REVIEW: Handsworth Riots 1985 – Pogus Caesar’s photographs hold a tragic mirror to our age
Birmingham artist and photographer Pogus Caesar has released a new book, ‘Handsworth Riots 1985’, which revisits a notorious chapter in Birmingham’s history.
In the publication, Caesar’s material showcases powerful and visceral moments of social chaos on the streets of Birmingham which were ignited by a Molotov cocktail of racism, poverty, and political unrest that continue to plague and haunt the modern world.
“How could a tiny spark turn into such a gigantic flame?”
These are the words by photographer Pogus Caesar in his introduction to a new publication of material from the notorious Handsworth Riots in 1985 which left two people dead and many injured after tensions with the police erupted into full scale rioting.
The prophetic words that introduce Caesar’s searing photographs draw tragic parallels to our troubled times after the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minnesota and the anger and riots that ensued.
The book seems to make a potent and valid suggestion that the factors and ingredients which sparked off the Handsworth Riots such as institutionalised racism, mass unemployment, extreme poverty and deprivation in working class areas, lack of investment in deprived neighbourhoods, and political unrest exploited by extreme far right groups, still form a part of everyday modern life.
Caesar was raised in Birmingham and his material often documents and tells the stories of the city through its diverse citizens and the ever changing landscape of the city as older buildings are demolished to make room for new developments.
Speaking to I Am Birmingham, he said, “The archival photographs taken during the 1985 Handsworth Riots are a document and timely reminder that communities, irrespective of race, creed or colour will stand against a system they consider has let them down.
“As photographers we retain a personal right to explore and document the world through our personal lens.”
This is an artist who is fearless in shining a light on people whose experiences remain on the peripheries of social history. The stories of immigrants, their fears and hopes, and their positive contribution to the city, both economic and cultural, are part of the material that Caesar has been filming, painting, and photographing for many years.
His camera has become a tool that has documented the social history of Birmingham’s Black and South Asian communities over the decades. His work has been acquired by various institutions including Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
His latest book called ‘Handsworth Riots 1985’ is both pertinent and prescient as it deals with themes that continue to hit the headlines. The daring collection of photographs are published in a raw and authentic manner by Café Royal Books (CRB). This publishing house releases rare and important photographic material that brings to light archive material which depicts events and subjects that the mainstream press and media often overlook.
Craig Atkinson, editor and founder of CRB, ensures the books are printed by small family run firms and the paper used for the books is both ethically sourced and environmentally friendly.
Explaining the core ethos at CRB, Atkinson explains, “I aim to make the publications affordable, democratic, utilitarian and useful, without fuss or decoration. The images, history and the cultural archive are the focus, helped by, but not overwhelmed by the design.”
Caesar’s book beautifully illustrates these aims. The publication is a slim volume that resembles a fanzine but it packs a powerful and devastating punch with photographs that linger in the mind.
The limited edition book is printed on non-glossy paper that looks and feels like a gritty publication from the 1980s era in which the photographs were snapped. The pages have weight and a matte quality to them which befits Caesar’s gritty monochrome photography.
The A5 size of the book offers a dynamic and intimate immediacy and transports the mind to the era of Thatcherite England when unemployment reached epidemic proportions and institutionalised racism was practiced blatantly in broad daylight.
The racial tensions and economic uncertainty of the UK in the mid-1980s are things that continue to infect and plague the world in the grim social and political landscape of 2020.
The events captured by Caesar in the book relate to an incident that occurred in the days following a glorious carnival weekend in September 1985.
Caesar explains in the book that on the Monday following the annual Handsworth Carnival, which had been hailed “an overwhelming success”, a Black man was reportedly stopped by police around 5pm for an alleged motoring offence in Lozells Road.
Local people, which included South Asian and Black Handsworth residents who had witnessed the incident, asked the arresting officers to let the man go. The police bluntly refused and the situation rapidly flared up as existing racial tensions and mounting social deprivation fuelled the anger into a full scale riot.
The area was soon ablaze as cars and buildings were set on fire and shops looted for food and other household essentials. The streets were littered with overturned vehicles, glass and bricks carpeted the pavements and roads, and plumes of smoke snaked across the landscape.
Handsworth resembled a war-torn neighbourhood not dissimilar from the troubles in Belfast or Gaza, with helmeted police units in army-style formations marching through the debris strewn streets.
It is estimated that over 1,500 police officers, including fire and ambulance crews, flooded into the Handsworth area in an attempt to douse the flames of anger and resentment that tore through the streets.
The shocking events of those two days of rage in Birmingham made headlines around the world.
Caesar’s raw and rugged photographs capture the feral energy of the Handsworth Riots. These are not staged or posed photographs. This is photojournalism devoid of any camera trickery or clever editing or lighting. Some of the photographs display grain, a fuzziness, or the blur of movement as the camera captures the chaos and primal energy erupting across the streets of Handsworth.
Caesar’s eye and framing is placed firmly on the events unfolding on the other side of his camera lens. Each moment captured and frozen, each emotion still crackling loudly across the monochrome surface of the photographs.
Although decades have lapsed since the photographs were taken the remarkable images still convey themes that are immediately familiar and recognisable from the headlines that form part of the nightly news in the modern world.
In one startling and highly charged photograph which bristles with tension, Caesar’s camera captures the moment when a couple of Black Handsworth residents are confronted by two white police officers.
The officers are framed in the centre of the image and they dominate the unfolding scene as they brazenly face the camera.
The two Black men that the officers are addressing have their backs to Caesar’s camera. The image reinforces the concept that ethnic minorities are denied their identity, their individuality is suppressed, and their personality must conform to white ‘expectations and standards’.
The distorted portrayal of ethnic minorities on television and film, and right wing news media, leads to negative stereotypes which become fixed in society. People from an ethnic minority background continually face an uphill struggle in their attempt to be heard and have their stories told truthfully in their own unique voices.
Caesar dares to challenge the negative narrative by showing the two Black men in his photograph as ordinary human beings going about their business who have been stopped by white police officers. What those men in the photograph are experiencing would have been a daily ordeal for the young Black men of Handsworth.
Caesar’s photograph of the two Black men being questioned by the white police officers also reminds the viewer of the disturbing narrative in countless cop shows and films where the predominately white ‘hero cops’ confront and face off the ‘dark baddies’ before an arrest is made.
The tight framing in the image reveals an open space behind the police officers, which suggests freedom, while the two Black men seem to be backed into a claustrophobic corner of the frame with a fence caging them in and cutting off all avenue of ‘escape’.
The Black men already exist in a ‘prison’ in their daily lives where they have to deal with rampant racism and the constant threat of being stopped and searched by the police. The policemen in the photograph look like ‘lords of the manor’ on a morning walk around their estate giving instructions to their labourers.
The sergeant has a stern look in his eyes and his left hand is raised with a glove clutched in his fist which he’s pointing at the face of the Black man standing directly before him. The threatening gesture looks like a challenge to a duel, or a master telling his servant to get back to work in the field or face dire consequences.
The second officer, in a peaked cap, is hemming in the other Black man while adjusting his tie as if he is someone of a superior race explaining to a slow-witted native how to dress like a cultivated and ‘civilised’ gentleman.
The open mouths of both police officers seem to echo with ‘sound’ in the photograph as they bark out something that the viewer can’t hear yet the image provides enough visual information for the imagination to fill in the tone of the audio. The body language of the ‘coppers’ leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the stern tone being employed. The dominance of the men in uniform, and the privilege of their skin, comes through loud and clear.
The authoritarian approach of the white police officers reveals a certain smugness in their policing and the air in the photograph is full of tension because the Black men do not seem to be either cowed or in awe of the officers. They stand their ground against the badge of authority and refuse to remain silent. One of the Black men is defiant and visibly talking back, and he’s not afraid to lift up his hand and point back with a rigid palm in the direction of the sergeant.
Caesar captures the damaged relationship and the loss of trust between the police and the marginalised Handsworth community, and he also conveys the rising racial tension and anger in this gritty photograph.
The Black men look on as they are blocked and denied access to the world behind the policemen. Always hemmed in by rules and regulations implemented by a racist system. No access to services or equal opportunities, and no way to justly articulate their grievances.
It is frustrations and ingredients such as these, which had been festering and simmering in the community, which finally boiled over on the night when the Black man was stopped and searched by police in Lozells Road. The arrest acted as the catalyst that sparked off the Handsworth Riots.
The voice of the Black and South Asian community in the 1980s was rarely, if ever, heard or acknowledged. Even today, the UK’s ethnic minority voices continue to be largely silenced, ignored, or demonised in the mainstream media.
The documentary realism in Caesar’s photographs of the Handsworth Riots sizzles with raw emotions and the correlations with contemporary events are very palpable and easy to identify.
The message that comes across in Caesar’s new book is that unless leaders and communities address the disease of racism and poverty, the world will forever be periodically plagued by waves of racial and social violence with rioting dominating the headlines while the causes that bred the division and anger are debated without any positive change being implemented.
There has more recently been a disturbing rise in the activities of far right neo-Nazi groups and tensions are once again tender after the killing of George Floyd in America by police earlier this year; and the horrific mass murder of Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand by a far-right terrorist only last year.
Islamophobia also rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic with the Muslim community placed under a negative spotlight by the media, and hate crime is on the increase according to figures released by the Metropolitan Police, and irresponsible political leaders, right wing publications and social media continue to fuel racial paranoia. These factors are generating suspicion and fear and the end result, as illustrated so powerfully in Caesar’s vivid photography, could be apocalyptic.
The images in Caesar’s book raise age old questions about race, and the silent characters in the evocative pictures plead for acceptance and equality in a system that places them on the very outskirts of society. These brutalised people also pray for deliverance from police brutality.
Caesar’s ‘Handsworth Riots 1985’ is a cautionary book. It highlights a tragic event that is 35-years-old, yet the photographs in the book reveal a disturbing reflection that mirrors the modern world.
The underlying message in the book is that unless we challenge racism at all levels of society, including remembering the injustices suffered by ethnic minorities and learning from history, and relating the stories of people whose contributions have been erased from the cultural landscape, we are forever doomed to witness more cycles of violent unrest and social division.
Caesar pulls back the curtain on a notorious and shocking event in Birmingham’s history and offers the audience the chance to hold an honest and open dialogue with the hope of bringing about real change that will build the bridges of understanding and healing before another “tiny spark” results in tragedy.
‘Handsworth Riots 1985’ by Pogus Caesar is available from Café Royal Books here.