IN a room at the West Indian Sports and Social Club in Moss Side, rookie police officers and a group of young black men from the neighbourhood are acting act out a scene which has been a source of antagonism for decades.
As they role-play the ritual of stop-and-search, the hope is that the Moss Side lads will see the human beings behind the police uniform, and the coppers may better understand the historic sensitivities of the black youth on the receiving end of official suspicion.
And then roles are reversed. The Moss Side lads are invited to stop-and-search the probationary PCs. The lads come to realise that police officers ask the questions they do because they are obliged to by law. The young PCs get a taste of just how intrusive a stop-and-search can feel.
In the coming year, 200 police officers from the division covering Moss Side will go through similar role-play.
A lot has changed in the 25 years since Moss Side erupted in riots. Take Raymond Bell. Today, aged 44, he is a core member of Carisma (Community Alliance for Renewal, Inner South Manchester Area), trying to steer young people away from street crime.
But in July 1981, he was one of the hundreds of angry young people on the streets of Moss Side as shops were looted and torched, petrol bombs hurled at riot police and the local police station was briefly besieged by a mob.
“It was really about the police attitudes to us as youngsters,” says Bell of the riots. “The police at that time were the open enemy. Everybody had a story to tell. I just went with the flow. But I didn’t really want to smash up anything because that was not my nature.”
And then there is Raymond’s wife Erinma, chair of Carisma. In July 1981, she was a 16-year-old who, on her way to the chip shop, wandered curiously towards the melee where mobs of young people were being pursued by police.
“I remember getting chased by a Black Maria. I just had to run, then I got over this wall,” she recalls.
Elsewhere, Elouise Edwards, a community development worker, was at a makeshift hospital in an old church, treating the walking wounded who came in with flash burns from petrol bombs and wounds from flying stones and tussles with police.
“They were just kids and they lashed out,” she says of the riots. “We could see and hear police driving up and down Moss Lane East, beating their armour shouting `Nigger, nigger, nigger, oi, oi, oi’ and chasing the kids all over.”
Also on the streets of Moss Side that night was Gus John – then a community education co-ordinator, now a management consultant and professor of education.
“We were trying to steer young people away from the disturbances, make a note of who had been arrested and inform their parents,” he says. “We were running from one police station to another, finding out where the injured had been taken, because we saw lots of people getting their heads cracked by police batons.”
Delving back into the ructions of 1981 exposes some ugly truths: truths about the viciousness of a mob which could torch and loot shop after shop, destroy livelihoods at a stroke, petrol-bomb police officers and stone firefighters. But there are also ugly truths about race and the dismal reputation police had with the largely African-Caribbean community of Moss Side in the years leading up to 1981.
“When you look back and ask, did we provide policing to meet the needs of the community then, we clearly didn’t,” says Chief Supt Dave Thompson, current commander of Manchester metropolitan division, which includes Moss Side. “The way policing was conducted then is almost alien at times to how we police now.”
IT was Margaret Thatcher‘s Britain, and the heavy industries which created Manchester’s wealth were perishing like dinosaurs, with little hope of anything in their place. Unemployment among young black men in Moss Side was, at its worst, around 60 per cent.
“I would see kids come in to Ducie High School bubbly and bright, thinking they would do well, and by the time they got to exams, they were lethargic and dispirited, saying things like `My brother’s got a degree but he can’t get a job … why should I bother?’,” says Gabrielle Cox, who has lived in Moss Side for 34 years and was, in 1981, a teacher, Greater Manchester county councillor and vice-chair of the police authority.
To the rest of Manchester, Moss Side in 1981 was a place to buy drugs, or sample the dangerous allure of the shebeen – the illegal drinking den. Ever the melting pot, Moss Side had been home to Irish and Polish immigrants before the Windrush generation began to arrive from the Caribbean in the late 1940s. Recent years have seen the melting pot stirred again, with an influx of Somalis. Pupils at Manchester Academy, which replaced Ducie High, can today muster a staggering 62 languages between them.
“There were lots of allegations of police brutality towards young black men then,” recalls Gabrielle Cox. “I remember seeing graffiti which said `Help the police – beat yourself up’. The Hytner inquiry, which we set up after the riots, took quite a lot of evidence about the poor relationship between the police and young people, and it was something the police said simply did not exist. James Anderton was chief constable and took the view that, in a sense, his officers could do no wrong.”
Sir James Anderton today declines to discuss his memories of 1981.
“There is no question that the police used to criminalise young people for no good reason,” says Gus John. “There was petty harassment going on all the time. And at the same time, those young people saw the police in compromising situations. They would be in the shebeens, off duty, in uniform. They would receive bribes from the proprietors for keeping the places open. People would be smoking weed liberally around them.”
The Hytner inquiry called for a searching investigation into police behaviour, and concluded that the riots happened because they were expected to happen. Brixton and Toxteth had already seen riots and Moss Side’s uprising seemed inevitable.
Sir James Anderton’s claims at the time that outsiders whipped up “guerilla warfare” in Moss Side are borne out by Raymond Bell, who remembers Liverpudlians arriving to orchestrate the disturbance. “They had masks and they were more aggressive than we were,” he recalls. “I don’t feel like the Manchester masses wanted to go and riot at that time. We could deal with most things. But once we got rallied up by those individuals from the outside, that’s what started it.”
LOUISE Da-Cocodia, a veteran community leader in Moss Side – who ferried victims of the riots to hospital and later sat on the Hytner inquiry panel – says: “There were people from outside the area, there is no doubt about that. There was no planned intent on the part of the young people from the youth clubs (in Moss Side). It would appear that it was those people who came in who stimulated it.”
What those summer riots undoubtedly did was put the inner cities firmly on the political agenda. Michael Heseltine headed for Toxteth as Mrs Thatcher’s troubleshooter. Manchester city council began to reinvent itself as a go-ahead body, willing to liaise with Tory ministers and big business to make dramatic regeneration possible.
“Up until then, local authorities delivered national services locally,” says Dr Kevin Ward, a reader in geography at the University of Manchester and editor of a book titled, City Of Revolution: Restructuring Manchester. “There was not that much capacity for thinking differently, being entrepreneurial and imaginative locally.”
Since then, Moss Side has had a succession of inner city initiatives. By the end of 2002, an estimated 400m of public and private money had been poured into Moss Side and Hulme. The ugly deck-access Hulme Crescents had been knocked down and the area re-shaped. Enlightened developers, such as Bellway, got busy in the inner city. Housing associations, such as Mosscare, bought up and improved stock in Moss Side.
Just over ten years ago, the Alexandra Park estate was re-modelled, ridding it of the maze of walkways which had made it a haven for the thieves, drug-dealers and gangsters. The estate’s Pepperhill pub – once a centre of gang activity – became the Saltshaker community centre.
“It has been transformed from an estate which was really problematic,” says Moss Side city councillor Alistair Cox, husband of Gabrielle. “Taxi drivers would not take you there at one time, but now it is one of the most popular estates in the city with a long waiting list.”
The redevelopment of the site of Manchester City’s old Maine Road stadium, now in its final planning stages, promises 500 new homes for sale.
“It will be the biggest thing to happen in Moss Side for a long time,” says Coun Cox. “We are hoping that a new school will be included and that a new health centre will be part of the scheme. It will play a very important role in spreading the regeneration over a wider area.”
Some jobs have come to Moss Side, notably with the large Asda store, but nothing like enough. “A lot of the drug dealing which is seen to be the genesis of the guns and gangs stuff was a response to lack of employment opportunities,” says Gabrielle Cox.
Relations between police and the black community have been transformed in those 25 years. Hugely symbolic of this was the statement by then Chief Constable David Wilmot, during the Manchester hearings of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1998, that there was “institutionalised racism” in his force.
Eighteen months ago, Chief Constable Michael Todd introduced a neighbourhood policing structure to Moss Side – an inspector, four sergeants and 35 constables who work solely in that community.
To enthuse local youngsters, each officer carried “Cop Cards” to give out to kids, who would get a prize if they collected the set.
Police meet community representatives every month in an independent advisory group, which can guide police strategy. For instance, during a spate of shootings, the community was asked whether foot patrols by armed officers would put people’s minds at rest. The consensus was no, so the police did not do it. The group also gets prior warning of big police operations in Moss Side, and community representatives can even witness such events, the better to dispel hearsay and rumour.
“The big difference now is that we try to work with the community to police that area. We don’t police the community,” says Chief Supt Thompson.
Gun crime in Moss Side is now significantly down on what it was in the 1990s. The Alexandra Park estate – once a “drug-dealing supermarket for the north west of England”, says Chief Supt Thompson – now has low crime levels.
Gabrielle Cox says police have “changed dramatically” since 1981. Raymond Bell agrees police have now “made proper inroads into the community”. His wife Erinma makes a point of being seen in public with police officers, having a laugh, gradually chipping away at the historic distrust. “Young people don’t believe stop-and- search should not happen, it’s the attitude of the officers which they have a problem with,” she says. “But that’s changing. A lot of work is going on.”
The people who remain to be convinced that the police have changed are the disaffected youth – the children of the rioters’ generation – who still settle their grievances with guns.
Erinma Bell saw such savagery first hand in 1999. Going into a house party with her husband, a friend was gunned down by three hooded youths. The friend recovered, but the youths were never caught.
“We heard later that it was not him they wanted but his half-brother,” says Erinma, explaining the chilling logic behind the attack. “But if they shoot him and he dies, there will be a family funeral, the half-brother will come to the funeral and they can get him.”
This spurred her and Raymond to try to divert young men from guns and gangs. Carisma has organised leadership programmes for young men involved in street crime.
Whatever the remaining problems of Moss Side, all concerned agree that it is not as bad a place as lazy media stereotypes make it. “It was a good community, and it’s still a very good community, even though we might have one or two hiccups,” says Roy Walters, a Moss Side city councillor and former lord mayor.
“I have always said Moss Side is a great place to be, and that’s not being sentimental,” says Gabrielle Cox. “There are some amazing people here.”
This feature was published by the Manchester Evening News on July 6th, 2006.