The 1981 BRIXTON RIOT, or BRIXTON UPRISING, was a confrontation
Metropolitan Police and protesters in
Lambeth , South
London , England, between 10 and 12 April 1981. The main riot on 11
April, dubbed "Bloody Saturday" by Time magazine, resulted in almost
280 injuries to police and 45 injuries to members of the public; 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.
* 1 Background
* 2 10–11 April
* 3 11–12 April
* 4 Aftermath
* 4.2 Other rioting
* 5 Cultural references
* 6 See also
* 7 References
* 8 Further reading
* 9 External links
South London was an area with serious social and economic
problems. The whole United Kingdom was affected by a recession by
1981, but the local African-Caribbean community was suffering
particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than
average crime rate.
In the preceding months there had been growing unease between the
police and the inhabitants of Lambeth. In January 1981 a number of
black youths died in a fire during a house party in
New Cross .
Although authorities have claimed it may have been accidental and that
the fire started from inside the house, it was widely suspected to
have been a racially motivated arson attack by someone outside the
property, and the police investigation was criticised as inadequate
for not exploring that possibility. Black activists, including Darcus
Howe , organised a march for the "Black People's Day of Action" on 2
March. Accounts of turnout vary from 5,000 to 20,000 to 25,000.
The marchers walked 17 miles from
Deptford to Hyde Park , passing the
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament and
Fleet Street . While the majority of the
march finished in Hyde Park without incident, there was some
confrontation with police at Blackfriars .
Les Back wrote that "While
the local press reported the march respectfully, the national papers
unloaded the full weight of racial stereotyping." The Evening
Standard 's front page headline was a photo of a policeman with a
bloody face next to a quote from
Darcus Howe referring to the march as
"A good day". A few weeks later, some of the organizers of the march
were arrested, charged with the offence of
Riot . They were later
In 1980 the number of crimes recorded in the
Lambeth Borough was
Brixton Division was responsible for 10,626 of those
crimes. Between 1976 and 1980
Brixton accounted for 35% of all crimes
in the Borough, but 49% of all robbery and violent theft offences. The
police recognised that there was a problem and that they needed a
solution to a growing crime trend. Robbery and violent crime was on
the increase and this can probably be related to high unemployment and
people with little or no money. At the beginning of April, the
Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81, a plainclothes operation
to reduce crime and uniformed patrols were increased in the area.
Officers from other Metropolitan police districts and the Special
Patrol Group were dispatched into Brixton, and within five days, 943
people were stopped and searched, and 82 arrested, through the heavy
use of what was colloquially known as the "
Sus law ." This referred
to powers under the
Vagrancy Act 1824
Vagrancy Act 1824 , which allowed police to search
and arrest members of the public when it was believed that they were
acting suspiciously, and not necessarily committing a crime. The
African-Caribbean community claimed that the police were
disproportionately using these powers against black people.
Public disfavour came to a head on Friday 10 April. At around 5:15 pm
a police constable spotted a black youth named Michael Bailey running
towards him, apparently away from three other black youths. Bailey was
stopped and found to be badly bleeding, but broke away from the
constable. Stopped again on Atlantic Road, Bailey was found to have a
four-inch stab wound. Bailey ran into a flat and was helped by a
family and the police constable there by putting kitchen roll on his
wound. A crowd gathered and, as the police then tried to take the
wounded boy to a waiting minicab on
Railton Road , the crowd tried to
intervene thinking the police did not appear to be providing or
seeking the medical help Bailey needed quickly enough. As the minicab
pulled away at speed a police car arrived and stopped the cab. When an
officer from the police car realised Bailey was injured he moved him
into the back of the police car to take him to hospital more quickly,
and bound his wound more tightly to stop the bleeding. A group of 50
youths began to shout for Bailey's release thinking the police were
arresting him. "Look, they’re killing him," claimed one. The crowd
descended on the police car and pulled him out although the officers
were trying to take him to hospital. The youths dispatched him to
hospital and told officers: "Let us look after our own."
Rumours spread that a 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 with predominantly
Afro-Caribbean heritage 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 Operation Swamp
81 throughout the night and into the following day.
It was believed by the local community that the stabbed youth died as
a result of police brutality, fuelling tensions throughout the day as
crowds slowly gathered. Tensions first erupted around 4 pm, as two
police officers stopped and searched a mini cab in Railton Road. By
Brixton Road (
Brixton High Street) was reportedly filled
with angry people and police cars were pelted with bricks. At around 5
pm the tension escalated and spread, and the 9 pm
BBC News bulletin
that evening reported 46 police officers injured, five seriously.
Shops were looted on Railton Road,
Mayall Road , Leeson Road , Acre
Brixton Road . The looting in
Brixton reportedly started at
around 6 pm. At 6.15 pm 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,
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.
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-fireproof 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 5.30 pm the violence further escalated. Non-rioting 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 8 pm, 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 residents were trapped in their houses, locked in by
either police or rioters.
By 9.30 pm, over 1,000 police were dispatched into Brixton, squeezing
out the rioters. By 1 am on 12 April 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.
During the disturbances, 299 police were injured, along with at least
65 members of the public. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles
were destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and
looted. 82 arrests were made.
Between 3 and 11 July of that year, there was more unrest fuelled by
racial and social discord, at Handsworth in Birmingham,
London, Toxteth in Liverpool,
Hyson Green in
Nottingham and Moss Side
in Manchester. There were also smaller pockets of unrest in
Southampton , Halifax ,
Bristol , and
Edinburgh . Racial tension
played a major part in most of these disturbances, although all of the
riots took place in areas hit particularly hard by unemployment and
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 on 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
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.
Scarman concluded that "complex political, social and economic factors
disposition towards violent protest".
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 concluded that the police force was "institutionally racist ".
This report, which did not cover the events of the
disagreed with the conclusions made by Scarman.
On 25 March 2011, BBC Radio 4 broadcast reminiscences of participants
including police and black
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
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 London Borough 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."
Small-scale disturbances continued to simmer throughout the summer.
After four nights of rioting in
Liverpool during the
Toxteth riots ,
beginning 4 July, there were 150 buildings burnt and 781 police
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.
The recommendations of the
Scarman Report to tackle the problems of
racial disadvantage and inner-city decline were not implemented and
rioting would break out again in the 1985 and 1995
Linton Kwesi Johnson 's poem "Di Great Insoreckshan" was written
in response to the
Eddy Grant 's 1982 song "Electric Avenue " refers to the Brixton
riot, although there was actually little rioting in Electric Avenue
Alex Wheatle 's novel East of
Acre Lane is set in 1981
portrays the dissatisfaction felt by the black community that would
eventually lead to the
* The storyline "Rake At The Gates Of Hell" of the comic book
Hellblazer takes place during the riot.
The Clash made a song two years prior to the events of 1981 riots
called, "The Guns of Brixton"
* The electronic music label Swamp81 is a reference to the operation
of the same name
* 1980s portal
* Criminal justice portal
* Discrimination portal
* London portal
* St Pauls riot (1980)
* Handsworth riots (1981) , Birmingham
Chapeltown riots (1981) , Leeds
Toxteth riots (1981) , Liverpool
Brixton riot (1985)
Brixton riot (1995)
* ^ Grover, Chris (2013-09-13). Crime and Inequality. Routledge.
ISBN 9781134732999 .
* ^ "Britain: Bloody Saturday". Time . 20 April 1981. Retrieved 9
* ^ A B "Battle 4
Brixton pt6 of 6" . YouTube. 22 April 2008.
Retrieved 29 May 2009.
* ^ "How smouldering tension erupted to set
Brixton aflame". The
Guardian . London. 13 April 1981. Retrieved 10 January 2016.
* ^ Brain 2010 , p. 65.
* ^ Kettle Weinreb, Matthew; Hibbert, Christopher; Keay, Julia;
Keay, John (2008). The London Encyclopaedia. Pan Macmillan . p. 99.
ISBN 978-1-405-04924-5 .
* ^ Cornish, Winsome-Grace. "Honouring talent: The Black People\'s
Day of Action". Operation Black Vote: News,18 Feb 2011. Retrieved 3
* ^ Anim-Addo, Joan (1995). Longest Journey: A History of Black
Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd. p. 137. ISBN
978-1-898536-21-5 . Retrieved 3 November 2011.
* ^ A B C Szymanski, Jesse. "Darcus Howe, the British Black
Panther". Vice Beta, Stuff, August 2011. Vice Media, Inc. Retrieved 3
* ^ Bowman, Andy. "A violent eruption of protest\': Reflections on
Moss Side \'riots\' (part one)". Manchester Mule, Monday, 15
August 2011. Retrieved 3 November 2011.
* ^ A B Back, Les (2007). Written in Stone: Black British Writing
and Goldsmiths College (PDF). London: Goldsmiths University of London.
p. 7. Retrieved 3 November 2011.
* ^ A B
Brixton Riots, 1981 (MPS) accessed 6 March 2009
* ^ Kettle & Hodges 1982 , pp. 91-93.
* ^ Waddington, D.P. (1992). Contemporary issues in public
disorder: a comparative and historical approach.
Routledge . ISBN
* ^ "Heroes or anarchists? The 1981
Brixton riots are now being
hailed by the Left as a heroic uprising. The truth is rather
* ^ theicha (10 April 2008). "Battle 4
Brixton pt2 of 6" – via
* ^ "Battle 4
Brixton pt3 of 6" . YouTube. 13 April 2008. Retrieved
29 May 2009.
* ^ "Battle 4
Brixton pt5 of 6" . YouTube. 19 April 2008. Retrieved
29 May 2009.
* ^ A B 1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four
Television) accessed 6 March 2009
* ^ A B Q&A: The Scarman Report, 27 April 2004 (BBC News) accessed
4 April 2009
* ^ "Q&A:
Stephen Lawrence murder". BBC News. 5 May 2004. Archived
from the original on 9 February 2008. Retrieved 4 January 2008.
* ^ "Q&A: The Scarman Report". BBC News. 27 April 2004. Retrieved
28 December 2009.
* ^ "The Reunion:
Brixton Riots". Retrieved 14 October 2012.
* ^ ISBN 1-84023-673-6
* Brain, Timothy (2010). A History of Policing in England and Wales
from 1974. Oxford:
Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press . ISBN 978-0-199-21866-0 .
* Kettle, Martin; Hodges, Lucy (1982). Uprising! Police, the People
and the Riots in Britain's Cities.
Pan Books . ISBN 0330268457 .
* Scarman, Leslie George (1981). The
Brixton Disorders 10–12 April
1981 . London: HMSO . ISBN 0101842708 .
* We Want to Riot, Not