Brixton Riots, 10-12th April 1981
An eye witness account by the 'We Want to Riot, Not To Work Collective', 1982
By now the social and economic background to the Brixton riots will be familiar to most people.
A housing waiting list, in the borough in which Brixton is situated, of 18,000; a third of the housing stock sub-standard; high unemployment with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black; a high robbery rate (in fact the highest in London, it being twice the nearest figure); next to no social amenities. This is all very true.
The area around the Railton Road (Frontline/Mayall Road triangle) is inhabited by mainly black council tenants and white squatters (leftists/anarchists/marginals).
Cars are overturned and set ablaze during the riot
Empty houses are also used by local blacks as drinking and gambling clubs, dope centres and venues for all-night 'Blues' parties with sound systems pumping out non-stop reggae.
Down the Frontline a black crafts centre has recently started in one empty building and further down a former black bookshop is now a squatted anarchist bookshop.
People down here tend to live on the left-overs of capitalist society. For years, the Triangle has been on the drawing board for demolition but only in the last two has any attempt been made to carry this out.
But the council keep running out of money so it has been coming down piecemeal, making a rough area look even rougher. However, the maze of streets west of the Frontline look brighter as they have increasingly come under the occupation of white, liberal professionals and self-made respectable blacks.
Down the Frontline there are two distinct cultures - the black and the white - and it is the black culture which predominates and on the fringes of which the young whites participate.
Dope and Reggae. The blacks have their own language - Patois - and this gives them an independent cultural identity that is not easily co-opted or diluted.
Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this culture (in terms of the riots) is that it is very much a street culture (despite British weather). Winter or summer there are always crowds of blacks out on the Frontline rapping, smoking, laughing, visibly occupying their social space.
But it is the cops who claim they control the streets of London.
Certainly, the two years I've lived on the Frontline I've noticed that the cops have always tried to intimidate the Frontline community with constant vehicle and foot patrols and less frequently, horse patrols. (The most bizarre policing incident I've ever seen happened a few months ago when a cop on horse-back chased someone down Mayall Road).
Actually, the cops know they cannot fully control the Frontline. Despite their claims and their patrols the police policy on the Frontline has been one of containment- periodical raids to remind locals who is boss and to warn them not to get out of hand.
Operations such as the one in 1978, when the SPO sealed off the Frontline and searched anybody and everybody, have caused outrage. Blacks, especially the second generation, are, on the whole defiant.
A month or so ago a black motorist tore up the ticket a cop had just given him and threw it back in his face to cheers from the assembled crowd. The cops constantly use the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks.
And they do this with vengeance. Another event on the Frontline will illustrate this. Two vehicles collided and the cops on the scene immediately searched both vehicles and their drivers and passengers. The accident was secondary.
With such everyday deprivation and such mindless state bullying, for being deprived, the one thing which united the disparate elements of the Frontline community is a burning hatred for the cops.
What most surprised local people when the Bristol riots happened last year was that they hadn't happened here first. Another surprise was that the anarchist graffiti which went up after Bristol-' Bristol yesterday, Brixton today ' took a year to be made real.
The establishment knew this too: Only a few months ago Lam beth Council published a report criticising the cops and predicting trouble.
The constant intense policing of Brixton and of the Frontline in particular was heightened in the week leading up to the riots.
Babylon outside Woolies, Brixton Road
At 11pm on Friday April 3rd., the Frontline area around Dexter and Leeson Roads was sealed off by cops with no-one being allowed in or out for over an hour. Over 20 arrests were made.
Then, in the following week, Operation Swamp 81 saw over 1,000 people (mainly young blacks) stopped and searched. This was all adding to the increasing frustration of local people.
At about 2.30am on Friday 10th I was stopped and threatened by 3 young blacks with bottles.
This confused and angered me (it was the first time I'd ever been hassled on the Frontline) and it was only later that I realised that they have been victims of 'Swamp 81', perhaps only minutes before meeting me.
Friday 10th April
On Friday 10th at about 5pm a young black with a knife wound was stopped on the Frontline by cops. What followed is the source of many different stories.
Whatever happened (and it isn't necessary to seek justification for what followed anyway) the cops were attacked by a gang of locals, the young bloke freed and taken to hospital.
Sat 11th April
A brief battle with cop reinforcements occurred. The cops took this as a challenge and so the following day, Saturday 11th, the Frontline was under police occupation.
Usually the cops patrol the Frontline. But on that Saturday they parked up and down the Frontline every 50 yards, just sitting in their vans waiting for something to happen.
It was a warm day so the Frontline was full of people standing around doing the usual things and, this time, eyeing the occupation force with hatred.
All afternoon most people expected trouble of some sort.
At about 5pm in the afternoon a plain-clothes cop received the free gift of a brick on the head for wanting to search a black guy's car. Up in Atlantic Road an arrest was attempted and this further angered an already angry crowd.
Most of this crowd was gathered in the space at the apex itself and at the beginning of Atlantic Road. The odd brick began to fly at the cops isolated in the crowd.
A window was smashed. Tension rose. Electric.
Injured rioter gets dragged behind police lines.
Then plain-clothes cops appeared from the crowd and joined the uniformed lot.
Battle lines were now clearly drawn and the first barrage of bricks flew in the direction of the cops. They threw a few back and charged. At first we retreated a little but-realising we were many, they were few- we stopped.
Then, spontaneously, the whole afternoon's tension being released like a spring, we charged them. (What follows may seem confused and incoherent. But this is how I experienced the rioting.
I report on only what I saw and heard. Certain incidents are omitted for obvious reasons).
A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. 'Whoops! Class War!' A scramble for bricks. 'I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?' A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role.
They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Them. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands.
In the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over.
A light is instantly provided and poof! Up goes a cop's van. Wild cheers. Laughter, dances of joy. I see a comrade and we beam solidarity at one another. Our savage celebrations are interrupted by a charge of cops. (They had regrouped with reinforcements).
The crowd splits. The cops are mad. Truncheons thrashing.
I run to safety up a side street and meet another comrade. As we point with child-like glee at the rising pall of smoke; a white guy is bricked, inexplicably.
He is immediately defended by black youths and all eyes look around for the idiot thrower.
A nearby friend has transport and as I go to seek its availability a black guy bearing an old grudge grabs me, revenge in his eyes. Before he can find an excuse to brick me (was the brick which hit the other guy meant for me?)
I make it plain that assistance is needed. Van not available. Questions from friends. Tune in to police radio. They are out of their heads. Sounds of windows going in on Coldharbour Lane. Back onto the streets.
Overturned police van
In Coldharbour Lane an SPG van is on its side like some stranded whale.
A boutique has its windows smashed and twisted dummies litter the pavement. Crowds of onlookers. Glass smashes in Electric Avenue. A jewellers is looted. Another further up. Black and white youths kick their way through the roller shutters.
I watch out for cops on Brixton Road, announce to the passing shoppers, who are all eyes, that free jewellery is available should they want it. Am ignored.
Notice that the jewellers is, perfectly, next door to a consumer advice centre.
Necklaces, bracelets, rings and watches are thrown into the pavement. Jewellery in the gutter. Great!
I have a game of football with so me bracelets, a game I can't lose. There are some squabbles over loot. Depressing.
Move out onto Brixton Road. Burton's tailors is done in and a dummy set ablaze. Magical sight.
Cops arrive. Pull dummy onto pavement. The tube station is closed but Brixton Road is still open to traffic.
The motorists and bus passengers look on in confusion as looting spreads to both sides of the road.
A black youth kicks in plate glass windows as if he is swatting flies. More cops.
Burglar alarms scream out to deaf ears. More and more cops. Running battles. More looting. Then I notice there's no more traffic.
The cops have sealed the main road off from the cop shop to the Town Hall. Looting and smashing now all along Brixton Road area, the market area and up Acre Lane.
My name is called out. Another comrade. We shake hands muttering 'Great! Great!' I give him a garbled resume. Bulk of crowd now around Brixton oval. Woolworths smashed and looted.
Television sets, stereo, carted off. Some smashed. Occasional cop van races through and is smashed.
Many in the crowd realise cops have to pass us to get into the battle area so crowds line up on either side of Brixton Road with bottles and bricks. 'Here's another' Smash. 'And another' Smash. A proletarian fairground.
'And the next one please!' Smash. Everyone a winner. Cops wise up and a convoy arrives, stops and a horde of meanies piles out, truncheons thrashing. Crowd splits up but sniping still possible.
A charge and we escape up a side street. All casual, like, we call into a pub for a drink. A rumour goes round that a cop has been kidnapped. My comrade and I smirk into our glasses. We decide to go to the Frontline.
It is now dark and we worm our way through back streets, avoiding cop cordons. We approach the top of the Frontline along Kellett Road and are met with an unbelievable sight.
Three rows of cops stretch across the Frontline, facing into it. A non-stop hail of bricks batters their shields. Then suddenly a molotov (the first I've ever seen) comes up and over and smash! lands on some shields, which are hurriedly dropped.
Windsor Castle pub was attacked and set on fire during the riot
Look down Mayall Road and see the Windsor Castle (pub) ablaze.
The Frontline is barricaded with burning vehicles. I'm elated and pissed off. Elated that the Frontline is a no go area and pissed off that I'm now cut off from defending it. I look around. Exhausted and injured cops sitting on the ground smoking fags.
The fires, the cops, the atmosphere. Class war. 'Will they bring the army in?' Belfast.
We detour to the south end of the Frontline, which is also sealed off. Watch a shop blaze. The sub-post office has disappeared. Back to the Town Hall area.
Cops now holding strategic positions - the big junction at the Town Hall, the cops station, etc. Still looting.
More friends arrive. Talk. Back to the Frontline. All fires out by now. It's getting on for midnight. Things much quieter. Cops slowly regaining control. Up to cop shop. Barricaded with cop vans. Under siege.
Cops attack us and force people down a back alley. Beatings. Arrests. We are split up.
Police van on fire, Railton Road
I wander back along Brixton Road surveying damage. Only a few civilians are about now. Cops are in control. Get off the streets. Talk to friends for hours and then back to Frontline for celebratory drink.
One last look at the blitzed Frontline in the dawn light and then sleep. I dream of cops, cops and more cops.
Tired, hungover. Rage at the newspaper. Commissioner McNee and others have the gall to blame 'outside agitators'. (The cops were the outside agitators.)
The Frontline is crowded with people debating. Lots of cops patrolling warily. Firemen inspect damage. Discuss events with friends. News of arrests.
Early evening. More trouble, but more easily contained, as over 1000 more cops are in the area. Brixton is sealed off, up as far as Kennington Oval.
Fascist attack in Villa Road (famous squatted street). Cop station again heavily protected. Cops use 'Nightsun' helicopter for the first time. (Can light up an area the size of a football pitch and is fitted with infra red cameras.) More cops. They're gaining the upper hand.
Since the weekend there has been confusion and paranoia.
The gutter press stress not only 'outside agitators' but also 'white anarchists conspiracy'. Comrades are raided. (Who's next?) Where are they held? Which court will they appear in?
First fines are heavy-£200. Hassles about getting bail. Newspapers print photographs showing faces. (Who's next?)
Frontline now quieter than usual. Massive police presence but this isn't immediately visible. Coaches in side streets, up to 2 miles away.
Reports filter back about treatment of those arrested. Heavy.
Can't sleep. (How can the people of Northern Ireland have survived 10 years of this without cracking up?)
The black community is divided. The rally for Easter Sunday is called off. Recriminations.
The Brixton Defence Committee and Lambeth Law Centre are organising counter-information and compiling a list of cases against the police. It's still early days yet.
Frontline much quieter than usual. Brixton still occupied.
All varieties of political groupings trying to colonise the local initiative. (The worst I saw was Militant, with the headline 'Brixton Blame the Tories'.)
Difficult to judge the atmosphere. People having to re-think, trying to get these extraordinary events in perspective.
It is now a higher level of confrontation. All the shops in the market and main road areas are boarded up. For how long?
There is talk of more 'aid' for the community. Sticking plaster for leprosy. Class society is rotten through and through. Where will the next eruption take place? The struggle here is far from over.
(Report by the 'We Want to Riot, Not To Work Collective', 1982. Anti-copyright)
How smouldering tension erupted to set Brixton aflame
Discussion on our bulletin boards
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