The scale of the rioting panicked the ruling class and Margaret Thatcher’s government was forced to respond with a two-pronged strategy.
As well as promoting ever tougher police tactics, the Tories granted limited reforms to head off future rebellions.
Within days of the Brixton riots, home secretary Willie Whitelaw ordered Lord Baron Scarman to conduct an inquiry.
In his report, Scarman warned that “urgent action” was needed to prevent disadvantage becoming an “endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society”.
Scarman acknowledged police racism. But he blamed individual officers, not the Metropolitan Police as an institution.
He recommended increasing the number of black officers—in 1981 the Met had 132, just half of 1 percent of its total. He also proposed changes to some of the worst procedures, like the use of the hated “sus” laws.
The right wing press and police reacted with fury. They set out to prove that “mugging”—a crime referring to robbery by black people—had reached epidemic proportions.
Alongside Scarman’s recommendations, the government developed a strategy to draw a layer of middle class black professionals, and some community organisations, closer to the state.
It combined urban aid programmes with increased funding for organisations that promoted good “racial harmony”.
This inner-city reformism was inspired by schemes introduced in the US after the ghetto uprisings of the 1960s.
In Britain the Labour Party, and left wing Labour-run councils in particular, played a key role in implementing it.
Black youth groups were offered premises, staff and a chance to influence government and council policy.
Many of the inner city youth and community centres that are threatened by Tory cuts today owe their existence to the uprisings of 1981. They show that fighting back often brings benefits that last for generations.
A plethora of Community Relations Councils grew alongside a network of equality departments in local councils. At last there were organisations with resources that could take up the challenge of racist attacks and discrimination.
But in this way black leaders were also enticed to join liaison groups with the police—and then used to head off more radical campaigns.
By diverting anger at injustice into safe channels, these newly-incorporated spokesmen ensured that the riots no longer symbolised the social crisis as a whole, but the particular problems of one group—black people.
So discussion of the riots was reduced to discussion of discriminatory employment practices and how to weed out racist police officers. “Community policing” became a favourite phrase of councillors and community leaders alike.
Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council pioneered the most left wing version of this. He changed the structures of control over the police, in an effort to make them accountable.
While this at least focused on police racism, its great weakness was the assumption that aspects of police behaviour could be detached from their role in society as a whole.
Failure to grasp this led some on the left into thinking that police racism could be eradicated by subjecting it to political pressure from the council chamber.
Yet two decades later revelations of the flawed police investigation into the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence showed just how little had changed.
The police are institutionally racist because of the role they play in society.
They exist to protect the wealth of the few at the expense of the many—and racism, which divides workers against one another, is a key element of this.
An institutionally racist police force is part of an institutionally racist society. Riots and protests can win important concessions, but we should beware of the state’s determination to limit them.
The state trap of demonising some among the oppressed, while offering legitimacy to others, will be familiar to those who have watched the growth of anti-Muslim racism in recent years.
The left should loudly warn against this ambush.