The Brixton Uprising—when rage burned on the streets
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Riots in Brixton 40 years ago this month turned the tables on racist cops and gave hope to a generation that things could change. Alex Wheatle and Cecil Gutzmore spoke to Socialist Worker about their experiences of the riots, where they came from and why the anger that caused them still exists today
For three nights from 10 April 1981, Brixton burned with long-accumulated rage. The Metropolitan Police had fought a war against the black people of the south London suburb for three decades. The riots were their reward.
Huge crowds of mainly, but not exclusively, black young people took to the streets and began what would become known as the “Uprising”.
They were sick of beatings at the hands of police officers, racist stop and search “Sus” laws and an education system that labelled them “subnormal”. They despaired of the mass unemployment that laid waste to the inner city and put them on the scrapheap.
In their fury shops were ransacked and their windows smashed, buildings set on fire, and many cars were torched. But above all else, the rebellion targeted the hated Metropolitan Police.
Award-wining novelist Alex Wheatle was 18 years old at the time and played an active part.
“What do I remember? I remember the smell of petrol in the air from the petrol bombs that had been launched,” Alex told Socialist Worker. “I remember the police running from us, trying to pick up dustbin lids to protect themselves—and I remember looking up to the sky and seeing it full of missiles.
“My experience of the police was being beaten up by them—in police cells and in their vans. My friends and I were continually stopped for no reason. So when they were trying to stop us for Sus, we would either confront them, or run away.
“But now everything seemed to have flipped—they were the ones running away.”
The overwhelming feeling was, ‘We are in control, they are not’
Alex said he felt “exhilarated and empowered” when people fought back in the riots. But fear was “always in the back of my mind”.
“I pictured myself inside a police station, stuck in a cell at the mercy of many policemen kicking and beating me,” he said.
“So there were many emotions running through us as we were throwing bricks. But the overwhelming feeling was, ‘We are in control, they are not.’.” April’s explosion of anger had been brewing for some time. In January a fire ripped through a house party just a few miles away in New Cross.
The blaze killed 13 young black people aged between 14 and 22.
Lots of people suspected that the fascists of the National Front had attacked the party. But the police weren’t interested in such questions and their investigation was a sham.
Frustration led to a 20,000-strong “Black People’s Day of Action” march through central London. The protest was angry but peaceful with people chanting, “Thirteen dead, nothing said.” But the next day the Sun newspaper ran the headline, “Day the blacks ran riot in London.”
Police arrest a man during the Brixton riot (Pic: John Sturrock)
“I remember reading those newspapers,” said Alex. “We were the ones who were intimidated. We were the ones who were threatened and called racist terms. And yet all over the media we were described as young black people running amok.
“So we knew the establishment was against us. We knew the police were against us. And we knew the government was against us.”
Community organiser Cecil Gutzmore was a well-known figure in both Brixton and Notting Hill, and later a leading figure in the Brixton Defence Campaign. He remembers vividly the anger, and how some people had tried to warn the cops to tone down their aggressive policies.
“It didn’t stop them,” Cecil told Socialist Worker. “Instead, they organised an operation they called ‘Swamp ’81’. That meant up to 2,000 extra police in Lambeth—stopping, searching and harassing young black people.”
The name echoed a notorious speech by then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who had claimed people in Britain feared being “swamped” by immigrants. Cecil said the cops were “deliberately stoking tensions”.
“The particular provocation that started things in Brixton was that a black guy was stabbed and bleeding,” he explained. “Black people felt that the business of the police would have been to get the bleeding man to hospital—which they were not doing.
“So people gathered and became ever angrier, then exchanged blows, and then missiles ensued. That’s what happened on Friday evening.”
The Uprising grew during Saturday. “People were smashing windows and starting fires,” said Cecil. “I saw banks on Brixton Road and civilian and police vehicles being attacked.
“It was clear that this was a gigantic uprising.
“Eventually the police called in as many officers as would come, but their operation was not well co-ordinated. And their equipment still wasn’t all that good. Their Perspex shields caught fire when hit by petrol bombs, and we found that funny. The police did not even begin to win the encounter until much later—around midnight.”
There was nothing mindless about the violence. More police vehicles got burnt than civilian cars.
Politicians and the media painted the riots as destroying the area in which ordinary people lived. But Cecil insisted that they were targeted.
“There was nothing mindless about the violence,” he said. “Both black and white participated, and it was politically aimed. The property that was damaged was not black-owned in the main, it was actually state property.
“More police vehicles got burnt than civilian cars. A bank was burnt down and a racist pub was also attacked.”
By Sunday, the temperature on the streets was lowering, with sporadic fighting with the police. But the authorities were clearly shaken to their core. Reports suggested that some 5,000 people had been involved.
“The police had tried to inflict fear on us,” said Alex. “But I remember seeing them on the Sunday night—row after row of police vans and coaches. And when I looked inside, I could see the fear we once had was now on their faces. They did not want to be there.
“The aftermath was surreal. I remember two days later, it looked like a warzone. There was still smoke in the air, there were still embers from the fires, shop windows were smashed and people were boarding up their premises.”
As soon as the immediate danger passed, the state started to exact its revenge. Police rounded up hundreds of people and many were charged with riot-related offences.
Cecil helped bring together a variety of groups to form the Brixton Defence Campaign, to defend those facing trial.
“The campaign got a list of names and addresses of those arrested,” he said. “We tried to visit all those people to ensure they were legally represented. The police race codes were attached to that list, so we knew that whites were among those who participated.”
Alex was one of those arrested and jailed.
“There was feeling that the future was going to be bleak,” he remembered. “The Rastas said that what had happened proved that we had to leave this ‘Babylon country’. And, for me personally, there was a strong sense that I didn’t want to be in this country anymore—even though I was born here.
“I didn’t feel that society wanted me, and I didn’t feel that I would ever be treated justly. I had all those feelings running through me after I started my prison term.
“That only started to change when I learned about my own black history— the history of the Caribbean.”
But as well as dispensing harsh punishments, the state also wanted to avoid any repeat of the riots. It set up an inquiry under Lord Scarman to investigate what had happened and establish why so many people were ready to rebel.
Scarman’s report whitewashed the police and could not bring itself to demand the end of the Sus laws. But it did acknowledge that as well as “hard” policing, the state needed multi-agency “soft” policing too.
“The state, in the wake of the riots, tried to incorporate a layer of community organisations,” explained Cecil. “This process was already happening before 1981. Before the Uprising, there were state-sponsored black organisations in Brixton.
Young people in 1981 had cause to resist, and it’s the same system today.
“But in the aftermath, parliament set up all sorts of equal opportunity inquiries that ensured a much more lavish supply of money. To what extent that co-opted people and changed their politics is an important question.
“I worked in a black organisation that was state-funded, we got money through the Commission for Racial Equality. But it never stopped us from doing radical work. My politics, which are Marxist and Pan-Africanist, remained.
“But in the 1980s, a lot of local authorities employed a whole set of black people in every area—including race advice.”
Government attempts to create a buffer had the desired effect of creating a layer of people who could claim to speak for “their community”. But it didn’t stop riots spreading across Britain that summer.
Riots broke out in Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds and Handsworth in Birmingham among many other towns and cities. And though quelled, many of the same places erupted again in 1985 and 2011.
Cecil said police racism, structural discrimination and poverty are at the root of them all.
“Nothing has changed with regards to urban police forces,” he said. “Look at the way they have increased the disproportionate use of stop and search on black people.
“And the economy is not working for people at the bottom. So there is a great deal to resist, and the cutting edge of oppression is still the same.
“Black Lives Matter was driven by police state murders in the US. But in Britain there is also a history of police killing black people—and generally, the perpetrators get away with it.
“Young people in 1981 had cause to resist, and it’s the same system today.”
East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle is a fast-paced novel set in 1981, just as Brixton is about to explode. Available for £9.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Police smashed up Notting Hill carnival as a test run for Brixton
In 1976, police attacked Notting Hill Carnival. Socialist Worker reported at the time, “The police were to blame for the explosion of anger that turned the Notting Hill Carnival into a riot.”
Interviews with those at Carnival made clear that the heavy police presence angered many.
“We were surprised at the number of police,” teacher Kevin Jones told Socialist Worker. “You got the impression they said there was going to be trouble and went out to cause it.
“Then we saw bottles and cans of beers flying through the air. The police got very heavy. There were white people fighting alongside black people, they were a minority but they were there.”
Activist Sarah Cox added, “The police claim they were after pickpockets. But you get just as many pickpockets down Petticoat Lane on a Sunday or in Oxford Street on a Tuesday afternoon.
“You never see that number of police there. They don’t pick up pickpockets with uniformed police.”
Selwyn Baptiste, who chaired the committee between the carnival organisers and the police, told Socialist Worker, “The police deliberately created the conditions to discredit the carnival and remove it from Notting Hill.
“They wanted our carnival off the streets. I know that now. There’s no doubt about it at all.”