Today in London’s rebel history: Second mass riot of the year, Brixton, 1981

As mass protests rock the USA against racist police killings… And thousands march in Brixton in solidarity… We remember events there 35 years ago today. Police violence continues: so does the resistance.

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After the seminal April 1981 Brixton Riot, the summer of ’81 saw a wave of riots, rebellions and uprisings across Britain. An explosion of rage and frustration against repressive policing, increasing poverty, and authority in general.

There was an amazing atmosphere throughout the country as riots kicked off everywhere: feeling of anticipation, where would rioting happen next… also spread of rumours (sometimes wildly exaggerated), of riots in other places, of National Front marches in response. In Walworth there were rumours of 10,000 NF marching, that trouble was going off in Lewisham, Greenwich, Battersea, Brixton… while “the citizens of Lewisham, Greenwich, Battersea, Brixton were at that moment believing the pillaging was taking place in the Walworth Road… Rumour, counter-rumour, fantasies and dreams… If someone was told a story then they just a little more to it and passed it on to somebody else…”

Press headlines definitely whipped it up, and rioters were conscious of making an impact in the media, eg Wood Green rioters played radio reports of other riots back at the cops facing them in the street, to wind them up.

In Brixton itself, tense and on edge since April, the cops were unpredictable, sometimes playing it ‘softly softly’ in case it went off again, sometimes turning up in numbers. A resident at the time wrote: “Police numbers have visibly decreased, but detectives are numerous and everywhere.” Houses were raided looking for looted goods from the April do, and most of those arrested in April were banned from Railton Road as part of their bail conditions.

People were waiting for the area to erupt again. In the last week of May “it nearly happened again! Policeman allegedly got a brick in the nose, and the perpetrator of this horrific crime escaped into no 50 Mayall Road… 2 coachloads of cops arrived and within minutes the street was full of cops and people. The cops withdrew as they were shit scared.”

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at the 121 Bookshop received a visit. “3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’””

For a wondrous romp through the riots of 1981, as well as a (only slightly dated) theoretical analysis of it all, BM Blob’s ‘Like A Summer With a Thousand Julys’ can’t be beat.

“AMMUNITION, BRING AMMUNITION!”

Over a week of urban insurrection began on July 3rd when heavy-handed policing sparked a riot in Liverpool 8… Scores of cities and towns went up all over the place.

On Friday 10th July 81, symbolically a few hours after Lord Scarman finished Part One of his inquiry into the April riot, fighting broke out in Brixton again.

At about 4pm on the Friday, DJ Lloyd Coxsone and a mate were nicked for obstruction in Vining Street, after trying to intervene in the arrest of a Rasta called Maliki over a dodgy tax disc. Their arrests sparked off another confrontation between youth and the cops on the Frontline. (Ironically, Coxsone, an internationally famous Rasta DJ/toaster, pal of Bob Marley and owner of a record shop in Coldharbour Lane, had formed part of a Peace Committee formed after the April riot to try to “act as a channel of communication between local youths and police”. Since neither side wanted to talk, this olive branch had withered rapidly.)

Within minutes a barricade had been built across Atlantic Road. Chief Superintendent Bob Marsh tried to calm the crowd… who promptly charged him and his goons, chasing them back to Coldharbour Lane… a panda and an unmarked car arrived, along with reinforcements on foot, but both vehicles were quickly overturned and set on fire. A middle aged Jamaican urged the crowd on, shouting “Ammunition, bring ammunition!” At the same time (4.30), while ‘community leaders’ used a megaphone to try and persuade people to go home, announcing that Coxsone had been released, (he and two others were later cleared of obstructing and assaulting police) a group had already started looting Ratners jewellers in Atlantic Road, following this up with some spontaneous window shopping at Curry’s in Electric Lane, using a metal battering ram to stave in Woolworth’s doors (the manager and some staff “armed ourselves with shovels and retreated to the roof”), and some free clothes shopping at Burtons and The Baron.

Police tactics were noticeably different from April: instead of withdrawing from the Frontline, and sealing it off from outside, they formed squads of about 12, commanded by a sergeant, whose job it was to chase groups gathering and disperse them from Central Brixton.

Initially they attempted to push rioters out up Brixton Hill, and Effra Road, but crowds just escaped down the side streets and regrouped. By 8.30 though the centre was cleared, and the cops started sealing off Acre Lane and Coldharbour Lane.

Heartwarmingly reporters were attacked… a South London Press hack and his photographer were done over as the aspiring David Bailey tried to get an action shot of kids pulling a security grille off a shopfront.

After refusing polite requests to hand over the film, they received a short sharp lesson in not poking their nose where it wasn’t wanted.

42 people were nicked in Brixton on 10th July, and 31 Police hurt; but trouble was breaking out all over South London and the country…

Camberwell Magistrates Court was a tad busy on Monday and Tuesday: over 200 people appeared in court, having been picked up in Brixton, Streatham, Battersea, and Peckham over the weekend.

The night of 14 July was quiet, but on 15 July the police staged a massive raid on eleven houses (mainly squats) in the heart of the front line in Railton Road where the hottest fighting had taken place. They had warrants for bomb-making equipment, but didn’t find any, although they succeeded in smashing furniture, toilets, stereos, TVs, windows, with axes and crowbars, and ransacked several houses, including a newly renovated Railton Youth Club house (done up at a cost of £4000 from the Inner City partnership, a government attempt to pacify anger in the area. The Left hand giveth, and the Right hand smasheth up.) Railton Free Off Licence got done over (free beer for the filth). The raid took 176 policemen with 391 standing by, and it netted five people charged with possession of cannabis and one with obstruction. That was worth it then… According to L Division’s Commander Fairbairn, “a reliable source” had given them addresses of illegal drinking clubs and houses where petrol bombs were stored. Since local cops knew where the blues clubs were anyway, and no mollies were found (like we keep them under the sink), maybe this was the same “reliable source” who informed police and press that white outsiders had directed the riots…

Yet another night of rioting followed. 100 or so people fought the cops in Railton Road, building a corrugated iron barricade with burning wood behind it, and chucking the molotovs the cops had somehow missed in the searches. But the aggro lasted barely an hour and a half, as the cops contained the confrontation, beating back attacks and sending another force down from the Herne Hill end. By midnight they had moved up the Frontline, slowly, being pelted all the while. Shortly after they dismantled the barricade.

The cops were better prepared and equipped than in April. The increase in cop numbers on streets on April 11th led to a shortage of personal radios… so many officers were isolated and unable to communicate with each other/superiors… This led to tactical advantages for rioters, and also left cops feeling demoralized and under-supported. Many were not from Brixton and thus in hostile and unfamiliar territory. Also there had been a basic shortage of equipment: no helmets, riot shields etc. Many cops were going down especially to head injuries. In July cops were readier for trouble, and riot shields and helmets were on hand. The tactic to disperse any groups of rioters gathering worked effectively in most cases.

An excerpt from the updated and expanded edition of ‘We Want to RIOT, Not to WORK’: The April 1981 Brixton Riot, republished by past tense… Available from us at our publications page

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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