Brixton Riots: a 40-year anniversary

For anyone who has seen Steve McQueen’s brilliant series Small Axe, you may be familiar with the Brixton riots of 1981. The episode entitled ‘Alex Wheatle’ is based on the true story of one of the rioters, who was arrested and jailed for his participation.

Wheatle was involved in what has been called one of the most devastating civil disturbances to occur in English history. The riots resulted in more than 320 people being injured and £7.5 million worth of damage.

Like the recent Black Lives Matter resurgence, the riots occurred over racial tensions between the police and the Black community. Those living in Brixton felt something had been bubbling for a while. In order to tackle street crime, there had been serious over-policing; stop and Search powers were used disproportionately to question young Black men, as were charges of “loitering with suspicion to commit a criminal offence”. Operation Swamp 81 saw 150 people arrested by plain clothes officers that patrolled the streets between 2 and 11 pm daily. Coupled with disproportionately high unemployment in Brixton, anger over the treatment of minorities were high.

On April 11th 1981, a rumour emerged about a young Black man who was prevented from accessing treatment for his stab wound by the police. Whispers went round Brixton that he had died as a result. Many went to confront the police and when some were arrested, violence erupted. All the frustration and anger among the Black community could no longer be contained and exploded into what the participants felt was an uprising.

To those that the papers called ‘rioters’, their actions were not mindless violence. It was protest. They were standing up for their community, shedding light on their mistreatment. It was considered by those involved to be just and right, and some today argue that without it, we would not have the British BLM movement.

With such fury, you may expect Brixton to have been a turning point. It wasn’t. Though it may have been a form of catharsis for the Black community and provided the confidence to fight on, the rest of the UK continued as normal. A report on the riots admitted racial disadvantage was a fact of British life but refused to accept there was institutional racism among the police. It wasn’t until 12 years later, in the aftermath of the murder of Stephan Lawrence, that this was acknowledged. Even then, nothing much was actually done. 18 years after Lawrence’s death, Mark Duggan was murdered. This led to the 2011 London riots. Again, little changed. 9 years after that, not only did we still have to remind people Black people are as worthy of life as white people are, but we were met with resistance and argument by people who thought that asking for the most basic of rights was just a little too much. If that doesn’t make you feel sick to your core, if that doesn’t make you angry, I can’t imagine what will. I don’t even want to.

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