Brixton and the riots in 1981

“It is noh mistri / we mekkin histri” – Linton Kwesi Johnson




On the Metropolitan Police‘s own website, it says that the first Brixton riot in 1981 was actually the first serious British riot of the 2oth century. It was states that it was the first riot that entailed substantial destruction of property since the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. It also says on the site ‘working together for a safer London’ – isn’t that what the police are for? How much did some PR company get paid to come up with that trite nonsense?
The rioting that started on Friday 10 April 1981 was a complete and utter shock to the local police and it was pretty obvious to anyone watching the news that evening that they couldn’t really cope. If you look at images of the rioting that took place in Brixton 27 years ago it’s the police uniforms, equipment and stance that look old-fashioned and almost quaint not the flares and hairstyles of their protagonists.

In 1978 Margaret Thatcher made an infamous speech asserting that Britain “might be rather swamped by people of a different culture”. The Metropolitan police, I suppose intentionally, wittily thought that ‘Operation Swamp 81′ would be a good name for the overt stop and search policy they introduced at the beginning of April 1981.

The Met operated this policy under the ‘sus’ law (actually a very old law and officially known as the 1824 Vagrancy Act). In order to stop someone, police needed only ‘sus’, or suspicion, that they might be intending to commit a crime. To a lot of people at the time it was obvious that the police were using the ‘sus’ laws on the basis of racial prejudice.


Margaret Thatcher with undoubtedly the wrong approach

In Brixton, there had long been a simmering tension between the local black population and the police and twenty years before in 1961 an organisation called the West Indian Standing Conference produced a report which stated “It has been confirmed that sergeants and constables do leave stations with express purpose of ‘nigger hunting’…the difficulty to apprehend the policemen in these hunts lies in the fact that they go out in plain clothes..person who are threatened or assaulted cannot get their numbers.” Two decades later in the opinion of many of the local population the ‘nigger hunting’, again involving plain clothes policemen, was back. Many Brixton residents at the time said that a few of the local police were openly wearing National Front badges on their uniforms.

On 10 April 1981, the police tried to assist a young Black man who had been stabbed in the back and a rumour quickly went around that the police were trying to arrest the injured man, rather than take him to hospital. A crowd of black youths took him from the police by force and drove him to St Thomas’s hospital by car. Tensions increased, especially as Operation Swamp searches continued the next day, and with the arrest of another man outside a minicab office serious violence suddenly sparked off.



Within half an hour, according to Brixton resident Darcus Howe, a group of young men took command and directed groups of ‘insurgents’ through the alleyways and passages that linked lots of central Brixton. Barricades were put up and crude petrol bombs were constructed – these would be the first molotov cocktails used in the UK outside Northern Ireland. The men also organised scouts, who could move quickly around the area on roller skates and bicycles. Suddenly, as Howe put it – “A spontaneous social explosion transformed itself into an organised revolt”.

The police were at a massive disadvantage, not only did they have no experience of this kind of inner-city rioting, most of them had been brought in from other parts of London and had no idea as to the layout of Brixton. Their equipment was next to useless, and for shields they had to grab any dustbin lids they could lay their hands on. When plastic riot shields were brought to the area the police had had no training to use them and then found they weren’t flame resistant. At one point a rioter came up to the line of shields, tipped some whisky, stolen from a looted off-licence, over an officer and tried to set light to him.

Buildings were torched, including a school in Effra Road, the Windsor Castle pub, and the post office. Most of the violence was concentrated along Railton Road, locally known as the ‘front line’. Serious looting began the next evening but by 10pm that night, the police had begun to regain control. Although sporadic fighting and looting continued through the night.

By the time the violence had subsided, over 360 people had been injured, 28 premises burned and another 117 damaged and looted. Over 100 vehicles, including 56 police vehicles, were damaged or destroyed during the rioting. The police arrested 82 people.




Throughout the country during the summer of 1981 places such as Handsworth, Southall, Toxteth, and Moss Side exploded into more rioting and violence.

After the Scarman report on the riots was released, the ancient Vagrancy Act (older than the Metropolitan Police itself) was no longer law, However there were two more riots in Brixton, albet of not quite the intensity, in 1985 and 1991.

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6 Responses to “Brixton and the riots in 1981”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Here we are, 27 years later, London is really “swamped by people of different culture” (I’m one of them). Children speak Jafaikan and stabbing rate is flying high. Who cares? We’ve got “positive discrimination” and life can be sweet if you’re one leg black lesbian. It’s a Guardian reader paradise.
    I move to Britain 4 years ago, I’m neither racist nor homophobe.I try to integrate, but I already hate political correctnes, cultural, ethnic and religious gethos. Who knows, one day I may even vote for BNP.

  2. jack says:

    That sounds like a pretty nasty riot.

  3. Ang says:

    Anonymous – you really need to educate yourself a bit more about the BNP before you start saying things like that, particularly if you aren’t British! Try looking a bit harder at what causes the racism in the first place – comments like yours certainly don’t help.

    Great blog, thank you.

  4. alex says:

    anonymous what a dumb as comment

  5. cabe says:

    Portrait Of Handsworth Riot in 1985 – Pogus Caesar – BBC1 TV . Inside Out.

    Broadcast 25 Oct 2010.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey7ijaXv6UQ

    Birmingham film maker and photographer Pogus Caesar found himself in the centre of the riots and managed to document these images. The stark black and white photographs featured in the exhibition ‘Handsworth Riots – Twenty Summers On’ provide a rare, valuable and historical record of the raw emotion, heartbreak and violence that unfolded during those dark and fateful days in September 1985.

  6. south london stress says:

    Sorry to be pedantic, but there were more than two more riots, and there wasn’t one in 1991. There was (at least) a mini-riot in ’82, September 85 (after the cops shot and paralysed an elderly black woman in her home while looking for her son), two small riots against the poll tax in March 1990, the big second national anti poll tax demo in October 1990, where the police rioted in revenge for Trafalgar Square and kicked our heads in, and a riot in December 1995, after the police killed Wayne Douglas in the police station. Plus a small riot in August 2011. That’s not counting smaller pushing and shoving incidents, of which there were numerous, after events, fairs, just because the cops felt like it…

    Yes some of ’81 and other riots were nasty, but they all happened for reasons – mostly because the police pushed people beyond the tipping point. And lots of them were fun – we broke the bounds of daily shite and liberated ourselves as well, for a short while.

    Finally, to the twat who moved here 4 years ago and thinks there’s to many foreigners here – wise up. If the BNP EDL or UKIP even got into power, then after they’d ‘dealt’ with the africans, asians, (along with any folk of political suspiciousness, or lesians and gays, who you also probably think should be liquidated?), you don’t think they’d start on the eastern europeans, or wherever you are from? This city, and in wider terms, this ‘country’ thrive on the mix of peoples – its what makes it what it is.

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