April 11, 1981. Following police brutality towards black people in London, the Brixton Riots break out, heralding a watershed moment for race relations in the UK.
It’s an overcast morning in Lewisham, South London, on August 13th, 1977.
A college student, Andrew, pushes his way through a crowd of people. Up ahead, marching beneath a sea of Union Jack flags, are members of the National Front – a far-right political organization.
Andrew is of West Indian heritage. He is one of hundreds of counter-protestors who have come to let the National Front know they’re not welcome here in Lewisham. Standing between Andrew and the National Front marchers is a police cordon, separating the two groups, and hopefully, staving off violence.
Over the tops of the policemen’s helmets, Andrew can see the National Front placards bearing racist slogans. He can hear chants of “if they’re black, send them back!” Anger courses through Andrew’s veins. He hates the National Front – and he resents the police for escorting these fascists through his neighborhood.
Then Andrew spots something glinting on the ground: an empty glass bottle. Without pausing to think… Andrew stoops to pick the bottle up. And with a rush of adrenaline… throws the bottle as hard as he can. It soars through the air… and smashes in the midst of the National Front demonstrators.
Andrew’s action inspires others to do the same – and soon, bottles, and bricks and other debris rain down on the fascist marchers.
As scuffles begin to break out between the police and the counter-protestors, Andrew rushes forward, crashes through the police cordon, and hurls himself into the middle of the melee.
During the Battle of Lewisham, as this event will come to be known, someone in the area opened a window, placed a set of speakers on the window-sill, and turned on music. While the violent exchange played out, the streets were filled with the sounds of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” as the counter-protestors - white and black - fought back against hatred.
But their stand against the National Front will not put an end to the racial prejudice that is rampant in many parts of Britain. As the 1970s give way to the 1980s, the tension and violence will only increase – and the police will continue to turn a blind eye. Eventually, the Black community’s pain and frustration will boil over into another violent demonstration – a few miles west of Lewisham, in the neighborhood of Brixton. The shockwaves sparked by this event will force the British government to address institutional racism and lay the foundations for meaningful change, an outcome set in motion by the Brixton Riots of April 11th, 1981.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 11th: The Brixton Riots.
It’s Saturday, January 17th, 1981, in Lewisham, South London; three months before the Brixton Riots.
A teenage girl is on her way to her friend’s sixteenth birthday party. It’s a cold night, but there’s a warm glow emanating from the windows of the house where the party is taking place. The girl looks both ways before crossing the street. Then she makes her way to the front door of 439 New Cross Road.
New Cross is one of the most deprived parts of Lewisham. The neighborhood is predominantly West Indian and has seen several racially fueled attacks in the past few years. Four years ago, a violent clash between members of the far-right National Front and anti-fascist counter-protestors took place not far from here. But after the Battle of Lewisham, the violence against the Black community of New Cross only increased.
In December 1977, a firebomb was thrown through the window of the Moonshot Club – a youth club popular among young Black people. The following summer, in July 1978, a Black community center in nearby Deptford was also burned down. The National Front claimed responsibility for both attacks, but no arrests were made.
When the teenage girl reaches the house, she finds the door unlocked. So she pushes it open and steps inside the packed corridor. As she makes her way through the crowd she thinks, there must be over a hundred people here. Reggae music throbs and delicious aromas of curried goat and Jamaican rice waft through the kitchen. The girl pours herself a drink and heads upstairs toward a large bedroom where the music is blaring. There, she dances until the early hours.
Then, at around 5:30 AM, the girl smells something burning. When she steps out into the hall, she is greeted by a wall of unimaginable heat. Flames surge up the stairs and leap through cracks in the floorboards.
Amidst the screams of panic and terror, the girl fights through the heat and smoke until she reaches an open window. She throws herself outside, falling two stories, landing in a crumpled heap on the front lawn. The girl is lucky because she will survive, thirteen people will not; killed by the fire – all of them young and black.
The Metropolitan Police begin an inquest into the tragedy. Witnesses report seeing an unfamiliar white man approach the house immediately before the blaze started. And soon, rumors emerge that the New Cross Fire, as it’s called, was yet another attack by the National Front. But following their investigation, the police conclude the fire was an accident. For the families of the victims, this feels like an injustice… and business as usual.
By the early 1980s, institutional racism is endemic in many aspects of British society. London’s Metropolitan Police have a reputation for racial profiling, and for using excessive force against people of color. Such harassment is legally legitimized by controversial stop-and-search procedure, known as the “sus law”. It permits the authorities to arrest people whom they deem “suspicious”. But the police routinely abuse the “sus law”, and Black people have been disproportionately targeted for years.
But the roots of prejudice run deeper than just the Metropolitan Police. In a 1978 television interview, the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made her position on Britain’s ethnic minorities clear:
"THATCHER: People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture"
After the New Cross Fire, the response from Thatcher, and others in power, is largely silence. Many in the black community are angry… and determined to act.
On January 20th, 1981, a group of community leaders gather at the newly rebuilt Moonshot Club. There, a British activist named Sybil Phoenix delivers an impassioned speech:
"We as black people are saying: why haven’t parliament said anything?…that is what I want said… they’re burning our children!”
For Sybil, and for many others, the fire was not an accident; it was a massacre.
So on May 2nd, 20,000 people march from New Cross to Hyde Park, in an event called the Black People’s Day of Action. Photographs of the New Cross fire victims are carried alongside banners with the slogan “Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said.” The Black People’s Day of Action has been organized by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, established in the wake of the tragedy to agitate for a more thorough investigation.
The march is the largest demonstration by the UK’s black community in history – an expression of the growing frustration felt by its members toward society’s ingrained racism. But the message of the march will fall on deaf ears. Rather than listening to the black community, the Metropolitan Police will inflict even harsher measures on people of color in South London, leading to another outbreak of violence in Brixton. But this time, the government will have no choice but to sit up, take notice and listen.
It’s April 10th, 1981, three months after the New Cross fire.
On a warm spring evening in Brixton, South London, a teenage boy stands on the corner of Railton Road. He watches as an all too familiar scene unfolds before his eyes: a white police officer stopping a young black man in the street.
Brixton is one of the poorest parts of London, with unemployment rates among black youths at a staggering 50%. As a result of economic deprivation, crime rates are high, and Brixton is heavily policed. The controversial “sus law” – which allows police officers to arrest anyone they deem suspicious – is routinely used to harass and antagonize Brixton’s majority black population.
Then in early April 1981, the Metropolitan Police launched “Operation Swamp 81”, a special exercise targeting street crime in Brixton. 150 plainclothes policemen descended on the area, stopping more than 1,000 people in just six days – and arresting over 100.
People in Brixton have grown to fear and hate the police, whose treatment of suspects is often excessively forceful. The animosity is particularly intense here because Brixton is the epicenter of the UK’s Afro-Caribbean community. It’s a vibrant, colorful area with a proud West Indian heritage. For many, Brixton is a slice of Trinidad or Jamaica transplanted to South London; a cultural haven buzzing with the pulse of reggae music and aromatic with the smell of fried yams.
But now, many feel that haven is under attack. Dance halls are often raided by the police – who break down doors, smash stereo equipment, and stamp on vinyl records. At a time when the National Front is committing hate crimes on a daily basis, the targeting of black people in Brixton by the police feels unwarranted and rooted in prejudice.
Before long, the anger in the community reaches a boiling point with an incident that takes place on the main thoroughfare in Brixton: Railton Road; or as it’s known by many Brixton locals: “The Front Line”. This infamous street, the frequent backdrop of many clashes between the black community and the police, is about to live up to its name.
On April 10th, 1981, a police constable named Steve Margiotta stops a young black man on Railton Road. The young man seems agitated. And quickly, Margiotta realizes why. He’s been stabbed. Margiotta radios for an ambulance. But the young man does not trust the police. So he tries to get away. Margiotta struggles to restrain the young man, insisting he’s only trying to help.
But soon, a group of teenage boys surround Margiotta, demanding to know why he’s arresting an innocent man who’s clearly in need of medical attention. Before long, the young man is forced into the back of a squad car. And almost immediately, a scuffle breaks out between the police and the growing crowd of onlookers.
News of the incident travels fast. Angry citizens take to the streets, as do members of law enforcement. And all through the night, a convoy police vehicle circles through Brixton, trying to stave off further violence.
By the next morning, April 11th, the streets of Brixton are filled with crowds of angry young people demanding justice. Around midday, two officers apprehend a black man in the crowd. The angry onlookers immediately react, surging forward toward the police lines in an attempt to free the arrested man. In a matter of moments, the scene quickly degenerates into a full-scale riot.
The police scrambles to protect themselves behind riot shields as more and more protesters flood the streets. But they are quickly overwhelmed. The protestors topple police vans, set cars ablaze, smash windows and reign down bricks and Molotov cocktails. Before long, fires rage throughout Brixton – but in the words of one witness, they were “fires of freedom”. Bloodied police officers stagger through rubble-strewn streets, back to their vans, as the protestors claim victory.
By the following morning, much of Brixton lies in a quiet, smoldering ruin. Over 200 police officers were seriously injured in the riots.
Margaret Thatcher is quick to condemn the violence, calling the riots “criminal” and “unjustified”. And an inquiry will soon be launched into the cause. But this investigation, for the first time, will have the government giving the Black community of South London a platform to make their voices heard.
It’s July 15th, 1981, three months after the Brixton riots.
A car pulls up to the curb on Railton Road. An elderly white man emerges from the backseat. Lord Scarman is a High Court Judge, and he has recently been appointed to conduct an inquiry into the Brixton riots.
Following the violence of April 11th, a wave of similar disturbances swept the country. In Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, clashes between the police and urban black youths erupted in an unprecedented spate of violence fueled by unchecked police brutality toward people of color.
In the aftermath of the Brixton and other riots, the New York Times published the headline: “Britain Discovers A Race Problem –– To Its Surprise.” Under scrutiny from the global media, the British government decided it had to respond. So the Home Secretary of Britain appointed Lord Scarman to conduct an inquiry into the matter.
So here in Brixton, Lord Scarman steps from his car and enters Shepherd’s Community Center – a neighborhood meeting hall. The chatter in the room gives way to silence as this gangly, stiff-backed figure of the English establishment stands before the crowd of exclusively black faces. Many in the room are skeptical of government officials like Lord Scarman. But, despite their apprehension, the people of Brixton soon discover that Lord Scarman is genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say. He listens, and absorbs, and collates everything he learned in what comes to be known as the Scarman Report.
Published on November 25th, 1981, the Scarman Report concludes that excessive force is routinely used by the police when apprehending people of color, and that “urgent action” is required to prevent “racial disadvantage” from becoming an “endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of [British] society.”
The report recommends tougher measures to eradicate discrimination – and some of these measures are implemented. But for the most part, Scarman’s advice is ignored by Thatcher and her government.
The unrest that swept Britain in 1981 did not result in immediate far-reaching change, but the episode did bring about a greater awareness of race problems in Britain and forced the government to acknowledge some of its failings. But, perhaps, the most meaningful legacy of the Brixton Riots is what it inspired.
In the words of activist Gus John, the uprising urged many people “to be protagonists in the pursuit of [their] own liberation, [to demand] a right to be treated with respect, and to not have those rights trampled by others who believe they have the power to do so.” This was the message that ultimately emerged from the Brixton riots, which took place on April 11th, 1981.
Next on History Daily. April 12th, 1917. In one of the defining moments of World War One, the Canadian Corps triumphs over German Forces at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.