TOXTETH RIOTS 30 YEARS ON: LEROY COOPER SPEAKS OUT
Leroy Cooper will forever be known as the man whose arrest sparked the Toxteth riots.
Sat in front of an exhibition of his paintings and collages at Keith’s Wine Bar, in Lark Lane, he said: “It’s been a black cloud hanging over me for years.
“I always say to people ‘I wasn’t there’. I was actually arrested in what they call the sparking incident, but I was taken away from the street and was in Risley remand centre for six to eight weeks.
“My memory of the riots is being imprisoned, worrying what was going to happen, because I could see through the newspapers and the TV that something cataclysmic had happened and potentially I was going to be made a scapegoat.”
On the hot evening of July 3, 1981, Leroy, then a photography student, was attending a youth club close to Selbourne Street when news of “the police at it again” fed through. A young black man had been arrested over the alleged theft of a bike and was being held in the back of a police van.
He said: “Basically there was just a shout on the street that the police were at it again at the top of the road.
“We were at the youth club at the time so we went up to see what was going on and at this point they had whoever it was in the van.
“They don’t like it when you challenge them. They were saying it was nothing to do with us but it was – this was our community, these were our streets.
“Someone opened the door, he ran into the crowd, the police tried to push into the crowd, and then boom, it all went off.”
Leroy, now 50, was charged with assaulting three police officers. He said he pleaded guilty on the advice of his legal team and spent nine months in Borstal.
He said: “I pleaded guilty because I didn’t want a sentence of three to five years.
“The idea that I had allegedly battered and maimed three police officers was ridiculous.”
When Leroy returned to Toxteth, the place was almost unrecognisable.
He said: “When I came back, the place I had left was gone. It was never going to be the same. When I was a kid, we used to say ‘let’s go and play in the bombdies’ because there were still areas of bomb damage from the war.
“Coming back in 1981, it was like coming back to a warzone, buildings burned out, rows of shops gone.
“The riot was a symptom of there being something really wrong with our society.
“We smashed our own community up, we destroyed our own homes. There had to be something wrong.”