Brixton in 1981 was a place where unemployment and deprivation were exceptionally high; an area with a high population of people of African and Caribbean origin; and with a high crime rate. The police to counter that crime decided to flood the streets with officers using the controversial ‘sus’ legislation to stop and search anyone on mere suspicion: the title of the operation – Swamp ’81 – highlights its heavy-handedness. Increasing resentment at the searches led to tension that only awaited a spark to ignite the whole district. That spark came in the afternoon of April 10.
At about 5pm police officers were, somewhat ironically given the aftermath, assisting a young black man who had been stabbed. A crowd gathered and immediately took the incident to be one of police brutality. Sometimes contradictory rumours raced around Brixton – the man had been left to die by the police; he had died from a police assault. The police reaction was to send more officers and continue the stop and search campaign.
The next day seemingly inevitably the area erupted into rioting: some may be called political in origin, barricades being made and defiance of the law demonstrated; some was openly criminal, allegedly with gangs planning looting heading for the area: the first target was indeed not political - a trainer outlet.
The fire brigade was called, and ambulances to care for those hurt, the majority of them police. All the emergency services were targeted by rioters. Mediation by community leaders failed; Brixton descended into anarchy, with many businesses and even local schools petrol-bombed.
By the early hours of April 12 about 1,000 police were on the streets, and more than 80 arrests were made. The riot gradually died down.
Lord Scarman was commissioned by the Conservative government to report on the causes. Contrary to Margaret Thatcher ’s stance after the riot he found political, economic and social factors had fuelled what some termed an uprising. He cited ‘racial disadvantage’ as another factor. Changes in policing followed his report; but four years later Brixton erupted in rioting again .
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