Between 10-12 April 1981, the streets of Brixton were ablaze as its largely African and Caribbean population engaged in street warfare with the Metropolitan Police. In the hours leading up to the outbreak of violence, whispers of yet another young black man dead in police custody were all it took to light the touchpaper. Faced with disproportionately high unemployment, poor housing and overwhelming discrimination from authorities, the Brixton uprising symbolised the outcry of a community long marginalised and impoverished. The election of Thatcher in 1979—and the neoliberal, authoritarian status quo it brought— served to deepen the crisis facing black youth in Brixton.
The black community’s deep-seated resentment towards the police had been triggered earlier in the year after the deaths of thirteen young black people in a fire in New Cross. ‘Thirteen dead and nothing said’ was the slogan of demonstrators who raged at the reluctance of the police to investigate what appeared to be a racist arson attack. As a result of this perceived inaction by the police, the community took it upon themselves to demand justice. Over twenty thousand people marched through the streets of London on the Black People’s Day of Action, 2 March 1981. The right-wing British press rushed to print the following day: ‘Day the blacks ran riot in London’, read The Sun, ‘When the black tide met the thin blue line’, read The Daily Express.
Alongside the threat of racist attacks from organised white mobs (spurred in part by the rise of the National Front), it was the daily racism and brutality at the hands of the police that engendered animosity from the black community. Poverty naturally led to a rise in street crime, and with the media whipping up a moral panic over the rise of street ‘muggings’ (at the time, a heavily racialised term implicating young, working-class black men), police officers flooded Brixton in an infamous operation that would spark the uprising itself.
Operation Swamp 81
While the uprising had its roots in the latent socio-economic hardships faced by the black community in Brixton, tensions with the police intensified after the authorisation of the perversely named ‘Operation Swamp 81’ at the beginning of April. The operation’s name echoed Prime Minister Thatcher’s words, who, in January 1978, declared that ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.’ Such insidious, racist rhetoric further emboldened white hate groups such as the National Front while providing the justification for the expansion of racist policing tactics such as stop-and-search.
Over a period of ten days, more than 100 secret police officers infiltrated the community. They set about harassing the black population, stopping and searching thousands of black people and making 150 arrests. This was facilitated by the widely reviled ‘sus’ laws, which permitted a police officer to stop and search an individual simply on the grounds of ‘suspicious’ behaviour or ‘loitering with intent’ to commit a crime. A relic of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, once used to target those dispossessed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, its scope was widened to target a new ‘underclass’—the urban black youth.
Street searches were often violent, degrading and arbitrary. Operation Swamp 81 amounted to an occupation of Brixton by the Metropolitan Police, with some residents reporting being stopped as many as three times a day. The then-police Sergeant Brian Paddick remarked that ‘we were an occupying army’ when describing the massive police presence across Brixton. Faced with mounting violence at the hands of the police, it would take little to trigger a revolt.
As the sun shone on 10 April 1981, a young Michael Bailey was apprehended by the police and found to be suffering from a stab wound. Attempting to flee from police captivity, a crowd began to form as Bailey sought a nearby taxi destined for the hospital. The long-standing hostilities between the police and the community, heightened by the recent campaign of street harassment, meant that it did not take long for rumours to spread of yet another young black death at the hands of the police. While the community’s anger brewed, the police operation of daily intimidation and harassment continued.
Eyewitness reports from the morning of 11 April describe the behaviour of the police as deliberately provocative and aggressive. Officers were seen assaulting unassuming young black people in the street and subjecting them to racial epithets. One account describes police entering a shop and beating the black occupants inside, while another recounts a black man being shoved to the ground by police while merely standing on his doorstep.
By 5pm, the community, sick of constant police harassment, rose up and fought back. Bricks were hurled at police cars while youths scuffled with officers on the streets. As night fell on Brixton, open street warfare commenced. Molotov cocktails were thrown at riot police while widespread destruction ensued. For two days, fires blazed across Brixton as black youths did battle with the police, who had been largely overwhelmed by the scale of the revolt.
It would take the deployment of over 2500 officers from across the country to quell the uprising by the morning of 12th April. In all, hundreds of buildings were damaged, almost 300 police officers were reported ‘injured’ and around 80 arrests were made.
Legendary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson immortalised the events of the uprising in the now-iconic dub poem Di Great Insoreckhan:
‘…it woz event af di year
an I wish I ad been dere
wen wi run riot all ova Brixtan
wen wi mash-up-plenty police van
wen wi mash-up di wicked man plan
wen wi mash-up di Swamp Eighty Wan
fi mek di rulah dem andahstan
dat wi naw tek noh more a dem oppreshan.’
Johnson’s verses make clear that the devastation wrought was an expression of the voiceless and oppressed, who were no longer content to sit idly by as they lived under crushing poverty, racism and police brutality.
Events in Brixton inspired African and Caribbean communities across Britain to follow suit. The summer of ‘81 saw uprisings in the predominantly black areas of Toxteth in Liverpool, Moss Side in Manchester and Handsworth in Birmingham—each stemming from a long-standing resentment of the police, alongside the ongoing hardships of unemployment and impoverishment.
As the dust settled and the embers of burnt-out police cars smouldered, even Thatcher’s Conservative government could no longer outright ignore the voices of the black community. In a move familiar to all as the method of choice for governments wishing to appear as though they are taking an issue seriously, an inquiry was commissioned. As it became known, the Scarman Report acknowledged the socio-economic inequalities that influenced the uprising but refused to directly identify the institutionally racist nature of the police, instead reducing the issue down to ‘ill-considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions of some officers’ and an ‘unwitting discrimination against black people.’
It would not be until over a decade later that the 1999 Macpherson Report (commissioned in the aftermath of the death of Stephen Lawrence) that the term ‘institutional racism’ would be used to describe the police. As is tradition, these inquiries were received with a pantomime of solemnity, with the police commissioner of the day vowing to make whatever changes deemed necessary to ‘restore trust’ in the police. The reality we face today illustrates that however many reports or inquiries are commissioned, the police are a fundamentally unreformable institution.
A quarter of a century after the Macpherson report, the Casey Report recently concluded what many deem to be common knowledge: that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic. Today, black people are stopped and searched at a rate six times higher than white people, with black children subjected to the abusive, invasive and traumatising practice of strip-searching at eleven times the rate of their white peers, indicating very little has changed since the days of ‘sus’ laws.
The Brixton uprising was an explosion of rebellion against oppression, deprivation and brutality at the hands of the racist police. Since then, only the uproar across Britain following the murder of Mark Duggan by the Met in 2011 has come close to the levels of destruction witnessed in 1981. Following the widely-discredited 2021 Sewell Report (which concluded that institutional racism had been eradicated) and the response of the police to the Casey Report (refusing to accept its institutional racism, sexism and homophobia), it is clear that those in power are prepared to close their eyes and cover their ears when faced with even the mildest criticism.
Communities across Britain, however, have remained determined to make their voices heard. The recent avalanche of fury from the local community in the wake of the abuse of Child Q indicates that while not nearly enough has changed since 1981, community solidarity remains steadfast in the face of oppression.