On This Day: The Broadwater Farm Riots, 6th October 1985

The recent Black Lives Matter campaign could give the impression that institutional racism is a distinctly American problem. Britain has had to deal with its own fair share of problems in this regard however, and like in Ferguson and other American cities, tension between the police and ethnic minorities has occasionally flared into violence. The Broadwater Farm Riots, on the 6th of October 1985, were one such occasion.

broadwater-farm-aftermath

Police officers inspect the damage the day after the 1985 Broadwater Farm Riots in north London (Photo: Daily Mail).

At the beginning of October 1985, tensions between police and the black community in Tottenham, north London, were running high. Longstanding grievances were exacerbated by riots in Brixton the previous week, following the shooting of a black woman, Dorothy Groce, during a police search. At lunchtime on the 5th of October Floyd Jarrett, a young black man who lived about a mile away from the Broadwater Farm estate, was arrested and charged with theft and assault- he was later acquitted of both charges. Later that day, however, the police decided to search the house of Floyd’s mother, Cynthia. During the search, 49-year-old Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died of a heart attack. Her daughter claimed that Cynthia had been pushed by an officer called DC Randle, and the resulting fall could have contributed to her death. Randle denied it, and no police officer was charged or disciplined for what happened.

The black community in London already believed that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist (they were probably right!), and the treatment of Cynthia Jarrett sparked outrage. Bernie Grant, local council leader at the time, condemned the search of Cynthia’s house and called for local police chiefs to resign. A demonstration gathered outside Tottenham police station in the early hours of the next morning, the 6th of October. Violence between police and some members of the local community escalated throughout the day; centring on the Broadwater Farm estate. The rioters built barricades, set fire to cars, and threw bricks, molotov cocktails and other projectiles at police, making effective use of the raised walkways on the estate.

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A man walks through debris from the riots on one of the raised walkways that caused so much difficulty for the police (Photo: BBC News).

At about 9:30 p.m., the police and fire brigade were called to a fire on the upper level of Tangmere House, a block of flats and shops on the estate. Whilst attending the fire, the officers were attacked by rioters and forced to retreat rapidly. A police officer, Constable Keith Blakelock, tripped and fell in the confusion. He was immediately surrounded by rioters, who beat and repeatedly stabbed him in a vicious attack. PC Blakelock became the first police officer to be killed in a riot in Britain since 1919.

pc-blakelock

PC Keith Blakelock was killed by rioters. Three men were convicted of his murder, but the convictions were overturned on appeal (Photo: Mirror).

The riot tailed off during the night as it started to rain and news of Blakelock’s death spread. The impacts of the riots, however, would last a lot longer than 24 hours. Determined to find Blakelock’s killers, the Metropolitan Police maintained a heavy presence on the Broadwater estate for several months, arresting and questioning over 300 people, many of whom were denied access to a lawyer. The riots led to changes in the police’s tactics and equipment for dealing with riots, and efforts to reengage with the local community.

Six people were eventually charged with the murder of Keith Blakelock; although the investigation and ensuing court cases were severely hampered by officers who were willing to cut corners and ignore the law. Three children had their cases dismissed after a judge ruled that they had been held and questioned inappropriately. Three adults, Winston Silcott, and Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment despite there being no witnesses and no forensic evidence. All three were cleared by the Court of Appeals in November 1991. In July 2013, a man named Nicholas Jacobs was charged with Blakelock’s murder, but was cleared at trial.

Neither Cynthia Jarrett nor Keith Blakelock have received justice for what happened to them. Although from different ‘sides’ of the conflict, both were victims of  an institutionally racist society that was creating tension between those in authority and communities in London and across Britain. We are kidding ourselves if we think these tensions no longer exist, and the Broadwater Farm Riots are a stark reminder of the danger of overlooking such problems.

Don’t forget to check out the location of the Broadwater Farm Riots on the Turbulent London Map!

Sources and Further Reading

BBC News, “What Caused the 1985 Tottenham Broadwater Farm Riot?” Last modified 3rd March 2014, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-26362633

Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 [2003].

Wikipedia, “Broadwater Farm Riot.” Last modified 26th September 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadwater_Farm_riot

Wikipedia, “Death of Keith Blakelock.” Last modified 4th October 2016, accessed 5th October 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Keith_Blakelock

Turbulent Londoners: Bernie Grant, 1944-2000

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Bernie Grant, who devoted his life to campaigning for equality across various forums.


Bernie Grant (Source: BBC)

Bernie Grant (Source: BBC)

Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant, known to most as Bernie Grant, was an influential campaigner for civil rights in Britain and around the world. In a political career that spanned four decades, he fought to promote equality of all kinds as a trade union leader, a member of local government, and a Member of Parliament. Although he spent the majority of his career in mainstream politics, he still deserves the status of a Turbulent Londoner as he continued to fight for what he believed in once he was elected, and acted as “a red rag to the bulls of rightwing politics” (Phillips, 2000).

Born in Georgetown, Guyana on the 17th February 1944, Bernie Grant moved to London with his parents when he was 19. He studied at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, but left in 1969 in protest against discrimination against black students. He started working as a telephonist for the Post Office at the International Telephone Exchange in King’s Cross, and became involved in trade union politics during the Post Office strike in 1970. In 1978 Bernie became an Area Officer for the National Union of Public Employees, a full-time job.

Bernie Grant was dubbed 'Bermy Bernie' by the tabloid press (Source: Social Abjection).

Bernie Grant was dubbed ‘Barmy Bernie’ by the tabloid press (Source: Social Abjection).

Also in 1978, Bernie became a Labour Councillor in the north London borough of Haringey. He founded the Black Trades Unionists Solidarity Movement, and worked there full time between 1981 and 1984. In 1985, he earned the nickname ‘Barmy Bernie’ from the tabloid press because of his leadership of the opposition against the Conservative government’s rate-capping, which meant that central government could restrict the spending of local councils. He is in good company; the name ‘Suffragettes’ was coined by a reporter at the Daily Mail.

Haringey Council emerged from the dispute with central government with Bernie Grant as leader. He was the first black man to hold such a position in Europe. Bernie practiced what he preached, and Haringey was one of the few local councils to develop policies that tackled discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, race, or sexual orientation. After the controversial Broadwater Farm riots on the 6th of October 1985 Bernie stood up for the local youth, despite widespread and frequently vicious criticism.

Bernie Grant in Parliament in 1996 (Source: The Voice)

Bernie Grant in Parliament in 1996 (Source: The Voice)

The Broadwater Farm controversy didn’t damage Bernie’s reputation enough to prevent him being elected the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in 1987. He caused a stir by attending his first state opening of parliament in African dress, another of his ‘red rag’ moments. Once in Parliament, Bernie continued to fight for what he believed in. He founded the Parliamentary Black Caucus, and campaigned to end racism in the UK and abroad, against racist policing methods, deaths in police custody, and institutionalised racism in education, housing, and health. He also fought for the rights of refugees, greater resources for inner city areas, the elimination of overseas debt for poor nations, and the recognition of past colonialism and enslavement. He worked hard for his constituency, campaigning for a major cultural and arts facility, now called the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in his name.

Bernie Grant remained the MP for Tottenham until his death on the 8th of April 2000, aged 56. He was a man who never shied away from what he thought was right, even in the face of party politics and widespread criticism. He proved that it is possible to make positive changes from within the official system of government, a lesson which is worth hanging onto in the face of modern mainstream politics.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Bernie Grant.” Wikipedia. Last modified 4th May 2015, accessed 18th June 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernie_Grant

Phillips, Mike. “Bernie Grant.” The Guardian. Last modified 10th April 2000, accessed 18th June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/apr/10/guardianobituaries.obituaries

The Bernie Grant Archive. No date, accessed 18th June 2015. http://berniegrantarchive.org.uk/