Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the Saturday of the Brixton riots of 1981, a day dubbed ‘Bloody Saturday’ by Time magazine. In spite of the progressive philosophical disposition claimed by many in Britain today, the Brixton riots remain somewhat of an enigma. In total, events across the weekend cost an estimated £7.5million, with Thatcherites labelling those responsible as violent anarchists. It has been recorded that, at the peak of the violence, 1,000 police in riot gear “battled” some 600 Black West Indian youths. On the other side of the spectrum, however, we find people who hail those involved in the weekend-long conflict with the Metropolitan Police as heroes.
As with many political, economic and societal disagreements, opposed sides tend to champion certain information, rendering other knowledge as less/invaluable. It appears that there has been a similar approach when looking at the Brixton riots - and this misinformation only leads to ignorance, in the best-case scenario, and hate in the worst. This essay aims to place the Brixton riots in the context of early 1980s Britain, with the end goal of qualifying British progress in the past forty years and suggesting lessons from which we might be able to learn.
So, contrary to what some people may believe, the Brixton riots was not a spontaneous uprising born out of some innate Black, or more specifically in this case West Indian, desire for violence and fires. Nor was it aggravated due to what Margaret Thatcher called “the impression gained by the rioters that they could enjoy a fiesta of crime, looting and rioting in the guise of social protest,” a fiesta for which “they felt they had been absolved in advance.” The fact is that, by 1981, the whole of Britain was in a really bad way due to recession. However, the local African-Caribbean communities were particularly affected by high rates of unemployment, poor housing, and a higher-than-average crime rate. (I feel it particularly important to mention that there is a plethora of reasons as to why Black people were [and continually are] hit particularly hard by periods of economic adversity. Whilst the reason for this might be debated, the statistics, and therefore the existence of more intense economic hardship dependent on race are clear as day.) For example, 40% of those aged under 19 in Lambeth were Black, and 55% of young Black men in Lambeth were registered as unemployed. Additionally, Brixton’s particular economic decline coincided with the mass influx of African-Caribbeans and the corresponding exodus of white people. So, this is the economic context from which the Brixton riots sprang. Not only was the whole of Britain in a recession, but Black people were particularly affected, even in the nation’s capital. This struggle grew into domestic discontent, compounded by the added social pressures caused by the police in London.
Discontent grew as a result of continued discrimination from the police towards the local Black community. One of the prime examples of discrimination in 1980s Brixton was racial profiling, in the form of stop and search under the ‘sus laws’. The sus laws referred to the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which gave police the power to search and arrest suspicious members of the public. The ambiguity and subjectivity of the word ‘suspicious’ gave police the power to search and arrest people due to their race. By the 1980s, one in four Black people in Brixton between the ages of 13-24 had said they had been in trouble with the police through stop and search. Black people also had the highest number of unnecessary stop and searches in the 1980s, and records show that police officers unapologetically targeted Black people.
Discrimination compounded due to a police initiative named Swanp 81, a nod to Thatcher’s claim that the white community feared being “swamped by people with a different culture.” The initiative increased the presence of plain-clothed police on the streets of the London Borough of Lambeth. In the week before the riots, 943 people were stopped, over half of whom Black, and 118 were arrested. Few, however, were charged with robbery or burglary. This further demonstrates the social context from which the Brixton riots started. Black people were harassed by the police in Brixton due to no more than the colour of their skin and, in most cases, the harassment was without any real cause.
Tensions between the police and the Black community came to a head on the 10th April 1981. A Black boy named Michael Bailey was running towards a police officer with a stab wound. Bailey was tended to by a local family and put in a minicab to be taken to hospital. The minicab, however, was stopped by a police car which, on realising Bailey’s condition, took Bailey to hospital. Rumours spread amongst the community that Bailey was in hospital due to police brutality and worsened when people alleged that the police tried to stop Bailey from receiving treatment. Due to this misunderstanding, relations between the local community and the police soured further and eventually broke out into what we know as the Brixton riots.
As mentioned before, historiography on the Brixton riots seems to be polarised. Whilst many might hail those involved as heroes, others condemn them as anarchists. The issue with the latter is that it looks at the Brixton riots in isolation, removing it from the long history of racial discrimination of Britain; whilst the former might go too far as to label rioters as heroes. This essay has given some very brief, contemporary context which make up the background of the Brixton riots, but the fact is, this context really starts centuries ago - modernity has never existed without racial oppression in some form.
Now, on the other side, there will be people reading this thinking “rioting is inherently bad and so the rioters have to be called anarchists or something equivalent,” or “why could they not make their point without causing so much damage?” To answer, I implore people to honestly question whether the issues surrounding the riots would have been addressed in the absence of the rioting, and to what extent would the issues have been addressed? As it stands, Thatcher condemned the uprising itself and, although racial profiling from the police may have reduced, racially profiling is still alive and well in Britain 2021 and statistics continue to show that non-white people are still disproportionately affected economically
. But are we really surprised? Allow me to refer back to the Black Lives Matter ‘movement’ of 2020. Since then, it has become ‘trendy’ to support BLM and, by extension, not principle, to talk about the real race situation in the UK. Would these conversations have happened without the events of last year? My belief is that nobody wants to riot, but it seems the only way to start a conversation for change.
Finally, it is also important to recognise the frustration which incited the Brixton riots, a frustration which endures to this day. After the Brixton riots, the inquiry name the Scarman report found that ‘stop and search’ powers were used disproportionately against Black people, though rejected claims of institutional racism within the police force. Sound a bit familiar? As mentioned, the Black Lives Matter ‘movement’ of last year triggered a range of government initiatives and tokenism. Within the last month, Number 10 has released a ‘Race Report’ which denies the existence of institutional racism in Britain, claiming “the UK is not deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities.” This report is from a country in which Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. In which 60% of the doctors and nurses who died from COVID-19 were Black and ethnic minority workers. In which there is greater disproportionality in the number of Black people in prisons than in the United States. Just for reference, please find the definition of institutional racism below:
Discrimination or unequal treatment on the basis of membership of a particular ethnic group (typically one that is a minority or marginalised), arising from systems, or structures, or expectations that have become established within an institution or organisation.
The words ‘which have become established’ are particularly important here. Part of the definition of institutional racism is that it is not noticed by those whom it benefits. It is vital, however, to recognise that an institution or organisation was built to benefit certain people based on ethnicity; to recognise this privilege and to use this fact to inform reality. To do this, education is absolutely vital. This is why we must continue talking about issues, to develop a more panoramic view of events. An awareness of the socio-economic situation in 1981 Brixton (and of the UK as a whole) may have prevented the Brixton riots. Similarly, I speculate that knowledge of the true story of Michael Bailey might have reduced the extent of the damages caused in the riots. Understanding the true history of Britain, and how this history has developed systems and codes which thrive today, is key to building a foundation from which we can move forward.
2019. Black History Month: The 1981 Brixton Riots. 24 October. Accessed March 31, 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/50035769.
1981. “Britain: Bloody Saturday.” time.com. 20 April. Accessed April 1, 2021. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,952979,00.html.
Kettle, Martin, and Lucy Hodges. 1982. Uprising! Police, the People and the Riots in Britain’s Cities. London: Pan Books.
Reid, Sue. 2011. “Heroes or anarchists? The 1981 Brixton riots are now being hailed by the Left as a heroic uprising. The truth is rather different.” Daily Mail, 16 April.
Smith, David J., and Jeremy Gray. 1985. Police and People in London. Avebury.