By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
It was in April 1981,
Down in the ghetto of Brixton,
That the Babylon cause such a friction,
That it bring about a great insurrection,
And it spread all over the nation
It was truly an historical occasion
It was the event of the year
And I wish I had been there
When we ran riot all over Brixton
When we mash up plenty police van…
When we mash up the Swamp ’81
Excerpt from “The Great Insurrection”, a dub poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson in commemoration of the “Brixton Uprising.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpypYcMe16I)
On Friday, April 10, 1981 a group of mostly African British youth living in Brixton, London rose up against the racial profiling to which they had been subjected for years. The uprising reportedly began on the afternoon of April 10 when an injured African British youth, Michael Bailey, was stopped by White police as part of their infamous “Operation Swamp 81”.
Although Bailey had been stabbed and needed medical attention the police used the “sus” law, which was in force to stop, search and question Bailey. (The “sus law” short for “suspected person”, was the informal name for a stop and search law that permitted a police officer to stop, search and potentially arrest people on suspicion of them being in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. – Wikipedia)
A group of African British youth intervened in an effort to rescue the severely injured Bailey and help him seek medical attention. The altercation between the White police and the African British youth that followed the rescue became a three-day uprising (April 10-12) against police brutality and racial profiling.
The tension between the White police and the mostly impoverished African British community of Brixton had been simmering long before that fateful Friday afternoon in April 1981. Living under constant police surveillance and dealing with daily racist police harassment while suffering a 55 per cent unemployment reality was bound to eventually result in some kind of explosion.
The indiscriminate use of the “sus” laws and especially “Operation Swamp 81” against African British youth under those circumstances could be seen as deliberate provocation. Stopping and harassing an obviously badly injured youth instead of providing or summoning medical help was the act of provocation that was just a bit too much and triggered the explosion.
The Metropolitan Police London had initiated “Operation Swamp 81” as part of the “sus” law. Explaining “Operation Swamp 81” in his 2007 book, An Introduction to Criminology and Criminal Justice, White British criminology professor Chris Crowther-Dowey wrote: “The police decided to use section 66 of the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) to implement ‘Operation Swamp 81.’ This operation involved a massive police presence, used for extensive surveillance, to detect and arrest burglars, stopping, searching and arresting supposedly suspicious people on the streets and then taking them to the police station for interrogation.”
Writing of the “sus” laws, Crowther-Dowey explained that: “The ‘sus laws’ gave the police considerable discretion as to whom they stopped, and they arguably used this discretion in a racist way. Historically the ‘sus’ laws were used in a discriminatory fashion, often in ways that were perceived to be illegitimate and unjust.”
Following the rescue from police by African British youth of the severely injured Bailey so that he could seek medical assistance, the police retaliated with an overwhelming show of force. Armed with riot gear and water cannons, the police attacked the members of the Brixton community. The African British community, many of whom were the children of African Caribbean immigrants, had suffered untold indignities from White police whether or not they were born in the United Kingdom (UK).
Many of the parents or grandparents of the youth had arrived in the UK at the invitation of the British government to work after the devastation of the Second World War. Arriving on the MV Windrush on June 22, 1948, that first large group of 492 African Caribbean people were followed by others over the decades. Although they had been invited by the government to provide needed labour in the UK, these descendants of Africans, who had been enslaved by the British for 400 years, were not welcome by White British citizens. Most of them coped with the White supremacist culture by working hard at whatever jobs they managed to get and avoiding confrontations with White people.
Their children and grandchildren born in the UK were not willing to accept the racist mistreatment. Resentment among the youth had been building since January 18, 1981, when 13 African British youth were burned to death in what many considered a racially motivated arson attack (by local skinheads) at the 16th birthday party of Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson (New Cross Massacre: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zG9ah0WCRt0) and the non-reaction of the authorities (www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7ASlNOnA_E).
The violent reaction of the police to a peaceful march to bring attention to the arson attack of January 18 solidified the alienation of the African British youth, so April 10 was an event waiting to happen. Thousands of police from across London descended on the beleaguered community in Brixton on April 10, 1981 as the community protested the many years of neglect and racist mistreatment and the police met resistance from the youth who defended themselves by showering the police ranks with bottles, bricks, stones and Molotov cocktails. The police were forced to retreat, some with their riot shields on fire from the well-aimed Molotov cocktails.
As sometimes happens when there is a great crowd of angry people, some take advantage of the confusion. As the police retreated to the more affluent areas of the city, the crowd followed, joined by many White youth. This integrated crowd surged through the central shopping area burning and looting. When the smoke cleared, several police and youth were injured. Many of the youth were too scared to seek medical attention in the hospitals because hundreds were being arrested and charged with “rioting and looting”, even if they had been injured by police.
One report from that night states in part: “The most intimidating noise and sight was that of the ‘Nightsun’ helicopter with its searchlight and infra-red camera peering into housing estates and side streets, on the hunt for new victims to put in the police cells.”
An article published in Time magazine on Monday, April 20, 1981 under the heading “Britain: Bloody Saturday” described the April 1981 Brixton Uprising: “It was the kind of warm spring Saturday afternoon that draws all of London into the streets. As two bobbies pounded their beat in Brixton, a grimy, racially mixed neighborhood south of the Thames, they stopped to question a Black youth. A hostile crowd gathered, and suddenly all hell seemed to break loose. Rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails began to fly. As police reinforcements rushed in, an orgy of burning and looting swept down Railton Road, a principal neighborhood shopping avenue, leaving automobiles gutted and shops in flames. Streets were littered with looted appliances, clothing and costume jewelry. At the peak of the violence, more than 1,000 police in riot gear, huddled like Roman legionnaires behind shields, battled some 600 Black West Indian youths, interspersed with a few masked White rioters.”
Following the three-day Brixton Uprising, the British government was forced to take action. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the local police station for tea and the British Royal family were busy planning the wedding of the heir to the throne. However, the British government did find time to commission an inquiry led by White British judge Leslie George Scarman. The Scarman Report was published in November 1981, highlighting “racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life” as a factor leading to the Brixton Uprising. Scarman made several recommendations for reform of police practices and some of the reforms were implemented. One of the reforms was the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act of 1984 which states in part: “Reasonable suspicion can never be supported on the basis of person factors alone without reliable or supporting intelligence or information or some specific behaviour by the person concerned. For example, a person’s race, age, appearance or the fact that the person is known to have a previous conviction, cannot be used alone or in combination with each other as the reason for searching that person. Reasonable suspicion cannot be based on generalizations or stereotypical images of certain groups or categories of people as most likely to be involved in criminal activity.”
In an article published on Wednesday April 30, 2014 in the British newspaper, The Guardian, home affairs editor Alan Travis wrote: “The home secretary, Theresa May, is to introduce a ‘comprehensive package’ reforming the use of police stop-and-search powers after telling MPs that as many as a quarter of a million street searches last year were probably carried out illegally. The home secretary said she wanted the battery of revised codes, best practice schemes and new methods of accountability to lead to a significant reduction in the use of stop and search, more intelligence-led targeted operations, and better arrest ratios. Black people are still seven times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people, with only about one in 10 of those stops leading to an arrest.”
That is a somewhat familiar refrain echoing the experience of African-Americans and African Canadians. It is time Africans came together globally to say “no more!” We are in the International Decade for People of African Descent.