Conflict & Justice

London Riots Through Lense of 1981 Brixton Unrest

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1981 Brixton Riots (Photo: Kim Aldis)

Note:
An interviewee lists a string of racial epithets used by police during 1981 Brixton riots. The offensive language runs from :44 to :51 seconds into the story.

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Thirty years ago there were angry youths throwing bottles and bricks at a police line, buildings and buses set alight and shops were looted. It was in the London neighborhood of Brixton.

"Bricks were being thrown at every police van coming down, it was fierce," said Brixton rioter Sheldon Thomas. "I mean this was an all-out war."

In the Spring of 1981, for a brief period, the London neighborhood of Brixton felt like a war-zone. Sheldon Thomas was 16, black and unemployed. In a BBC documentary, Thomas recalls the racial tensions between the police and the Afro-Caribbean residents of Brixton.

"We saw called all kinds of names, sambo, golliwog, go back and swing in the trees jungle bunny, nigger, we was called all kinds of names by police officers" said Thomas.

Facing high levels of street crime in South London, police began an operation to stop and search young black men.

So tensions were running high — but like the riots that began in Tottenham last Saturday, the Brixton riots were sparked by a specific incident.

"A guy got stabbed and the police officers turned up," Thomas said. "They were more concerned with finding out who stabbed him then actually reacting to the fact that he had been stabbed, critically. And he needed to go to the hospital."

The police response to that stabbing in Brixton kicked off a battle that lasted for three days.

Brian Paddick was there. He was a young police sergeant in 1981.

"Bricks from building sites, slabs that had been broken up, anything that rioters could get their hands on," said Paddick. "Thankfully where we were we didn't get petrol bombed. But there were petrol bombs being thrown in other parts of Brixton."

Brixton has changed since 1981. Huge efforts have been made to revitalise Brixton – and defuse its community tensions there. Following the Brixton riots, the British government launched a public inquiry. It concluded that police used disproportionate and indiscriminate 'stop and search' powers to target black people.

Writer Alex Wheatle took part in the Brixton riots. Wheatle said there are a lot of similarities between the circumstances of the current riots and what happened in Brixton 30 years ago. Like in 1981, Britain was in the midst of an economic crisis with high unemployment and deep cuts in public services. But, Wheatle said, race seems to be less of a factor this time.

"When I was 18 in 1981, it was 99 percent dominated by African Caribbean but today I see a much wider range of personnel from different nations," Alex Wheatle said.

Wheatle has been watching the riots happening outside his home in the south London neighbourhood of Clapham. On Monday, he spoke to young people rioting outside his building. Wheatle pleaded with them not to set fire to his block. The rioters laughed at him and walked away.

"In April 1981, we stood up for something," said Wheatle. "I'm not sure if today's youngsters can say the same thing."

Wheatle added that young people still have reason to challenge the actions of the police. But they should do it in non-violent ways.

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