Oscar winning Director Steve McQueen’s three-part documentary, Uprising, comes to the BBC next week it tells the story of the New Cross fire, and Black People’s Day of Action and the 1981 Brixton riots that followed. (Main image: Demonstrators march through London to protest against the police handling of the investigation into a fire in which 13 black people died, in 1981. Photograph: Mirrorpix/BBC/Rogan Productions/Getty Images)
Amidst rising racial tensions, a fire kills 13 young black people at a party. Wayne Haynes and Denise Gooding recount the highs and lows of growing up in South London, as tensions with the police rise and the National Front brings racism to the forefront of local politics.
In the early hours of 18th January 1981, in a house in South London, a birthday party ended in a fire. Thirteen young black British people died. The fire and its aftermath would ignite an uprising by the black British community. Fire – part one of the Uprising series – tells the stories of the young people who were at the party and the events that led up to it.
The series begins by chronicling the build up to the deadly fire in New Cross, South London. It introduces some of the young people who would go to the party as they share their experiences of growing up black and British amidst the escalating tensions and violent racism of the 1970s. Their lives bring them into contact with police harassment, the rise of the National Front and the dramatic confrontation of the ‘battle of Lewisham.’
Sound systems, Lover’s Rock and Reggae music offer an escape to these young people, but when 16 year-old Yvonne Ruddock decides to have a birthday party, it ends in a tragedy with far-reaching consequences. Tuesday, 20 July9:00pm10:00pm
Blame – part two of the Uprising series – deals with the aftermath of the New Cross fire and the run up to the Black People’s Day Of Action. It tracks the experiences of the victims and their families as the local community and the police seek answers as to how the fire started.
As news spreads about the fire at 439 New Cross Road, parents and relatives rush to find news of their loved ones. The scale of the tragedy overwhelms the local community. Thirteen young people die and dozens more are injured. Forensic experts search through the ashes and the police start their investigation.
Witness testimony suggests the cause may be a fire bomb thrown through a window. Local activists fear a racist attack, and form the New Cross Massacre Action Committee. But the forensic evidence does not support the firebomb theory and the police focus their attention on the young partygoers. The families of the victims receive racist hate mail and bomb threats. Anger mounts at the police investigation and the seeming indifference of the press and the government to the loss of so many black lives. The Black People’s Day Of Action, a mass demonstration, is organised to bring the tragedy to the attention of the nation.Wednesday, 21 July9:00pm10:00pm
The Front Line – part three of the Uprising series – tells how an unprecedented wave of riots swept the nation in 1981. After the New Cross fire and the Black People’s Day Of Action, tensions that have been brewing with the police boil over when a massive stop-and-search operation is launched, targeting black people on the streets of Brixton.
In Brixton in 1981, with its sound-system scene and close-knit community, provides a welcome relief to the outside world of National Front racism. But young black people in Brixton feel the pressure of daily encounters with the police. The backdrop of the New Cross fire and the Black People’s Day Of Action adds to an atmosphere of distrust and anger.
When the police launch Operation Swamp to combat Brixton’s high levels of street crime, it brings tensions to a boiling point, as young black people find themselves stopped and searched several times a day. On 10 April, open conflict breaks out with the police. Over the weekend, it turns into one of the biggest riots in British history. Buildings are burned down and hundreds of police injured.
Margaret Thatcher’s government asks Lord Scarman to lead an inquiry into what happened. But no sooner has he started, riots flare up all over the country, from Southall to Toxteth. His report will form the first official reckoning of the breakdown of relations between the black community and the police. But, as 1981 draws to a close, and following an inconclusive inquest, the families of the victims of the New Cross fire are no closer to knowing who started the fire or why. And a lack of answers or justice has lingered over this case ever since.
With testimony from those who lived the trauma and turbulence, the series reveals how these events intertwined with, and defined race relations, for a generation.
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