1981 Brixton riot

1981 Brixton riot
1981 Brixton Riots "Bloody Saturday"
1981 Brixton Riots.jpg
"Police block the access to the main area of rioting."
Image: Kim Aldis[1]
Date 11 April 1981
Location Lambeth, South London, England, United Kingdom
Result Ended
Scarman report
Other riots
United Kingdom Metropolitan Police Service Rioters
2,500 5,000?
Casualties and losses
279 injured 45 injured
82 arrested

The 1981 Brixton riot (or Brixton uprising[2]) was a confrontation between the Metropolitan Police and protesters in Lambeth, South London, England, between 10 and 12 April 1981. The main riot on 11 April, dubbed "Bloody Saturday" by TIME magazine,[3]resulted in almost 280* injuries to police and 45* injuries to members of the public;[4] over a hundred vehicles were burned, including 56 police vehicles; and almost 150 buildings were damaged, with thirty burned. There were 82 arrests. Reports suggested that up to 5,000 people were involved.[5]



Brixton in South London was an area with serious social and economic problems. The whole United Kingdom was affected by a recession by 1981, but the local African-Caribbean community was suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate.[6]

In the preceding months there had been growing unease between the police and the inhabitants of Lambeth.[2] In January 1981 a house fire, a suspected racially-motivated arson, had killed a number of black youths in New Cross; the police investigation was criticised as inadequate. Black activists, including Darcus Howe organized a march for the "Black People's Day of Action" on the 2nd March.[7] Accounts of turnout vary from between 5,000[8] to 20[9] to 25,000[10] The marchers walked 17 miles from Deptford to Hyde Park, passing the Houses of Parliament and Fleet Street.[9][11] While the majority of the march finished in Hyde Park without incident, there was some confrontation with police at Blackfriars. Les Back writes that; "While the local press reported the march respectfully, the national papers unloaded the full weight of racial stereotyping."[11] [2] The Evening Standard's front page headline was a photo of a policeman with a bloody face next to a quote from Darcus Howe referring to the march as "A good day". A few weeks later, some of the organizers of the march were arrested, charged with inciting to riot. They were later aquitted.[9] At the beginning of April, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81, a plainclothes operation to reduce crime. Officers were dispatched into Brixton, and within five days around 1,000 people were stopped and searched, and 82 arrested, through the heavy use of the 'sus law' (stop and search powers).[12]


Public disfavour came to a head on 10 April. At around 17:15 a police constable spotted a black youth named Micheal Bailey running away, apparently from three other black youths. Bailey was stopped and found to be badly bleeding, but broke away from the constable. Stopped again on Atlantic Road, Bailey was found to have a four inch stab wound.[13] A crowd gathered and, as the police did not appear to be providing / obtaining the medical help the victim needed fast enough, the crowd tried to intervene. The police then tried to take the wounded youth to a waiting car on Railton Road. The crowd then struggled with the police, which resulted in more police being called in to the area. The youth was then taken to a hospital. Rumours spread that the youth had been left to die by the police, or that the police looked on as the stabbed youth was lying on the street. Over 200 youths, black and white, reportedly turned on the police. In response the police decided to increase the number of police foot patrols in Railton Road, despite the tensions, and carry on with the "Operation Swamp 81" throughout the night of Friday the 10th and into the following day, Saturday the 11th of April.[14]

Saturday and riots

Allegedly it was believed by the local community that the stabbed youth died as a result of police brutality, fuelling tensions throughout the day as crowds slowly gathered. Tensions first erupted around 4pm, as two police officers stopped and searched a mini cab in Railton Road. By this time Brixton Road (Brixton High Street) was reportedly[by whom?] filled with angry people and police cars were pelted with bricks. At around 5pm the tension escalated and spread, and the 9 o'clock BBC News that evening reported 46 police officers injured, five seriously.[15] Shops were looted on Railton Road, Mayall Road, Leeson Road, Acre Lane and Brixton Road. The looting in Brixton reportedly started at around 6pm. At 6.15pm the fire brigade received their first call, as a police van was set on fire by rioters in Railton Road, with the fire brigade being warned "riot in progress". As the fire brigade approached the police cordon, they were waved through without warning, driving down Railton Road towards 300 youths armed with bottles and bricks. The fire brigade met the crowd at the junction between Railton Road and Shakespeare Road and were attacked with stones and bottles.

The police put out emergency calls to police officers across London, asking for assistance. They had no strategy,[citation needed] and only had inadequate helmets and non-fireproof plastic shields to protect themselves with while clearing the streets of rioters. The police reportedly[by whom?] also had difficulties in radio communication. The police proceeded in clearing the Atlantic-Railton-Mayall area by pushing the rioters down the road, forming deep shield walls. The rioters responded with bricks, bottles, and petrol bombs.

At 5.30pm the violence further escalated. Ordinary black and white members of the public attempted to mediate between the police and the rioters, calling for a de-escalation by withdrawing police out of the area. The destructive efforts of the rioters peaked at around 8pm, as those attempts at mediation failed. Two pubs, 26 businesses, schools and other structures were set alight as rioters went on a rampage. Hundreds of local residents were trapped in their houses, locked in by either police or rioters.

By 9.30pm, over 1,000 police were dispatched into Brixton, squeezing out the rioters.[16] By 1.00am on 12 April 1981, the area was largely subdued, with no large groups — except the police — on the streets. The fire brigade refused to return until the following morning. Police numbers grew to over 2,500, and by the early hours of Sunday morning the rioting had fizzled out.[4]


During the disturbances, 299* police were injured, and at least 65* members of the public. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made.[12]

Between 3 and 11 July of that year, there was more unrest fuelled by racial and social discord, at Handsworth in Birmingham, Southall in London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Hyson Green in Nottingham and Moss Side in Manchester. There were also smaller pockets of unrest in Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Bristol, and Edinburgh. Racial tension played a major part in most of these disturbances, although all of the riots took place in areas hit particularly hard by unemployment and recession.

The Scarman Report

The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, commissioned a public inquiry into the riot headed by Lord Scarman. The Scarman report was published by Susana De Freitas 25 November 1981.

Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of 'stop and search' powers by the police against black people. As a consequence, a new code for police behaviour was put forward in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; and the act also created an independent Police Complaints Authority, established in 1985, to attempt to restore public confidence in the police.[17] Scarman concluded that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest".[18]

The 1999 Macpherson Report, an investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the failure of the police to establish sufficient evidence for the prosecution of the charged suspects, found that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report had been ignored. The report concluded that the police force was "institutionally racist".[19] This report, which did not cover the events of the Brixton Riots, disagreed with the conclusions made by Scarman.[20]

BBC Radio 4 broadcast 25 March 2011 reminiscences of participants (both police and black Brixton residents.)[21]

Other rioting

On 13 April, Margaret Thatcher dismissed the notion that unemployment and racism lay beneath the Brixton disturbances claiming "Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened" — although figures showed high unemployment amongst Brixton's black population. Overall unemployment in Brixton stood at 13 percent, with 25.4 percent for ethnic minorities. Unemployment among black youths was estimated at 55 percent. Rejecting increased investment in Britain's inner cities, Thatcher added, "Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony." Lambeth London Borough Council leader, Ted Knight, complained that the police presence "amounted to an army of occupation" that provoked the riots; Thatcher responded, "What absolute nonsense and what an appalling remark ... No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events ... They were criminal, criminal."

Small scale disturbances continued to simmer throughout the summer. The far-right began its own arson campaign against left wing, ethnic minority and Labour Party bookshops and offices.[citation needed] After four nights of rioting in Liverpool during the Toxteth riots, beginning 4 July, there were 150 buildings burnt and 781 police officers injured. CS gas was deployed for the first time on the British mainland to quell the rioting. On 10 July, there was fresh rioting in Brixton. It was not until the end of July that the disturbances began to subside.[17]

The recommendations of the Scarman Report to tackle the problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline were not implemented[18] and rioting would break out again in the 1985 Brixton riot.

Cultural references

See also


  1. ^ Reportage: Brixton Riots 1981
  2. ^ a b c Hibbert, C. and Weinreb, B. (2008). The London encyclopaedia. Macmillan. ISBN 9781405049245. 
  3. ^ Bloody Saturday TIME April 20, 1981. Retrieved on 2009-06-09.
  4. ^ a b "Battle 4 Brixton pt6 of 6". YouTube. 2008-04-22. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqDLg6GEfGg&feature=related. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  5. ^ The GuardianHow smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame, 13 April 1981
  6. ^ Uprising!: Police, the People and the Riots in Britain's Cities
  7. ^ Cornish, Winsome-Grace. "Honouring talent: The Black People’s Day of Action". Operation Black Vote: News,18 Feb 2011. http://www.obv.org.uk/node/3873. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  8. ^ Anim-Addo, Joan (1995). Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham. London: Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd. pp. 137. ISBN 978-1898536215. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Longest-Journey-History-Black-Lewisham/dp/189853621X. 
  9. ^ a b c Szymanski, Jesse. "Darcus Howe, the British Black Panther". Vice Beta, Stuff, August 2011. Vice Media, Inc.. http://www.vice.com/read/darcus-howe-the-british-black-panther. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  10. ^ Bowman, Andy. "A violent eruption of protest’: Reflections on the 1981 Moss Side ‘riots’ (part one)". Manchester Mule, Monday, August 15th 2011. http://manchestermule.com/article/%E2%80%98a-violent-eruption-of-protest%E2%80%99-reflections-on-the-1981-moss-side-%E2%80%98riots%E2%80%99-part-one. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  11. ^ a b Back, Les (2007). Written in Stone: Black British Writing and Goldsmiths College. London: Goldsmiths University of London. pp. 7. http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/back_booklet.pdf. 
  12. ^ a b Brixton Riots, 1981 (MPS) accessed 6 March 2009
  13. ^ Waddington, D.P. (1992). Contemporary issues in public disorder: a comparative and historical approach. Routledge. ISBN 9780415079136. 
  14. ^ Battle for Brixton, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW6kY6HfAqk&NR=1
  15. ^ "Battle 4 Brixton pt3 of 6". YouTube. 2008-04-13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CH5RLEZhXs&feature=related. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  16. ^ "Battle 4 Brixton pt5 of 6". YouTube. 2008-04-19. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa9r25f1yWY&feature=related. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  17. ^ a b 1981 riots timeline Untold History (Channel Four Television) accessed 6 March 2009
  18. ^ a b Q&A: The Scarman Report, 27 April 2004 (BBC News) accessed 4 April 2009
  19. ^ "Q&A: Stephen Lawrence murder". BBC News. 2004-05-05. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3685733.stm. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  20. ^ "Q&A: The Scarman Report". BBC News. 27 April 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/3631579.stm. Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  21. ^ {{url = http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zl4dq/The_Reunion_Brixton_Riots/}}


  • ^* Recorded figures supplied by different sources only give a general idea of numbers actually involved.

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 51°27′35″N 0°06′37″W / 51.45985°N 0.11038°W / 51.45985; -0.11038

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