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Fri, 04.10.1981

The age of discontent, the Brixton Riots

On this date in 1981, the Brixton Riots occurred. This was the first near deadly English race riots of the 20th century and the first since the formation of the Metropolitan Police in Britain.

Earlier that year crime in Lambeth caused the District Commander to establish a plainclothes operation known as Operation Swamp 81. This meant a significant number of Blacks were stopped and searched. This intensified Black resentment as they had already frequently protested against and obstructed police actions on the street.

On the day before, PC Margottia (L 643) tried to help a Black youth who had been stabbed.  The young man thought he was being arrested, and broke away with the help of three other youths. Two more officers caught up with him, gave him first aid and summoned an ambulance by radio. Before it could arrive, a crowd of Blacks hustled him out of police protection and took him to St Thomas's Hospital by car. The policemen who had tried to help the youth were hit with bricks and bottles, and four police cars coming to their aid were attacked. The disturbance lasted over an hour during which time 6 people were arrested and 6 police officers injured.

Rumors spread that the police officers had refused to help the injured young man, that they had tried to prevent him from being taken for treatment, and they had been responsible for his injuries. As a result there was more tension in the district when the Operation Swamp searches were continued the next day. The riot was triggered by the actions of two young PCs who saw a man putting something in his socks, and searched him for drugs. Although he protested that he merely kept his money in his socks for safety, they searched his car, and walked round it to check the tax disc and license plates.

To the small crowd which had gathered, this appeared as offensive authoritarianism to the officers. Violence broke out, eventually centering on Railton Road, where the police regained control after many buildings and cars had been set on fire and the Fire Brigade had been attacked. 299 police were injured and at least 65 civilians. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 building were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made.

Molotov cocktails were thrown for the first time on mainland Britain. There had been no such event in England in living memory. Lord Scarman was appointed by the Home Secretary to hold a Public Inquiry. The report concentrated on the policing, but made it clear that the riot was an outburst of violence against the police, and local community leaders and police should share the blame for the breakdown in communications.

It also stated that the police needed to be better organized for riot control, and made clear the extent to which increasing unemployment coupled with discrimination against the Black community were vital contributing factors.

Reference:
New Scotland Yard,
Broadway, London,
SW1H 0BG

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