Commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Brixton Riots

Brixton riots

Ya hear my Brixton Briefcase
From across the pond
London’s Burning
But the beat goes on

On the 11th April 1981, the Brixton community clashed violently with police as a result of overflowing racial tensions, which have come to be known as the Brixton Riots. These riots represented a turning point in history; witnessing the first ever use of petrol bombs on the British mainland, sparking fierce national debate over race relations, finding the police guilty for the first time of using indiscriminate stop and search tactics, and serving as an explosive catalyst for changing race relations in Britain which are still felt today.

Spanning over a period of just two days, the riots ignited against a backdrop of escalating racial tensions throughout Britain which had been brewing for decades. Since the arrival of first-wave immigrants, the black community in Britain faced high rates of unemployment, poor housing, and racial hostility from which “no newcomers who have entered Britain in the last two centuries have escaped” (Panayi, p3). As a result of a number of violent clashes sparked by racial tensions, like Notting Hill which witnessed an explosion of violence over 4 days in August 1958, the government introduced a number of Acts such as the 1969 & 1971 Immigration Acts and the 1965 & 1968 Race Relations Legislation which increased anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment across Britain. The period between 1967 and 1979 also saw the formation and increasing prevalence of far-right fascist groups, such as the National Front in 1967 which argued for the repatriation of all immigrants and the far-right militarist group Column 88 which committed violent acts against immigrants and associated organisations.

Anti-immigration march by Smithfield market porters
National Front demonstration, 1968, holding signs endorsing Tory MP Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech

However, it was two events which preceded the Brixton riots which really set things off. The first of these was the tragic deaths of 13 black youths in a house fire in New Cross on 18th January 1981 during a joint birthday party. The local community were shocked when police failed to investigate the sudden deaths of these young people, despite suspicion that the fire had been a racially motivated attack (Black History Studies, 2009). In response, the New Cross Action Committee organised the 15,000 strong ‘National Black People’s Day of Action’ demonstration on 2nd March 1981.

It’s a Brixton Briefcase
Is that such a sin?
Blokes get battoned
They get a Chealsea Grin

Back in Brixton it would be the introduction of Operation Swamp 81, which saw 1000 young black men stopped and searched on the basis of ‘suspicion’ over a 5 day period which sparked unrest. Young men were publicly beaten up by police on the streets of Brixton, and anyone who stopped to help was threatened with the same (The Battle of Brixton, 2:22). Having nowhere safe from racial profiling and police harassment, not even within their previously safe harbour of Railton Road, feelings of fear and anger towards the police, and racial tensions reached breaking point.

On the 10th April 1981, the detainment and withholding of treatment from stab victim Michael Bailey by the police lead to an outbreak of fighting between 100 Brixtonians and 30 police officers while Bailey was escorted away. As news and gossip of Bailey spread like wildfire throughout Brixton, local community leaders met with police asking for Operation Swamp to cease in an effort to stop escalating racial tensions. However, the next day plain clothes officers continued their operation, including stopping and searching a local mini-cab driver on suspicion of carrying drugs. As youth began to congregate in the area, tempers flared over the targeted harassment of black men and lead to a rapid escalation of violence on Atlantic Road.

Feel my Power
The electric life
Railroad boys
Out on the town tonight

By 6pm that evening, the police were outnumbered and yet more locals arrived to join in the rioting. Shops were smashed and looted, vehicles set on fire, vicious attacks kept the police at bay despite their riot gear, and for the first time on the British mainland petrol bombs began to be thrown. The Brixton skyline lit up as decades of antagonism blew up. Journalists arrived “expecting to find a race riot between whites and blacks, instead they found an all-out war between police and the local community” (The Battle for Brixton, 4:01). That night, the violence continued to escalate with innumerable fires, bombs, and serious injuries.

Ill-trained in using riot shields and fighting a losing battle, the police changed tactics. Turning street lights off, plain clothed officers attacked and beat up citizens under the cover of darkness. Despite reluctance on the part of firefighters, the police turned the fire hoses on rioters, knocking them clean off their feet (The Battle for Brixton, 5:18). More enforcement’s arrived, road blocks were formed, arrests began to be made. Finally, it seemed, the police had regained control of Brixton.

All rough records
Nothing soft
Turn it up louder
Tell the old bill fuck off

According to the documentary, ‘The Battle for Brixton’, rioters retreated to parties on Brixton Hill to celebrate their success. The morning of Sunday 12th April would shine a light on what they had achieved. £7 million worth of damage to local buildings. Over 300 police officers injured. And yet, after decades of oppression at the hands of police brutality and racial violence, the whole world woke up to see what was possible.

I’ve got a Brixton Briefcase
Ministry of Sound
Walls get ‘tween us
We will tear them down

Following the aftermath of the riots, Home Secretary William Whitelaw visited Brixton to assess the damage first hand before appointing Lord Scarman on April 14th to conduct a public inquiry. The inquiry aimed “to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations” (BBC News, 2004). Scarman’s inquiry sent shock waves throughout the country. He firstly identified poor socioeconomic conditions amongst the black community as a major trigger; with unemployment in Brixton at 13% and 25.4% for ethnic minorities, and at a severe low of 55% for black youths. And secondly, he named the police for the first time as completely losing the trust of the local community through indiscriminate stopping and searching which served as an explosive catalyst for the Brixton Riots.

In response to Scarman’s inquiry, Thatcher and the press were quick to dismiss the identification of socioeconomic factors as contributing to the conditions which brought about the riots and illegitimate the very valid anger felt by Brixtonian’s towards the police. Representing a double threat, Thatcher on one side argued that “nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened” whilst the press demonised rioters as mindless criminals without a cause.

Contrary to the popular ideology of the ‘Madding Crowd’, most socio-historical accounts of riots throughout history were not instances of violence without a cause, but were often committed by local people with specific grievances (Gorringe and Rosie, 2011). For, as Charles Tilly points out, “instead of constituting a sharp break from ‘normal’ political life… violent protests tend to accompany, complement, and extend organised, peaceful attempts by the same people to accomplish their objectives” (quoted in Quinault and Stevenson, 1974, p19). As demonstrated by both the New Cross Action Committee and the various meetings between Brixton local leaders with the police, the black community tried multiple times to open up peaceful discussions with the police regarding their racial targeting but to no avail, leading to what Hobsbawm termed ‘collective bargaining by riot’.

Whilst it has been argued that there was a shifting in policing styles during the 70s and 80s, away from the ‘escalated-force’ model towards one of ‘negotiated control’, the employment of heavy-handed policing tactics before and during the Brixton riots challenge this argument. Moreover, despite Scarman’s inquiry contributing to the introduction of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which outlined how police were supposed to carry out their duties and the rights of people detained on suspicion of committing a crime, heavy-handed tactics by the police resulted in further rioting breaking out all across Britain. This not only included rioting in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester during July of 1981 but further riots in Brixton in 1985 after police shot dead Cherry Groce and the death of Wayne Douglas in police custody in 1995.

Yet, for many, these riots demonstrated the power of the people coming together against police harassment and brutality, who stood up and fought to make the establishment take notice when it had repeatedly failed to listen to grievances. “Shocking to see that what we had done, but with that there was a pride as well, that we stood up” (Battle for Brixton. 6:55).

I got my Brixton briefcase
Feel my power



Panikos Panayi , ‘Anti-immigrant violence in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain’ in Panikos Panayi ed., Racial violence in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (London, 1996, rev. edn.)

“The New Cross Fire”, Black History Studies, 2009. Available at: <; [Accessed 10 April 2017]

“Black People’s Day of Action”, Autograph APB, 2017. Available at: <; [Accessed 10 April 2017]

“The Battle for Brixton part 2 of 5”, learnhistory2, 2011. Available at: <; [Accessed 9 April 2017]

“The Battle for Brixton part 4 of 5”, learnhistory2, 2011. Available at: <; [Accessed 9 April 2017]

“The Battle for Brixton part 4 of 5”, learnhistory2, 2011. Available at: <; [Accessed 9 April 2017]

BBC News, “Q&A The Scarman Report”, 2004. Available at: <; [Accessed 10 April 2017]

Hugo Gorringe and Michael Rosie, ‘King Mob: Perceptions, Prescriptions and Presumptions About the Policing of England’s Riots’, 2011, in Sociological Research Online, 16 (4) 17. Available at: <; [Accessed 10 April 2017]

Roland Quinault and John Stevenson, eds., Popular protest and public order: six studies in British history 1790-1920 (London, 1974)

“The Battle for Brixton part 5 of 5, learnhistory2, 2011. Available at: <; [Accessed 9 April 2017]

Lyrics from ‘Brixton Briefcase’ by Chase and Status feat. Cee Lo Green.


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