1981 Brixton riot

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Template:Use British English Template:Use dmy dates Template:See also Template:Refimprove Template:Infobox civil conflict The 1981 Brixton riot (or Brixton uprising<ref name="hibbert" />) was a confrontation between the Metropolitan Police and protesters in Lambeth, South London, England, between 10 and 11 April 1981. The main riot on 11 April, dubbed "Bloody Saturday" by TIME magazine, resulted in almost 280Template:Ref injuries to police and 45Template:Ref injuries to members of the public;<ref name=autogenerated1>Template:Cite web</ref> over a hundred vehicles were burned, including 56 police vehicles; and almost 150 buildings were damaged, with thirty burned. There were 82 arrests. Reports suggested that up to 5,000 people were involved.


Brixton in South London was an area with serious social and economic problems. The whole United Kingdom was affected by a recession by 1981, but the local African-Caribbean community was suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate.

In the preceding months there had been growing unease between the police and the inhabitants of Lambeth.<ref name="hibbert" /> In January 1981 a house fire, a suspected racially-motivated arson, had killed a number of black youths in New Cross; the police investigation was criticised as inadequate. Black activists, including Darcus Howe organised a march for the "Black People's Day of Action" on 2 March.<ref name=Cornish-18-Feb-2011>Template:Cite web</ref> Accounts of turnout vary from between 5,000<ref name=Anim-Addo-1995>Template:Cite book</ref> to 20<ref name=Szymanski-08-2011>Template:Cite web</ref> to 25,000.<ref name=Bowman-August-15th-2011>Template:Cite web</ref> The marchers walked 17 miles from Deptford to Hyde Park, passing the Houses of Parliament and Fleet Street.<ref name=Szymanski-08-2011/><ref name=Back-2007>Template:Cite book</ref> While the majority of the march finished in Hyde Park without incident, there was some confrontation with police at Blackfriars. Les Back wrote that "While the local press reported the march respectfully, the national papers unloaded the full weight of racial stereotyping."<ref name="hibbert" /><ref name=Back-2007/> The Evening Standard's front page headline was a photo of a policeman with a bloody face next to a quote from Darcus Howe referring to the march as "A good day". A few weeks later, some of the organizers of the march were arrested, charged with inciting to riot. They were later acquitted.<ref name=Szymanski-08-2011/> At the beginning of April, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81, a plainclothes operation to reduce crime. Officers were dispatched into Brixton, and within five days around 1,000 people were stopped and searched, and 82 arrested, through the heavy use of the 'sus law' (stop and search powers).<ref name=met /> The 'sus laws' were a type of law which allowed police to arrest members of the public when it was believed that they were acting suspiciously and not necessarily committing a crime. The African-Caribbean community stated that the police were arresting black people without a specific reason.Template:Citation needed


Public disfavour came to a head on April 10. At around 17:15 a police constable spotted a black youth named Michael Bailey running away, apparently from three other black youths. Bailey was stopped and found to be badly bleeding, but broke away from the constable. Stopped again on Atlantic Road, Bailey was found to have a four inch stab wound.<ref name="waddington" /> A crowd gathered and, as the police did not appear to be providing or seeking the medical help Bailey needed quickly enough, the crowd tried to intervene. The police then tried to take the wounded boy to a waiting car on Railton Road. The crowd then struggled with the police, which resulted in more police being called into the area. Michael was then taken to a hospital. Rumours spread that the youth had been left to die by the police, or that the police looked on as the stabbed youth was lying on the street. Over 200 youths, black and white, reportedly turned on the police. In response the police decided to increase the number of police foot patrols in Railton Road, despite the tensions, and carry on with the "Operation Swamp 81" throughout the night of Friday the 10th and into the following day, Saturday the 11 April.

Saturday and riots

Allegedly it was believed by the local community that the stabbed youth died as a result of police brutality, fuelling tensions throughout the day as crowds slowly gathered. Tensions first erupted around 4 pm, as two police officers stopped and searched a mini cab in Railton Road. By this time Brixton Road (Brixton High Street) was reportedlyTemplate:By whom filled with angry people and police cars were pelted with bricks. At around 5 pm the tension escalated and spread, and the 9 o'clock BBC News that evening reported 46 police officers injured, five seriously. Shops were looted on Railton Road, Mayall Road, Leeson Road, Acre Lane and Brixton Road. The looting in Brixton reportedly started at around 6 pm. At 6.15 pm the fire brigade received their first call, as a police van was set on fire by rioters in Railton Road, with the fire brigade being warned "riot in progress". As the fire brigade approached the police cordon, they were waved through without warning, driving down Railton Road towards 300 youths armed with bottles and bricks. The fire brigade met the crowd at the junction between Railton Road and Shakespeare Road and were attacked with stones and bottles.

The police put out emergency calls to police officers across London, asking for assistance. They had no strategy,Template:Citation needed and only had inadequate helmets and non-fireproof plastic shields to protect themselves with while clearing the streets of rioters. The police reportedlyTemplate:By whom also had difficulties in radio communication. The police proceeded in clearing the Atlantic-Railton-Mayall area by pushing the rioters down the road, forming deep shield walls. The rioters responded with bricks, bottles, and petrol bombs.

At 5.30 pm the violence further escalated. Ordinary black and white members of the public attempted to mediate between the police and the rioters, calling for a de-escalation by withdrawing police out of the area. The destructive efforts of the rioters peaked at around 8 pm, as those attempts at mediation failed. Two pubs, 26 businesses, schools and other structures were set alight as rioters went on a rampage. Hundreds of local residents were trapped in their houses, locked in by either police or rioters.

By 9.30 pm, over 1,000 police were dispatched into Brixton, squeezing out the rioters. By 1.00 am on 12 April 1981, the area was largely subdued, with no large groups – except the police – on the streets. The fire brigade refused to return until the following morning. Police numbers grew to over 2,500, and by the early hours of Sunday morning the rioting had fizzled out.<ref name=autogenerated1 />


During the disturbances, 299Template:Ref police were injured, and at least 65Template:Ref members of the public, 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made.<ref name=met />

Between 3 and 11 July of that year, there was more unrest fuelled by racial and social discord, at Handsworth in Birmingham, Southall in London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Hyson Green in Nottingham and Moss Side in Manchester. There were also smaller pockets of unrest in Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Bristol, and Edinburgh. Racial tension played a major part in most of these disturbances, although all of the riots took place in areas hit particularly hard by unemployment and recession.

The Scarman Report

Template:Main The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, commissioned a public inquiry into the riot headed by Lord Scarman. The Scarman report was published by Susana De Freitas 25 in November 1981.

Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people. As a consequence, a new code for police behaviour was put forward in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; and the act also created an independent Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, to attempt to restore public confidence in the police.<ref name=untold>1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four Television) accessed 6 March 2009</ref> Scarman concluded that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest".<ref name=Q&A>Q&A: The Scarman Report, 27 April 2004 (BBC News) accessed 4 April 2009</ref>

The 1999 Macpherson Report, an investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the failure of the police to establish sufficient evidence for the prosecution of the charged suspects, found that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report had been ignored. The report concluded that the police force was "institutionally racist".<ref>Template:Cite news</ref> This report, which did not cover the events of the Brixton Riots, disagreed with the conclusions made by Scarman.

BBC Radio 4 broadcast 25 March 2011 reminiscences of participants (both police and black Brixton residents).

Other rioting

On 13 April, Margaret Thatcher dismissed the notion that unemployment and racism lay beneath the Brixton disturbances claiming "Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened" – although figures showed high unemployment amongst Brixton's black population. Overall unemployment in Brixton stood at 13 percent, with 25.4 percent for ethnic minorities. Unemployment among black youths was estimated at 55 percent. Rejecting increased investment in Britain's inner cities, Thatcher added, "Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony." Lambeth London Borough Council leader, Ted Knight, complained that the police presence "amounted to an army of occupation" that provoked the riots; Thatcher responded, "What absolute nonsense and what an appalling remark ... No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events ... They were criminal, criminal."

Small scale disturbances continued to simmer throughout the summer. After four nights of rioting in Liverpool during the Toxteth riots, beginning 4 July, there were 150 buildings burnt and 781 police officers injured. CS gas was deployed for the first time on the British mainland to quell the rioting. On 10 July, there was fresh rioting in Brixton. It was not until the end of July that the disturbances began to subside.<ref name=untold/>

The recommendations of the Scarman Report to tackle the problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline were not implemented<ref name=Q&A/> and rioting would break out again in the 1985 Brixton riot.

Cultural references

  • Linton Kwesi Johnson's poem "Di Great Insoreckshan" was written in response to the Brixton riots.
  • Eddy Grant' 1982 song "Electric Avenue" refers to the Brixton riot, although there was actually little rioting in Electric Avenue itself.
  • Alex Wheatle's novel East of Acre Lane is set in 1981 Brixton and portrays the dissatisfaction felt by the black community that would eventually lead to the Brixton Riot.

See also





  • Template:Note Recorded figures supplied by different sources only give a general idea of numbers actually involved.

Further reading

External links


Template:Riots in England