Brixton uprising 30th anniversary

Some lessons from the history of the British working class

‘What’s an extremist? A communist? We are all bloody communists around here. What else can you be when you live in a depressed, run down area where most of the people are out of work and with no hope of getting a job. The communists talk about redistributing wealth don’t they? Well last night saw a greater distribution of wealth than any government will every allow.’

Daily Star interview with a Brixton resident, April 1981

Thirty years ago, on 10, 11 and 12 April 1981, the black youth of Brixton, south London, supported by some of their white working class neighbours, rose up against police racism and repression. In so doing, they sent shock waves through the British establishment which, up until then, had complacently believed it could leave its minority black population to rot in poverty without too many consequences for itself. Carol Brickley reviews the events.

There had been warning signs. In the previous year, in the St Paul’s area of Bristol, youth rose up following a violent police raid on a café. The subsequent attempt to bring framed charges against local youth failed and finally the riot charges had to be dropped ‘in the interests of race relations’. Just months before the Brixton uprising, profound local anger at the killing of 13 young black people at a party in New Cross and the failure of police to respond to evidence that this was a racist arson attack led 15,000 black youth to march up to the City of London and Fleet Street, breaking through a police barrier at Blackfriars Bridge, and through the West End. They were expressing the anger felt by a community that had been treated with such contempt by the British state, its police force and its hired liars in the British press. Britain had never before seen anything like the Black People’s Day of Action on 2 March 1981 and it was a harbinger of what was to come.

The events of 10, 11 and 12 April

The factors that led to the uprising were obvious to everyone in Brixton with the exception of the chief culprits, the police. The Metropolitan Police had operated with racist contempt for the black population for many years. Promoting the stereotype that most black people, youth in particular, were drug dealers and muggers, no black person could safely go about their daily life in Brixton without being harassed by police using ancient powers that allowed them to stop, search and arrest anyone they ‘suspected’ of intending to commit a crime. The ‘sus’ laws did not require any objective evidence: being black was enough to generate suspicion.

In response to what the police termed a ‘unique’ level of street crime, the local police commander concocted Operation Swamp 81, a plan to ‘flood identified areas of L District’ with plainclothes officers who would detect ‘burglars and robbers’. Over the course of a week from Monday 6 April, 943 stops were made; over half of those stopped were black. 75 charges were made but only one was for robbery and one for attempted burglary. The use of the term ‘swamp’ was no accident. Racism was considered legitimate.

By 10 April the area was bristling with tension. From a dispute over a wounded stab victim on his way to hospital being detained by the police, the uprising escalated as the police sent reinforcements. The local youth defended themselves with the weapons the working class uses to defend itself all over the world: ‘the brick, the barricade and the petrol bomb’. This was the first time that petrol bombs had been used on ‘mainland’ Britain. The immediate inspiration came from the nationalist working class in the North of Ireland who were well practised at defending their areas from attack by Protestant bigots, the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). By Saturday evening in Brixton, a no-go area had been established in the Railton Road/Mayall Road area.

On the Metropolitan Police website the Brixton uprising is described as the ‘first serious riots of the 20th century, and the first entailing substantial destruction of property since the formation of the Metropolitan Police’. 299 police and at least 65 civilians were injured. Police estimated that approximately 5,000 people were involved; 56 police vehicles and 61 private vehicles were damaged or destroyed; 28 buildings were burned down and another 117 were damaged. At the time FRFI presented a first-hand account (its offices were in Railton Road):

‘The Brixton uprising was a rising by the most oppressed, by the people of no property. It was a rising not only against the police but against the system which the police are paid to defend. A system which decrees that a few shall possess riches whilst the oppressed and poor have nothing. The black people of Brixton have been robbed by this system. Robbed even of the right to earn a living. Robbed even of the right to walk the streets unmolested by the police.’ (FRFI 10, May/June 1981)

The aftermath

As a measure of the seriousness of the situation, Home Secretary William Whitelaw, surrounded by guards, visited Brixton on 12 April accompanied by taunts of Sieg Heil from the locals. Lord Scarman was appointed to lead an inquiry. His were a safe pair of hands that had previously absolved the predominantly Protestant RUC of any blame for the ‘civil disturbances’, otherwise known as a pogrom, against the Catholic Bogside and across the north of Ireland in 1969 that led to seven dead and many hundreds injured. A later Scarman Inquiry whitewashed police involvement in the death of Kevin Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration in Red Lion Square in 1974.

In due course, Scarman turned up trumps for the Metropolitan Police in the Brixton Inquiry Report, finding no ‘institutional racism’, just a few inexperienced young coppers and even fewer ‘bad apples’. Scarman’s view, as it had been in Ireland, was that the police should be congratulated for their courage as they ‘stood between our society and a total collapse of law and order’.

Scarman made recommendations for the improvement of police riot training and equipment, together with revision of the Public Order Act and the ‘sus’ laws to make them more effective. He nodded in the direction of ‘independent’ police complaints procedures, lay visitors to police stations and community ‘liaison’. Racism, poverty and deprivation troubled him somewhat, like a Victorian philanthropist concerned about the state of the sewers, lest disease spread to better-off areas. True to form, all the recommendations to strengthen police powers were enacted: most significantly Kenneth Newman, former Chief Constable of the RUC 1976-1980, was appointed Commissioner of Metropolitan Police in 1982. Paramilitary policing methods, formerly reserved for the colonies, were now going to be used against the British working class.

By the time Scarman had published his report in November 1981, there had been more inner-city uprisings across the country in June and July: Liverpool, Handsworth, Manchester, Southall and again Brixton. These battles resumed where the April uprising had ended: barricades and petrol bombs were commonly in use. CS gas was used for the first time on mainland Britain against the community in Liverpool 8. The British state could be in no doubt that the youth in working class communities were going to fight against racism, the police and the system that deprived them of any future. FRFI wrote: ‘In the heartland of British imperialism, we are witnessing the emergence of a truly revolutionary working class movement’ (FRFI 11, July/August 1981). On the British left, we were the only organisation with this analysis.

The socialist left response

While many of the other left organisations in existence at the time were sympathetic to the Brixton uprising as a spontaneous and angry response to police racism, none were in any doubt that the only real way for socialists to fight back belonged in the trade union and labour movement. From the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), to Militant, to a whole array of Trotskyist organisations, the response to the uprisings was a call for the youth to submerge their struggle under the leadership of the trade unions – the so-called British working class – as though black youth in inner cities were not part of the working class.

By the end of 1981 the ruling class was committed to the carrot and the stick: more repression along with a programme of buying off small sections of the black community with grants and elevation to petty officialdom. The Labour Party even selected a handful of black MPs as candidates for safe parliamentary seats. The inner city youth were left to face a backlash of state repression with no voice and no organisation.

The left’s main concern was to promote the election of Tony Benn as deputy leader of the Labour Party. Yet this ‘socialist’ hero was clear about the character of the Brixton uprising, just as he had no doubts about the struggle in Ireland: ‘The Labour Party does not believe in rioting as a route to social progress nor are we prepared to see the police injured in the course of their duties.’ Benn and the Labour left were much more prepared to see young black people on the receiving end of deprivation and racism, or young Irish men and women dying at the hands of the RUC and the British Army. Their preferred solution to oppression is the election of a Labour government that will promote socialist policies. The only problem, as Benn’s own career has shown, is that the Labour Party in power is just as committed and bloodthirsty a defender of British imperialist greed as any dyed-in-the-wool Tory.

What of the trade union movement? The SWP advised the youth of Brixton that: ‘The heart of the beast is where the employed are. It was the miners who brought down the Tory Government in 1974. Rioting alone cannot do that.’ The youth were castigated as disorganised lumpen elements, ‘the vulnerable underbelly of the working class’ who could not maintain a struggle. According to Chris Harman writing in Socialist Review (April 1981):

‘The road from riot to revolution requires a detour that leads through the factories … At the moment conditions may not be quite right for the wholesale transformation of apathy into anger in the factories. But all past experience indicates that the moment there is the slightest upturn in the economy, this can be magnified into a much greater rise in the level of class struggle. We could find ourselves faced with dozens of industrial Brixtons.’

In 1981 there were already many lessons that the trade union movement would betray workers in struggle: the Grunwick strikers had only recently been abandoned by the TUC. The sharpest lesson was to come with the miners’ strike of 1984-85 and the Broadwater Farm uprising in 1985. Far from the solution being to submerge the anger of the most oppressed in the trade union struggle, when the British state turned their class hatred on the strikers, the traitors came from within the Labour Party and the trade union movement itself. The best hope for the striking miners to achieve victory would have been a coalition of interests with the most oppressed who were willing to fight. Instead both the striking miners and the youth of Broadwater Farm were brutalised by the British state and isolated by the so-called socialists.

Thirty years after Brixton, the British left are still peddling the same solutions. The Socialist Party (formerly Militant), like many others, is still calling the same tune. On 21 April 2011 they wrote:

‘Looking at the dramatic events of 30 years ago is a timely reminder of just how vital it is to forge a united workers’ struggle to end unemployment and poverty. Trade union action and the building of a mass party of workers with a socialist programme, including mass job creation, are now the only way ahead for avoiding riots and mindless destruction.’

Over that 30 years little has changed for the most oppressed in British society who are currently subject to a raft of attacks on their living standards, escalating unemployment, poor housing, police racism and deaths in police custody. Many ‘slight upturns’ in the economy have passed by without any ‘industrial Brixtons’. When the anger explodes again, as it will, we have to be ready to build a revolutionary movement in Britain, free of the Labour fakers and traitors, unfettered by Tony Benn and a host of ‘socialist’ leaders who have, time and again, failed to take up the cause of the oppressed against imperialism.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011