Brixton 1981: Riots, memory and distance

The recent fighting in Bristol, between police and protestors demanding the withdrawal of the new Police bill and angry at the murder of Sarah Everard in South London and police responses to violence against women, through up once again an interesting old question – how old do riots (and other political violence) have to be before it becomes acceptable in the mainstream? Many commentators – including MPs of all parties, mayors, journalists and such worthies – queued up to condemn the ‘rioting’ (a van set on fire and some police station windows smashed). Interestingly, many of the same MPs and journalists generally pay lip service to the bravery of historical political movements, like the suffragettes, whose militant wing carried out a sustained campaign of violence against property for several years.

We observed the same dynamic after the 2011 riots across England, when even people who generally laud self-defence against police attack could be heard denouncing the rioters as having no politics and being just anti-social… Calling for the army to be sent in etc… Time and distance allow for support of an action, even a violent one, for some whose kneejerk reaction is to call for repression when its closer to home.

In Brixton, where this week sees the 40th anniversary of the seminal April 1981 uprising, it seems 25 years is about enough time for riot to become respectable. These notes were written shortly after a commemorative meeting on the 1981 riot, held in Brixton library in 2006.

Holding Back the Years

On July 31st 2006, Brixton Library held a commemorative meeting, “Brixton Riots 25 years On.” The idea was to celebrate how much Brixton had changed since the riots of 1981.  A panel of the Great and the Good was enthroned – the new Lambeth Chief Executive Officer … Brixton’s then Police Chief Superintendent, Martin Bridger… Carol Litchmore, ‘Equality and Diversity’ Tsarina in the Borough… black activists including Devon Thomas (Chair of the Brixton Defence Committee in 1981, he later set up first black youth clubs and became a councillor), … and Brixton black novelist Alex Wheatle (jailed after the 81 riot)… I suppose there were about 300 there, mainly Black Brixtonites.

From the first the Chair Carol Litchmore tried to throw a veil of ‘unity’ over the meeting, appealing for “not the same rhetoric” (ie people wanting to make points about rqacism policing or council policy!) and spouting lots of Newdiversityspeak about public choice and action… Questions had already been submitted in advance and people who tried to ask unauthorized ones were discouraged.

Much was made of positive changes locally, especially the huge reduction in young black unemployment since the early 80s (although no figures for how craply the jobs are paid were put up – many people have been forced off the dole into low paid work). Also that Black community ‘representatives’ will now sit down and work things out with the Police – for which they would have had their heads taken off 25 years ago (see the attack on members of the Police Community Relations group in 1979: In the shadow of the SPG.

It was interesting in that two or three of those on the panel claimed unashamedly to have been rioters in 81, and had since moved into local council/social work, or in Alex Wheatle’s case, creative work… It is now considered totally acceptable to admit to having chucked bricks at police in 1981, this was almost universally accepted. Hilariously, though, ex-rioters on the panel denounced the youth of today as ‘having no respect for their elders’, too much bad language etc – give em some licks! As someone said “we were youth, now we’re elders…no-one has recognised that we are leaders.” How sad. How the patterns repeat; as long as the ‘Community’ lets ‘leaders’ speak for it then perfectly respectable rioters will one day Chair the Business Forum. In 1981, previously respected Black activists tried to discourage the riots and negotiate with the police, for instance Ivan Madray, who was given short shrift when he tried to persuade rioters to calm down. 7-8 years before Madray had been arrested himself while arguing with police outside squatted 121 Railton Road while Olive Morris was inside, besieged by the boys in blue.

Black social workers in the audience did manage did warn though of young Black people feeling they have no voice. Obviously youth black, white and whatever still face the crap prospects; the mindless tedium of work replaces the skint tedium of the dole. With even less chance of getting housed.

Top cop Bridger had obviously been through the new age Met courses, talking about “challenges for the future” and “empowering the community” and so on. Apparently the cops have created a ‘community consortium’ to push kids (by court order) convicted of gun crime into a program run by “the community”, cleverly co-opting the Black ‘leadership’ locally. A young Black woman did ask the necessary question: can you MAKE people behave by a court order…? To little response. Current police schemes included plainclothes cops roaming the markets and co-operation with multi-national scum McDonalds and some local bookies (also scum) against dealers…

Other questioners from the floor did raise points about current issues – the chaos created by the closing of local schools (an alarmingly large percentage of kids going to secondary schools outside the Borough!) and raising the problem of ‘ethnic and poverty-cleansing’ in parks and streets… Gentrification in other words. Also the total decimation of youth clubs and spaces for kids… [which has accelerated in the years since this was written] And what happened to all that government money for the inner city, Brixton Challenge etc – fairly universally it was reckoned Brixton people saw little of it, though I wouldn’t mind betting that a few ‘community leaders’ present ran their hand over some of it in one committee or forum or other.

Holding back the Tears (of laughter)

Then out of the blue, a ghost appeared, who should speak up but the Knightmare from Knorwood, former left wing Labour leader of the Council, TED KNIGHT! I’m sure most of those present thought he had quietly died in the meantime. Ted has not mellowed with the years. He went into a rant about capitalism and the terrible economic situation (ie now he’s not in power no-one wants to bribe him for council building contracts like in the old days…) He demanded that we “take Back the Power”, to some applause, bizarrely, as he once HAD the power and made a right mess of it. Some dissident voices did point out that the worst thing you could possibly do was give power back to Red Ted. Still seeing him was like stepping back 20 years. Not in a good way.

A dissenting contribution to the general air of fake unity came from some young kids at the back, who insisted on hazing Chief Superintelligent Bridger about continuing stop and search of young people by his plodniks; “we have not seen a change in fundamental attitudes of the police towards young people.”

The most interesting point made, though, was that 1981 is ‘ancient history’ to young people in today’s Brixton, and had little resonance today. Young kids are probably sick of dad ranting about how he drove Babylon out of Railton Road back in the day for the umpteenth time.  Which I guess makes it safe for 1981 to be officially recognised as a legitimate community response even (almost) by the top cop and Council Chief Exec, and filed away as ‘History’. Ie harmless.

(Funnily enough, this isn’t always the police response to mention of 81: when an exhibition in an Acre Lane gallery of paintings showing the riot went up in 2005, they received a visit from the constabulary accusing them of ‘incitement’. How you can incite something that happened two decades ago is beyond me. Perhaps the Old Bill are worried about us going ’Back to the Future’.


Further to those notes… (2021)

In hindsight, looking back on Brixton 1981 is a bit more complex than we wrote in 2006.

The paragraph about former rioters later conforming doesn’t take into account how people can be drawn into the excitement of riots, and might not necessarily be supportive of rioting, later, when reflecting…

Brixton 1981, after it went off, rapidly became an important event, which gained mythical status for young black (and lots of young white) people. Many who weren’t there were really glad the police got a battering, because so many people had faced the kind of vicious racist policing Brixton had seen. Brixton inspired the riots three months later all over the UK, and the whole assumed a long-standing status. It’s true that people 25 years later may still look back and see the rebellions of their youth as vital but, given changes in their own social position, may not think they’d do the same again today.

Lots of people also operate their own version of the whig view of history: what took place in the struggle to get us here was justified because things are now are fine, for the same reason trying to change how things are now is not ok.

One thing said a lot in 2006 was that Brixton had changed a lot, with the implication that while rising up in 81 was justifiable, rebellion, resistance, fighting the police now was not. It was interesting that the people saying that were now older, in their fifties, while the younger people did speak up and talk about police harassed them. Older people in 1981 were more divided, but there was also a generation then which felt you can’t fight the cops, and that youth were out of control. (Reading accounts of the defence campaign formed after the April Uprising, it’s also clear that older, more established Black activists attempted to keep control of this campaign, which caused friction with the younger street-fighters)

It’s partly a generational thing. The certainty of youth, prepared to smash shit up, seeing everything in all-or-nothing terms, is often coloured as you get older. We used to riot and not give a shit about those who didn’t like it – but there were always people who were terrified of it, and bad and anti-social things always got done. Riots are not in themselves pure and simple acts, they’re complex outbreaks containing lots of people with different motives. Some of those motives are collective and some are vicious and turned on everyone.

In 2011 some people said ‘these riots are different, not social like 81’. But anti-social things happened in 81, 85 too… Paul Gilroy has written on how the riots of ’81 and 2011 were portrayed and contrasted.

But it is not only a generational shift in individuals; it is a different time, and a different culture… Life in Brixton is very different that it was 40 years ago. It’s different to it was 15 years ago.

The confrontation and resistance arose from years of complex social and economic factors; dereliction… compulsory purchases… unemployment… the political and social renaissances of the 60s and 70s… a ferment of ideas among the black and white working class… the revival of libertarian currents… A situation that won’t arise again in the same way.

Since the riots in 81 to some extent, the culture that caused and enabled rebellion has changed. Both the black and the white alternative cultures were sustained by the dole… mass unemployment in the early 80s was a huge part of the social landscape. The underground black economy of crap jobs on the side, dope-dealing, robbing (whether with principles, ie shoplifting, or without, ie robbing those around you in the same situation); the rioters of all colours, the squatters were to a great extent doleys. OK so many of us scammed the dole, ran two claims, scammed money for holidays by ripping off Insurance companies; not paying rent or in a lot of cases any bills helped. Political activists black and white relied on the free time signing on gave them to get busy challenging the cops, or smashing the state, or whatever.

This culture began in the late 80s to get more difficult, changes in benefit rules, tougher regimes in the SS offices, more sham schemes were brought in to shovel us off the unemployed lists. This wasn’t just done to keep the numbers looking healthy, a popular chorus at the time. It was a vital part of regaining social discipline over a wide swathe, especially of young people, who it was perceived had largely escaped the state’s control, and to try and prevent this alienation and active rejection of commodity values from spreading.

We found new ways of new ways of getting round the dole schemes – eg going on the enterprise allowance scheme for a year. This meant having to have a thousand quid in the bank, to launch your own business – in our scene there was a phantom grand permanently circulating from account to account! – and pretending to try to get a little business going for a year – which then ‘sadly’ failed to survive the rigours of the free market. Many other such schemes allowed us freedom of movement for a while. But since then many of those dole claimers have ended up in work: tough class background (and colour) have had a massive impact on what kind of work. Many have been forced into either crap jobs, others have taken what chances that came to get trained up ins something that pays. Chance has led lots of us to working for local councils, the NHS, the voluntary sector, arts and cultural scammery… you name it.

The mantra the ‘realistic sections’ of the left repeat is that the official and wildcat workers movements have taken a heavy battering, and an increasingly authoritarian state is introducing measure after measure of social control; and largely they’re getting away with it. All true, but its also true that the gaps and crannies of crime, the black economy, ducking and diving, as well as outright refusal to play by the rules of capitalism, has also become very much squeezed. While much of the orthodox left despised such allegedly ‘lumpen’ quarters (until mass riots etc provided a chimaera of recruiting militant youth to their grandiose ‘parties’, there was always, in Brixton for sure, and elsewhere as well, a shady sliding scale, a merging at the edges of street culture, rebellious politics and action. On the Frontline of old, this merging produced varied political views, but as a whole, it could tentatively be said that an autonomous culture was in embryo. But it is clearly unsustainable to continue to build and expand any sort of nogo area, alternative structure etc without upping the challenge to the state locally, you have to keep expanding both physically as well as  transforming the politically and social relations of your daily lives.
Maybe this was just not going to happen at this time. Despite brief flowerings, a long-term no-go area was never really possible, even in the Frontline’s limited streets (compare, say the no-go areas that nationalists in Belfast and Derry maintained for several years from 1969 -72.)  And the ideological differences – eg between black nationalism, Rastafarianism, anarchism, leftism, non-political general rebelliousness – handicapped attempts to even defend arrested rioters and build alliances against police invasions even at the height of the area’s non-conformity. (see the discussions in ‘From Offence to Defence to…’) A co-operative approach to running a no-go area may well have foundered in the face of such divisions. Perhaps the authoritarian structures of the IRA made the N. Irish attempts easier to hold – awkward questions about the nature of their control over people aside.

Brixton is not wholly changed. It is however very different. The most obvious changes are in the street culture, the pubs, and the housing. The Frontline street crowds are gone, although as everywhere smaller groups gather, on estates, corners etc. The alternative economy that drove Railton Road’s ‘Frontline’ still exists… dealers abound as ever, if less overtly.

What has been destroyed is the sense of autonomous culture – the sound systems, the blues parties, as well as the white rebel scene. These scenes drove much of what made the place tick. The interesting diverse spaces, pubs clubs, even some shops, are fewer and further between. it’s still there, of course you can’t destroy people’s spirit and desire to gather. But the growing space not controlled by capital and its authority, has been rolled back. If we meet it is back on their terms and in commodified spaces.

For the most part these conditions have been rolled back or recuperated. The mass individualisation of our daily culture, the rampant commercial colonisation of public space, a highly ideologically motivated assault on ‘social’ housing and the alternative/voluntary/social sectors have altered the landscape irrevocably.

On the other hand it has to be said that the kind of daily confrontations with the cops hat eventually sparked the riots just don’t occur in the way they used to. Partly this is down to social change, partly to a change in the nature of policing. Smart and sophisticated policing and surveillance techniques have made the Met less of a blunt instrument and in some ways more effective.

 Policing is cleverer and PR-friendly. I would guess that more people in 1981 had experienced first hand direct violence from police. SPG operations in Brixton in the mid-70s to 1981 were random and indiscriminate; they have learned to be a little more cunning.

Whereas in the early 80s the response to any minor street argy bargy would have been a huge invasion of SPG, the modern Met has acquired more subtle responses. Cops are now trained to try and defuse situations, isolate, pacify much more. With CCTV and police cameramen it is alot easier to nick people afterwards, keep tabs on ‘troublemakers’. Some clever recruitment has also lessened the sense of a totally white occupying force (although many of the same attitudes persist if you dig below the glossy image). But the Met, in common with many of the institutions of british Capitalism, has learned subtle and insidious methods of control. Gone are the days when rabid NF cops were blatantly allowed to alienate middle class opinion by trashing youth clubs.

Police co–operation with schools, shops, businesses, councils, ‘community leaders’ etc now works on utterly different levels. In the 80s, relations with the Council, and with all but the most grovelly Black local bourgeoisie, had totally broken down… Now many former rioters of 81 stripe are firmly entrenched within the public and voluntary sectors, and integrated into the networks of control.

None of this is to say the role or the power of the police has fundamentally changed. In parallel with the PR changes, laws have been brought in (partly as a result on the 1981 riots, and the 84-85 miners’ strike) which have greatly increased the police’s public order powers: including the 1986 Public Order Act, and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act (today if course we face yet more..) The carrot has been made sweeter but the stick also sharper.

But to some extent the fierce onslaught on working class communities, especially the rebellious, disaffected and powerfully organised elements, needed a hardened paramilitary force. If policing adopted a softer face for a while (not for everyone) – in 2021, we are seeing a harder cop force out and kicking. It’ll be interesting to see ow that pans out.

Nowadays Lambeth Council, although Labour, is far from the left posturing of Red Ted and his 1980s comrades. (In reality, lefty rhetoric aside, cops and politicians always co-operated anyway, even at the height of ‘Loony left Lambeth’, when it came to repressing black or white class struggle and closing down genuinely self-organised spaces). For decades, the Council has been hand in glove with developers, happy to sell off social housing en masse, clear estates to enable their replacement by a better class of people…

More on which:


Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015


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