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Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Toxteth riots remembered
Police officers attacked by rioters
As many as 1,000 police officers may have been injured
Twenty years ago violence erupted on the streets of Toxteth, Liverpool. BBC News Online's Finlo Rohrer talks to those who remember the nine days of rioting.

Leroy Alphonse Cooper's arrest on Selbourne Street, near Toxteth's infamous Granby Street, was watched by an angry crowd.

It is said every riot has a spark, and the chaos and destruction of Liverpool's Toxteth riots were no exception. The Merseyside officers' treatment of 20-year-old Mr Cooper on the evening of Friday 3 July 1981 led to a fracas in which three policemen were injured.


The police were being pushed back. That was the night they fired the CS gas

Toxteth resident Wally Brown
But instead of dying away over the weekend, disturbances rapidly turned into full-blown riots with pitched battles between police officers and youths throwing petrol bombs and paving stones.

In the run up to the anarchy of July 1981, tensions had been rising in the inner-city area of Liverpool. The Merseyside force of the time had a particularly bad reputation in the area for stopping and searching black youths under the infamous 'sus' laws.

Resentment

Officers were accused of planting drugs on youths in a practice known locally as "agriculture" or "going farming".

Gideon Ben-Tovim, a member of the Community Relations Council at the time, remembers the backdrop to the 1981 riots.

Police confront rioters
The police response was "utterly inadequate"
"There were a lot of incidents of harassment, drug planting, people being criminalised for trivial reasons, heavy-handed policing and the final spark was the heavy-handed arrest of [Leroy Alphonse Cooper]."

Derek Murray, a black businessman in 1981 and now making a television documentary about the riots, says he saw police harassment first hand.

But despite being stopped and searched on average once a week, he did not fully believe the stories circulating about random beatings meted out by police to black men.

Harassment

"The best tactic was to recognise their power and doff your cap."

His attitude changed when he was arrested and taken to the station for a minor parking offence in 1981.

"One of the guys held [my jacket] down around my arms as to go and hit me in the face full with his fist. That was what his intention was."

The Rialto complex in ruins
The Rialto: "The cupola roof was glowing"
Mr Murray believes only the mention of a senior police officer who was a customer prevented an attack.

Once unleashed, the ferocity of the disturbances overwhelmed the authorities. Rioters attacked supermarkets, firebombed a bank and numerous other businesses, as well as looting art from a "gentleman's club" before destroying it.

Wally Brown, a prominent black community leader mediating at the time of the riots, vividly remembers the burning of the Rialto, a complex of buildings around an old ballroom.

"It had a cupola roof which must have been made of copper and was glowing."

Overwhelmed

Mr Brown says the rioters were gaining the upper hand: "The police were being pushed back. That was the night they fired the CS gas."

The use of these tear gas "ferret" rounds remains controversial, with the police accused of firing them directly at rioters.

Jacquie Hardy, today secretary of Granby Residents Association, remembers the terror of the riots: "Things were out of hand and the police must have had some fear as well."

Rioters' weapons on display
Police said "thieves and vagabonds" were to blame
Ms Hardy witnessed officers attempting to make arrests. "The police were grabbing people. I thought my brother had been grabbed by a policeman. Everyone's nerves were gone. I just attacked this policeman. I ended up swinging on this guy's back and realised he didn't have my brother."

The initial mayhem lasted for nine days and spread throughout the city with disgruntled white youths from other neighbourhoods joining the battles and starting disturbances elsewhere.

Police reinforcements were called from as far away as Cumbria, the West Midlands and even Devon in a desperate effort to control the burning streets.

Man killed

Later disturbances saw one man struck and killed by a police Land Rover and another injured as police attempted to disperse crowds.

After the first week of rioting, Merseyside Police Chief Constable Kenneth Oxford tallied the damage done.

He said 468 police officers had been injured, 500 people arrested and at least 70 buildings demolished.

The chief constable said it was the work of "thieves and vagabonds" who needed no excuse for violence and destruction.

Toxteth buildings destroyed
More than 100 buildings were demolished
But he admitted the police's response to large-scale rioting had been "totally and utterly inadequate".

Later estimates suggested up to 1,000 police were injured and doubled the number of buildings destroyed.

Lady Margaret Simey was chair of the police authority during the riots and clashed with the chief constable over his alleged failure to acknowledge the possibility social issues were behind the violence.

It was widely argued that police harassment had exacerbated chronic unemployment, racism, bad housing and poor education in an area with a large population of black and mixed-race residents.

Lady Simey was herself the subject of criticism. She supposedly remarked that in the face of such conditions Toxteth's people would have been "apathetic fools" if they had not rioted.

On Thursday, we look at how Toxteth has fared over the last 20 years.

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