At 02:15 on Monday 6 July 1981, Merseyside police officers fired between 25–30 CS gas canisters into a crowd of people for the first time in the UK outside of Northern Ireland. The gas succeeded in dispersing the crowds…this incident marked the height of the now infamous, Toxteth Riots. Lasting nine days, the riots were part of the greatest civil disruption ever seen in mainland Britain, with Toxteth being the most violent of clashes across the country. Such rioting was fuelled by the continued mistreatment of the area’s black community by police officers, with locals citing the continued use of unfair “stop-and-search” laws as reasoning behind the unrest. In total; 500 arrests were made, 468 police injured, 70 buildings demolished and over 100 cars destroyed.
In an era of ‘managed decline’, miner’s strikes and Thatcherite divisions in both politics and society, it is important to reflect on this history with a contextual knowledge only available to us now. Many of the voices from this era have never been heard, too concerned by their safety to speak, or simply without a pedestal on which to orate their experiences.
Now, in a new film containing never-before-seen footage from the ITN archives, Sin Bin of the City will attempt to share the unheard stories and experiences of the local community at the time. With original interviews, recorded almost forty years after the events that took place, the lost voices of Toxteth will be heard.
Coming to Constellations this Wednesday, James Arthur Armstrong’s Sin Bin of the City will showcase lost narratives of five different witnesses, each with five unique experiences of this much-contested history. Whilst some of the film’s volunteers wish to remain anonymous, others have shared both their experience and identity. Many were active within their community and have experienced racial tension and police violence from both sides of the law.
Such a film, one would think, would have to have come from within the community. Instead, as James tells us, his interest in the Toxteth Riots came through his study of racial tension in America:
“In 2014, a friend contacted me and told me about a competition he thought I might’ve been interested in called Sheffield Doc Fest. The competition involved ITN opening their archives and allowing people to make a short film with anything from their vaults…with their archive going back to the 1930s.
The film I made surrounded the then-recent stories in Ferguson, Missouri and the shooting of Mike Brown. There are a lot of similarities between how the American police force interact with members of the public and the story of the Toxteth riots. That was the main inspiration from project to project.
Before the short-film reached the finals of the Doc Fest, I had a meeting with the competition’s director. He asked me if I had any ideas for future films. I pitched him two; one of them being a Toxteth Riots-focused film and he told me that he wanted to make it happen! After this, I reached out to a number of production companies and ended up working alongside Cosmic Joke.
A lot of people didn’t really want to talk to me about their experiences initially, possibly because I do not share a history with them. I wanted to do the story justice but it was about earning that right from those involved. One guy that we spoke to was hesitant just to give me his phone number, I had to go and meet him and explain myself. The whole film is just audio, there’s no talking heads because a lot didn’t want their face to be shown. They don’t want to be incriminated by this history, even after all these years.
If you can’t see a person, it is also harder to pass judgement on their character. A lot of these people have had pretty tough experiences, they’ve fought a lot just to have a simple everyday life. I can understand in this context why they didn’t want their faces to be shown.
We also bring the film into the modern day, and talk about what Toxteth and the local community is like in 2017. The area has improved, but probably not as much as it should have done. They’ve painted the edges of Toxteth, made it look nice, but when you go into the heart of the area there are still entire streets that remain boarded up.
There’s an unnamed character in the film that gives a monologue, stating that the local community must make improvements from within, because nobody else is going to help them. If you look deep enough into Toxteth, there’s so much going on. There’s such a sense of community there; Granby Street Market, Brazilica and so much more. They have the know-how, they just seem to still be invisible to some people.”
Turning his focus to the exhibition, which will run for a total of three weeks in the Constellations Cafe/Bar, James tells us of how one interviewee supplied him with: “A treasure trove of newspaper clippings and photographs that will be on display. These will be accompanied by all the audio we weren’t able to fit into the film, having gathered over five hours of recordings.”
As dark as the history is, James is seeking to put a positive spin on this story…To give these people a voice and provide a fresh, first-hand account of the Toxteth Riots.
Sin Bin of the City will be screening from 8pm in the Constellations Cafe/Bar, Wednesday 8th November. Watch the trailer below…