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Brixton Disturbances

In the Spring of 1981, tensions between the local community and the police in Brixton escalated to riots after police stopped a motorist believing the car he was driving was stolen. During the arrest, youths gathered around the area, which resulted in the police bringing in officers in riot gear. Skirmishes developed. Three officers were injured by bricks and bottles thrown at the police. Three cars were set alight. It was estimated that at least 400 people confronted police on Acre Lane, and shops on Electric Avenue were looted by opportunists.

BrixtonAs with the Notting Hill riots five years earlier, the Brixton disturbances arose because many members of the black community felt they were being excessively racially targeted by the police. In Lambeth, as part of 'Operation Swamp 81' plainclothes police officers actively stopped and searched youths as a tactic aimed at reducing street robbery.

Police were operating under the 'sus' law, which stated that in order to stop someone, the police needed only 'sus', or suspicion, that they might intend to commit a crime. The police were exempt from the Race Relations Act, and it seemed to some that their use of the 'sus' laws was motivated by racial prejudice.

As a result of the disturbances, Home Secretary William Whitelaw ordered a ban on all marches in London for ten days, and some speculated that certain provisions of the Riot Act would be reintroduced in order to, 'give quicker and better means of dealing summarily with those arrested and brought to justice'.

By 10 April, tensions resulted in more violence. On that night, two police officers attempted to assist a young black man with a suspected stab wound. They were approached by a hostile crowd and violence ensued. Four days later, more than 100 plain-clothes and uniformed police sealed part of Brixton and conducted house raids searching for petrol bombs and illegal drinking premises. The raids resulted in 7 arrests, and further tensions between the community and police. Council leader Ted Knight commented that the raids were outrageous.

During the troubles in Brixton, disturbances also erupted in cities across England. Riots and looting occurred in Moss Side in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Leicester, Southampton, Handsworth in Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham and Leeds. Labour MP Alex Lyon said that in his view the riots were an accumulation of frustration by blacks, exacerbated by unemployment.

As reported by the Morning Star at the time, one trade union leader claimed that Margaret Thatcher's policies were directly responsible for the riots in Brixton and Bristol. He attributed the disturbances as, 'not race riots for the sake of race but displays of frustration amongst people who have been placed at the bottom of the social order and have therefore been the first to feel the effects of monetarism'. Others also suggested to the press that the events were a result of opportunistic hooliganism.

Later, Lord Scarman led an inquiry into the events in Brixton, calling it the worst outbreak of disorder in the UK to date, and blamed 'racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life'. His report criticised police and the government, but said there was no excuse for the violence and praised officers for their conduct during the disorders. The Scarman inquiry led to the introduction of many measures to improve trust and understanding between the police and ethnic minority communities. However it did not lead to the abolition of 'sus'.

Audio Interview

Herman Ouseley © Benedict HilliardSir Herman Ouseley was created a life peer in 2001. He was formerly chair of the Commission for Racial Equality from 1993 to 2000 and was chief executive of Lambeth Borough Council and the Inner London Education Authority, Council member of the Institute of Race Relations and Chair of Kick It Out Ltd. Publications include The System (1981). He is Director of Different Realities Partnership and Focus Consultancy Ltd. Consultant adviser to Metropolitan Police Service. Chair of Caribbean Advisory Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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