‘If things had been done right I might have changed earlier’

The attempt to arrest Michael Groce sparked the Brixton riots of 1985. A police raid on his mother Cherry’s home ended with her being shot in the shoulder, the bullet lodging in her spine and her being paralysed from the waist down for the rest of her life. It was his mother’s quiet dignity and wisdom which eventually led Mr Groce to seek a new path, helping young people like him try to find a constructive role in life.

He talked to TOBY PORTER about the miss-steps and the revelations along the way.

Michael Groce admits he was a toerag as a boy.

He was in borstal as a teenager and would eventually amass a total of 50 convictions for a string of offences.

He also had football trials with Reading. He played at left-back while Paul Parker was on the other side of defence.

Parker would go on to play for Manchester United and England.

But Groce was not allowed to continue his trials because of being a young offender.

It was a defining moment, because he thought his talent would get him out of his predicament. Instead, he was labelled.

He would go on to total 15 spells in prison.

But now he has now turned his life around. He won the Cheltenham Poetry Prize in 1998 and is running a community project at the Green Man Skills Centre, formerly a pub in Hinton Road, Loughborough Junction. He has also been helping families affected by the Windrush scandal.

The process of changing took time – and it was his mother who showed him the way.

“I was a likeable rascal,” he said. “I didn’t have the mentality for school. I should have been born in a different time – maybe I could have been a chimney sweep.”

Mr Groce was raised in Tinworth House, in Vauxhall.

He was brought up in residential care from the age of five, spending much of those years in South Vale, where other children were abused, sometimes sexually, and then ignored in several inquiries which followed.

“That was tough,” he said. “I was in a system, which stopped me having an identity. But I was the only black kid – I faced all kinds of racism.

“Football was my survival mechanism – wherever I went, I always had a ball under my arm. I played for Sussex and for Brighton schoolboy sides and London district, when I was sent back here aged 15. People said I could make it as a professional. It helped me come out of my shell.

“But I wasn’t allowed out of Portland borstal in Dorset to sign for Reading. I felt properly let down – it seemed like a way of controlling me.”

He came back to London and was soon involved in street gangs.

“London was a massive jolt – the boys were nuts here,” he said. “They threw chairs at teachers. They decided I was unruly, too. I didn’t have the mentality to go to school.

“I lived in Dalberg Road – it was all gangs there then. We were the first skinhead revivalists, in black suits, ties and white shirts. We protected each other. I got arrested a few times.”

But then came the moment which would define much of the rest of his life.

It started when he had a row with his girlfriend at his home.

He recalled: “A friend of mine had been arrested and I knew I would be a witness. When the police came for me, I pointed a gun at an officer. I wanted to escape. I was going to hand myself in but did not want it to be at that moment. I was a fan of James Cagney and began to wonder what he would do. I just copied him.

“That’s when I went on the run. I did not take on the enormity of what I had done. It was not until mum got shot and it took on a life of its own, that I felt engulfed in feelings of guilt and thoughts of vengeance.”

He handed himself in.

“Not being able to cry ate me up,” he said. “My immediate concern was mum. But my anger was focused on it being my fault. I hit rock bottom.

“Everyone said she would die soon. We wanted to make her life comfortable. That went on for five years. Then 10. Then 15.

“That was when I had a lightbulb moment. I looked at her and realised she had taken a bullet for me. And I had not shown her any indication that it had been worth it.

“I wanted to make her proud so that she would feel what she had been through would have been worth it. She was the only one who knew what went on and she did not say anything. That says a lot about her character. The way she conducted herself inspired me. She didn’t shout from the rooftops ‘I’m innocent’.

“It would have been easy to be bitter and hold onto the anger. One day I was rubbing my head and she asked why. I said I was stressed. She just said ‘Don’t let anger eat you up like that’.

“She had enough happen to her to be a campaigner but she just said ‘It’s fate – leave it. The past is history, the future is a mystery but the present is a gift – don’t look too far behind or in front because that is how things get done’.

“I loved that humility.”

Mr Groce’s self-hatred took the form of being a nightmare for the mothers of his children – and a cocaine habit.

In 1987 an Old Bailey jury had acquitted inspector Douglas Lovelock – the policeman who actually fired the shot – of inflicting unlawful and malicious grievous bodily harm.

An inquest jury in 2014, three years after Cherry’s death aged 63, concluded: “Dorothy Groce was shot by police during a planned, forced entry raid at her home, and her subsequent death was contributed to by failures in the planning and implementation of the raid.”

The jury found there were eight failures in total made by police. These included failures to properly brief officers that Michael Groce was no longer wanted by police. They also failed to adequately check who lived at the property, including women and children, and to carry out adequate observations on the house.

Pathologist Dr Robert Chapman said during a post-mortem examination that he found small metal fragments from the bullet still lodged in the base of her spine.

He said: “She had a history of diabetes. There was clinical evidence of sepsis and acute renal failure and some evidence of bronchial pneumonia.

“All of these conditions, with the exception of diabetes, all related directly from the previous injuries – that is the traumatic paraplegia.”

Pressed by Dexter Dias QC, representing the Groce family, who asked whether the “cause of death goes back to the shooting”, Dr Chapman replied: “Yes.”

Met Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe made a public apology after the inquest, conceding that the shooting was “preventable” and that “irreparable damage” had been caused.

He said: “I apologise unreservedly for our failings. I also apologise for the inexcusable fact that it has taken until now for the Met to make this public apology.

“Sadly, this means that the person who most deserved to hear the apology is no longer here.

“However, Cherry’s children, her friends and others are here and they, too, deserve an apology. I am sorry for the years of suffering which our actions and omissions caused to your family.”

Police had been searching for Mr Groce in connection with an armed robbery. No charges over the robbery or subsequent riot were brought against him.

“I remember thinking in 1985 that this would follow me all my life – that I was to blame,” said Mr Groce. “I am still bitter about that.

“All of my partners have thought it was time to move on but I always had issues. They all thought I was on the point of changing. But maybe there was some comfort for me in being distant.

“When the inquest said the police raid was at fault, it was a huge relief. Not that I am innocent – I was a rascal. But if things had been done right, I might have changed earlier. It eats me up that they were taking the piss so I could not move on. That’s why I was not at the inquest. I was not interested in the outcome at the time.

“I was just sorry mum did not live to get that apology.

“I thought about whether I should sue. In the end, I thought I would leave it.

“But the process of rehabilitation was a long one. Mum not dying saved my life. If she had died I would never have got over it.

“That was when I decided to take up poetry properly.”

He had written letters for other prisoners in jail. “No one expected me to do that,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to do something obvious. People said I would never manage it. I didn’t care. I had always read poetry as a boy and had a volume of poems in prison but kept it to myself.

“I had no form of identification like a passport so I could not get a proper job. I just thought I would see what I could make happen with what I had left.

“Mum said I should get a job in McDonalds but I wanted a different lifestyle.”

Part of the process was caring for his son, Jordaon, whose mum Shelly was diagnosed with cancer and eventually died.

“I had never experienced death before,” said Mr Groce. “He carried me through. And when my mum died later, we had both lost our mums so had that common experience.

“Now I am hoping I can mend with my children. They have lost out because of me not being in their lives.

“My two daughters, Charlene and Charmaine, sat me down and opened up about how they felt.

“Now they work at my office – Charmaine on a campaign to keep girls out of gangs  and Charlene on a cosmetics company called Nizz.

“The last four years have been the best of my life.”

He runs an ex-offenders training programme which targets young people, often men, who are reliant on benefits and helps them set up their own businesses and become self-sufficient.

He also runs courses, Groce Conduct and Unlock, aiming to coach young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and long-term dependency on benefits to full-time, sustainable self-employment.

He is the managing director of Rooted and Booted Ltd, which specialises in sustainable development, communication and justice – you can find him on LinkedIn.

His newest commitment is to the Green Party – he is standing at this week’s local elections in Coldharbour ward.

“We have had Labour in power in Lambeth,” he said. “It is time to see what someone else can do. Agriculture has been in my family since slavery – it was us who were cultivating the cotton.

“I want people to see my name on the ballot paper and to think ‘That’s the bloke that started the riots. He is showing there’s another way’.”

Major riots break out in Brixton, South London, after an earlier shooting incident involving the police.

Seeking Justice for a generation
Seek justice from this cause
In solidarity we all signed petitions
To get justice for the shipped and assured
Invited here, settled and formed families
worked hard and help build communities
They loved it and lovingly they cared
1st Windrush Generation embedded here
Let the Windrush truths
Sail down the passage of justice
People need to pay
I swear, and I swear
People need pay
Seek justice for the anguished, anxious and poor
Detained, deporting and those shown the door
Retract Theresa May’s Common Wealth ruling
From a government showing hostile claws
Threaten, cast out, being treated wrong
With hostile talk, told “Prove you belong”. 
Those that loved and lovingly cared
2nd Windrush generation caught in the snare
Let the Windrush truths
Sail down the passage of justice
People need to pay
I swear, and I swear 
People need pay
So, not British …  No … then prove it
suffering the hostilities of British injustice
So, not British by a new law … then remove it
A generation is suffering, hostile discrimination
Though born, schooled and settled here
Windrush square embeds, they belong here
lots of things in common but not the wealth
3rd Windrush generation uprooted by sheath
Let the Windrush truths
Sail down the passage of justice
People need to pay
I swear and I swear
People need pay
Let the Windrush truths

Sail down the passage of justice, a poem by Michael Groce dedicated to the Windrush generation



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