Lewisham East MP JANET DABY was just 10 and living nearby when the New Cross Fire tragedy claimed 13 lives.
Here, 40 years after the horror, she talks of the trauma in the community and the lasting scars it left – as well as the resolve and determination which arose out of it.
Growing up off Creek Road in Greenwich, I used to get the 177 bus with my mum to visit her twin brother and his family to Lambeth every week or so.
As a 10 year old I remember looking out of the bus window riding through New Cross, and seeing the remnants of the fire that tore through a family home 40 years ago.
13 young lives were lost as a consequence of the fire during Yvonne Ruddock’s 16 th birthday party. They were young Black lives innocent of any wrongdoing.
The victims were only a few years older than my siblings at the time. So many other youngsters who survived, were left with severe burns and emotional scars.
One young person later committed suicide making it 14 people who tragically died.
My whole generation of Caribbean children growing up in South London will remember the experience of these very early, painful traumas. Memories like the New Cross Fire, which we have marked throughout January, shaped us into the people we are now.
We learned young that our lives were not as valuable – the authorities did not see us as equal – and the justice system did not exist to serve all people.
The fire was not a freak event; it took place within a background of regular, intense racism against the Black community in London.
It was evident in the 1970s and 80s that the British National Party (BNP) had infiltrated all areas of the public service with their anti-Black hatred, and the unfairness the Black community suffered led to a growing sense of mistrust towards the criminal justice system, from community officers to high court judges.
In this particular incident police interrogated teenagers coming out of the horrific fire as though they were criminals. They fabricated a story about there being a fight in the party and coerced the young people into admitting it, when in fact no such fight had taken place.
They failed to conduct a fair and thorough investigation into the cause of the fire, although many suspected it was the result of a racist arson attack as firebombs were not uncommon at that time.
No public condolences were given; the Government showed no care. “13 dead, nothing said” was my community’s motto, as we saw the wreckage of this huge tragedy and no sign of an appropriate response from those in Authority.
I do believe something positive came from the aftermath of that fire: Lewisham’s Black community became united in organising against the injustice they were facing. After decades of physical assaults, verbal abuse, discrimination by public services, schooling, housing, employment … this fire was a final straw.
Black Londoners, young and old, finally stood up and took to the streets in peaceful protest to demand fairness and justice.
The need for protest has sadly increased, rather than decreased, in the years since. We have seen far too many Black people murdered because of their skin colour. We’ve seen mothers weeping on TV, begging for change.
We’ve seen tower blocks burn down with precious souls in them, and a whole generation of British citizens told they need to go back to the commonwealth countries they left decades ago. How so very painful it is, to reflect on the seemingly weaker value of the Black life in our country.
From the terrified teenagers convinced to lie in 1981, to innocent young men being singled out and searched in 2021, you could say little has changed in the treatment of Black young people in particular.
No matter how much confidence parents, teachers and youth workers can instil in kids, the impact of systemic racism can tear it down.
I just hope children today will look back on the history of Black activism and see the example set; one that is peaceful, political, but powerful. We have so much more to achieve in the fight for equality, and we need to do this for our children.
The New Cross fire remains an open wound for so many families and activists as there are still no answers and no closure to the events of that night.
We don’t know who caused the fire; who failed higher up in the Police and the Home Office; we don’t know the real psychological impacts to those who survived, and we don’t know what would have become of those who didn’t.
But there is one thing I do know for sure: my community will not stop fighting against injustice. I welcome and encourage others to join us.
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