Socialist Worker

Brixton 1981: the great insurrection

Thirty years ago Britain’s inner cities were ablaze. Patrick Ward looks back at what sparked the revolt

Issue No. 2246

Police face rioters in Brixton

Police face rioters in Brixton

The poor of Brixton, south London, rose up against poverty and racism 30 years ago this week. Police stations and vans were set alight as thousands poured onto the streets. People were no longer prepared to put up with racist police officers and rising unemployment.

Socialist Worker called the uprising “a festival of the oppressed” as ordinary people took their area back from the police.

As Tyrone, an unemployed sheet metal worker, told Socialist Worker at the time, “The events of the last two days have shown a new awakening in the community.

“Even older blacks who in years gone by would have called what happened ‘lawlessness’ are proud of the way we fought.”

The revolt united black and white people in the largest urban disorder since the Second World War. It shook the Tory government.

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the poor left 13 percent of people in Brixton unemployed at the time of the riot. Joblessness in the borough had doubled in just one year. Young black people suffered most, with 55 percent out of work.

There are striking parallels between Britain in 1981 and today. The Tories have once again imposed savage cuts to council funding. Unemployment is up and wages are falling. And police brutality has not gone away. Hundreds have died in custody since 1981.

Police harassment increased tension in Brixton when they launched “Operation Swamp ’81” in early April 1981. In just five days, police stopped and searched almost 950 people, arresting 150.

Police used the hated “sus” laws, which allowed them to search anyone they suspected of having committed a crime.

Black people made up just 6 percent of London’s population in the late 1970s. But 44 percent of those arrested under sus were black.

Resistance in Brixton began after a young black man, Michael Bailey, was stabbed in a fight on Friday 10 April. He ran for help, but was bundled into a police car where he was held without medical attention.


A crowd of young people pushed past police and took Bailey from the car and into a black cab. Several police attempted to stop the cab on its journey to hospital.

A nurse who treated Bailey later called a radio station to say, “It was criminal that it took so long to get the boy to hospital. He nearly bled to death.”

Police escalated their stop and search operation that night. Hundreds of people now gathered to resist them. More police vehicles appeared and were pelted with stones.

The following day Carlton, a 28-year old painter, was arrested after waving at a friend across the road. Officers threw him into the back of a van as another crowd gathered.

Police tried to force the crowd back—but people resisted. The streets erupted in anger. Over 1,000 police attacked the crowd. They were met with a barrage of bricks and Molotov cocktails.

Shops were looted and burned. Locals took control of a bus—which they drove through police lines.

Police officers, including the vicious Special Patrol Group riot squad, beat hundreds of young black and white people who dared to step outside their homes.

Police accused one young white man of stealing a jumper. Officers kicked him in the testicles and told him he was lucky not to be black. They also attacked a photographer for taking a photo of police as they chased a black man “for no apparent reason”.

Police were seen to use weapons including a wooden club, a pick-axe handle and a flexible rubber cosh.

They raided a number of homes, trashing them, and beating and arresting occupants.

Local people set fire to cars and buildings to hold back police.

The police “restored order” by Sunday, using 7,000 officers. But new uprisings occurred around the country that summer (see box, above right).

The riots have often been made out to be black versus white. But as Independent Radio News journalist Scarlet MacGuire reported, “This wasn’t a race riot. It was the community against the police.”

Thatcher responded to the riots by saying, “Sometimes too much money doesn’t solve these problems.”

This ignored the impact of the Tories’ cuts. Lambeth council had slashed £2.5 million from its budget, including £1.7 million from housing. This left 17,000 people looking for homes.

The riots were a united cry of anger against the government’s assault on the poor. Brixton would erupt again with riots that summer, and again in 1985 and 1995.

That anger is growing again today.

Revolt spread round the country

  • 3 July 1980
    St Pauls, Bristol
    Police raid a black cafe and attempt to make an arrest. A crowd forces the police out. Around 2,000 locals, black and white, take to the streets.
  • 10-12 April 1981
  • 3-4 July 1981
    Southall, London
    Racist skinheads storm an Asian shop and beat up a woman on their way to a gig at the Hambrough Tavern. Hundreds of Asians break through police lines and burn down the pub.
  • 3-5 July 1981
    Toxteth, Liverpool
    Police attempt to arrest a young black man they falsely accuse of stealing a motorbike. A crowd free him. Huge riots broke out the next night and barricades are built.
  • 8-11 July 1981
    Moss Side, Manchester
    Police shout abuse at a group of youths leaving a club. Petrol bombs are soon thrown at police lines and shops burnt down. Some 1,500 people attack a police station before burning and looting shops.
  • July 1981
    Dozens of smaller riots take place in inner city areas across Britain.

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