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The battle between police and residents in Brixton in April 1981 was the most significant outbreak of civil disorder in 20th century London. The disturbances influenced similar outbreaks in the cities of Liverpool, Bradford and Birmingham.
In 1981, Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community comprised roughly 25% of its population. It was an area of high unemployment, particularly for Black men, where rates were as high as 50%. Brixton was also an area of high crime, and in April 1981 the Metropolitan Police initiated ‘Operation Swamp’. Within six days, a massive police presence on the streets had led to almost 1,000 people – mostly young Black men – being stopped and searched.
Police were operating under the ‘sus’ law. In order to stop someone, police needed only ‘sus’, or suspicion, that they might be intending to commit a crime. The police were exempt from the Race Relations Act, and seemed to some to be operating the ‘sus’ laws on the basis of racial prejudice.
On 13th April 1981, Police tried to assist a young Black man who had been stabbed in the back. A rumour circulated that the police were trying to arrest the injured man, rather than take him to hospital.
Tensions rose. The following day, the arrest of another man outside a minicab office sparked violence. Within hours, the streets had become a battle zone.
People threw petrol bombs and set light to police cars. Police in riot gear arrived, as did fire fighters. Buildings were torched, including a school in Effra Road, the Windsor Castle pub, and the post office.
Most of the violence was concentrated along Railton Road, the ‘front line’. Looting began in the evening of the 14th April. By 10pm, the police had begun to regain control of the area, but fighting and looting continued. By the time hostilities subsided, over 360 people had been injured, 28 premises burned and another 117 damaged and looted. Over 100 vehicles, including 56 police vehicles, were damaged during the disturbances. The police arrested 82 people.
Following the riots, a public enquiry was held, under Lord Scarman. His report, published in November 1981, was heavily critical of the Metropolitan Police. Scarman emphasised that policing in a civil society can succeed only with the consent of the community.