Police make their first move in Brixton, on 11 April 1981, arresting two young men. Photograph: Neil Libbert for the Observer
Police make their first move in Brixton, on 11 April 1981, arresting two young men. Photograph: Neil Libbert for the Observer

Cllr Sonia Winifred is the Cabinet Member for Equalities and Culture and a councillor in Knight’s Hill ward. 

Remembering the Brixton Riots, 10 -12 April 1981

This week marks 40 years since Lambeth experienced the most brutal damaging event when the black people of Brixton decided enough was enough. Instances of racism and racial discrimination during these times were daily occurrences. The black community were existing in the poorest conditions in housing, unemployment among black men was extremely high and increasing on a daily basis, and media coverage of black people was regularly negative, bias and racist.

Relationships with the police were non-existent and racial tension was at a continuous high. In January 1981, 13 young black people were murdered in a house fire in New Cross, Lewisham as they celebrated a birthday party. The police insisted this was not a race crime, despite the fact that racist attacks were common in the area. The slow response to investigate the cause of the fire led to the largest protest in recent history by the black community at that time. The protest was led by Darcus Howe, who termed it “The Blaze We Cannot Forget”. 20,000 people marched from Lewisham to Hyde Park on 2nd March 1981, the Black People’s day of Action – and I was there.

I can still recall the atmosphere – the thickness of the tension around was accompanied by an eerie-feeling-silence, and it seemed like almost everyone going about their business in silence and slow motion. I recall standing outside Woolworths at a bus stop and looking across the road towards Morleys department store. On the corner was a small tobacconist shop, an elderly man had stepped outside the shop when he was set upon by two young men. He was being mugged in broad daylight within yards of a bus stop with a queue of about 20 people, yet no one helped until the two muggers had run off leaving him in distress and bleeding.

Shocked by what was happening, I was shouting to the crowd across the road saying look do something. Not thinking I left my bag of groceries at the bus stop and ran across the road to help. Other people had gathered to help. I then walked back to the bus stop only to find someone had taken my bag of groceries. I didn’t bother to wait for the bus and walked home it was not very far but the bag of groceries was a little heavy which is why I was waiting for the bus. On the walk home I saw an unusual number of young men walking towards Brixton and I quickened my pace to get home now realising something was very wrong, later that evening Brixton was the centre of brutal confrontations with the police. The Petrol station on Acre lane being looted, the small restaurant in Trinity Gardens off Acre Lane being robbed.

That Saturday evening, I watched the riots from a safe distance. The riots lasted three days, with helicopters overhead, Railton Road, Stockwell Road cars overturned and set alight, the centre of Brixton was a no-go area. Brixton was in up in flames – the years of frustrations and anger were being expressed through actions of defiance. My brother and cousin were caught up in the riot, my cousin made the front cover of Time Out Magazine, his face bloodied, being carried away by two police officers.

Conditions that underpinned the riots

At the beginning of April that year, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Swamp 81, a plain clothes operation intended to reduce crime in the area. Named after the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 speech when she stated “People are really rather afraid, that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. Officers from the Metropolitan Police and other districts and the Special Patrol Group (SPG) were dispatched into Brixton. The SPG were very quickly recognised in the area due to their black vans patrolling Brixton and stopping every black man under the SUS Law.

The SUS Law referred to powers under the Vagrancy Act 1824 which allowed police to search and arrest members of the public when it was believed that they were acting suspiciously or about to commit a crime. Within five days of Swamp 81 being launched in South London over 1,000 black people had been stopped and searched with 200 arrested. The tension brewing across the community was ignited when police attempted to arrest a black man who had been stabbed on the corner of Railton Road, known then as the Frontline, and this action was the catalyst for what became three days of rioting in Brixton on 10th-12th April 1981.

The black police vans known as the
The black police vans known as the 'Black Mariahs' were a constant threat and reminder of being black in Brixton. Many beatings and assaults on those arrested took place inside these vans with no windows, therefore no chance of witnesses.

Following the events of the three days, on 14th April, the Home Secretary at the time William Whitelaw appointed Lord Scarman to hold an enquiry. The enquiry’s terms of reference: to enquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10th -12th April 1981 and to report with the power to make recommendations. The report identified “complex political, social and economic factors” that created a “disposition towards violent protest,” but did not explicitly condemn police racism and denied that “institutional racism” even existed.

Lord Scarman found that the riots in Brixton, said to have involved over 5,000 people, had not been planned but were spontaneous outbursts resulting from built-up resentment and tensions. He made a number of recommendations to the police force, including efforts to recruit more ethnic minorities into the police force and changes in training and law enforcement.

He stressed the importance of tackling racial disadvantage and racial discrimination. The inquiry recommended ‘urgent action’ to ensure that racial disadvantage did not become an ‘endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society’. Scarman’s inquiry was given added urgency by the rioting which flared up across the country in July of the same year and the scope of the inquiry was widened to include Southall, in London, Birmingham, Toxteth in Liverpool and Manchester.

The report was released on 25th November 1981 and was generally well received by senior police officers and government ministers. Following the Scarman inquiry’s recommendations, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 specified the powers of the police in England and Wales in combating crime and set out codes of practice for police. The Scarman inquiry influenced many measures intended to improve trust and understanding between the police and ethnic minority communities. (Runnymede Publications)

In July 1997, more than four years after Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a group of white youths on 22nd April 1993, the then home secretary Jack Straw announced the establishment of an inquiry into his death. The Macpherson Report, published on 24th February 1999, found that the police investigation into Stephen’s murder was “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”

Now, 40 years on, relationships between the police and the black community, particularly young black men, have not changed for the better anywhere near as much as they should have, and are still wrought with tension and difficulty. Some may differ to stress there has been some improvements, however I would say improvements have not gone far enough there is still a great deal to do. The SUS Law swamp 81 is now replaced with Stop and Search, where black men are 8 time more likely than white men to be stopped and searched. Black people are six times more likely to receive a prison sentence, for every 100 white woman handed custodial sentences at Crown Courts for drug offences, 227 black women were given prison sentences. For black men, 141 jailed for every 100 white men. Stop and search continues to be used disproportionately against black people.

Black Lives Matter

Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, a global movement united under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’ mobilised to raise awareness of racism, Black identity and history. Within the UK, BLM UK pressured local and central governments, private organisations and companies to remove any and all artworks, memorials, statues and street/building names which had a direct or indirect link to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The campaign’s ‘big moment’ came in Bristol, where a group of BLM activists forcibly removed a statue of Edward Colston with global media coverage and a wide debate sparked on Britain’s colonial past.
Changes have been made changes will continue to be made however there needs to be common ground trust and the ability to listen. We must all of us address the violent traumas of the past in order to find healing, common ground, recognise and agree that we are not there yet, there is a very long way to go, we must work together to achieve stronger, resilient equal inclusive communities.

Cllr Sonia Winifred



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