LONDON LETTER: Issues that culminated in the major Brixton riots of 1981 – such as prejudice in the police force – are still having a negative effect today
ALEX WHEATLE today is a successful author and playwright, honoured by Queen Elizabeth. Back in 1981, he was 18, living in a hostel in Brixton, sharing in the frustrations of local black youths about heavy-handed policing.
“It was a slow build-up. The police had been oppressing the community from way back. I could see it all around me – the tension – and I was told by my friends that the police were not to be trusted. At that time the police were the enemy, and it was as simple as that,” he says now.
Despite the background, the riots that year started on an ill- founded rumour that a youth had been stabbed by police drafted into Brixton in early April to counter a major increase in the number of serious robberies.
Dubbed Operation Swamp, plain-clothes and uniformed officers stopped and searched nearly 1,000 youths in the days that followed, using the much-hated “Sus” laws, fuelling the simmering resentment.
On April 10th, Michael Bailey was stabbed by criminals on Atlantic Road. Police gathered, waiting for an ambulance. Bailey, believing he was to be arrested, resisted. Believing the officers were not helping, locals tried to intervene. Tensions mounted.
Trying to get him to hospital, the police carried Bailey to a police car on nearby Railton Road. More locals became involved. Soon, 200 of them were involved in clashes with officers. Bailey was eventually taken to hospital by friends.
The Metropolitan Police continued with Operation Swamp. On Saturday, officers saw a youth put something in his socks and searched him and his car for drugs. Crowds gathered. Buildings were ablaze in minutes.
By the end of the day, 28 were on fire and 117 more were damaged or had been looted. Sixty private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were destroyed. Brixton became an immediate byword for rioting.
Appointed to investigate, Lord Scarman reported in November, blaming social deprivation and “the racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life” and calling for “urgent action” to prevent it becoming an “endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society”.
He criticised the Metropolitan Police for the “ill-considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions of some officers”, but did not accept the locals’ contention that the force was “institutionally racist”. He did accept the need for often-tough policing. The issue was not to abandon such actions, but how to ensure they did not provoke future riots.
Much has changed since.
In 1999, the Macpherson report into the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager stabbed to death at a bus stop in southeast London, did find the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist.
Retiring in 2000 as Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Paul Condon said Macpherson had been “a tragedy” for the force, leaving some of his officers unable “to function as human beings”. Crime, he said, had risen because police were afraid of using stop-and-search powers for fear of being branded racist, while the rate of street crime in the British capital had risen by a third.
Today, the force is still battling the issue, inside its own ranks and on the streets. Last year an inquiry found it should no longer be labelled as “institutionally racist”, but equally it found white officers were more likely to be promoted and less likely to face disciplinary charges than others.
Brixton, too, has its issues. One of its five wards, Coldharbour, still remains one of the 10 most deprived wards in England and Wales, with 60 per cent of residents falling below the poverty line. Brixton has one of the highest rates for single-parent families in London. Crime remains a problem, although rates have dropped in the last decade.
Nevertheless, the number of attacks around Brixton’s Tube and National Rail stations are the highest in the Lambeth borough, while half of all of the borough’s drug-crime is centred on Brixton.
However, there is affluence too. Flats on Railton Road – the scene of bonfires 30 years ago – now cost over £300,000, while a detached house can cost more than £1 million. Some long-time residents have left as they can no longer afford to live there.
Brixton’s covered market, where families once came to buy cheap food, is a protected structure, filled with shops, delicatessens and restaurants – but also higher rents that have hit established traders hard.
Given the disconnection felt by much local youth, Brixton in 2011 and in 1981 are not that far apart, especially with the impact of spending cuts and the rage on the streets of recent months.
Today, after 30 years, black and Asian youths, according to a study last year from the Ministry of Justice, are still 30 times more likely to be stopped in the street than their white counterparts.
Meanwhile, some in Brixton fume about the death of local reggae and rap musician Smiley Culture, who, police say, stabbed himself in the heart as officers searched his home in Surrey for drugs last month.
Alex Wheatle, who, it seems, mixes optimism with fear, worries. “What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose.”