Trigger warnings: racism, anti-blackness, violence, suicide. The quote in the title of this article is from Darcus Howe, 2011.
In the early hours of January 18, 1981, a devastating fire engulfed party-goers at 439 New Cross Road. They were celebrating the birthdays of Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson.
The blaze killed 13 young people who were all between the ages of just 14 and 22. Unable to live with the memory of the trauma, one survivor also took their own life two years later. These were 14 young people whose lives were cut cruelly short — today we remember them, and the movement that rose out of a desire for justice.
Racism-fuelled arson was suspected as the cause of the fire. Eye-witnesses recalled a white man in a white car leaving the scene; some alleged that they saw him throw a Molotov cocktail into the house party. At the time the National Front (NF), a fascist group, were extremely active and racial tensions were high. Fire had been a recurring symbol of racist attacks on Black homes – such as the Sunderland Road bombing, and the burning down of the old Moonshot Youth Club building – and many people believed the NF were behind these attacks as well as the New Cross Fire tragedy.
However, police quickly dismissed the idea that the fire was a racially motivated attack and proceeded to investigate the version of events alleging that the fire had been started inside the party by a fight. 'There was an assumption that something illegal had been going on at the party,' remarked Ros Howells, then a Deptford community worker. 'They didn't believe it could just be a group of children enjoying themselves.' The approach angered the community and intimidated survivors, who felt forced to comply with the police’s investigation despite still believing the fire to have been a racist attack.
The indifference and apathy shown by the white population, the press, media and political establishment was a direct and clear message that these young Black lives simply didn’t matter. Their silence was the sound of ignoring police negligence and systemic racism; the sound of refusing to acknowledge the pain that these communities were going through; the sound of support for white supremacy. Their silence was the sound of their complicity to anti-Black violence.
The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, a group led by members of the Black Parents Movement, (Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris) was formed within two days of the fire. The group was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.
The group established a Fact Finding Commission to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved. It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information. They worked tirelessly to monitor the investigation and subsequent inquiry, to challenge attempts to dismiss the voices of survivors and families and bring the names of those lost into the mainstream media.
‘The burnt out three-storey house was a reminder of the nature of the offence like an open wound scorched in the body of the city,’ a wound which became a rage, a rage which became a strength, a strength which became a movement. Led by the families, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the wider Black community, over 15,000 people marched from New Cross to the Houses of Parliament on Black People’s Day of Action, Monday 2 March, 1981. Those participating carried photographs and signs bearing the names of the victims, as a protest on the media’s silence and a reinstatement that their lives and loss mattered.
The events surrounding the New Cross Fire would also become part of the catalyst for the Brixton Uprising of 1981, a mass protest by the Black community against racist policing. Beyond the NCMAC more groups like the Brixton Defence Campaign were set up to support those wrongfully charged and to challenge the racist narrative presented in the press and official reports like the Scarman Enquiry. The work of the Brixton Defence Campaign worked to show how the response of the Black community to The Uprising was to continue to fight against the oppression that had caused it.
40 years on from the events of the New Cross Fire, and with multiple investigations and inquests behind them, police still do not know who or what caused the fire at 439 New Cross Road and no charges have been made in connection with the events of that night. It remains ‘the bleakest moment in a decade of alienation and bitterness’ in the UK, ‘an unparalleled act of barbaric violence against the black community in this country’, a void of justice.
Looking at what happened then and where we are now, one might draw a line from 439 New Cross Road to Grenfell Tower and remark that it feels like so little has changed: apparent negligence, inquiries that allege to blame victims and ignore the voices of survivors and relatives, and no apology or acknowledgement from the political establishment. With this collective anger and grief in mind the most appropriate way to celebrate and remember the lives lost and the many community members who fought and continue to fight for justice is to, as put so astutely by Les Back, ‘renew a commitment and vigilance to challenging contemporary racism in all its forms’, to stand in solidarity and rage and declare that these lives do matter and their loss is of great significance to us, our community and our history.
TODAY WE REMEMBER THOSE PEOPLE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES
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)
Anthony Berbeck (17.08.1962 – 09.07.1983)
George Padmore Institute, ‘New Cross Massacre Campaign’
John La Rose, The New Cross Massacre Story
Transpontine, The New Cross Fire 1981
Alex Wheatle, East of Acre Lane
Professor Les Back, ‘New Crass Massakah: Remembering the fire at 439 New Cross Road’
Black Cultural Archives
Simon Peplow, ‘Grenfell Fire and the Politics of Public Inquiries’
Linton Kwesi Johnson, New Crass Massakah
Johnny Osboure, 13 Dead (Nothing Said)
Benjamin Zepheniah, 13 Dead
Jay Bernard, Surge: Side A
Rex Obano, Lover’s Rock
BBC Radio 4, Lights Out: From the Ashes of New Cross
Albany Theatre, New Cross Fire: 30 Years On (I, II, III, IV) (2011)
Steve McQueen, Small Axe: Alex Wheatle (2020)
Menelik Shabazz, Blood Ah Go Run (1982)
Goldsmiths, Vron Ware Exhibition: 13 Dead, Nothing Said (2017)
BBC, Windrush III: A New Generation (1998)