Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today.
by Vincent Nurse
18 January 1981 will be chronicled as one of the darkest days in the lives of Afro-Caribbean people who made their homes in the UK in the years after the 1950’s.
On that fateful night forty years ago 13 Black teenagers perished and died in a fire at 439 New Cross Road, Southeast London. Another 50 were reported to have suffered severe injuries. One victim, Wayne Hayes who was seventeen at the time, said that after the fire he had received 140 skin grafts and had shattered 163 bones after jumping from the second floor of the building. He has been classified ‘disabled’ ever since.
Early suggestions and speculations claimed that the fire had started when a petrol bomb was hurled through the window of the terrace dwelling and that it was a racist attack.
The immediate reaction of the authorities led to the view that it was their belief that the whole matter was perhaps an accident of some kind.
The apparent lack of urgency by the police in their efforts to find the criminal or criminals who were responsible for this atrocious act of mass murder touched a raw nerve in the Black community and consequently 20,000 people marched to London to make known their dissatisfaction about the way the enquiries were being handled. As we reflect on the manner of these enquiries in the immediate aftermath of the murder perhaps in hindsight the phrase “Black Lives Matter” should have been coined.
Maybe in light of the general mourning in the Black community the cry “Black Lives Matter” would have gathered unstoppable momentum and become a much more potent force than it is today.
However, as we know, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is interesting to record the actions of some of those at the top of the Establishment in their response to the tragedy.
Naturally the Metropolitan Police were the frontline targets for the innate anger for a community which was in search of explanations. They (community) wanted a vent through which their anguish and anger would be assuaged.
Perhaps impetus was given to the protestors’ actions when it became known that immediate messages of sympathy were not received from either Buckingham Palace (Her Majesty the Queen’s Official Residence) or 10 Downing Street (The Prime Minister’s Official Residence). One now wonders what such messages would have done to give comfort to the bereaved and the community at large. But again, I posit the question: did Black lives really matter?
Indeed, in near parallel circumstances when 45 people were killed in a disco in Dublin (Eire) a month after the New Cross massacre messages of condolences were immediately sent.
A further insight into the mindset of the Prime Minister of that time, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, could perhaps be gleaned from the fact that Mrs Thatcher took five weeks to reply to a letter from a member of the community who had written to suggest that Mrs Thatcher’s government did not show outrage at the events at New Cross Road. The Prime Minister is reported as having only directed that her sympathies should be passed on to the bereaved and community. Might it not have been touchingly sympathetic if the Prime Minister had paid a visit to the scene in a gesture of compassion and solidarity?
The deaths of those innocent teenagers and the manner of their passing should never be a footnote in the social and police files of this country.
On this 40th year of memorial it is not extreme to question whether or not their lives in the broader picture of officialdom did not really matter. That may be a harsh analysis but in the absence of contradictory evidence one is guided to such a judgment.
At a second inquest (2004) 24 years after the deaths, the Coroner, Gerald Butler accepted that the fire was started deliberately but he rejected the idea that it was a racist attack. He wrote: “While I think it probable that the fire was begun by deliberate application of a flame to an armchair near the television, I cannot be sure of this. The result is this: that in the case of each and every one of the deaths I must return an open verdict.” And ‘open’ it has remained to this very day as no one has been brought to account for these murders and the matter sadly remains unsolved.
There has been no justice for these young Black children and the cry has always gone out and remains today that the authorities did not care enough. Again, did Black lives really matter? The question still troubles a mind anxious to see closure to a dark chapter in the pages of Afro-Caribbean history in this UK.
Such is the nature of the New Cross tragedy that it would be disrespectful to the dead and their bereaved if this is shunted to the sidelines.
Many still mark the date in memory and although some of the parents and elderly relatives may not be alive today, that does not diminish its significance.
Others might rest content in the belief that time heals, but time will never heal the wounds inflicted on the Black community of all ages on that Saturday night 40 years ago. Indeed, as I discussed this anniversary with a young Black man who would have been 11 or 12 years old at the time, he told me that he has never forgotten the trauma of that evening, and again one wonders what scar might have been imprinted on his psychological state of mind.
Time can only shunt the event further down memory lane so therefore it is important to keep 18 January 1981 very much in the minds of all whether, Black, White or polka dot.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently declared a National Day of Hope to commemorate the murder of young Damilola Taylor of London. Perhaps he should now move to include the Black victims of that callous act of violence and put the Deptford thirteen into that category. That would be a fitting and lasting tribute to those whose lives were cruelly cut short on that fateful evening of mindless carnage in Southeast London.