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30 years since shooting of Cherry Groce
1985: police murder sparks Brixton riot
Steve Nally, Lambeth Socialist Party
As market stalls were setting up and shops opened for another busy Saturday in Brixton, south London, a nearby police raid was to lead to the riot of 28 September 1985.
This was an unannounced armed raid looking for a suspected robber who wasn't there. It would end in the shooting and permanent disablement of a local mother, Cherry Groce.
Cherry was shot at home, in front of her young children, which caused immediate outrage in the local community. This included local residents in the Socialist Party (then in the Labour Party and known as Militant) who had gone to speak with a crowd that had formed.
The anger was palpable and understandable - an innocent mother had been shot. The Metropolitan Police had well and truly crossed a line.
Quite quickly this small crowd developed into a growing protest outside Brixton police station, which riot police then attempted to attack. Local youth fought back, and widespread rioting broke out across Brixton. At one stage the police station was set on fire.
Once again, Brixton was witnessing major riots - just four years after the events of 1981. Both were directly caused by the actions of the police.
Just a week after the riots, the Jarrett family from Tottenham, north London, lost their mother, Cynthia, at the hands of the police. This murder led to the Tottenham riots.
In 1981, Militant supporters played a key role in helping to set up the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. In 1985 we played a similar role.
As the riot in Brixton subsided, we met and produced a leaflet overnight. Although Brixton was sealed off by police we got the leaflet out on the streets by Sunday morning.
Our leaflet demanded justice for Cherry Groce, and genuine democratic community control and accountability of the police. We also explained that rioting was not a solution to the problems that faced people in the borough of Lambeth. Margaret Thatcher's Tory government was presiding over unemployment, poverty and cuts.
This fast response was widely welcomed and provoked many serious discussions. The next day, over 140 attended a very sombre but focussed Militant public meeting in central Brix-ton. A defence campaign was set up. It aimed at getting support from the Lambeth workers' movement while engaging lawyers to represent people.
At the same time, young Militant supporters in Vauxhall Labour Party Young Socialists organised another meeting on the Cowley Estate where the shooting had taken place. Over 100 attended this heart-breaking meeting to hear speakers from both the Groce and Jarrett families.
Militant's swift and confident action was crucial, and built up to a later march of nearly 10,000 to central London. Marchers demanded justice for the Groce family - justice that took decades to materialise.
Although the officer who shot Cherry Groce was tried for malicious wounding, he was eventually acquitted. The Metropolitan Police continued to evade responsibility for its brutal actions.
Finally, in March 2014, they apologised. Sadly this was far too late for Cherry, who died before her time in 2011. Just imagine the searing pain of never receiving an apology for police behaviour that had paralysed you for life. Just imagine it.
At her inquest in July 2014, the jury rightly concluded the shooting had contributed to the untimely death of Cherry Groce. Another apology followed. But although some compensation was paid out, the Metropolitan Police has never accepted liability.
Thirty years on, and the same problems that existed in 1985 exist today - only worse. Poverty and despair are rife in Lambeth. This is despite the claims of a vicious, right-wing Labour council more interested in gentrifying Brixton than resolving the enormous difficulties facing the local community. Riots exploded across the capital in 2011, and the conditions which led to them have only gotten worse.
And thirty years on the police are, if anything, less accountable for their actions and approach to Lambeth's population. This was evidenced by the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube in 2005. (See socialistparty.org.uk, including '2005: Jean Charles de Menezes shooting - still demanding justice'.)
In 1985 we argued that only socialism - ordinary people taking ownership and democratic control of society - can fundamentally alter people's lives and the life of their community. That is even truer today.
Below is an edited version of an eyewitness account published in Militant, forerunner of the Socialist, in October 1985.
The police called it an 'accident'. They raided the home at 7am on Saturday looking for Cherry Groce's son Michael. As she walked down the stairs policemen kicked in the door.
Mrs Groce turned in fright to move back upstairs. She never made it. A trigger-happy policeman shot her in the back, possibly paralysing her for life.
Other police rushed her, demanding to know where her son was. It was obvious that they had come armed intent on shooting the son, but had made a 'mistake'. Even Starsky and Hutch usually warn people before breaking into premises.
The mood of the people in Normandy Road where the Groces lived was of solemn sympathy for the family, but many people thought something should be done. So a crowd marched on the police station armed with bricks.
The police were forced to retreat. It was about that time that shops like Tandy and Burton began to be looted by black and white alike. People threw out clothes and luxury goods to local people who had no other chance of getting them on social security or low wages.
But the police vans were the target, seen as the symbol of repression. One van charged at local people; it was either run or be run over.
One Brixton resident commented: "They want it to be like America or South Africa, where the police can shoot anyone they like."
- No cover up!
- Democratic control over the police - through elected local authority police committees, with control over resources, discipline, training and day-to-day policy
- Kick out the Tories!
- Return a government committed to a socialist programme to solve the problems of poverty and mass unemployment
- Guaranteed jobs for all workers and youth
- A massive programme of public works
In The Socialist 23 September 2015:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party youth and students
Socialist Party reports and campaigns