Having heard the sad news that Darcus Howe died today (aged 74), I am also thinking of Yvonne Ruddock. I taught Yvonne maths and was also her form teacher during her first year at secondary school. She was a lovely and intelligent girl who enjoyed helping others and later established a reputation for nurturing the younger pupils. As an older student she also worked occasional hours after school in a shop across the road to bring in extra money. In 1981, Yvonne was killed on her 16th birthday along with her brother Paul and 11 of her young, mainly teenage friends in what I believe to be the worst racist attack in the UK during my lifetime. Another victim took his own life two years later. The metropolitan police initially made known their suspicions that this had been an arson attack (by means of a firebomb thrown through a downstairs window) but later pressurised young witnesses to support a theory that a fight had broken out at the party.
Victims – Yvonne and her brother Paul
Although there was nothing to suggest that the birthday party was other than a group of young people enjoying themselves, the tone of newspaper articles implied that something illegal had been taking place at the party and conservative Dame Jill Knight made a controversial speech that seemed to condone direct action against noisy parties. According to the Guardian, the pain and anger felt by the local community was compounded by a perception of public indifference and media hostility. According to the Black History Studies website, “When arrests were not forthcoming, the Black community was shocked by the indifference of the white population, and accused the London Metropolitan Police of covering up the cause.” The resultant protests included a march of 20,000 carrying placards such as, “13 Dead, Nothing Said”. Although the march was entirely peaceful, the Sun reported it under the headline, “Day the blacks ran riot in London”.
The protests also led to a mobilisation of Black political activity. A second inquest into the deaths (2004) made use of improved forensic techniques to disprove the ‘fight’ theory and show that the fire started near to a settee. Both inquests found open verdicts and no one has been charged in relation to the fire. Although Darcus may be better known today for his TV work (such as the Ch 4 series “Black on Black” and “Devil’s Advocate”) or as Chair of the Notting Hill Carnival, he was also a voice for the community following the New Cross Fire and he had organised the 20,000 strong march. There will be many tributes to Darcus’ work as an activist elsewhere (such as the links below) but it will always be for his work following the New Cross fire that I am particularly thankful for the life of Darcus Howe.
R.I.P. Darcus Howe – writer, broadcaster and civil liberties campaigner.
[Credits: Darcus Howe photo from NHS website; Photo of Yvonne and Paul from BBC News website]