The Day Brixton Went Up in Flames

The Day Brixton Went Up in Flames

Grieving protesters march from New Cross to the House of Commons after 13 black people were killed in the New Year fire at Deptford, south London. The fire aroused anger within the local community with allegations of a police cover-up of a racial attack.

SourceGraham Turner/Keystone/Getty

Why you should care

Because you can’t abuse people without a backlash.

Smoke and reggae music filled the air as burned-out police cars smoldered. Young people — many of whom had fought earlier that day — were regrouping in celebration after riots that had seen more than 150 buildings set alight. The charred debris of storefronts, signs and trash bins crumbled onto London’s pavements in testament to the biggest public clash against police in modern British history.

Things came to a head for two days in April 1981 in the south London district of Brixton as an estimated 5,000-strong crowd railed against authorities over systematic racism inflicted on the Black community. These events unfolded just a couple of months after the first-ever Black People’s Day of Action, which was a response to a questionable investigation into the deaths of 13 Black teenagers in a South London blaze earlier that year. The violence in Brixton spilled from the streets into homes and businesses, resulting in more than 200 police injuries and hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages. Many of the revelers headed to parties that night wearing new suits they had looted from the local shopping center.

Sound systems were our response — cultural expression that allowed us to feel comforted.

—Menelik Shabazz, film director

“How long can you suppress a feeling, man?” a local man rhetorically asked a camera crew the following day, referring to frustrations felt by young Black Brits in the late 1970s — a generation born in the U.K. to West Indian parents and immigrants who were fed up with being subjected to racism. For those watching their televisions nationwide, the arguments didn’t make much sense, and it didn’t help that police and some of the media portrayed rioters as radicalized youths and criminals. It wasn’t until a few months later, with the publication of the Scarman Report, the culmination of an investigation into the riots commissioned by Home Secretary William Whitelaw, that the public began to see the event in a different light.

Fire new cross house

Firefighters at 439 New Cross Road, New Cross, southeast London, on January 19, 1981, the day after a fire killed 13 young Black people who were attending a birthday party.

Source Getty

Lord Scarman described the riots as “scenes of violence and disorder in their capital city, the like of which had not previously been seen in this century in Britain.” Hundreds of rioters, the report read, “attacked the police on the streets with stones, bricks, iron bars and petrol bombs, demonstrating to their fellow citizens the fragile basis of the Queen’s peace.” Presented to the British parliament in November that year, the results shocked the general public: While not excusing the attackers, Scarman focused his attention on the role of the police in triggering the riots.

He concluded that “racial disadvantage” and “discrimination” are a “potent factor” for unrest. Culpability also came from the mouths of the police officers themselves. Peter Bleksley, a Metropolitan Police constable between 1978 and 1982, when interviewed for the film The Battle for Brixton, admitted he had become racist while working as a cop; he pointed to the commonly used practice of stop and search on suspicion of a crime, based on the so-called “sus law” (for “suspected person”). Introduced in 1824, it was originally used to punish individuals who slept on the streets, beggars and fortune tellers.

Just five days before the riots started, the Met Police launched Operation Swamp 81 in Brixton, targeting Black citizens in a bid to lower crime rates. In just five days, nearly 1,000 people were stopped, searched and beaten, according to Zeta Price, a Brixton resident interviewed for The Battle for Brixton. “I saw a policeman with a young, Black guy,” she said on camera, “and he was really giving it to him, boxing him, dragging him, and my heart began to pound and I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to kill that boy.’ ” Such brutal interventions antagonized the community against police, creating a tense atmosphere — one in which the smallest spark could cause an explosion. The police interventions continued even after the riots got underway on Friday, April 10, adding fuel to the fire.

Scarman urged authorities to collaborate with local communities in fighting crime and to directly address police racism among the ranks. He also pointed to the lack of political, economic and social security for Black Brits, making a connection between those issues and the riots. Crucially, his report for the first time made broad audiences aware of the fact that there was a generation of young Brits who were born and educated in Britain but still had to fight for equal rights.

Music was one of the available tools. “Sound systems were our response — cultural expression that allowed us to feel comforted,” says Menelik Shabazz, a well-known film director and member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee who co-organized and documented the first-ever Black People’s Day of Action in his film Blood Ah Go Run. He recalls that dance parties throughout the ’70s were frequent targets of violent attacks. Police, he claims, often raided private houses or community centers, beating up the revelers and smashing their equipment.

So it’s no accident that reggae music filled the air that night, ringing in calm. As DJs played improvised music dedicated to the occasion, the crowd was celebrating the changes they had set into motion that spring.

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