SWAMP 81 Ignites National Fury
source: Exploring 20th Century London
published: 4WardEver UK – February 2009
Any news updates will be listed at the foot of this item
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 13 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 14 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. His report prompted new thinking about policing; the creation of the Police Complaints Authority; and a new outlook on police recruitment and training. Despite these measures, violence broke out on Brixton’s streets again a few years later.
On 25 September 1985, police shot Mrs Cherry Groce in error while looking for a man in connection with a robbery. The incident fuelled a new wave of anger in the community, many of whom felt that the police had not learnt the lessons of 1981.
Rioters barricaded Brixton Road, setting fire to the cars. Shops in Brixton were firebombed and looted. One person was killed and 50 people injured. Over 200 people were arrested. Mrs Groce spent two years in hospital and was permanently disabled as a result of the shooting.
Both events, although painful in the short term, left more positive long-term legacies. Clive Banton, who was 18 in 1981, remembers, “I can see the riots made us into stronger people, with a sense of self-respect. We didn’t have the opportunities that my children have, and I think things would have stayed bad if we didn’t finally decide to stand firm”.
Brixton Riots, 10-12th April 1981
1981: Brixton riots report blames racial tension
BBC On This Day
The Scarman Report : Facing the ugly facts
17 February 1999