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1981 Brixton riot: Wikis


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This Brixton riot took place in Lambeth, South London, England, on 11 April 1981. The riot resulted in almost 279* injuries to police and 45* injuries to members of the public;[1] over a hundred vehicles were burned, including 56 police vehicles; and almost 150 buildings were damaged, with thirty burned. There were 82 arrests. Reports suggested that up to 5,000 people were involved in the riot.[2] It was called "Bloody Saturday" by TIME magazine.[3]



Brixton in south London was an area enduring severe social / economic problems; the British African-Caribbean community was suffering high unemployment, low wages, poor housing, and had access to very few amenities, all of which contributed to a higher than average crime rate .[4] The police were often unavailable to, and hostile towards, members of the Black community;

At the beginning of April, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81 - plain clothes police officers were dispatched into Brixton, and within five days almost 950 people were stopped and searched. Through the heavy use of the so-called sus law - which allowed police to stop and search any individual on the basis of a mere 'suspicion' of wrong-doing - black youths were targeted and often physically and / or psychologically abused.

The local community had not been consulted about the operation, and the police' heavy reliance on the SUS law gave people more reason to mistrust the police - tensions between the black community and the police on the streets of Brixton reached breaking point.[citation needed]


On the evening of the 10th, at around 17:15, a black youth who had been stabbed in an attack was being helped by police in Atlantic Road. A crowd gathered and, as the police did not appear to be providing / obtaining the medical help the victim needed fast enough, the crowd tried to intervene. The police then tried to take the wounded youth to a waiting car on Railton Road. The crowd then struggled with the police, which resulted in more police being called in to the area. The youth was then taken to a hospital. Rumours spread that the youth had been left to die by the police, or that the police looked on as the stabbed youth was lying on the street. Over 200 youths, black and white, reportedly turned on the police. In response the police decided to increase the number of police foot patrols in Railton Road, despite the tensions, and carry on with the "Operation Swamp 81" throughout the night of Friday the 10th and into the following day, Saturday the 11th of April.[5]

The riot

Through the night of the 10th and into Saturday 11th, the police brought a very strong force into the area. Reportedly, the word on the street was that the stabbed youth died as a result of police brutality, fuelling tensions throughout the day as crowds slowly gathered. Tensions first erupted around 4pm, as two police officers stopped and searched a mini cab in Railton Road. By this time Brixton Road (Brixton High Street) was reportedly filled with angry people and police cars were pelted with bricks. At around 5pm the tension escalated and spread, and the 9 o'clock BBC News that evening reported 46 police officers injured, five seriously.[6] Shops were looted on Railton Road, Mayall Road, Leeson Road, Acre Lane and Brixton Road. The looting in Brixton by black and white youths reportedly started at around 6pm. Organised looting by white outsiders was reported.[citation needed] At 6.15pm the fire brigade received their first call, as a police van was set on fire by rioters in Railton Road, with the fire brigade being warned "riot in progress". As the fire brigade approached the police cordon, they were waved through without warning, driving down Railton Road towards 300 youths armed with bottles and bricks. The fire brigade met the crowd at the junction between Railton Road and Shakespeare Road and were attacked with stones and bottles. It was also reported that ambulances were pelted with bricks.

The police put out emergency calls to police officers across London, asking for assistance. They had no strategy, and only had inadequate helmets and non fire proof plastic shields to protect themselves with while clearing the streets of rioters. The police reportedly also had difficulties in radio communication. The police proceeded in clearing the Atlantic-Railton-Mayall area by pushing the rioters down the road, forming deep shield walls. The rioters responded with bricks, bottles, and petrol bombs.

At 5.30pm the violence further escalated. Ordinary black and white members of the public attempted to mediate between the police and the rioters, calling for a de-escalation by withdrawing police out of the area. The destructive efforts of the rioters peaked at around 8pm, as those attempts at mediation failed. Two pubs, 26 businesses, schools and other structures were set alight as rioters went on a rampage. Hundreds of local resident were trapped in their houses, locked in by either police or rioters. A white family was reportedly robbed in their house at knife point, and a young woman was raped in her house by an intruder, while the police were confronting the rioters.

By 9.30pm, over 1,000 police were dispatched into Brixton, squeezing out the rioters.[7] By 1.00am on April 12, 1981, the area was largely subdued, with no large groups — except the police — on the streets. The fire brigade refused to return until the following morning. Police numbers grew to over 2,500, and by the early hours of Sunday morning the rioting had fizzled out.[1]


During the disturbances, 299* police were injured, and at least 65* civilians. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made.[8]

Between 3 and 11 July of that year, there was more unrest fuelled by racial and social discord, in Handsworth, Southall, Toxteth, and Moss Side. There were also smaller pockets of unrest in Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Coventry, Bristol, and Edinburgh.


The Scarman Report

The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, commissioned a public inquiry into the riot headed by Lord Scarman. The Scarman report was published by Susana De Freitas 25 November 1981.

Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people. As a consequence, a new code for police behaviour was put forward in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; and the act also created an independent Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, to attempt to restore public confidence in the police.[9] Scarman concluded that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest".[10]

The 1999 Macpherson Report, an investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the failure of the police to establish sufficient evidence for the prosecution of the charged suspects, found that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report had been ignored. The report famously concluded that the police force was "institutionally racist".[11]

Other rioting

On 13 April, Margaret Thatcher dismissed the notion that unemployment and racism lay beneath the Brixton disturbances claiming "Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened" — although figures showed high unemployment amongst Brixton's black population. Overall unemployment in Brixton stood at 13 percent, with 25.4 percent for ethnic minorities. Unemployment among black youths was estimated at 55 percent. Rejecting increased investment in Britain's inner cities, Thatcher added, "Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony." Lambeth council leader, Ted Knight, complained that the police presence "amounted to an army of occupation" that provoked the riots; Thatcher responded, "What absolute nonsense and what an appalling remark ... No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events ... They were criminal, criminal." That some police officers had acted violently / criminally prior to the riots, and continued to disrespect the community they served after those riots, was generally ignored by the Tory government.[9][12]

Small scale disturbances continued to simmer throughout the summer. The far-right began its own arson campaign against left wing, ethnic minority and Labour Party bookshops and offices.[citation needed] After four nights of rioting in Liverpool during the Toxteth riots, beginning 4 July, there were 150 buildings burnt and 781 police officers injured. CS gas was deployed for the first time on the British mainland to quell the rioting. On 10 July, there was fresh rioting in Brixton. It was not until the end of July that the disturbances began to subside.[9]

The recommendations of the Scarman Report to tackle the problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline were not implemented[10] and rioting would break out again in the 1985 Brixton riot.

  • recorded figures supplied by different sources only give a general idea of numbers actually involved.

See also


  1. ^ a b April 22, 2008 (2008-04-22). "Battle 4 Brixton pt6 of 6". YouTube. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  2. ^ The GuardianHow smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame, 13 April 1981
  3. ^ Bloody Saturday TIME April 20, 1981. Retrieved on 2009-06-09.
  4. ^ Uprising!: Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities
  5. ^ Battle for Brixton,
  6. ^ April 13, 2008 (2008-04-13). "Battle 4 Brixton pt3 of 6". YouTube. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  7. ^ April 19, 2008 (2008-04-19). "Battle 4 Brixton pt5 of 6". YouTube. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  8. ^ Brixton Riots, 1981 (MPS) accessed 6 March 2009
  9. ^ a b c 1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four Television) accessed 6 March 2009
  10. ^ a b Q&A: The Scarman Report, 27 April 2004 (BBC News) accessed 4 April 2009
  11. ^ "Q&A: Stephen Lawrence murder". BBC News. 2004-05-05. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  12. ^ "Q&A: The Scarman Report". BBC News. 27 April 2004. Retrieved 28 December 2009. 


  • Kettle, Martin & Hodges, Lucy Uprising!: Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities (London: Pan Books, 1982) ISBN 0-330-26845-7
  • Scarman, LeslieThe Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders, 10–12 April 1981 (London: Penguin Books, 1982) ISBN 0-140-22455-6
  • We Want to Riot not to Work (On Brixton 81) (Collectif, April 1982)

External links

Coordinates: 51°27′35″N 0°06′37″W / 51.45985°N 0.11038°W / 51.45985; -0.11038


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