Voices of the unheard

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Thirty years ago the Brixton riots heralded a wave of unrest in Britain's inner cities that terrified our rulers and helped forge black and white unity

"Molotov cocktails were thrown for the first time on mainland Britain. There had been no such event in England in living memory."

These words come from a police report into the Brixton riots of 1981. On 10-11 April 1981 massive riots exploded in Brixton, south London, and thousands of people fought running battles with police. Some in the popular media described the unrest as race riots. They were not. Black and white joined together to find a voice: they are part of the battles that forged multiracial Britain.

Martin Luther King described riots as the voices of the unheard. The riots in Brixton and those that followed across the inner cities of Britain in the summer of 1981 were a response to Margaret Thatcher's Tory government that had been elected two years earlier. Thatcher was imposing enormous cuts, using unemployment to break workers' organisations and launching major attacks on working class people's rights. The riots in Brixton showed how racism sharpens class divisions. And that terrified Britain's rulers.

There was a determination, particularly in the black population, that the racism of the police and the complicity of the criminal justice system would not go unchallenged. The riots were an outpouring of years of anger over racism and police thuggery.

Black people made up only 6 percent of London's population, yet they accounted for 44 percent of those arrested under the "sus" stop and search law in the late 1970s. This law enabled the police to stop anyone they thought looked "suspicious".

Unsurprisingly, young black men looked very suspicious to a police force riddled with racism and a "canteen culture" based on racial stereotypes. Simultaneously, unemployment was soaring - official figures put it at 3 million in the summer of 1981. Young people were hardest hit, and black young people especially so. Some 55 percent of black men under the age of 19 in Brixton were officially unemployed.

One month before the riot a fire in New Cross in south east London had left 13 young black people dead. A majority of the black people felt that these deaths were not even investigated. A march of 10,000 people demanding a proper investigation was physically attacked by the Metropolitan Police. The Sun and other newspapers carried lurid reports about the demonstration.

Boiling point

The police then launched an operation they called Swamp 81 in which hundreds of plainclothes police officers descended on Brixton and stopped and searched hundreds of black people. The title Swamp 81 had come from an infamous speech made by Thatcher in which she said that people "were rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture". People decoded this to mean people of a different colour. The constant harassment and the physical intimidation reached boiling point in south London.

Today the police routinely stop young Muslims and accuse them of being involved in terrorism. At that time the "enemy within" were young Afro-Caribbean men. Over four days police arrested 114 people and stopped 943, the majority black, although they targeted young white working class men as well.

The riot started when the police said that they came to the aid of a young black man who had been stabbed. But they did not call an ambulance and were far more interested in questioning him. The crowd demanded immediate action but the police response was to send for more reinforcements. The following day, 11 April, the police increased their numbers in Brixton to teach the local population a lesson for intervening in the arrest. They arrested a young black man waving to his friend across the street. The streets exploded; hundreds of people came to his aid and overwhelmed the police.

The police and the Tories tried to dismiss the riots as just about race. The Guardian noted at the time a remarkable thing about the riot was the complete absence of racial tension among white and black residents as they mingled and resisted together.

The riots spread over the summer to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham and shook the Tory government. They began to immediately backpedal on some of their cuts. In inner city areas new recreation centres opened up and there was a massive expansion of further education to remove young people from the streets. The Scarman report that looked into the riots, though loaded with the language of racism, had to concede that the police role was counterproductive and that some anti-racist training had to be introduced.

But the most important development was the forging of black and white unity and the deepening of the multiracial nature of society. This was something the ruling class feared. It teaches us the important lesson that it is by no means automatic that unemployed and bitter workers will automatically turn on each other. Those who live and work together and face common enemies can join together and fight injustice.

Riots by their nature are short lived, but it took a quarter of the police force of London to subdue the Brixton riots and the combined efforts of four forces in the north west to subdue the riots in Liverpool. The fear that haunted the then Tory government was what would happen if they faced a much more widespread revolt, especially if the mood on the streets spread into the workplace.

Our job today is to make that fear on their side return.