Rife with Racism – The 1981 Brixton Riots

Brixton. An inner-city suburb of London lit in flames from April 10th-11th, 1981. A battleground between black youths and police. How did it get to this, and why was race made the focus?

A battle between the police and the Brixton's black community - http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-13015934

A battle between the police and Brixton’s black community – http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-13015934

The presence of Caribbean immigrants in Britain had always been treated as a ‘problem’ by British governments. They were concerned that black communities could potentially provoke racial conflict. This concern was given credence with the 1958 Notting Hill riots, where the white community formed violent mobs and burned down the homes of Caribbean immigrants.

Following this, consecutive British governments passed restrictive immigration legislation in 1962 and 1971. Caribbean immigration subsequently decreased but the ‘problem’ posed by the settled black communities remained. Race relations legislation was passed by the Wilson government in 1965, 1968 and 1975 outlawing racial discrimination but these were not effectively enforced. Racism continued to dog the black communities but was becoming increasingly less tolerated by the younger generations who had been born and raised in Britain.

Tension in Brixton was heating up by the mid-1970s, made worse by Britain’s unemployment crisis. It had a particularly severe and damaging impact on the black youth in Brixton who became active on the streets, a result of their unemployment-induced boredom. This put them in regular contact with the police, some of whom stereotyped black youths as criminals.

Crucially, black youths began to believe that their encounters with the racial prejudice of some police officers were indicative of a state imposing and accepting racism. Black youths felt that they were marginalised because of their race and if this wasn’t the case, then why did they experience the same disadvantages as their migrant parents?The impression that the state was imposing racial discrimination and painting them as an ‘enemy within’ meant that the struggle against racism would manifest as a struggle against the state.

By 1981, the disadvantages faced by Brixton’s black community were a part of their history and their lived experience. The frustrations from these experiences were a time-bomb and the spark was provided by the police operation ‘Swamp 81’ which ‘stopped and searched’ black youths on the grounds of suspicious behaviour. Stereotyped by the police as criminals in such a visible way, is it any wonder then that rioting ensued?

Britain’s racialised political and social landscape ensured that descriptions of the riots would all draw upon race.

Brixton’s black community described the riots as the result of an accumulated frustration stemming from their racial marginalisation. This drew upon their racial identity; an identity which was based on the experiences of being ‘black’. The frustration they referenced drew on historical memories of racial discrimination alongside present-day experiences of racism. The awareness that racial discrimination had not improved impelled their actions. In the words of one rioter, frustration had been “building up since the 1960s, since our parents came here. My generation thought no”.

The riots manifested as a domestic colonial battle between the indigenous black youths and an invading police force. The rioting took place in an area colloquially known as the ‘Front Line’. It was a cultural haven for black youths and was under threat by a police ‘invasion’ under operation ‘Swamp 81’. The black community understood this as an attempt by the racist state to impose their rules and values, hence the struggle to prevent this.

Commissioned by the Thatcher government to investigate the Brixton riots, Lord Scarman noted that the riots were a consequence of social disadvantage and the poor decisions made by the police. Scarman constructed black youths as a distinct racial group requiring ‘special needs’ in his report. The deprivation in Brixton was argued to be, in part, caused by the ‘weaker’ culture of black families who lacked the capacity to overcome their disadvantages. Specific recommendations were made to provide ‘ethnic minority opportunities’ whilst the police force was expected to stamp out racial prejudice and promote the recruitment of black police officers. Only be addressing the distinct needs of the black community could further violence be prevented.

Scarman discussed the riots with residents of Brixton to understand their perspectives - http://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/jan/20/lord-scarman-brixton-human-rights

Scarman discussed the riots with residents of Brixton to understand their perspectives – http://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/jan/20/lord-scarman-brixton-human-rights

The Thatcher government was quite evasive with their understanding of what caused the riots. They did not publicly draw on race in their descriptions and ruled out unemployment as a major cause. However, what was emphasised was that the riots were a law and order issue.

Thatcher and her Home Secretary William Whitelaw stated that the riots were unjustifiable actions made by criminals but concentrating on the pathological characteristics of the rioters meant that the Thatcher government unconsciously drew on race. As criminals, black youths were positioned as a subversive force, an ‘enemy within’, and a danger to the British values and culture protected by their laws. These laws had to be upheld, in Thatcher’s eyes, to ensure that British society remained civilised. Almost unconsciously, the Thatcher government perceived the riots as a racial challenge to British cultural hegemony.

The lessons learnt from the Brixton riots are many. They reveal the dangers of stereotyping and what can happen when the plight of a community is ignored and tacitly accepted as normal.

The most important lesson, however, is contained within the racialised descriptions of the Brixton riots. The Brixton riots serve as a powerful example of how historical experiences can combine with present-day conditions to shape attitudes and direct action. The Brixton riots demonstrate that the past is never irrelevant, and it must be considered to move forward.


Gilroy, Paul. ‘There Ain’t No Jack In The Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics Of Race And Nation. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1987.

Scarman, Leslie George. The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10-12 April 1981. London: Pelican Books, 1986.

Solomos, John. Black Youth, Racism And The State: The Politics Of Ideology And Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tyler, Imogen “Designed To Fail: A Biopolitics Of British Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 14, no. 1 (2010): pp. 61-74.

Further Reading

The Battle For Brixton. Directed by Helen Littleboy. 2006. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwGscMQk_zY)

Paul, Kathleen. Whitewashing Britain: Race And Citizenship In The Postwar Era. New York: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Solomos, John. Race And Racism In Britain. Second Edition. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1993.

Vinen, Richard. Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics And Social Upheaval Of The Thatcher Era. London: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

3 comments on “Rife with Racism – The 1981 Brixton Riots

  1. samuelosullivan says:

    It seems to me that the language used around race and riots or unrest when there is a racial issue hasn’t changed much. Those who are disadvantaged- in this case the afro Caribbean immigrants- have known about the discrimination for some time and when they speak out against it they are blamed for causing trouble and are labelled as the problem. It’s not overly surprising that the government report would criticise those immigrant families and shift the blame away from the state and onto them by criticising their families. The same evasiveness still happens in modern states, the events in Ferguson are an obvious example of riots where the oppressed groups are blamed for causing the problems which they are protesting against. A good piece and an important one as the issues are still alive and well.

  2. lucyrich752 says:

    What an interesting topic in terms of its relatability to modern society and Australia around the same time, Pete. It makes me wonder about the legacy of the riots and the attitudes which are firmly held even today. I found interesting the way you linked ‘boredom’ and the idea of a group of people being pushed into a metaphorical corner with the reaction that occurred. It is amazing what a person/group will do when threatened or not given a way out!

    It is a shame that, despite our best efforts, racism and racial segregation still occurs in developed countries. These are the ones which have the means to deal with such a problem and spur change, yet in-built racist mechanics often create unnecessary barriers. I wonder where we will be in another forty years in terms of racism and even sexism, which I am sure Thatcher would have had a lot to comment on! Great topic, Pete, and I was really interested to read about the root causes of the riots you discovered.

  3. […] song would pre-date the infamous riots in Brixton in the following decade. Simonon sings with anger and it helps to make an impact on the […]

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