Next year marks the 30th anniversary of riots that gripped Britain for three months in 1981 to dramatically change the face of race relations in this country.
They started in Brixton, south London, and spread like wild fire through major inner city areas as black youngsters fought pitched battles with police.
The most serious took place in the former slave port of Liverpool where CS gas was used on the UK mainland for the first time and one man was killed during a two-week standoff.
The spark had been lit a year earlier when the St Paul’s district of Bristol exploded into a day of violence establishing what was to become a familiar story of local anger against heavy handed policing.
As shocked politicians struggled to understand what was going on, it was clear things would never be the same again. “This was a direct confrontation with the state in which the community asserted its right to defend itself,” said Gail Lewis, chair of a recent panel discussion at the British Library in King’s Cross titled Our Memories of the Uprisings: the 1980s revisited.
“It was a set of events that would bring about a profound transformation,” she added, saying that the Notting Hill Carnival disturbances of 1976 and the Southall riots three years later were part of that “arc of transformation”.
“Nineteen eighty one was a wake up call for my generation that we would not put up with the degree of racism that our parents had to put up with,” declared former Lambeth council leader Linda Bellos. “We were British and we were not going away.”
According to Professor Louis Kushnick of the Institute of Race Relations, “over policing and under protection” had turned black communities already oppressed by discrimination on all social fronts into tinderboxes.
In Brixton a “paramilitary operation” known as Swamp 81 in which almost a 1,000 people were stopped and searched under the notorious ‘Sus’ law sparked off three days of rioting, explained Sean Creighton, who worked for Solon Housing Association that had tenants on the ‘frontline’ of Railton Road.
As a youngster growing up in the ‘70s, Kunle Olulode of the Camden Black History Forum remembered being frequently picked up by the police in the same way, “even in leafy Wimbledon ”, and of weddings and christening parties being raided on the pretext that they were shebeens.
He said, “Nineteen eighty one had been building up since the ‘70s. It showed that young people who were born here were prepared to fight for their rights. At last we had a voice.”
Riots broke out in different parts of London and in cities like Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Leeds. In July 1981, the Toxteth area of Liverpool, home to a black community going back 400 years, was turned into a virtual war zone as police struggled to regain control of the streets. “Black people hated the police because the police hated black people,” said Wally Brown, a member of the defence committee set up during the riots.
“They arrested anyone they could lay their hands on and took them to stations all over Merseyside. The first task of the defence committee was to find out where youngsters had been taken so we could tell mothers where their sons were.”
He went on to describe how police illegally fired CS gas pellets directly at people, and how a young man died under the wheels of a police van that ran into him at speed.
“People outside Toxteth looked upon the rioters as black thugs. It was not until the miner’s strike, that they saw the police as aggressors.”
Although the disturbances of the early 1980s were at first described as race riots, this was a misnomer as many disaffected white youngsters took part in them too, reflecting the Clash’s 1978 punk anthem White Riot. “There was a class element involved,” stated Kushnick. “If you were poor and white you’d be treated badly. If you were black you’d be treated worse.”
The aftermath of the disturbances saw the launch of two major inquiries and a raft of government initiatives that acknowledged for the first time that Britain was a multi racial society. By the end of the 1980s, there were four black MPs and around 500 black councillors. Meanwhile millions of pounds had been poured into Merseyside regeneration projects.
But as with many things it was a case of one step forward two steps backwards, with Olulode lamenting how the anti-racist struggle had been “decapitated”. As a result there now existed an “extraordinary political vacuum” that saw the recent death of an Angolan deportee in police custody pass by without protest.
Kushnick pointed to the fact that black people are today 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched and the black prison population is now proportionately higher in Britain than in the US.
Along with other panellists, Dr Anandi Ramamurthy, who is researching the history of Asian youth movements, noted how the solidarity between black and Asian people that existed within the anti-racist movement during the 1970s and ‘80s collapsed in the jostle for government funding.
“Our histories are now increasingly discussed in religious terms and the state was involved in that process,” she added. “Racism has changed shaped and Islamaphobia is a reality.”
Published: 04 November 2010