• Beyond the Canvas

The Brixton riots 40 years on

"I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. A riot is the language of the unheard." Martin Luther King, Jr.


This, of course, is true for America and anywhere else a minority is affected and marginalised by structural racism and social inequalities. With its hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric and authoritarian agenda, Thatcher Britain weaponised systemic racialised over-policing against Black communities, abusing stop and search powers with anyone suspected to have committed a crime.


Things finally came to a head in 1981 when Operation Swamp was launched to curb street crime in the streets of Brixton, South London. On April 10th, no fewer than 100 Met Police officers descended on Brixton (talk about swamping) and started picking up Black men for simply walking in the street. They could so they did. A total of 943 were stopped and searched in only 5 days. This unprecedented level of policing heightened tensions in an area that was plagued by mass unemployment and where tempers were brewing. Things quickly escalated into full-scale riots: petrol bombs, attacks on retail premises, deployment of police dogs, destroyed vehicles and dozens of injured people. Brixton, the centre of the UK's Black community, was ablaze. At the end of a 4-day ordeal, the police had used 7,000 officers to quell the disturbances involving over 5,000 people, of which 282 were arrested, most of whom Black.


The enquiry into the Brixton events led by Lord Scarman concluded 'racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life' was to blame. He recommended 'urgent action' to ensure that racial disadvantage did not become an 'endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society'. Thinking of race relations in the UK, here's just a few things I have recently witnessed: the Prime Minister failing to display any empathy for the victims of the Grenfell Fire and a member of his cabinet saying they lacked common sense. I’ve also heard said PM declare the problem with Africa is that the British are no longer in charge. And meanwhile, many Windrush scandal victims are still awaiting compensation.


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Police officers make an arrest on the second day of riots in Brixton, London, 13th April 1981. Photo by David Levenson /Simon Dack/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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