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Uprising

The New Cross fire forty years on

A personal reflection on Steve McQueen’s seminal 2021 BBC documentary

By Michael McMillan

 

In the early hours of Sunday 19 January 1981, I came home from a house party. My dad was awake waiting for me. Instead of cussing me for being a dirty stop out, he was distressed. He’d heard on the radio that some Black people had died in a fire at a house party in south east London, and he thought I was there. This event became known as the New Cross Fire in which thirteen Black British young people, like myself, lost their lives in what many in the Black community felt was a racist arson attack. 

This event was a silent subtext to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films, in particular Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle. Uprising, a three episode BBC1 primetime documentary film co-directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, returns for the first time to hear from those affected. McQueen and Rogan create an intimate space for family members and survivors, police officers, councillors, activists and artists to share oral histories about living in New Cross, a multicultural inner city community that had stood firm against a march by the fascist National Front (NF) in the 1977 Battle of Lewisham.

There was teenage excitement among those attending Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson’s joint birthday party at 439 New Cross Road. Angela survived, but Yvonne and her brother Paul, died. Paul’s white friend, Andrew Hastings, recalls his exuberance; Paul’s wife, Sandra, remembers his elation that she was pregnant – with a child he would never see. Other survivors include Wayne Haynes, whose family lived on a council estate, and Denise Gooding, whose family didn’t have much but were happy with an open house of domino and music playing. Wayne was the only survivor of three DJs playing at the party, and an eleven-year-old Denise survived but lost her brother, Andrew.

With the New Cross Fire seen as a contributory factor in the 1981 Brixton uprising, the documentary explores George Rhoden’s experience as a Black police officer during those events. Echoing the Small Axe film Red, White and Blue, he was seen as a traitor for joining an institution that brutalised young Black men, was indifferent to racist attacks, and harboured racist members of the National Front.

Uprising documents police, media and government indifference towards the fire, and the mobilisation of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee that led to the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981.

I, alongside 20,000 Black people marched from New Cross, crossed the Thames at Blackfriars, through Fleet Street where the newspaper industry was still located, and past the Royal Courts of Justice towards the West End. It was a historic moment, yet the subsequent police stop and search operation, ‘Swamp 81’ – an explicit echo of Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 televised comment that ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’ – targeted Black youth and ignited the Brixton uprisings that April. Like a wild fire, it spread to other UK inner city areas, for, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr observed, ‘riots are the language of the voiceless’. Black and White youth, disenfranchised within Thatcher’s neo-liberal Britain, expressed their rage.

Not immigrant, not West Indian, but Black British, Uprising is a masterpiece that skillfully reconstructs from the archive a moment of trauma in that community’s lived experience, and humanises with care their resistance. It still resonates today.

Uprising is available on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000y317/uprising

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