Uprising, a new BBC three-part documentary series, directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, examines three key events from 1981 that affected race relations in Britain for decades. Here, George Rhoden, who appears in the documentary, tells us what it was like to be a Black police officer during these history-making events – and, 40 years on, whether things have really got any better.
Former police officer George Rhoden was just 19 in 1981. He joined the Met that year after going to police cadet school aged 16, but was not fully prepared for the violence and racism that he would witness.
NEW CROSS FIRE
The linked events in Uprising began on 18 January 1981 with The New Cross Fire at 439 New Cross Road, where 13 young Black people at a birthday party were killed by the flames. The fire was suspected to have been caused by arson, with a racist motive, as eye-witnesses said they saw a man make a throwing action near the house just before the blaze began.
Many believed the National Front were responsible, as they had been linked to similar patterns and methods of violence in black communities across London and in particular around Lewisham, where New Cross is situated. However, due to police inaction and media and government indifference, no arrests were made and nothing was ever proven. Police at the time discounted racism as a motive.
Rhoden, like many at the time, heard virtually nothing about the fire after it took place.
“I didn’t see media appeals for witnesses. I don’t know why it went off the radar and I didn’t hear anything of it until I heard there was going to be a march about the fire.”
He believes the police could have done more to help the victims.
“Where was the investigation team? Why wasn’t more information given to the community at the time? Where were the media appeals? What happened to the forensics from the scene? Why did it take so long to interview witnesses?”
The Metropolitan Police was accused of a cover-up and, in the face of collective indifference, activist, poet and publisher John La Rose set up the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action, featured in the second episode of Uprising.
BLACK PEOPLE’S DAY OF ACTION
On 2 March, around 20,000 people carried banners and placards that said things like, “13 Dead, Nothing Said” and marched from New Cross Road up to the Houses of Parliament to deliver a petition about the cause.
George Rhoden was positioned on Blackfriars Bridge when the protestors crossed the river. He knew that as a Black officer, he was perceived by some protestors as a traitor.
“My left testis was swollen up like a tennis ball. I was walking like John Wayne.”
“I saw a senior officer run past, yelling ‘strap down your helmets!’ and I could see a crowd of people running across the bridge. A van with loud speakers drew up alongside me as I started to walk along the bridge. A man in the van with a megaphone started screaming ‘Look at the judas!’ and screaming obscenities at me. Then this guy with a microphone shoved it in my face and said, ‘What is it like to be a black man in a racist police force?'”
Rhoden tried to focus on the 10-15 minute walk to Fleet Street, where the crowd would spread out, but the tension of the moment had got to him.
“I had just put two pieces of chewing gum in my mouth and by the time I got to Fleet Street, I tasted blood. I had bit down so hard, I was chewing my tongue.”
But when Rhoden arrived at Fleet Street, where the newspaper industry was concentrated, he was attacked by protestors.
“I felt someone take my left arm and someone else take my right arm so they were stretched out and someone ran at me and kicked me in the groin. I was unconscious for a few moments and when I woke up on the floor, I saw these massive police officers in front of me, fighting and I was lifted up and out of there.”
He was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital to be examined.
“Luckily enough, I wore foam shin guards and a box to protect myself, but when I got to the hospital the box was cracked and my left testis was swollen up like a tennis ball. I was walking like John Wayne.”
The events of that day made Rhoden reconsider his career in the Met.
“I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing in the job?’. Black people had been victims of heinous crimes and hadn’t got the help they should have been given by the police. So I thought I was helping by being a police officer – but being assaulted made me question whether I was doing the right thing.”
He took two weeks off work to recover and to reconsider his position and spoke to his parents, who had always supported him in his career choice.
“I [told them] I don’t know why I’m doing this and they said to me whatever your decision is, we’ll back you up but also, you started this and it would be good if you could see it through.”
He resolved that it was better to make change from within the force. Rhoden (59) went on to become part of the Met’s first Black undercover unit and then became the first Black British hostage negotiator in the police. He also established and chaired the Met’s Black Police Association, and was invited to meet with President Barack Obama in 2009. He retired from the police in 2011 but continues to work as a consultant and advisor on Police policy and strategy.
“We were told that ‘the blacks have kicked off’ and were smashing up Brixton.”
“Black people were being classed as the enemy of the state and I thought if I am in the police then I can help, assist and develop understanding within communities that don’t know what the police are about and help the police understand what the communities are about.”
The next month, on 10 April 1981, the Brixton riots kicked off. The main riot on 11 April resulted in 279 injuries to police and 45 injuries to members of the public. Over a hundred vehicles were burned, including 56 police vehicles; almost 150 buildings were damaged, with thirty burned. There were 82 arrests.
Rhoden was stationed at Vine Street, near Regent Street at the time. He’d already completed his shift but then got a call at his digs calling him back in because of a disturbance in Brixton.
“We were told that ‘the blacks have kicked off’ and were smashing up Brixton.”
Groups of officers were rushed to the scene. On the journey, the white officers were spewing racist rhetoric.
“I was apprehensive… It sounded like they were going into battle,” said Rhoden. “I was hearing things like ‘the c**ns are at it again and we’ll teach the w**s a lesson. Whether it was through fear or ignorance, they were bonded together with this rhetoric and it upset me because I am a black guy and it dismissed me even being on that coach.”
Rhoden became increasingly anxious once they arrived in Brixton.
“The rioters were throwing bricks at the Green Goddess. I could see the other officers were in fear. It was large-scale rioting and I was scared. Petrol Bombs were thrown in front of the coach and a brick came through a window.”
The vehicle stopped in the middle of the riot, 140 metres away from Brixton police station, where Rhoden could see rioters shouting and pointing directly at him, yelling ‘Judas! Kill him!”
Then something shifted. The racist rhetoric had died down on the coach and the other officers spotted that Rhoden had become a target. As they exited the coach, they formed a corridor with their shields up for Rhoden to run through safely to the station.”
“I was being protected by my team and if it wasn’t for them I would not have got out without serious injury.”
But that wasn’t the end. With his faith in his team restored, Rhoden was then redeployed along Coldharbour Lane.
“It was unrelenting. I was being pelted and constantly targeted but I knew people around me would help me and I would help them. During the lull, people would come up and shout at us.”
“Some came up to me and said: ‘How can you work with these officers when they brutalise our community? and I was saying I am from your community but I am here to help you and make a difference. All I was trying to do is de-escalate what was in front of me. In those brief moments some understood and some didn’t want to. Some people just wanted blood. They had been through so much. You saw tears and you saw aggression.”
THE SCARMAN REPORT
Later in 1981, Lord Scarman published his report, saying police “must carry some responsibility” for the outbreak of disorder, adding, “racial disadvantage is a fact of British life”. The report said police had become distant from their communities and called for local citizens to have more input into policy. It found widespread mistrust of the police, exacerbated by disproportionate and indiscriminate use of Sus laws (the precursor to stop and search) by the police against Black people.
Victims of the New Cross Fire:
Andrew Gooding (18.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
Owen Thompson (11.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
Patricia Johnson (16.05.1965 – 18.01.1981)
Patrick Cummings (21.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
Steve Collins (2.05.1963 – 18.01.1981)
Lloyd Hall (28.11.1960 – 18.01.1981)
Humphrey Geoffrey Brown (4.07.1962 – 18.01.1981)
Roseline Henry (23.09.1964 – 18.01.1981)
Peter Campbell (23.02.1962 – 18.01.1981)
Gerry Paul Francis (21.08.1963 – 18.01.1981)
Glenton Powell (18.01.1966 – 25.01.1981)
Paul Ruddock (19.11.1960 – 09.02.1981)
Yvonne Ruddock (17.01.1965 – 24.01.1981)
“We learned lessons from the Scarman report but the big changes that were recommended didn’t happen. There were no talks with the community. It was all Government-led directives and police then took on those attitudes and targeted black communities unfairly because police and government did not understand the Black community and the socio-economic deprivation they endured.”
Crucially, the report recommended that in order to effectively serve communities, the police force needed to recruit more ethnic minorities.
According to the ONS, at the end of March 2020, 92.7 per cent of police officers were white and 7.3 per cent were from Asian, Black, mixed and other ethnic backgrounds.
“Today we are recruiting more people of colour, but not enough and they are not always staying,” says Rhoden. “People are still being affected by racism in the force but we hope to ensure that they are retained.”
So are we in any better position today?
Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and anti-racism protests, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) – which handles complaints about officers’ behaviour in England and Wales – launched a fresh investigation into disproportionate use of police powers against BAME communities. There are no findings as yet.
After the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 and murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, reports into police racism were launched, but, as with the Scarman report, real reform was limited.
In early July 2020, Sir Thomas Winsor, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, said disproportionate use of stop and search on black men especially was making it harder to make police forces more diverse. This has worrying echoes of the disproportionate targeting of Black men by police using Sus laws in the late ’70s and early 80s that led to widespread distrust of police.
In slightly more hopeful news, five people have been arrested after England footballers were racially abused online following their Euro 2020 final defeat, which may be seen as a sign that police have got better at acting swiftly to clamp down on racism.
“During Euro ’96, I was with the intelligence unit in New Scotland Yard, monitoring the football games and I saw hooliganism, violence and racially motivated assaults,” says Rhoden. “Again, in 2021, we saw racially motivated assaults and online abuse, horrible violence and racist rhetoric. It is a sad reflection of a part of our society at will never go away. But today, social media and greater online connectivity allow racist trolls to band together to validate each others’ views. Society has got worse, there are fewer prosecutions [for racially motivated crimes] and I fear for the safety of young black people, my own children and the younger generation.”
And on a policy level, Rhoden believes the Government has led society, over the last ten years, to implicitly allow racist views to flourish. “People are once again feeling confident in expressing their attitudes towards people of colour because the Government’s words are soft. I have the experience of being an agent for change in the police service and I bring an awareness of cultural differences to bring greater understanding to the table – that’s not something I’m seeing at a Government level. They create these focus groups that are reactive rather than proactive. That needs to change – before we see this cycle begin again.”
Uprising is on BBC1 and iPlayer from July 20 at 9pm.