In 1981, a blaze killed 13 black teenagers at a London house party in a suspected racist attack. What can be learned from the legacy of the outcry and activism that followed?
Although it happened before I was born, the New Cross fire in 1981 and the National Black People’s Day of Action that followed are landmarks in my identity; growing up in a Caribbean family in the 1980s, they are part of our collective memory. New Cross is fundamental because it contains all the features of racism that black people in Britain have long suffered: the racial violence, police abuse, neglect by the state; in turn, it tells us of the community’s resistance. Forty years on, recalling the events seems vital, especially in this moment of renewed optimism after the Black Lives Matter protests, because the legacies of New Cross still resonate.
On 18 January 1981, a fire tore through 439 New Cross Road in south-east London, where Yvonne Ruddock was celebrating her 16th birthday with about 60 guests. Wayne Hayes, who was 17 at the time, recalled the carnage in an interview for HuffPost last year. He described how dozens of teenagers and young people, trapped upstairs in the house after the stairs collapsed, resorted to jumping out of second-floor windows, how it was so hot “people’s skin was peeling back” and how in the aftermath he had 140 skin grafts. He shattered 163 bones and has been classed as disabled ever since. Thirteen young people were killed, more than 50 injured and one guest – Anthony Berbeck – died two years later at the age of 20. Many believe he took his own life as a result of the trauma of that night.