A house fire in January 1981, in nearby New Cross, saw a number of black youths killed. Some believed that the fire, far from an accident, had been the result of a racially motivated arson attack and anger quickly spread at the unwillingness of the police to investigate the possibility.
What happened next in a battle between police and residents was to become one of the most significant outbreaks of civil disorder in 20th Century London. Police continued operating their hated 'sus' laws, where in order to stop someone, police only needed suspicion. At the time the police were exempt from the Race Relations Act, and many people targeted were from the ethnic community, which led to accusations of racial prejudice. It left many people feeling humiliated, with a sense of indignity and rage, many young men, had also been savagely beaten by the police. Police were said to have mounted a campaign of harassment against the black community in south London that one former officer claims amounted to "torture".There was a general feeling of bitterness and resentment, with many believing that the Conservative Thatcher Government were using the police as its military wing , and that they were under siege.
After arrests were made tensions rose again, igniting violence which spread across the streets. The streets of Brixton became a battle zone. After police arrived in full riot gear, people started gathering to throw makeshift petrol bombs and set light to police cars. For three days, rioters - predominately young, black men - fought police, attacked buildings and set fire to vehicles.
By the time hostilities had ended, over 360 people had been injured, 28 premises burned and another 177 damaged and looted. The police arrested 82 people. To the largely Afro-Caribbean demonstrators it was a “show of strength” against police brutality, deep rooted social and economic problems ,high unemployment and institutionalised racism, and perilous tensions exacerbated by discriminatory tactics by the police.
After the riots a police enquiry was held under Lord Scarman , his report issued on November 25 1981 placed the Brixton Riots into the context of racial disadvantage faced by young blacks. It also blamed the police for escalating the tensions and called on law enforcement agencies to in the future consult and co-operate with the Brixton community. But 4 years on 25 September 1985, police shot Mrs Cherry Groce in error while looking for a man in connection with a robbery. The incident fuelled a new wave of anger in the community, many of whom felt that the police had not learnt the lessons of 1981.
Rioters barricaded Brixton Road, setting fire to the cars. Shops in Brixton were firebombed and looted. One person was killed and 50 people injured. Over 200 people were arrested. Mrs Groce spent two years in hospital and was permanently disabled as a result of the shooting.
There have been many many miscarriages of justice since. the death of reggae singer Smiley Culture for instance and Roger Sylvester, a mentally ill thirty-year-old beaten to death by the police in 1999 while under hospital restraint (he had been detained for apparently wanting to kick down his own front door), lest we forget Mikey Powell who die in police custody in 2003 and the flawed investigation into the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence. Many Black lives too are still in danger in police custody.
36 years later Brixton, seems a transformed place, marked by gentrification,now teeming with boutique food stalls, starbucks, and restaurants and new bespoke housing developments. But there are many lessons to be learned. Many of these new developments are simply out reach financially for most locals. Police racism continues, as does unemployment and poverty. And in spite of a government drive to bring more people into work, unemployment among ethnic minority communities is still twice the general rate.Capitalist society still suffers from a sickness that breeds ,the big criminals of the land get rich and fat, get rewarded for their crimes (ie the bankers) whilst the poorer members of our communities are stigmatised, getting poorer, punished because of the greedy. And though Margaret Thatcher is long dead, her polices and ideas that helped ignite these past troubles still lingers on through our current incumbents. Unrest can easily be fermented, when conditions on the streets are ignored. Riots that have happened since, like those seen in Brixton do not happen without a reason.
Hiatus - Insurrection (feat. Linton Kwesi Johnson)