Book Review: Handsworth Riots 1985

Richard Lutz on a new book about the riots that rocked Birmingham 35 years ago.

Pogus Caesar

The man in the photograph below is stone-faced. Either listening intently or being listened to. The person attracting his stare is off camera. All eyes are on this man with the striped shirt, the beret, his profile of uncertain times. Eyes are waiting for answers, a response, a decision. One man seems to hold his upper arm. Another’s eyes are riveted to the subject’s face. A woman peers from behind a wall of men.


This is the aftermath of the Handsworth Riots of 1985 – 35 years ago this month. The artist Pogus Caesar was there. As was his camera.

The trouble started right after the annual Carnival in the Birmingham suburb. Caesar writes that an Afro Caribbean man was arrested. The police refused to let him go after protests and arguments turned to a two day riot. Two died in the street troubles, two are still unaccounted for, 35 were injured in the days of havoc. Caesar captured vignettes in black and white and his book Handsworth Riots 1985 is published this month.

Below is an action shot, blurred as the police charge down Lozells Road. Its haste is steeped in instant adrenaline. Nothing beautiful, nothing posed. It’s a police charge, not a photo op.



His shots were not only of groups, but of individuals like filmmaker John Akomfrah quietly reading the evening paper:



And this one of a confrontation between residents and police officers. The man in the cap looks like he’s trying to make a point. The sergeant seems to be doing the same. It looks as if both are speaking at the same time in this turbulent disturbance.

There was the property damage: A TV crew car on its side next to a bathtub somehow thrown together in the tumult. A resident walks nonchalantly by as if on his way to the shops. Smoke rises in the distance.


And, of course, the angry graffiti:

It’s a slim but potent volume, and it still has resonance in 2020. The author writes: “Even today, people still ask the question:’How could a tiny spark turn into such a gigantic flame?’ “

strong>Photographs by Pogus Caesar, top picture by Dee Johnson;

Handsworth Riots 1985 is published by Cafe Royal Books

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Handsworth Riots 1985

  1. I was at school on soho road handsworth during the riots and remember venturing out at lunchtimes

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