November 5th 1979: Chapeltown

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Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No. 2 - January/February 1980

On November 5 the police launched a violent attack on the black people of Chapeltown. This is not the first time that the police have launched such an attack. In Chapeltown, the police have used Bonfire Night as an excuse to try and terrorise young people because they are black and on the streets. Their record over the past few years proves this.

In 1975, a massive police operation launched against the black youth of Chapeltown failed miserably. Community workers had requested that the police maintain a low profile, since the police presence the year before, coupled with their attempt to extinguish a bonfire, had provoked a disturbance. Despite police agreement, they turned out in force. A police car driven at high speed into a group of youths signalled the beginning of the police attack. But the young people of Chapeltown showed that they were not going to stand around and become hopeless victims of British State barbarity. On the contrary, November 5 1975 will be remembered as a crushing defeat for the police. Four policemen were injured, one of them seriously. At least one police car was a total write-off — several others were damaged. Not one person was arrested at the time, but throughout the night police raided homes, arresting 12 people. Initially they faced minor charges mainly of assault, but nine of the defendants had their charges changed to the more serious one of affray. Undoubtedly, the police were anxious to do in the courts what they had failed to do on the streets. An indication of the lengths they will go to in trying to smash a community came to light later. Younger children at a local school were asked to write essays on ‘Bonfire Night'. The police picked their way through these trying to find 'evidence! However, substantial community protest over the court cases, along with the ease with which contradictory police statements were shown to be largely fictional resulted in a further police defeat in the courts. Out of the 24 charges brought, there were 21 acquittals!

All in all, the police attack resulted in. severe blows being inflicted on them. Throughout the next three years, the police, not wishing to confront such solid resistance, resorted to a low-key approach. This went hand in hand with the development of their 'community relations' police work —their term for gathering information as the ‘friendly community coppers', while continuing and even intensifying their racist oppression.

Hardly anyone is fooled by this rather threadbare velvet glove over an iron fist. They maintained high numbers at each bonfire night, but opted for plain-clothes and unmarked cars — common features at any time in Chapeltown.

The only incident of any note took place on Bonfire Night in 1977 when some cowardly National Front supporters hurled a barrage of racist abuse from a car window while travelling at high speed through a crowd of youths. They disappeared at even greater speed, complete with smashed windscreen. Apart from this incident, these three years were quiet and trouble free, and in spite of the presence of plainclothes policemen, people enjoyed the bonfire night celebrations. Police confidence grew!

The police attack again

1979 saw a return to openly repressive tactics. Police provocation took three main forms. First, there were numbers of uniformed police in almost every single street in the area. Second they were trying to stop people from setting off fireworks. Finally they simply resorted to open violence. A youth on his pushbike, arriving to join his friends, received a completely unprovoked punch in the face from a policeman. This year, it was clear, the police were intent on brutality and intimidation. This is particularly evident in the rapidity with which a military-style operation was launched. The following are extracts of an interview given to a Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supporter by 'RJ’, a black youth present when the police attack took place. The extracts outline what happened and also show some of the conclusions reached by this youth and others, following this state assault.

What happened

FRFI How soon after the incident involving the youth on the pushbike did the police arrive with riot shields?

RJ Minutes after. They came with riot shields just then. They went all the way down to the 'Gaiety' (a night-club on the opposite edge of the community — FRFI) and were just starting on people even people who had nothing to do with the bonfires.

FRFI How many policemen were there?

RJ About 12 or 13 were chasing us at first and then they were coming from all over. You know those vans they come in, the blue ones, well they started jumping out with riot shields and lining up on the roads and marching down. I've seen it in Belfast, but it's the first time I've seen it here.

FRFI Didn't the police come in cars this time?

RJ No. I didn't see any police cars. Maybe they learned a lesson from 1975.

FRFI Apart from riot shields, what else did the police have?

RJ Those long batons — the kind they can swing and just hit people, and helmets with glass fronts. You know the bricks that we were defending ourselves with the police were trying to pick them up and throw them back, but when they tried to we just kept up and they couldn't. Anyway people were getting dustbin lids and using them as shields to defend themselves.

FRFI How else did people defend themselves?

RJ People just had to pick up whatever was near. Anything. When the police tried to grab somebody others went up to them and made them go back.

FRFI Did you see any of the police being injured?

RJ Yes. One got a brick in his forehead. Others had leg injuries and ankle injuries.

FRFI One story that was going round was that police told a resident that the reason they were in his garden was that they were looking for an air-rifle which they said someone had been using against them. Do you know anything of that?

RJ They weren't. I know why they were there. A whole heap of them hide in gardens and when they see a black youth coming, they jump out and do what they want. They're smart but they're not smart enough.

FRFI Have you seen that happen before?

RJ I've seen that happen in Manchester and Birmingham — Handsworth. That's the problem with the police. As soon as they're faced with a number equal to theirs, they can't handle it. Only a mob of them can mash one up. But say there's twelve of them and twelve black youths, they won't do it 'cos they know who's gonna come off best, and that's the black youth, even though they've got truncheons. Well what would you do, if they're coming and harassing you, pushing you about, if they punch you in the face for nothing? I won't take it. They've really got it in for people with skin this colour. Same as the Irish. They're really getting a battering, but they're fighting back like Hell as well.

I'm glad IRA are doing that. Like when I hear of a bombing in England, I go 'Yeah Man! Go Deh!' That's their revolution. Why should the next country poke their nose into something which has nothing to do with them. I see some black soldiers in there. All I can say to them is they are a partaker of the beast and that's it, I don't want nothing to do with it. He's dealing with their law. One day they'll bring the army in here for something like bonfire night.

FRFI What about 5 November next year?

RJ Well all I can say is people have realised. If they do it again next year there's gonna be a riot for days, 'cos if they come looking for trouble we'll give them it. Even though I'm dealing in Rastafari, a man of peace, there's one thing you got to fight for — your rights.

The Fight Continues

The immediate result of the attack in 1979 was six injured policemen and no arrests. One ANL supporter trying to take photograph of the attacks was beaten up by the police and had his camera taken.

The significance of the police attack is that it is part and parcel of the countrywide terrorising of black people by the British State. During the three quiet years of 1976-8, police hypocrisy reached the level of putting a message of congratulations in the local press. A cynical pat on the back for the community for its good behaviour on bonfire night. But the real message is abundantly clear: it is the police who bring their brutality to Chapeltown, and the British state which uses all the means at its disposal to attack black people in their homes and communities, on the streets and in the courts. Another message is equally clear — black people are fighting back and will continue to do so.

Alison Scott

Chapeltown Rasta - the persecution continues

Readers of FRFI 1 will remember the case of the young Rastafarian who having been suspended from school for refusing to cut off his dreadlocks was threatened with being taken into 'care' by Leeds Local Authority. His case was taken up and fought by the Chapeltown Rasta Defence Committee. The Committee organised protest actions, including a picket of his school and the Headmaster was forced to allow him to re-enter school.

That was on 4 September 1979. Those who have experienced the racist education system in Britain will not be surprised to hear that since that time he has been victimised and suspended no less than four times.

On each of these four occasions he has been singled out for punishment. The first occurred when, about one and a half weeks after he had been re-admitted to school, another boy took his pencil and threw it across the room. It was the young Rastafarian who got suspended. Then on 24 October, when there was no heating in the school the pupils were ordered to take off their coats and jackets. About half of them did not. The young Rastafarian was again singled out and suspended. On November 28th he was yet again suspended for two

weeks. This time a whole number of pupils were larking about, the teacher called the young Rastafarian to the front and immediately began to fill in a suspension form . Finally, he was allowed back into school on 13th December. He had been in school for just three quarters of an hour when a teacher ordered him to remove his Rasta badges. He took all of them off except one, pointing out that many of the pupils wore badges. The Headmaster told him to get out of school. The youth told him that he wanted to stay and that he would not be denied his education. The Headmaster called the police.

Clearly enraged at the success achieved by the Defence Committee the school authorities have put out the word to persecute this youth. They appear quite determined to rob him of any chance of education. To add insult to injury, Leeds Education Authority have again summonsed the youth and his mother to court for his 'non-attendance' at school. By continually suspending him they obviously hope that he will be taken into ‘care'. This for them would remove an embarrassing reminder that their authority was once successfully challenged and can be so again.

Leeds Correspondent