BY Rianna Jade Parker in Opinion | 16 JUN 20

‘The People’s Account’ of State Violence in Britain

A rarely seen documentary shows the UK's Black communities in the wake of two tragic incidences of police brutality towards unarmed Black mothers in 1985

BY Rianna Jade Parker in Opinion | 16 JUN 20

Between 1979 and 1990, as the UK’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher instigated a long-running feud with the BBC over its political coverage. In particular, she opposed its alleged leftist perspective on the Falklands War, The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the US bombing of Libya in 1986. One of Thatcher’s strategies entailed breaking the 27-year duopoly of the BBC and ITV by creating Channel 4 in 1982, which prioritized young independent producers. In doing so, she inadvertently created a broadcasting avenue for Black filmmakers working on the margins of the television and film industries. With the support of the Greater London Council – at the time led by left-wing politician Ken Livingstone and disbanded by Thatcher in 1986 – several Black British film workshops emerged: Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa Film and Video.

Named after a 1977 film by Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembène, which depicts the Senegalese people’s struggle to preserve their traditions in the face of colonial oppression, Ceddo translates loosely as ‘the resistance of a culture’. The original members of Ceddo Film and Video Workshop – Milton Bryan, Imruh Bakari Caesar, Roy Cornwall, Glenn Ujebe Masokoane and Menelik Shabazz, later joined by female members D. Elmina Davis and Valerie Thomas – distinguished themselves from other collectives in their commitment to portraying African and Caribbean lives in Britain. In Welcome to the Jungle (1994), cultural theorist Kobena Mercer appropriately referred to this filmmaking cohort as ‘cinematic activists’.

Overturned and burnt out cars in Broadwater Farm Estate on the day after the riots, 7 October 1985. Courtesy: © Wikimedia Commons

The People’s Account (1985) is a documentary rich with oral histories and first-person accounts of the Broadwater Farm uprising, which took place on a housing estate in Tottenham, north London. Still rarely seen, the film opens with a narrator grounding you with a simple but impactful truth: ‘Three major uprisings rocked London and Birmingham in late 1985. Each was sparked by an act of police lawlessness against a Black woman.’

On 5 October, Floyd Jarrett was arrested in north London for driving his car with an out-of-date tax disc. The police quickly assumed he’d stolen the car, charging him with theft and assault. Hours later, in an attempt to further implicate Floyd, more officers arrived at the house of his mother, Cynthia Jarrett, on Broadwater Farm Estate, barging past her as they entered. She suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed in the middle of the invasion. (This incident occurred just one week after the police shot Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce in her home, while looking to arrest her son, Michael, in relation to an alleged firearms offence – an event that had incited days of disturbances in Brixton, south London).

With their flamboyant exertions of power, heavy-handed detention methods and routine abuse of sus laws to stop and interrogate Black people in public, London’s Metropolitan Police force fostered a climate of fear that haunted Black communities. Following the three-day eruption that had taken place in Brixton four years earlier, the UK government commissioned a public enquiry, led by Lord Scarman, which concluded the 1981 conflict had arisen from social deprivation and intense policing – not sporadic criminality, in other words, but a violent, state-led oppression. This grievance was felt by channels of Black people across Britain.

The People’s Account, 1985, film still. Courtesy: Ceddo Film & Video and Channel Four

Inexpensively shot on Digital Betacam film, The People’s Account provides a counter-discourse to the sensationalist media coverage of British newsrooms. Ceddo’s cinematic methodology was one of minimal intervention, lending its platform to a community of determined and self-actualized Black women, men and their families, who needed little prompt to articulate their passions and pain. Although the film had been cleared by lawyers, the Independent Broadcasting Authority took issue with the phrases ‘a victim of police racism’ and ‘a classic example of self-defence by a community’, demanding editorial changes. The Ceddo members refused to cede to censorship, so Channel 4 declined to air The People’s Account and it was never shown on British television.

Collating a mosaic of sound and text, the film intersperses newsreels with still photography and personal recollections chronicling key events. The demonstration outside Tottenham police station on the morning of 6 October 1985 had bubbled then boiled over by sunset. Footage from Broadwater residents documents the housing estate under siege, in combat and ablaze. Once the smoke had cleared, 362 people were arrested – some in connection with the death of PC Keith Blakelock – only 195 of whom were released without charge.

The People’s Account, 1985, film still. Courtesy: Ceddo Film & Video and Channel Four

At the Broadwater Farm Enquiry press conference, members of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign along with Floyd Jarrett and Bernie Grant, one of the UK’s first Black MPs, discuss the Metropolitan Police’s culture of vendetta as well as its feeble attempts to retrain police cadets and recruit Black officers. Millard Scott, a member of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign, is abundantly clear when describing the insurgence: ‘It wasn’t a riot; it was a civil war, right. Whereby no quarter was going to be taken and no quarter was gonna be given because the people dem feel as if they have no choice but to fight.’ Now aged 62, Millard was tasered by police in April this year, during an orchestrated sweep of his home as they were looking to arrest his son. His screams for help and convulsing body were captured on a police officer’s body cam.

In July 2021, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Stafford Scott and Kamara Scott, who co-founded the community group Tottenham Rights (previously Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign), will present an exhibition illustrating the institutional, cultural and political shifts since the nationwide uprisings in 1985. Featured will be Forensic Architecture’s 3D video investigation into the country’s biggest riots of recent times, which took place in 2011 in response to the police killing of Tottenham native Mark Duggan. Using hundreds of publicly available eyewitness testimonies, videos and images to examine the moments surrounding Duggan’s death, the research collective has reconstructed the scene to create a virtual environment that completely dispels the 2014 inquest verdict, which reduced his murderers’ charges to ‘lawful killing’. Forensic Architecture’s findings were key in the financial settlement for the Duggan family’s civil claim against the Metropolitan Police in 2019.

The People’s Account, 1985, film still. Courtesy: Ceddo Film & Video and Channel Four

Currently, I’m witnessing the most widespread rebellious confrontation against white supremacy in my lifetime, alongside a pandemic that has restricted us from our networks of care for months. As distressing and violent the images we see are, we must not be disarmed nor cower: never has it been more urgent to squarely address the scale of racial injustice in the UK. With a vigilant and sustained principle of opposition, we can strategize our survival and ultimate triumph as Black Britons.

Critic and novelist James Baldwin ends his 1970 open letter to activist Angela Davis, who was incarcerated at the time for alleged capital crimes, with a punching statement about the need for people of conscience to act: ‘If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own – which it is – and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night. Therefore: peace.'

'War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights', curated by Tottenham Rights and Rianna Jade Parker, will be on view at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts from 6 July – 26 September 2021.

Main Image: A man and a little girl walk past burned-out cars the day after the riot of 6th October 1985 on the Broadwater Farm housing estate, Tottenham, London. Photograph: Julian Herbert/Getty Images

Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, curator and researcher. She is a founding member of the interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and a contributing editor of frieze. Her book A Brief History of Black British Art is forthcoming from Tate Publishing. She lives in London, UK.