George Rhoden had been working as a police constable for less than a year when, in April 1981, he boarded a Green Goddess fire engine taking Met officers from Piccadilly Circus to Brixton. An extended stop and search campaign, known as Operation Swamp, had pushed an already fraught relationship between police and locals in this diverse area to breaking point.
When officers were spotted trying to help an injured black man into a car, their actions were misinterpreted, triggering three days of unrest that would see 82 arrested, 279 police officers and an estimated 45 members of the public injured, and 145 businesses damaged. One of few black officers working for the Met at the time, Rhoden’s story is among several powerful first-person testimonies spotlighted in Uprising, the BBC’s new three-part documentary co-directed by Oscar winner Sir Steve McQueen and James Rogan.
A factual companion piece to Sir Steve’s anthology series Small Axe, which dramatised the experiences of London’s West Indian communities from the Sixties to the Eighties, Uprising focuses on three defining events from 1981. It begins with the New Cross Fire, which killed 13 black teenagers at a house party in January, featuring powerful testimonies from survivors; it then explores the Black People’s Day of Action, which saw 20,000 people from all over the UK march in solidarity with the fire victims and their families, and culminates with an episode on the riots and their aftermath.
These events would go on to shape race relations in the UK, but have rarely been explored on primetime television. “They were pivotal moments that somehow got brushed under the carpet [for] the wider public,” Sir Steve said at the series’ launch. “And they need to come out into the light. These are historical moments not just for black British people but for British people in general.”
When the show’s producers got in touch to ask if he would share his experiences, their project “touched a nerve” with Rhoden, now 59. “That story’s never been told,” he says. “It’s come to the forefront of people’s minds as a result of what else has happened — George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter.” Filming, he adds, “opened up some things that I had actually parked away and compartmentalised”.
His experience of the riots felt like “a double-edged sword”, he explains. On the way to Brixton he could overhear fellow officers using racial slurs; when they arrived, the protesters targeted Rhoden as a traitor.
“My confusion was ‘OK, I’m getting [racist behaviour] internally [within the police] most days actually, and then externally, my own people have recognised me within the Green Goddesses and are wanting to kill me,” he says. “They targeted the efforts to smash up the coaches and if it wasn’t for the officers,” who then protected him, “I don’t think I would have been able to get out of that coach alive.”
Rhoden grew up in Enfield Town and joined the police cadets aged 16. He’d watched police dramas on TV growing up and won a prize for a school project about the local force, which led him to sign up, with the support of his parents. “I just said I wanted to help my community, and I want to catch criminals — a skinny 16 year old!” he says.
As well as being on the scene for the riots, he was also on the police line at Blackfriars Bridge on the Black People’s Day of Action. When he was invited to the production company’s office to watch some of the archive footage they had gathered, the filmmakers bemoaned the fact that they hadn’t been able to find any pictures of him in the crowd to accompany his testimony — until they rolled the tape, and “all of a sudden I saw this black officer and I said ‘hold on, stop, that’s me’ and they froze it. I was absolutely in shock”.
The worst events to police at the time, he recalls, would be National Front marches. “They’re shouting these racist things, and you’re marching right next to them... and on the other side you’ve got the [anti-fascists] shouting their stuff.” When the protesters tried to break through the barriers and fight the NF marchers, it was Rhoden’s job as a police officer to block them. “They’re calling me Judas, traitor, all the names under the sun because I’m doing my job,” he recalls, adding: “I don’t think any white police officer really understood the difficulties of those types of public order events.”
Before arriving on the scene for events like these, there would sometimes be racist behaviour. Rhoden remembers eating in the communal dining room at Buckingham Gate halls before heading to police a march. “I’d probably see one or two other black faces in other units, way in the distance… you’d be getting a look from nearly every other police officer.”
He would usually sit with his team, but “this one time, there were no more spaces on this bench. So I had to go to another table which had a space… they all just looked at me as I went to put my food down on the bench and they moved, the two officers at the end shuffled along so the space no longer existed. So these are the individuals that are going to police an NF march, and this is what they’re doing before I even got on the coach. Some of them I’d seen with NF badges on the inside of their jackets — they’d show me that before we got on the coach, so they made me aware.”
Events like these, he says, “did make me question whether I was doing the right thing. And it took some time to process because there were no therapeutic avenues… no way to officially offload or share your experiences with people who are like-minded or the same colour skin as yourself, because there were no other officers”.
Rhoden went on to have a career full of firsts: he was part of the Met’s first black undercover unit and became the first black British hostage negotiator. He also established and chaired the Met’s Black Police Association, and was invited to meet with then-president Barack Obama in 2009, before retiring in 2011. He enjoyed his police career, he says, but realises he is now “in a position… to enlighten those who think that we have come an extremely long way in race relations. Now we can see we haven’t”.
Though the police are now “more aware of cultural differences than they have ever been before”, he says, there are still “pockets of unprofessionalism… I’d say to the people who keep saying there’s a small minority of officers that are doing it, it’s a culture that we’ve got to change within the police services and this comes from the top”.
He is concerned, too, that politicians’ failure to “take a strong stance” on racism has given some people “the confidence to just be overtly racist. We see it on social media and we see it every day as we walk [around]... Stronger words and leadership needs to be taken by the Government in challenging and dealing with racism”.
Watching the younger generation drive change, though, has been heartening, he says, citing “all the placards and positive notes” recently placed on a vandalised mural of footballer Marcus Rashford. “What is great about this generation is that they’re coming together… they’re willing to stand up and be counted.”
Uprising is on BBC One tonight at 9pm and continues July 21-22