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1981 England riots: Wikis


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1981 UK riots
Duration Spring and Summer 1981
Location London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool

In 1981, the United Kingdom suffered serious riots across many major cities in England. They were not race riots between communities, but in all cases the main motives for the riots were related to racial tension and inner city deprivation. They were caused by a distrust of the police and authority. The four main riots this refers to are the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riot, in Handsworth, West Midlands, the Chapeltown riot in Chapeltown, Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Toxteth, Liverpool.



In all four main cases, the areas had large ethnic minority communities, who had largely come from the commonwealth in the 1960s and 1970s to do low paid jobs. All the areas suffered from poor housing, high unemployment and particular problems with racial tensions (in particular in Liverpool). Both Toxteth (Liverpool) and Chapeltown (Leeds) were originally built as affluent areas of the city, however the relocation of industry, poor connections and the influx of migrant workers had led to a downfall in their fortunes and the large Victorian terraces and villas were divided up into low rent bed sits.

The Conservative Party government elected in 1979 had instituted new powers for the Police under the Vagrancy Act of 1824 to stop and search people based on only a 'reasonable suspicion' that an offence had been committed — hence their common name of "Sus laws". These were applied disproportionately to the black community, and caused widespread resentment amongst young black men. These were not immigrants, they were the British born children of immigrants.

The Asian community also felt isolated and vulnerable to racist attack. The Police were given new powers to question people about their immigration status. Resentment arose that these laws were applied, but the police were failing to protect the Asian community from violence. On 11 July 1981, the "Bradford 12" — a group of Asian youths, members of the "United Black Youth League" — were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs to protect their community from a threatened attack. At the subsequent trial, they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self defence.

On 13 January 1981, thirteen Black youths died in the New Cross Fire. The police quickly dismissed a racial motive for the apparent arson attack;[1] and the local Black community were dismayed by the indifference shown in the press towards the deaths. 15,000 people marched demanding action to Central London, in the largest Black issue demonstration seen in the UK.[2]

Racial tensions continued to rise in the early part of the year. On 28 March 1981, Enoch Powell — by then an Ulster Unionist MP, but still a major influence on the Conservative Party — gave a speech in which he warned of the dangers of a "racial civil war" in Britain. By 6 April, it was announced that overall unemployment had risen from 1.5 million to 2.5 million in 12 months; and that joblessness among ethnic minorities had risen faster, up 82% in the same period.[2] During March and April, the Metropolitan Police begin Operation Swamp 81, a London-wide campaign against burglary and robbery. In Brixton, over only six days, 120 plain-clothes officers stopped 943 people, arresting 118 — predominantly Black youths. The police justified their heavy handed policing by statistics showing that while street robberies had increased 38% across London between 1976–80; in Brixton it had risen 138%.[2]

The first disturbances began in Brixton over the weekend of 10-12 April 1981, and were followed in July by a series of similar disturbances in 12 cities and towns, especially Liverpool. In London, these included Dalston, Stoke Newington, Clapham, Hounslow and Acton. Leech notes "Here these were not race riots - riots between races. Rather the conflict was with police as symbols of white authority, with state racism and criminalisation of black communities".[3]


These riots by unemployed called the Government to attention that the former method of leaving unemployed to find their own jobs, resulting in the notorious dilemma of "you can't get a job without having had experience of that sort of work, and you can't get such experience without having been in work", was not working, and the Youth Training Schemes and suchlike were brought in.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, who develop police policy in England, produced their Public Order Manual in response to the riots. This was used subsequently used in training by police forces throughout Britain.


While there were common root causes, the triggers of the riots were different



On the evening of the 10 of April, at around 17:15, a black youth who had been stabbed in an attack was being helped by a police patrol in Atlantic Road. As he was being helped, a large hostile crowd gathered. As they tried to take him to a waiting car on Railton Road, the crowd intervened. The police were attacked and the struggle only ended when more police officers arrived; the youth was taken to a hospital. The crowd is reported to have believed that the police stopped and questioned the stabbed youth, rather than help him. 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 continue "Operation Swamp 81" throughout the night of Friday the 10th and into the following day, Saturday the 11th of April. 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.[4]


The first riot in Handsworth took place on 10 July 1981. The second larger riot took place between the 9th and the 11th of September 1985. The riots were reportedly sparked by the arrest of a man near the Acapulco Cafe, Lozells and a police raid on the Villa Cross public house in the same area. Hundreds of people attacked police and property, looting and smashing, even setting off fire bombs.


The exact trigger for the riots are unclear, although much speculation took place in the local and national press. By 1981, Chapeltown was experiencing a high level of violent crime, tensions were high, particularly amongst the areas Caribbean majority. The high crime brought about a police purge and the riots took place in July 1981.[5]


The Merseyside police force had, at the time, a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the area, under the "sus" laws, and the perceived heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on Friday 3 July, watched by an angry crowd, led to a disturbance in which three policemen were injured.

See also


  1. ^ In the aftermath, an inquest held soon after the fire recorded an 'Open Verdict'; and a second inquest in 2004 confirmed the conclusion. It was only with advances in forensics science that it was finally determined that the fire was likely to have been an accident.
  2. ^ a b c 1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four Television) accessed 5 March 2009
  3. ^ Kenneth Leech Struggle in Babylon (Sheldon Press 1988)
  4. ^ Brixton Riots, 1981 (MPS) accessed 6 March 2009
  5. ^

External links


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