This week in UK history, 1981: uprisings and riots all over the country

“Britain is a paradoxically closed yet ‘open’ society ruled over by a patrician but condescendingly populist elite possessing the most remarkable cunning and duplicity well versed in a token recuperation of everything from below that raises its head in protest… Yet over the last decade the UK has lived through profound social turmoil. Mingled with the seemingly never ending hopelessness of drugs, drugs, drugs, drink, drink, drink, the place is alive with an unfocussed rebellion…

There is a path that leads out of this wasteland and during the summer of 1981 the unemployed started to travel its length unaided. The totality of desperation and misery produced its opposite – The nights were young and though the pubs had called time the firewater was freely circulating. In the space of 10 days in early July 1981. England was transformed. It will never be the same again. Every major city and town was rocked with youth riots. Bored youngsters ranging from 8 to 80 excitedly got ready for an evenings burnin’ and lootin’. Even Army recruits on leave joined in. If the grandkid did the hell raising, grandma helped out with the free shopping. In Manchester an 8 year old was arrested for setting fire to a bike shop and in Bristol a paraplegic pensioner was wheeled obligingly into a supermarket so he could get in on the lootin’ too.”
(Like a Summer With a Thousand Julys, BM Blob, 1982)

Rioting swept many parts of Britain’s cities in the summer of 1981. Tension across many communities built to a climactic series of eruptions in the first week of July.

Policing, especially violent paramilitary policing of inner city communities, and most particularly racist policing used against black and Asian young people, was the immediate spark in most places. But behind this, poverty, desperation and alienation were widespread across the UK, and in many cities work was becoming increasingly scarce as manufacturing industries declined and thousands ended up on the dole. Young working class people could see little was on offer but being skint and treated like shit, and for many smashing things up was the only solution.

If rage at police harassment, boredom and alienation at a society that seemed to offer young people nothing, and skintness and hostility to authority generally were common elements, local conditions produced different results on the ground.

Below is a chronological record of some major incidents, marches, confrontations, demonstrations, disturbances and gatherings that made the headlines in the seven months from March 1981. It is far from comprehensive and nay contributions to update it, suggestions for longer accounts to link to etc would be welcome…

Bristol Riot 1980

However, many would point out that the April 1980 Bristol Riots in St Pauls and Southmead could be seen as the opening skirmish, an initial battle over the same issues and flashpoints, if a year earlier.

We’ve linked to longer posts or articles on some of the events where we can…

The New Cross Fire and the Black community response to it are crucial to the context to much of the 1981 insurgency.
On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party during a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock (aged 16) and Angela Jackson (aged 18), at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross. The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade. Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. And police quickly then discounted the racist attack theory and treated survivors and witnesses with suspicion. Anger grew in the area and among black people wider afield, and an action committee formed to co-ordinate a response. The result was the Black People’s Day of Action…

Monday, 2 March
London
Between 3,000 and 6,000 people, most of them black, took part in the Black People’s Day of Action, a demonstration organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee to protest against the police handling of the Deptford fire investigation. The demo saw some sporadic agro, but the self-confidence, anger and unity of the Day of Action were a watershed moment for British black communities; subsequent police attacks would be stoutly resisted…

While police and scared commentators were keen to label the events of 1981 as all about race, this was not the case in every riot and in many of the uprisings, whites fought alongside Blacks and Asians in many cases. But racial violence towards black and Asian people, from police and from racists (organised and unorganised) was one of the major triggers.

Racist attacks were endemic across the country in early 1981: Malcom Chambers was killed in Swindon in April during an ‘anti-black riot’; Satnam Singh Gill was murdered by skinheads in Coventry. In the same month a Sikh temple was petrol bombed and the Indian and Commonwealth Club was hit by an arson attack. In June Fenton Ogbogbo was killed by racists in South London.

Kicking off the 1981 events was a major riot in Brixton, South London, where the area was repeatedly invaded by an army of police to ‘crack down on streetcrime’ (code for harass, arrest and beat up black youth). The Met’s ‘Operation Swamp ’81’ backfired spectacularly on them, however…

10-13 April
Brixton, South London

On Friday night (10 April), police were attacked by 40-50 youths. During the next three days, violence flared, rioters set fire to 26 buildings, one fire engine, and 19 cars, between 145 and 165 police were injured, there were nearly 200 arrests and there was a total of 226 casualties. Petrol bombs were thrown at police and estimates of damage vary from £2 million to £10 million. By Monday evening some violence continued but no further arrests were reported.

Read firsthand accounts of the April Brixton riot

Easter weekend, 17-20 April: The ‘Seaside rampages”
The Daily Telegraph reported mods, skinheads, punks and rockers ‘on the rampage’ at numerous seaside resorts. the bank holiday riot-beanos were already a bit of a ritual annual fixture to some extent, but it added to the sense of youth uprising, even if some accounts reckon skins, some of the nazi persuasion, were involved in some of the easter shindigs. However, many outside observers couldn’t tell a nazi skin from any other variety of skin, and at the time there was a considerable blurring of such boundaries.

Southend
A large number of skinheads gathered for the weekend, shop windows were smashed and 170 people arrested. Apparently there were ‘reports of British Movement and November 9th Society (neo-Nazi) involvement’.

Margate
Thirty-nine arrests. One policeman and one skinhead injured.

Hastings
Twenty people arrested after clashes between rival gangs.

Brighton
All police leave cancelled as 1,000 mods arrived. Ninety-two arrests over the weekend.

Great Yarmouth
Forty arrests.

Scarborough
Seventy-eight arrests

Fairground riots
Around the same time trouble broke out at several London fairs, mainly involving black youth.

Finsbury Park
A reported 500 black teenagers attacked shops and fought police outside a fairground after it closed early. Eight police and twenty civilians were injured, 40 people were arrested and £1,000 worth of electrical goods were looted from a shop owned by the Asian vice-chairman of Haringey Community Relations Council.

Ealing Common
Three hundred black youths smashed shop windows and damaged police vehicles.

Wanstead Flats
‘Dozens’ of youths ‘went on a rampage’.

Saturday, 23 May

Coventry
Violence broke out during a march by 8,000 Asians protesting against the number of racist attacks in the city. The marchers were heckled by about 200 skinheads shouting Fascist slogans, marchers later fought with 1,500 police patrolling the march. Paving stones and banner poles were used as weapons. Over 70 people were arrested. One policeman was stabbed.
Some images of the Coventry demo 

Late May

Enfield, North London
A white man was killed by a mob of skinheads.

Brixton
Late May: A confrontation between police and youth nearly erupted again but police withdrew in the face of a gathering crowd.

Monday, 1 June

Thornton Heath, South London
Local black youth attacked the Wilton Arms pub in Thornton Heath, looking for National Front supporters after a spate of racist attacks. Later, a white youth was stabbed and killed in the street outside.
More on the Wilton Arms incident and racism/anti-racism in Thornton Heath

On the same night eight police were injured in a clash with black youths at a shopping centre in Lewisham, Southeast London.

Tuesday, 2 June

London
More trouble at Lewisham. Police who arrested a girl at the shopping centre were attacked by black youths. Ten people were arrested. Later 100 youths gathered outside the police station shouting abuse. The incidents were described as ‘a near riot’ {Observer 7/6/81).

Saturday, 20 June

London

Various papers reported 400 to 1,000 black youths ‘rampaging’ at a fairground on Peckham Rye Common in South London. Thirty shop windows were smashed in nearby Rye Lane, and merchandise stolen. Twenty-eight people were arrested.

Friday, 3 July

Southall, West London
On 3 July, Southall erupted when a group of racist skinheads were bussed into the area (with a predominantly Asian and Black population) for a concert by the band Oi at the Hamborough Tavern: the skins marched through the High Street smashing windows and racially harassing people as they went. Asian youths, organised by west London’s Asian Youth Movement, laid siege to the pub. The police intervened, and there were over a hundred casualties, sixty-one of them policemen.
In the rioting that broke out petrol bombs were thrown and the Hamborough Tavern, venue for the concert, was burnt down.
An account of the 3 July Southall Riot

Liverpool
At about the same time as the Southall disturbance was occurring, police in Liverpool 8 (aka Toxteth) chased and arrested a black motorcyclist. He fell off and they caught him, but he was then rescued by a crowd of about forty black youths. Bricks were thrown, and a two-hour battle with police developed.

Police with riot shields face a group of youths during riot in Liverpool 8

Saturday, 4 July
Liverpool
Late Saturday night violence broke out again in Liverpool 8. police were lured to Upper Parliament Street by an anonymous report of a stolen car, then attacked. A crowd of nearly two hundred youths, both black and white, some in balaclava helmets, built barricades, threw petrol bombs and used vehicles as battering rams to break the police lines. A school and several shops were burnt down and other shops were looted.

Sunday, 5 July
Liverpool
The night of the worst violence in Liverpool. On the Sunday the rioting went out of control with the police calling in reinforcements from all over the North West to make up a force of 800, but they were still overwhelmed by a crowd of black and white youths. In the meantime the local community poured out to loot everything they could. They were pushing shopping trolleys and prams and filling them up as they went. They drove vans into the area like a regular shopping trip, picking up refrigerators, electrical goods, carpets, the lot. CS gas was used to disperse rioters in the early hours of Monday morning.

An account of the riots and the background to the eruption in Liverpool

And another

Monday, 6 July

Liverpool

Some violence continued in Toxteth but of a lesser intensity than the previous two nights. Newspaper reports and photographs show both white and black youths involved in the rioting, and the majority of looters appeared to be white people of all ages. Over the entire weekend a total of 255 police were injured. Seventy people appeared in court on Monday and 77 on Tuesday. Most of them were white and some were as young as thirteen.

London
200 youths ‘ran wild’ in Wood Green, North London. Those involved were reported to be mainly Black and Greek Cypriot. This outbreak was widely regarded as a ‘copycat’ riot.

Tuesday, 7 July

Cop chases skinhead down West Green Road during Wood Green riot

Wood Green, North London
Between 400 and 500 youths attacked police and looted shops in Wood Green.
The Times reported that in Wood Green ‘the trouble began when a group of between 300 and 400 black youths began to gather near Turnpike Lane Underground station and marched along the High Road… The Special Patrol Group was called in. Police carrying riot shields attempted to drive the youths from the High Road. They had started fires in waste bins, and police cars were stoned…. In one men’s outfitters, a gang of black youths even took time to strip every window model of their trousers. Mr Mel Cooper, the owner commented: “They looted thousands of pounds worth of stuff, most of it trousers and shirts”‘ (Times, 8 July 1981).

The incident was reported on the 10 o’clock news and the crowd soon increased to 500. 35 shops in Wood Green High Road were looted or had their windows broken. Reports in the press and by various individuals claim that 26 policemen were injured and 50 civilians arrested.

Trouble in Moss Side

Manchester
Rioting broke out in Moss Side, Manchester. James Anderton, the chief constable, was generally considered a rightwing ultra-christian reactionary; after an attempt to ignore the riots as if they would go away, his solution was to send fifty-four vans speeding through the area on the third night of rioting, with their back doors hanging open and filled with snatch squads in crash helmets who leapt out to crack heads and drag their targets away. ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger – oi, oi, oi’, the cops shouted as they went, beating their truncheons on the side of the vans. In spite of the new tactic, the disturbances took until the Saturday to quell. The violence spread round Greater Manchester during that time, leading to a final tally of 475 arrests, of whom the majority were white.
A blog on the 1981 Manchester riots

Wednesday, 8 July

Wood Green
Youths gathering on Wood Green High Road in north London the morning after the riot there, loudly played back tape recordings of news reports just to goad the police. Chris, a 17-year-old Greek Cypriot said “I hope this gets us in the papers. I hope this counts as a big riot like Liverpool.”

Manchester and Salford

One thousand youths stormed Moss Side police station, police and ambulancemen were injured, petrol bombs thrown, vehicles overturned and shops looted. There were other outbreaks of violence throughout the area and three policemen were injured.

Thursday, 9 July

London
Crowds were on the streets in various parts of London with sporadic clashes with police:
On the sixth consecutive night of widespread civil disorder there were disturbances in Woolwich, Tooting, Fulham and Dalston.

Woolwich, Southeast London
‘London police quickly quelled what threatened to be a riot early yesterday evening in Woolwich, south-east London. About 200 black and Asian youths ran through the town centre smashing 15 shop windows and overturning two cars. There was some looting. The youths were outnumbered by police who quickly dispersed them. 27 arrests were made…’ (The Times).
The Woolwich events seem to have been provoked by rumours of a racist skinhead invasion to attend a gig at the Tramshed (a similar occurrence had led to the riots in Southall in the previous week). According to the Deptford and Peckham Mercury (16 July 1981), people initially gathered on the streets to defend local venues thought vulnerable to racist attack – groups were reported at local Sikh temples in Calderwood Street and Masons Hill (where an Anti Nazi League meting was taking place), a mosque in Thomas Street, and the Simba project (an African-Caribbean community group). An (untrue) rumour that the skinheads were arriving on the Woolwich ferry prompted hundreds of mainly young people to run down Powis Street, and it was here that shop windows were broken and cars overturned, with a tobacconist shop being looted.
A briefing from the F4 division of the Home Office (responsible for links with security services, Special Branch etc) gives more details: ‘At 7:24 pm 100 black youths and 50 white youths were reported at Woolwich, but there was no trouble… at 8.42 pm disturbances broke out at Woolwich, with youths throwing stones and overturning vehicles. Serials had previously been deployed to the Woolwich area for the Anti-Nazi League meeting and these, supplemented by the Special Patrol Group and Urgent Response Units deployed from Operations Room, moved into the area to prevent trouble…’
It’s worth noting that Nazi attacks were a very real daily threat in Woolwich. The fascist British Movement had been very active in the area in the run-up to these events, carrying out racist attacks, including a horrific incident the previous year led by notorious British Movement skin führer Nicci Crane. (Later in 1981 Crane was jailed for four years for his part in an ambush on black youths at Woolwich Arsenal station).

Lewisham, SE London
In Lewisham, eight youths were arrested after clashes in which goods were looted from Chiesman’s department store. About 100 black youths in Deptford threw bottles at a police car.
The trouble in Lewisham seems to have been fairly sporadic, prompting some self-congratulation from the police in the South London Press: ‘Lewisham has escaped almost trouble free from a week of rioting in Britain’s inner cities thanks to sensitive policing and public co-operation, a police chief said yesterday. Apart from a window being smashed at Chiesman’s in Lewisham High-St, and a minor stone throwing incident in Sydenham on Saturday where three people were arrested, there have been no repeats of the mass looting and rioting which has hit many areas.
However, there was controversy in the area when police warned that a planned New Cross Massacre Action Committee fundraiser couldn’t go ahead for licensing reasons at the Evelyn 190 Centre in Evelyn Street, Deptford (‘Clash over fire victims’ disco’, Mercury, 16 July 1981).

Dalston/Stoke Newington, North/East London
3 days of trouble began in these neighbouring areas of Hackney. Twenty youths were arrested in Stoke Newington after bricks and bottles were thrown at the police… Several hundred youths were moved on by police from Dalston, east London. The youths, black and white in about equal numbers, gathered in Kingsland High Street and Dalston Lane. Several hundred police patrolled the streets. (The Times, 10 July 1981)
A longer account of these three days of rioting in Stokey and Dalston

Fulham, West London
Street fighting broke out last night in Fulham with minor clashes between police and youths. Seven youths were arrested, six black and one white’ (The Times)

Moss Side

Manchester
More violence reported in Moss Side.

Friday, 10 July

London

Brixton once again became the centre of attention – several hours of fighting with police erupted after the arrest of a local black DJ. Cars were set alight and shops looted. Four police and four civilians were injured, and 90 people were arrested.
A longer report on this Brixton riot

Several other areas of London also went off on the Friday night:
Southall
There were outbreaks of ‘hooliganism’ (as described by the police). Reports claimed 1,500 Asian youths threw bricks and looted shops. Southall blazed again with burning cars, while black and Asian youths stoned the fire engines trying to reach the fires.

Battersea, South London
A block of flats was set on fire and a fire station was attacked by a crowd of youths. 17 arrests were made in Queenstown Road and Falcon Road area.

Dalston
70 youths threw firebombs at police. Three policemen injured.

Stoke Newington
500 people threw stones at the police station. Firebombs were thrown and 29 people were arrested.

Hounslow, West London
11 skinheads were arrested after a group began stoning cars.

Peckham
A 15 year old youth was arrested in Rye Lane, Peckham, for allegedly throwing a petrol bomb at police (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Balham, South London
Around 35 shops along the High Road were damaged in a wave of violence which started shortly after midnight when some 200 youths roamed the streets. ‘Worst hit was the Argos Discount Store where hundreds of pounds worth of goods were stolen’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

There were also smaller disturbances on Friday night in Clapham (cars overturned), Streatham (sporadic looting), Penge (petrol bombs), Camberwell (two cars were overturned in Daneville Road) and Slough.

Outside London

Trouble was reported on the 10th in a number of cities including Preston, Hull, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, and Reading.

Birmingham
In the Handsworth district of Birmingham, 400 ‘black and white youth, mostly Asian’ stormed the police station, threw bricks at police, driving them out of the area, and then turned on the local fire station and a British Legion club. There were 329 arrests.

Not sure what day, but ‘at the end of riot week’ possibly Friday, in Walthamstow (NE London) ‘a riot of Asian youth’ broke out, after the funeral of Mrs Doreen Khan and her 3 children. 100 youths were involved in fighting with police.
The Khans died as a result of a petrol bomb attack on their home on 2nd July, during a wave of racist incidents in the area. Her husband was badly burned. The police, adding insult to injury, detained for questioning friends and relatives of the victims, repeatedly grilling them hoping to shift the blame for the tragedies on to them.

In Hull on Friday night a battle between skins and bikers turned into a united 150 strong battle against the police.
Hull reflected some of the contradictions during the riots between collective social rebellion and aggro:
“Hull epitomizing some of the worst aspects of skin activity. In addition to wrecking the city centre rival gangs of skins, punks etc set upon each other. Symbols of wealth like the Leeds Building Society plus a number of large stores, including Binns, were trashed. But excepting anti police verbals (one guy was jailed for shouting “kill the pigs”) class-consciousness generally rose no higher than the Humber riverbed.

Shouting football slogans some rioters nutted ordinary people standing in bus queues. One youth threw a concrete block through a bus window while passengers were still inside.

This chaotic response not surprisingly created amongst some Hull transport workers a passing sympathy for the police. The local TGWU official with the backing of the rank and file made preparations in concert with the police and the transport management to close down the Ferensway bus station at the centre of the riots. The Hull Daily Mail rubbed its hands in glee as workers, management and police clasped hands throughout this mid summer week of countryside proletarian insurgency.

Over the past ten years the Hull working class have exhibited a notable radicality, even as recently as the Winter of Discontent, which makes this understandable reaction doubly sad. They are not by nature hostile to class violence and sabotage. For instance during the 1972 dock strike in the UK some Hull dockers cut ships, moored at the disputed container wharves up river, adrift. But they didn’t then go on to root out innocent crewmembers to give them a thrashing as local skins might have done if their performance throughout riot week is anything to go by.”
(Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

In Nottingham rioting developed on the Friday, in response to a huge build up of police presence…

Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 July

Leicester

In Leicester, police from four counties had assembled close to the Highfields area during the Saturday that evening to try to prevent trouble, but ‘300 to 500 people in their early twenties, West Indian and white mixed, with a few Asians, kept them out of the area using petrol bombs and burning barricades’; the fighting continued for two more evenings, with ‘people in the flats joining the rioting, leaving their doors open so that people could escape from the police’.  Six police were injured and there were 30 arrests.
“Armed with bricks and stones, they confronted lines of police in riot gear who stood between them and their objective – Charles Street police station… Reinforcements were quickly brought in from Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and some 230 officers from the Metropolitan Police. A wooden telegraph pole was ripped from the ground and used as a battering ram against the police. Cars were set on fire or overturned and nearby shops were trashed. Stores in St Peter’s Shopping Centre were smashed and looted and there was a failed attempt to set the post office in St Stephen’s Road ablaze. At the same time as the Highfields riot erupted, the violence continued in the city centre, as mobs of skinheads went on the rampage in Gallowtree Gate, smashing shop windows and stealing anything they could lay their hands on.” (Leicester Mercury)
A short report here

The Bradford 12

Bradford
On 11 July 1981, the “Bradford 12” — a group of Asian youths, members of the United Black Youth League — were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs, to protect their community from a rumoured fascist attack. (At the subsequent trial, they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self-defence)

Huddersfield

One hundred black and white youths broke shop windows.

London

Battersea
‘A gang of youths attacked four policeman on Sunday afternoon [12 July], striking them to the tarmac floor of the roller skating rink in Battersea Park. Two PCs – Robert Smith and Brian Tullock – were rushed to hospital with serious head wounds. PC Smith needed 13 stitches. “It all started when we answered a call saying a car had been overturned in the park, said Det. Con. Larry Lawrence, “Four of us were in plain clothes but as soon as we identified ourselves we were attacked by about 20 youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves. The blows rained down on PC Smith and PC Tullock was given a severe kicking”. Mr Lawrence said a crowd of 200 stood watching. “The only human touch there was a girl who took off her cardigan and wrapped it around PC Smith’s head as he lay bleeding”. A crowd of youths carrying hockey sticks and wooden staves ran through the park during the early evening damaging two cars and throwing petrol bombs at the police’.

‘Later in the evening three policeman were injured in Francis Chichester Way when 35 youths hurled missiles and fire bombs at police lines.’ (South London Press, 14 July 1981).

Leeds
In Chapeltown ‘the police weren’t strong enough to cope’ after ‘all types of youth, black and white’, responded to racist attacks and a police raid on a black club by ‘stoning, throwing petrol bombs, burning cars, setting fire to police vans’.

Bolton
‘300-400 Asians and anti-racists hijacked a milk float and attacked police with bricks, bottles, stones, driving the police 200 yards back … The police got a hammering …’

Luton
Black and white youth began by attacking racists, and then moved on to attack the police and the Tory Party HQ, throwing stones and petrol bombs, breaking windows and looting shops; there were 102 arrests.

Nottingham
Rioting continued from Friday: on the Saturday night racists from outside the town had attacked blacks under the cover of the riots; the fighting began as a confrontation with the police using stones and petrol bombs, with shop windows only being broken ‘accidentally’ – but looting developed later. The rioters were ‘always of mixed races, ages, employed and unemployed’.
Nottingham Police Inspector Colin Sheppard was moved in awe to say…“There was no end to the imagination of the mob used to vent their feelings on the police.” (The Daily Telegraph July 14th 1981) adding, they were “Nottingham’s blackest ever days.”

Derby
Police forced mainly white youths running amuck in the smart city centre into the ghettoised Normanton Road and Peartree area. This tactic came unstuck because a battle ensued involving white, black and Asian youth who more or less fought the police together. A police traffic office was set on fire.
‘At some point during the riots in Derby a group of Asians were seen carrying a large cross through the streets. The cross was later recovered but Our Saviour had been nicked. But this was no Islamic anti-image jag, more probably it was a protest against a band of young Catholics who marched with all the sensitivity of an elephant through Derby’s semi ghettoised district singing “We Shall Overcome.” ‘ (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Trouble was also reported over the weekend in Southampton, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Birkenhead, Ellesemere Port, Chester, Stoke Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, High Wycombe, Newcastle, Knaresborough, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth.

A total of 1,000 people were arrested over the Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, 13 July

Rioting hit Leicester for the third successive night. There were also reports of disturbances in Huddersfield, Derby and Nottingham.

Tuesday, 14 July

All parts of the country were ‘relatively quiet’ for the first time in eleven days.

Wednesday, 15 July

Brixton
An early morning police raid on several Railton Road properties was followed that evening by renewed violence. Three hundred black youths confronted 800 police, eight cars were set on fire and nine police were injured.
This raid caused some bickering even in Parliament – MPs and even some government ministers thought the cops had been unwise to batter their way into the various homes raided, given the atmosphere, and that the raids may even have been unlawful.

At some point in the ten days of rioting in early July,  apart from the events mentioned above, there was also trouble in Romford and Upton Park (East London), Sutton (south of London), Stockwell in South London, Shepherds Bush, Acton, & Chiswick (all in West London), Golders Green (North London).
Hammersmith (W London) saw some somewhat anti-social, unfocussed agro:
“During riot week, some black youths in Hammersmith post office menaced a long queue of black and white unemployed people waiting to cash their giro’s by shoving everyone aside to be served first. Edgy mounted police had been stationed outside the post office in case of trouble and these young blacks, outta their skulls with hope, were looking for any occasion to provoke a riot. But in their understandable eagerness they were well out of line and this silly action only served to put everyone against them in the airless and crammed post office. Even so, the cops were scared of dealing with them.” (Like a Summer With 1000 Julys)

Sunday, 26 July

Liverpool
Seventy black and white youths threw bricks and petrol bombs at police in Toxteth.

Tuesday, 28 July

Liverpool
In the heaviest night of rioting in Toxteth since the first outbreak four weeks earlier, 22-year-old David Moore died after being hit by a police vehicle being used to disperse the crowd. Thirty-four police were injured. There were 22 arrests.
Two police officers were charged with the manslaughter of David Moore but cleared in April 1982.

Saturday, 15 August

Liverpool
A protest march took place demanding the removal of Kenneth Oxford as Chief Constable of Merseyside. Two thousand people took part in the march, watched over by 3,000 police. There was some trouble… Fifteen police were injured, two of them receiving stab wounds, but no arrests were made.

Sheffield
A crowd of 500 youths, most of them black, fought with police at a shopping centre. Three police were injured and seventeen people were arrested.

Bank Holiday weekend, 30-31 August

Brighton
There was a serious outbreak of violence and disorder when 300 mods stoned police and passing cars and threw petrol bombs. Nine youths were arrested. On Monday night police had to separate rival gangs of mods, skinheads and punks.

London

The two days of the annual Notting Hill Carnival passed almost entirely without incident despite earlier predictions of violence and sabotage, and the usual suggestions that it should be called off (forty year later this is still an annual chorus). The only trouble occurred late on Monday night as the carnival was finishing (since the seminal 1976 Carnival Riot, trouble at the end between revellers and police had been pretty normal). Some youths threw bottles at police but were quickly dispersed. Three people suffered stab wounds and four police were injured. Altogether there were 40 arrests during Carnival.

State responses to the riots

The police were undoubtedly, in some areas, nearly overwhelmed by the riotous upsurge; particularly in Liverpool, Manchester and parts of London.

Well over 2,500 people had been arrested for involvement in the riots by the end of ‘Riot Week’. An already overcrowded prison population, and an ongoing work to rule dispute by prison screws meant, however, that there was little room in the jails (there were abortive proposals that they be accommodated in overflow army camps). Some were however jailed on short sentences with little or no defence. There were a number of longer sentences – a number of people were given between 5 and 8 years, mostly for criminal damage or molotov cocktail related actions… Local defence campaigns were set up in some places (eg in Brixton) to support the arrested and imprisoned.

Legislative and strategic ideas for dealing with the riots and threatened future riots abounded. Proposals to revive the defunct Riot Act to allow anyone found present at the scene of a riot to be jailed automatically without a jury trial, however, fell foul of objections by judges (more jealous of their prerogatives than sympathetic to insurrection, possibly…?) Panicked proposals to arm the police routinely also came to nothing in the short term.

In the longer term, however, the riots played a part in influencing shift changes in the legislative armoury the justice system had to use against collective violent challenge. The Tory government already had a strong ‘law ‘n’ order rhetoric, and along with the ’78-79 Winter of Discontent, the experience of the 81 riots became central to Conservative myths of the ‘enemies within’ (trade unionists, strikers and riotous urban youth, later to be joined by lesbians, gays and loony lefties) which demanded increasing development of repressive institutions of the state.

Toxteth, 6th July

Alterations to police powers came over the next few years aimed at updating legislation to deal with public disorder. 1981, and the miner’s strike 1984-85 – in particular the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 – were very much the driving force behind this. The mass disorder during the riots and the miners’ strike led to the government concluding that new public order arrangements needed to be made. Specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were made available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations (eg the Association of Chief Police Officers Public Order Manual). This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it. The SPG was upgraded, rebranded as the Territorial Support Group.

New policing bills reinforced this. Some concessions were made to move deckchairs around – eg the hated ‘SUS’ law was quickly repealed, and the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) brought in new codes of behaviour and a new Police Complaints Authority. But behind the window dressing repressive legislation was also being brought in. PACE also re-introduced beefed up Stop and Search powers which allowed police more discretion and clauses which specifically enabled greater control over ‘public order’ situations – from riots, to demonstrations and picket lines. PACE also brought in powers to cover police actions such as tactics which had been used in ’81 but with doubtful legal basis – eg more powers to raid and search ‘suspects’ homes.

The Public Order Act 1986 replaced reliance on various relevant common law offences, and on the Public Order Act 1936, and brought in new offences which could be levelled at people taking part in not just riots, but demonstrators, pickets, anyone involved in any crowd activity…
More on the 1986 Public Order Act in this ‘Short History of Public Order Acts’.

In parallel to beefing up repressive weaponry, the government was urgently investigating why this was all happening, On a pragmatic level – they knew fundamentally that people don’t riot in their tens of thousands without reasons, and someone had to be seen to be at least looking like they were doing something more than nicking people.

The government commissioned the Scarman report two days after the April Brixton Riots (ironically, he finished his report on Brixton right in the middle of the July riot week!) Scarman’s terms of reference for the enquiry were “to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10–12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations”. Scarman basically concluded that ethnic communities in UK inner cities felt they had little stake in UK society, and that their relationship with institutions, especially the cops, had broken down, and that changes had to be made to integrate disaffected ethnic minorities, and stop being so obvious about targetting young black people. Fundamentally, though, Scarman cleared the police of having sparked riots by their tactics.

When it came to addressing decline and social collapse in some areas, the government was tempted to abandon some cities, more or less. Government documents released at the end of 2011 (under the ‘30 year rule’) revealed that some of Thatcher’s advisers considered government social and economic intervention in Liverpool “to be a ‘doomed mission.'” Government ministers also opposed “‘massive injection of additional public spending’ to stabilise the inner cities” and claiming that it would be “‘pumping water uphill.'” Instead, they urged a policy that “‘managed decline'” in Liverpool.

Many residents of many areas of UK cities might be forgiven for thinking managed decline has been pretty much continuous since the 80s…

A plethora of urban programmes, public private partnerships and regeneration projects were, however, launched in the years after ’81. However, many were aimed at dragooning young unemployed people into crap training schemes or lowpaid jobs; mickey mouse projects like the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) and similar schemes were brought in for school leavers. Most of these schemes enabled employers to exploit school leavers for cheap labour without much in the way of real training or education. YTS later provoked its own day of youth rebellion in 1985.

Some theoretical responses to the 81 riots

A few interesting perspectives on the ’81 events: causes, implications, fallout, the social and economic context…

Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys
The ‘Post-Situationist’ (?) Wise brothers epic take on the riots, the background, British society, race, police, capitalism… A glorious full on charge of a read. Well worth a look.

The Impossible Class
An anarchist take from 1981, which positions the riots as the response of an increasingly autonomous new class that was developing in UK inner cities.
(See also Past Tense’s more recent comments on this text: Impossible Classlessness)

You Can’t Fool the Youth
Black Marxist writer and historian Paul Gilroy’s Autumn 1981 analysis of the uprisings.

From Resistance to Rebellion
A Sivanandan
Putting the riots into the context of the Black struggles of the previous decades

The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis
Chris Harman
Socialist Workers Party bigwig Harman puts the riots in historical context, spending quite a bit of time attacking autonomous organising by black activists, but some interesting bits despite this…

You’re Miles Better Off Here – the Wood Green Riot

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Thanks to the Radical History of Hackney, transpontine, Revolt Against Plenty and others who we looted some of the above info from.
Some bits also came from an old Commission for Racial Equality timeline of the riots

3 comments

  1. thefreeonline · July 3

    Reblogged this on The Free.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Anarchist news from 300+ collectives 🏴 AnarchistFederation.net
  3. A6er · July 3

    Reblogged this on Tory Britain! .

    Liked by 1 person

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