It came as a surprise to certain bewildered sections of British society who couldn’t understand where the anger had come from, but those who were living it day to day knew that the violence had been brewing for a long time. Tension and resentment had been building up in the black communities for years. It had its roots in the 1950’s and 60’s in post-war Britain when hundreds of thousands of people came to the country from around the Commonwealth. They came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and from all over the Caribbean; Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, St Lucia, Nevis and Guyana. Welcomed by the government, they came for work and to help rebuild Britain after the war. Many of them took up low paid manual jobs and moved into the most affordable areas of the cities across the UK, with some of the first arrivals settling in the London district of Brixton.
With continued arrivals Brixton soon became the centre for black culture in Britain, and Railton Road, known as the frontline, its beating heart. Reggae, rocksteady and blue beat were the soundtrack to bustling community life that withstood the grey winters with markets full of yams and sugarcane and mangoes. Newspapers such as the West Indian World and West Indian Gazette were sold on street corners relaying news from their distant homelands. Black hair salons selling Dax and Afro Sheen sprang up and patois took on a slight cockney inflection, a sign of the unique black British culture that was taking shape.
These districts slowly began to change over the years as the economic fortunes of Britain and its ethnic population fluctuated. They gradually turned into inner city ghettoes that were known for their serious social issues. Living standards deteriorated while crime, poverty and unemployment increased. Black activist movements began to campaign in earnest as Brixton became a sad example of this sorry decline. Community life continued but its streets became lined with run down estates, boarded up houses used as illegal gambling dens and demolished wastelands surrounded by graffiti covered fencing.
As well as experiencing the slow decline of their neighbourhoods, the Afro-Caribbean communities also faced growing hostility from certain sections of society, caused by the perceived threat to their way of life by the largest mass immigration of ethnic people Britain had ever seen. London saw days of race riots during the August Bank Holiday of 1958 as white youths, teddy boys and soldiers armed with knives and belts and bottles rampaged through the Afro-Caribbean community in the tenements of Notting Hill, shouting for the black niggers to go home and that they wanted to keep Britain white. They were met by West Indian men carrying razors and machetes and meat cleavers during the worst of the mayhem until the police finally controlled the situation and calm returned to the streets of Notting Hill.
Tensions were further inflamed by certain sections of the press and the political class. During the Notting Hill disturbances the Daily Mail wrote a provocative article headlined ‘Should We Let Them Keep Coming In?’ and in 1968 the politician Enoch Powell gave his inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. A speech in which he criticised mass immigration from the Commonwealth to the UK, giving his support for white landlords in slum areas who refused to let black families rent their properties and saying that he was filled with foreboding for the future. His widely supported speech gave an unwanted public voice to the tensions between the large immigrant communities and a resurgent tide of nationalism sweeping the country.
Across the whole of the UK there was a sense of alienation amongst the British-born black youth; rootless children of the first immigrants. They felt unwelcome and marginalised. The policies of the government and the actions of the police only made the situation worse. Elected in 1979 the Conservatives granted new powers for the police to stop and search based only on a reasonable suspicion that an offence had been committed. Many justifiably believed that the Sus Law was applied disproportionately to the black community, not only that but the police were also indiscriminate and heavy-handed in its application. If the police found no evidence of wrongdoing innocent black youths were often kicked and beaten anyway. It caused nothing but widespread resentment and ill-feeling amongst young black and ethnic men.
Events came to a head in Bristol in 1980 when police raided the Black and White Cafe in the deprived St Paul’s area. The customers were removed from the premises and they soon formed an angry mob that turned on the police. A concrete block thrown through a police car window sparked off several hours of rioting by black youths in which fire engines and police cars were damaged as well as a bank, shops and a post office. Nineteen policemen were taken to hospital as a result of the rioting.
Back in London thirteen black youths died in a fire at a birthday party in New Cross in January 1981. It was suspected to be a racially motivated arson attack but the police quickly dismissed the possibility, saying the fire started accidentally inside the house. The local black community were dismayed by the indifference shown by the police and the press towards the deaths. Fifteen thousand people, organised by black activists such as Darcus Howe, marched on Parliament demanding action. The march was largely peaceful except for a minor confrontation with the police at Blackfriars. However, the Evening Standard's front-page headline was a photo of a policeman with a bloody face next to a quote from Darcus referring to the march as a good day. A few weeks later some of the organisers of the march were arrested and charged with rioting offences, released soon after.
Tensions rose further still in the spring of 1981. The post-war boom had disappeared and Britain was now deep into the second year of a debilitating recession that was hitting the black communities particularly hard. There was mass discontent. Unemployment in the UK was at two and a half million, and in Brixton almost half of the young black men were unemployed, crime had skyrocketed and the politicians fuelled the flames. In March 1981 Enoch Powell gave another incendiary speech bemoaning the growth of the immigrant population through its British born offspring, arguing for their repatriation and saying that ‘there lies the certainty of violence on a scale which can only adequately be described as civil war.’
To combat the alarming levels of rising crime in Brixton the police began Operation Swamp 81 in April. Without consulting local community leaders or the respected home-beat policemen the Metropolitan police descended on Brixton en masse and within five days, using the controversial Sus Law, they stopped and searched nine hundred and forty three people, making eighty two arrests. Muggings halved but the move caused huge provocation as many innocent youths were harassed by the police; the operation was seen as a criminalisation of the entire black community by the symbol of white racist power. Relations between the police and the black community had broken down completely. Tensions were at an unbearable high, and it seemed like it only needed a small spark for the situation to explode out of control.
On Friday April 10th the young black man Michael Bailey was seen by policeman Stephen Margiotta running from an altercation in a Brixton pool hall. Stephen attempted to stop Michael as youths moved towards the commotion but he got away and kept on running, eventually being stopped by a police van unit on Atlantic Road. Realising that he was bleeding heavily from a large stab wound in his back a policeman tried to put Michael in the back of the police van to take him to hospital. A large, volatile crowd had now gathered and thinking that the police were arresting Michael they began to shout for his release. They descended on the police van, pulled Michael out and took him to hospital themselves. Stones and bottles were thrown at police vehicles that were arriving on the scene, forcing them to retreat from the area. Rumours began to circulate around Brixton that the police looked on as the stabbed youth was left to die on the street. In response to the rising tension the police increased the number of officers in Brixton that evening and continued with Operation Swamp 81. Commander Fairburn deciding that to withdraw would be seen as a surrender and a failure of his responsibility to the people of Brixton.
Angry crowds continued to gather and grow in the centre of Brixton the following day. The rumours now spreading around Brixton were that Michael had died as a result of police brutality. The gathering youths were waiting for the slightest provocation to vent their anger. At 4pm two police officers stopped and searched a taxi driven by an African man near Railton Road. A hostile crowd quickly gathered and police dispatched more officers to the scene. As the police attempted to arrest a man they were pelted with bricks and stones. The violence quickly escalated. Groups of youths were running through the streets towards the incident, gathering in size as they went along. A group of policemen reached the top end of Railton Road with the intent of driving the mob back. They were spotted by the hundreds of predominantly black youths that were gathered and soon a hail of bricks and stones were hurled towards them. Brick walls were torn down and paving slabs ripped up to throw at the police. Completely unprepared one officer used a bin lid to protect himself as others dodged and ducked the missiles. The police were outnumbered and forced back. Shutters came swiftly down on shop windows and terrified families locked themselves in their homes. More and more youths kept arriving on Railton Road to see what was going on and wanting to be involved. People got swept up in the huge churning frenzy and the intoxicating release of years of pent up rage. An elderly black woman shouted at the police as they stood in their line, joined by a hundred other voices all furiously venting their anger at the years of injustices they had witnessed.
Looting began. A lorry was hijacked on Brixton Road and driven into a jewellery shop window. Woolworths was looted as well as almost every jewellers in Brixton, mannequins lay in the streets and burglar alarms rang out over the chaos. A white family living in Brixton was held up at knifepoint and robbed while a man pushed a clothes rack full of leather coats down the road, trying one on as he went by. There were rumours that amongst all the anarchy organised white gangs took the opportunity to rob the shops up and down Brixton.
Fraught calls were sent out asking for more police to be dispatched to Brixton. They arrived from all over London but were unprepared and untrained for a riot of this scale and fury. Their shields and helmets were inadequate, their communication systems weren’t working and they had no cohesive or planned strategy to combat this spontaneous seething mass of enraged citizenry. They formed shield walls across the roads and eventually started to push the rioters back as they advanced in groups of threes. A battle erupted and swung back and forth as the rioters responded with bricks and stones and drove the police back to near where they started. Advancing a few metres each time the police slowly won their way along Railton Road.
Thinking they were beginning to take control of the situation the police were unprepared for what came next. The rioters took the violence to new levels and began to hurl petrol bombs at the police. The police retreated in disarray screaming and shouting, shocked at the level of hate directed towards them. Wounded officers were helped away to be treated for their cuts and burns as the bombs continued to pepper their fractured lines. A police car was set alight on Railton Road and a call went out for the fire service to dispatch an engine to the heart of the rioting with little warning of the storm the firemen were heading into. As they arrived they were confronted by almost three hundred youths and soon bricks and bottles were being hurled towards the fire engine. A paving slab smashed through the windscreen and hit the terrified Mike Harding in the chest, breaking his ribs and rupturing his spleen. An ambulance was swiftly called to the incident and was pelted with stones and bricks as it took the wounded fireman away from the rioting.
Unfortunate locals were caught up in the mayhem. Olga and David Carnegie were getting married on the Saturday of the rioting at a church on Brixton Road. Their wedding service was punctuated by the sounds of sirens in the distance and as they made their way to the reception venue their path was blocked by a line of policemen. The police let them through but warned them that they weren’t responsible for what happened after that. A short while into their wedding party an arson attack ended the festivities and the building was evacuated. Olga returned the next day to assess the damage and found that the food had gone off in the heat and all the presents had been stolen.
Their pent up anger now reaching its full voice the rioters rampaged through the streets. They had full control of Railton Road. Overturned cars were burning on the streets. Wheelie bins were set alight and sent rolling towards the police lines. An abandoned bus was commandeered by the rioters and driven towards a police line. Shops and schools and off-licences were petrol bombed and went up in flames. A notorious pub was burnt to the ground on account of its white owner never letting black people enter the premises. The iconic ‘Welcome to Brixton’ sign on the railway bridge over Brixton Road stood smoking and in flames above the violence. Barriers were set up across the streets and set on fire in an attempt to stop the advance of the police lines. Small groups of rioters lured chasing police down narrow streets where they were met by a mass of rioters hurling bombs and bricks in their direction. The rioters were determined that the police were not going to take their territory away from them.
At this point non-rioting locals tried to mediate between the police and the rioters. Local parish priest Bob Nind and three other community leaders stood bravely between the two hostile groups dodging missiles with microphone in hand and pleaded for the violence to end. They asked the police to leave the area and diffuse the situation. But police commander Fairburn disagreed, not wanting to give the victory to the rioters, and soon all attempts at mediation were abandoned.
Night fell. The darkness amplified the sense of chaos and anarchy on the streets of Brixton. Fire and smoke from dozens of burning buildings roared high into the darkened sky as a backdrop to the apocalyptic scene. The front of a burning building came crashing down to the ground. Rocks and bricks and broken glass littered the streets. Gutted and melted cars sat ruined on the roads. Scores of smashed up shops and buildings lined the roads. Hardened journalists who had seen their share of violence during the Troubles arrived on the scene and were stunned and shocked by what they saw. The rioters began heading south through the streets, carried along on a wave of insurmountable rage, smashing and destroying as they went along. The police were in danger of being overwhelmed once again by the blind fury of the rioters. Almost three hundred of them had been injured so far and fifty six of their vehicles had been destroyed.
Refusing to hose down the burning buildings out of fear of the rioters the firemen gave control of their hoses to the police. Turning them on the rioters the police swept the powerful jets of water back and forth, soaking the rioters and in many cases felling them to the ground. More reinforcements arrived to bolster the struggling police force. There were now over a thousand police on the streets of Brixton. Exhausted and accepting that the battle was over the rioters began melting away. They ran down side alleys and back streets to avoid the police who were trying to mop up and arrest the rioters. By Sunday morning there were around two thousand five hundred police swarming around Brixton and the rioters had virtually disappeared. The simmering rage unleashed upon the streets of Brixton was finally subdued.
Even though the rioting had died down in Brixton it spread to other parts of London and further afield to Toxteth, Moss Side, Handsworth and Chapeltown, the deprived immigrant areas of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds respectively, as well as thirty one other towns and cities across the UK during the summer of 1981. Three months after the rioting police raided homes along Railton Road, an opportunity for the police to begin building bridges with the local community was lost and the mistrust and antagonism continued.