huge echo. That was the high point.” (Howe, 1998). The march really enters into contentious politics at this stage whereby the black community, who have no direct control or access to the power or decision making apparatus, make a claim. They use a process of indirect persuasion or coercion to gain access to power. In this case, I would argue that the marchers are verging on using coercion as there is a threatening tone to their demonstration. They use their power in numbers and the politics of space to threaten the power holders. They then march past Scotland Yard to signify their distrust of police and the legal system, to the Houses of Parliament to show their disdain for the politicians (their supposed representatives!), and to 10 Downing Street to communicate their disappointment and anger with the leader who refused to acknowledge the deaths of people in her country.

The march ended in Hyde Park which I would argue is very significant. Tonkiss states that “Politics like anything else unfolds in space so spatial relations are important” (Tonkiss, 19 p. ?). Therefore, the contexts of the spaces we inhabit are very important. For example, historically Hyde Park is the largest of the four royal parks in London. As a remnant of regal Britain it is significant that 1st and 2nd generation immigrants demonstrated there. They are bringing into question notions of their identity and contesting their status as British citizens. They are de jure British citizens but not de facto ones. As Tonkiss argues, coming into a space and behaving differently is a challenge to the people who have created the space for a particular reason. Hyde Park is supposedly a site of collective belonging but for a community that has been largely ignored by the rest of society this notion of collective belonging is brought into question. This idea is crystallized in the following placard slogans “British leaders incite racialism” and “Know your colour know your culture lets get ready lets paint the UK with your brush”. Gilroy notes that it was not the presence of the immigrants which eroded social homogeneity and community solidarity. Instead, the state was to blame. By dropping principles of socialism and inclusivity, the state “produced strangers and aliens as the limit against which increasingly evasive national particularity can be seen, measured and when it needs be, negatively discharged” (Gilroy, 2002). By marching into Hyde Park, a site of collective belonging, the black community showed that it was not them that caused breaks and tensions in society but the government’s undemocratic and increasingly conservative policies.

Hyde Park also has a history of free speech. From the last words of those executed at the Tyburn hanging tree, to Speakers corner, from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, Hyde Park has a vibrant history of protest. The black community were marking their struggle by ending the march in Hyde Park and adding their fight for justice and freedom to British history. Another place that had historical significance in reference to social protest was Blackfriars Bridge. As Darcus Howe noted that “No demonstration had crossed that bridge since the Chartists”. Again, the black community was emphasising their right to a place in British history.

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