20 years after Brixton riots
Uprising sparked a wave of revolt
By Kevin Ovenden
THE FLAMES rose above Brixton, home to one of the largest black communities in London, for two nights on 10-11 April 1981. Police struggled to crush the uprising against their own racist brutality and against poverty. Over 7,000 police officers, a third of the Metropolitan force, did eventually regain control. But Brixton rose again at the beginning of July 1981 alongside young people in inner cities across Britain. The first Brixton riot was the most severe urban disorder in post-war British history up to that point.
It terrified Margaret Thatcher’s deeply unpopular government and the wider establishment. It inspired a spirit of resistance to police thugs in inner city areas which continues to this day. And it struck a powerful blow for unity between black and white working class people.
Racism from the police triggered the Brixton riot and those that followed in the summer of 1981. But it was not a “race riot”-a war of white against black. It was a class riot of the poor and dispossessed. The police launched a massive operation in Brixton four days before the riot. They poured in 100 extra plainclothes officers as part of “Operation Swamp 81”. At the same time they were refusing to seriously investigate a fire in Deptford, a few miles away, which had killed 13 young black people three months before. In four days the police in Brixton stopped 943 people and arrested 118, over half of them black.
Then on Friday evening, 10 April, the police bundled Michael Bailey, a 19 year old black man who was bleeding from a stab wound, into a police car. No ambulance was called. A crowd gathered. The police car did not move. So people freed him and the police attacked them. Running battles continued for hours. Plainclothes and uniformed police stepped up the repression the following day. They arrested a 28 year old black man who was waving at a friend in Atlantic Road.
“Black and white people went over to try and help, but in the end six policemen threw him in a van,” said an eyewitness. “By now everyone was angry.” Police steamed into the crowds of Saturday shoppers. That’s when the battle started. Years of burning anger poured out.
Afro-Caribbean people were just 6 percent of London’s population. They accounted for 44 percent of those arrested under the “sus” stop and search law in the late 1970s. Unemployment was soaring and the official figure was to reach three million (an underestimate) in the summer of 1981. Young people were hardest hit, and black young people especially so. Some 55 percent of black men under the age of 19 in Brixton were officially unemployed.
Twelve months earlier 2,000 people-two thirds black, one third white-had rioted in St Pauls, Bristol, after a police raid on a club. Now people in Brixton fought back too. They turned burnt out police vans into barricades. Police came under fire from petrol bombs on Leeson Road, the first time they were widely used in Britain. The press spoke of mindless violence. It was anything but. Some 61 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed, as against only 19 private vehicles.
The Windsor Castle pub went up in flames-people had complained for years about its racist door policy. A bus was hijacked and driven at the police. Scores of shops were looted. Other buildings such as the community-based Social Action Centre were left alone. Scarlet Macguire, a journalist for the IRN news agency, reported, “Everyone I spoke to lived within three or four blocks of where I was at the time. There was organisation. All the people I spoke to were politically aware. They hated the way they were treated, the way the police have provoked and harassed them for years. This wasn’t a race riot. It was really cut and dried. It was the community against the police.”
Socialist Worker reported, “In the High Street a skinhead was standing in an off-licence window handing out six packs to a group of Rastas. A middle aged white woman was knocked off balance by a young Rasta as he ran down the road. He picked her up, dusted her down and apologised. Both went on their way smiling.”
The police did not regain control until late the following afternoon, when they began their retribution. Arrests and raids soared over the next few weeks. But Brixton had touched off a wider sense of revolt. There were several minor clashes with the police in other areas within weeks. They included a demonstration of skinheads in Sheffield, who ended up charging through the streets shouting, “Brixton, Brixton!” Then on 3 July police racism triggered riots in Southall, west London, and in Toxteth, Liverpool.
They spread over the next seven days to Moss Side in Manchester, Leicester, Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton, Leeds, Bolton and scores of other places. Toxteth and Moss Side were on the scale of Brixton three months earlier. Liverpool’s black population was concentrated in Toxteth. Defending the rioters a few days later a rail union activist from Toxteth said: “I saw police beating shields and saying, ‘Come on out.’ I was proud to see people come out. They had seven police forces at a standstill. Sixty percent of the rioters were white but all the generals were black, and that’s the first army in this country formed on that basis.”
A 1,500-strong group of black and white youth in Moss Side attacked a police station and fought back police who were driving around in vans shouting racist abuse. Luton was typical of the smaller “copycat riots”. Eyewitnesses reported, “Black and white youth began by attacking the racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the Tory party HQ.”
In Halifax there was “a right good mix of skinheads and Asian youth”. White anti-racists had united with black and Asian people to defend areas from the Nazi National Front and the police throughout the 1970s. The Anti Nazi League had built large mobilisations of black and white people, which isolated hardcore racists.
But white youth who were actively anti-racist were a minority. The 1981 riots drew the mass of white youth to identify with black people who were at the sharp end of police violence and Thatcher’s savage attack on working class people.
Unity was key
THE MOST striking thing about Brixton, St Pauls, Toxteth and Moss Side was the odd mixture of ferocity with a carnival atmosphere. There was no violence between the rioters, racial or otherwise. Throughout the late 1970s most gangs of youth were split along racial lines. Yet 40 percent of those arrested in Brixton were white. Black youth turned up to the defence campaign meetings with white friends. They could not understand arguments that we should split the defence campaign along racial lines.
I remember clearly watching clips from the Brixton riot in a largely white club in Harlesden, west London. People cheered when they saw the police retreating. The riots lasted at most two or three nights in each case. Of course the authorities could reassert control. The riots were not going to bring down the government or the system as a whole.
But they did force the authorities to at least pay lip service to the alienation of young black people. They were key to winning equal opportunities policies, even if it was largely a token. The biggest gain, however, was in creating a sense of unity. Racism remains, of course. But we turned a corner in 1981.
Inspiring fight for the right to work
THATCHER WAS due to speak at the Welsh Tory conference in July 1980, in Swansea. The Right to Work Campaign called for a picket of the conference.
As the march came through the town, an organised group of around 70 skinheads gathered on the route but didn’t join the march. When police came to move them on, they started chanting, “Niggers rule in Bristol!” at the police.
Right to Work stewards went to the skinheads and addressed them on the megaphone, saying, “We don’t call black people ‘niggers’, because that is racist and disrespectful. We respect them because they beat the police in St Pauls, Bristol.”
This was met with a tremendous cheer of support from the skinheads.
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