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In January 1981, a fire broke out at a party in South East London. Thirteen people were killed, and the following year, a survivor committed suicide. Because all those who died at 459 New Cross Road were black, and because no one was brought to book for the incident, the usual suspects exploited it mercilessly. The tragedy became known as the Deptford Massacre or New Cross Massacre. The thirtieth anniversary saw the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party making a big deal of it, and the fortieth anniversary this year saw a misnamed history workshop held at nearby Goldsmiths College.
The person behind Remembering the New Cross Massacre was Vron Ware, a woman who clearly hates her own white skin and has gone the extra light year to prove it. Early on in her career she was office girl for Searchlight, the so-called anti-fascist magazine, which is now all but defunct. On the sudden death of its editor, also in 1981, she took over as editor. Later, she emigrated to the United States. She has written a number of books, the most fitting of which is At Women’s Convenience (co-authored with Sue Cavanagh) about women’s toilets.
Early this month, the Socialist Workers Party was again exploiting this tragedy. Not unnaturally, at the time, the police came in for heavy criticism for failing to charge anyone with arson. It was later revealed that a man who had attended the party, who was then in the United States, was believed to be responsible for the fire, accidentally, of course.
The real reason the fire happened isn’t far to seek. Public buildings like dance halls and cinemas have strict health and safety regulations covering everything from the number of public toilets available to evacuation procedures in case of emergency.
The well-known phrase “No one has the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre” is grounded firmly in reality. In September 1902, 115 people died at a black church in Alabama when somebody shouted “Fight!” and, mishearing, a number of people caused a stampede. As can be seen from the above photograph, 439 New Cross Road was a mere house, a big house, but a house all the same. There were dozens of people present when the fire started; a gathering of that number in a private dwelling of that size was clearly illegal. Such house parties in heavily black urban areas were not uncommon in Britain at that time, yet by and large they were tolerated by the authorities, because even then, the police were afraid of being denounced as racist.
So at the end of the day, whose fault really was the Deptford Fire?