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Black People’s Day of Action

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the first Black People’s Day of Action on March 2, 1981 when an estimated 15,000 people marched from New Cross to central London to draw attention to the perceived failure of the police to investigate fully the circumstances surrounding the New Cross house fire in which 13 young people had died a few weeks earlier on January 18. Vron Ware recalls a day of righteous anger and sorrow.

In the days that followed the fire there was little coverage of the terrible loss of life in national newspapers - with the exception of The Sun  - and there was no statement of condolence from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This silence reinforced the feeling in the black communities of the UK that the loss of young black lives was unimportant. Reggae singer Johnny Osbourne summed up the feelings of many with his song 13 Dead (and Nothing Said).

But, out of the ashes of this tragedy came an unprecedented political mobilisation of the black community. Angered by slow police progress (even now, after 35 years and two inquests, the police have failed to establish exactly what happened) and a perceived lack of sensitivity by the authorities to the children’s deaths, mass meetings were organised and a huge march planned for Monday March 2.

It brought together activists from across the political spectrum and around the country. BBC London correspondent Kurt Barling recalls: “Thirty five years ago it was an extraordinary spectacle to see up to 25,000 mostly black people marching from New Cross to Hyde Park. It took many Londoners by surprise and genuinely unnerved the establishment - it showed that the children of migrants and migrants themselves were at a turning point.

“Now they wanted to publicly and collectively express their dissatisfaction with what many believed was a culture of discrimination and rights abuse by institutions of state and the police in particular. A positive step to get positive results in the quest for equal treatment.”

Professor Vron Ware was then editor of Searchlight – the magazine dedicated to exposing racism, anti-semitism and fascism – and participated in the first Day of Action, taking photographs for the magazine.
“It was an extraordinary, unforgettable day, a day of righteous anger and sorrow,” she recalls.

“It’s impossible to forget the depth of feeling about the tragic deaths of those young people in the fire, especially seeing their faces on the posters carried by their friends and families.
“But it was more than that. Although there had been protests against police harassment and racist laws before, this felt different. There were lots of placards with slogans like ‘Equal Rights and Justice’ and ‘Ain’t No Stopping us Now’.

“The police tried to stop the march crossing the river to enter the City but failed as there were just so many people determined to keep going. It felt hugely significant to walk up Fleet Street where all the newspapers had their offices and to protest against the vicious racism of the media at that time. “It was hard to capture on film, but I remember seeing people leaning out of the windows to jeer at us.”

Vron’s images from the first Black People’s Day of Action, plus other photographs she took during the late 1970s and early 1980s while working for Searchlight are represented in the Autograph ABP Archive.