Police & Community Relations – Part 1 – The Brixton Riots 1981

This is the first part of a staged Blog that I am writing covering community relations between the police and the communities that we serve. I have started with the Brixton Riots as feel that this was a very important mile stone in British history and the events of April 1981 can in some ways be linked to the recent rioting.

I will be examining what happened, why it happened, the lessons learned and what has changed since then. I hope that the mixture of text and video interviews is informative and educational.

London, January 1981.

A party is under way at 439 New Cross Road and in attendance are a number of black youths. It was Sunday the 18th of January, and it was a birthday party for one of the occupiers and they had music on as is the case in many parties. People were enjoying themselves but nothing could prepare the party goers for what would happen later that night.

Complaints had been received early on in the evening about the noise levels coming from the party. At this time in history racial tension was at an all time high and groups such as the National Front were active.

The noise coming from the party continued into the night and at some point a fire started at the house that resulted in the death of 13 black youths. The Community were very quick to say that the fire was intentional and that the black people had been targeted by a racist (although to this day this theory has never been proven and no one has been convicted). This video explains more.

The Country was in recession. Unemployment amongst African Caribbean members of the community was high (higher than white people) and the quality of housing was poor. Combined,  the above lead to an increase of criminality as people struggled with little or no money.

Over the next few months the Metropolitan Police investigation into the fire at 439 New Cross Road was critised by the community. Allegations were made that the Police did not care about the fire, covered things up, and did not treat the investigation seriously. This lead to increased tensions between the community and the Police as to put it bluntly the public did not trust the police.

On the 2nd of March 1981 a demonstration took place that had been arranged. It was the Black Peoples Day of Action. The demonstration itself was fairly successful with only a small amount of disorder taking place, however what did not help was negative reporting by the media.

The media reports that followed would only succeed in increasing tension further and it created a larger divide between the public and the police. Things were made worse when the Metropolitan Police arrested and charged the demonstration organisers with Inciting a Riot. These charges were subsequently dropped at a later stage.

Worried about the increase in offences such as Robbery at the beginning of April 1981 the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Swamp 81. This was a operation that saw plain clothed police officers literally swamp the Lambeth Borough. People were subjected to stop searches under the Sus Law Power of 1824. Type this into a search engine to see a full description of this power.

This operation would turn out to be the start of a massive revolt against the Metropolitan Police. In the first few days of Operation Swamp 81 nearly 1000 stop and searches took place on the streets of Lambeth, most on black people.  This created further resentment towards the Police and this video will help you to understand the reasons why.

The 10th of April 1981 signalled the start of what was to become a full blown riot. Pc Margottia was on patrol in Lambeth and came across a black youth who had been stabbed. Pc Margottia tried to help the stabbed youth but was unsuccessful. This was because the youth, who feared he was being arrested ran away.

This youth was stopped by two more officers in a neighbouring street. The two officers had done what limited things they could do to help the stabbed youth and were waiting for a Ambulance to arrive. Before the Ambulance arrived a group of black youths had seen what was happening and had failed to see that the officers were trying to help the stabbed youth and as a result they ganged up on the officers to “rescue” the stabbed youth.

The two officers then came under attack from bricks and bottles. Rumours started to circulate that the two officers had refused to help the stabbed youth, that they had prevented him from being treated, and even that the two officers had even caused the injury themselves!

The violence on the street lasted for roughly a hour and a half and by the end of it six arrests had been made and six police officers had been injured.

Operation Swamp 81 had continued throughout the night. The following day was the worst day and was later described as being the “first serious disorder in the history of the Met”!

Two officers witnessed a man conceal something inside of his sock and decided to investigate. They stopped the man and conducted a search of him under the Sus Law of 1824. The man claimed that he kept money in his sock for safe keeping. Having searched the man and finding nothing illegal the officers then searched his car.

A group of bystanders took offence to this and started throwing missiles at the officers. This developed into a full riot that would later be called Bloody Saturday.

As many as 5000 people took to the streets. 2500 Police Officers from across London rushed to the area to try and keep the peace. It was war between the black community and the people they hated – The Metropolitan Police.

Full scale rioting continued until it ended on the 12th of April 1981. It  had resulted in 280 police officers being injured, 45 protesters being injured, and 56 police vehicles being burned out. Buildings had been looted and set on fire, people had been robbed and Brixton ended up looking like a war zone.

The riots happened for a number of reasons that collectively  took the community to breaking point. Within days of the rioting ending the Government ordered a report into the riots which was to detail recommendations to prevent further disorder. This report was called the Scarman Report and I will be examining the Scarman Report and what it contained in the next stage of this Blog.

Thank you for reading and if you would like email notification of the release of the next part of this Blog please click on the Follow button at the top right hand side of the Blog page.

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