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Brixton riots burned 40 years ago but UK ‘still has long way to go’ with race relations

This weekend marks 40 years since the Brixton riots, when clashes across three dramatic days left 300 injured.

They followed months of tension between the Metropolitan Police and London’s black community.

Riots followed in other inner-city areas as a cocktail of racial tensions and deprivation exploded – including Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth, Birmingham; Chapeltown, Leeds; and Moss Side, Manchester.

The spark for the Brixton riots was a false rumour that a policeman had stabbed a young black man – weeks after 13 died in a London house fire.

The Scarman report later found the overuse of stop-and-search powers provoked “young black people who felt they were being hunted irrespective of their innocence or guilt”.

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A police officer hopes to shied himself with a metal dust bin lid during Brixton riots
A police officer hopes to shield himself with a metal dust bin lid during Brixton riots

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Author Alex Wheatle – the focus of one of the acclaimed Small Axe BBC TV dramas – was caught up in the Brixton unrest.

Here he recalls the extraordinary events, which form part of a timeline of tension and tragedy involving Britain’s black community.

And he explains why he thinks the UK still has a long way to go when it comes to race relations.

FRIDAY April 10, 1981. It was past 10 o’clock when I was lining up a shot on the final black in a pool game in the George 4th pub on Brixton Hill.

Before I delivered my cue action, someone burst into the establishment and shouted, “It’s all kicking off in Brixton.”

Author Alex Wheatle
Author Alex Wheatle was caught up in the Brixton unrest

My friends and I were informed a young black Brixtonian had been stabbed in the back by a policeman on the Frontline (Railton Road).

Rumours and versions of this ­incident swirled around the council estates, terraced streets, shebeens [unlicensed drinking houses] and the squats of Brixton and beyond.

We all remembered the 13 young black people who perished in the New Cross fire in January.

Many of us had joined the Day of Action march six weeks later to protest about what we considered a flawed and indifferent police investigation into the tragedy.

Thirteen dead, nothing said.

Alex Wheatle, aged 19, taken around 1982
Alex Wheatle, aged 19

Tempers were brewing. The day after the march, the media reported blacks rampaged through the streets of London – when it was police who hurled threats and racist insults at us as we approached Blackfriars Bridge.

I asked myself then: “Where was the empathy for our dead? Where was the humanity?”

So when we heard reports of the young man stabbed in Brixton just a few weeks later, not one of my friends went to bed early on that warm Friday night. Enough is enough.

We debated our course of action long into the early hours.

Despite pleas from community leaders to calm things down, the police intensified their presence on the streets.

A police car blazes at the corner of Atlantic Road and Brixton Road South London in an outbreak of violence during the Britxon riots
Riot’s followed months of tension between the Metropolitan Police and London’s black community

By Saturday morning, they were walking in twos and threes along all main thoroughfares in Brixton. The pavements were awash with expectation.

We could not predict what lay before us, but we sensed something life-changing was about to explode. I headed to my usual spot in Soferno Bs record shack on the junction of Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road.

My gaze was drawn to what was occurring outside rather than what reggae track was being played.

Every few minutes or so, police strolled by. We side-eyed them. They glared at us.

Throughout the early morning and afternoon, the tension escalated. I went to buy a chicken pattie at a Jamaican bakery and the proprietor told me that he was closing early “cos too much police around”.

A bloodied inspector Dennis Bell, injured by a flying brick during riots
A bloodied police officer injured during the riots

I barely had time to enjoy my snack when I heard a great hollering and a stampede of vexed feet.

Caught up in an adrenaline rush, I joined the crowd.

By the time we reached Atlantic Road, a police van was being rocked from side to side and its windows being kicked in and smashed.

I’ll never forget the pure panic that marked the brows of every officer trapped inside. The Battle of Brixton began. Police reinforcements came from every point of the compass.

As the first missiles were launched into the police ranks, the sky became a strange hue of neon blinking blue, stones and broken bricks.

We made our beachhead at the junction of Mayall Road and Railton Road. We hacked and tore down the knee-high brick walls that fronted terraced properties.

Police officers carrying an arrested man by the arms and legs after violence erupts in Brixton in April 1981
Police officers carrying arrested man by the arms and legs after violence erupts on the streets of Brixton

Bottles of all shapes and sizes were swiftly collected. Parked cars were quickly drained of their petrol.

The racist George pub in Railton Road was firebombed, so was the Windsor Castle pub in nearby Leeson Road. The flames reflected on our perspiring skins.

The alarms were deafening. Spectators jostled for viewing space from first and second- floor windows.

I discovered that petrol emits a weird, sweet smell that almost makes you high.

Further down Railton Road and Atlantic Road, the police cowered under dustbin lids against a hard and jagged rain.

I cannot lie, to see the police retreating was exhilarating and empowering.

For so long we had had to flee from them. Bob Marley’s lyrics to Slave Driver came to mind.

A man runs past a burning in Brixton during the riots
Buildings were set alight during the Brixton riots

The tables were turning. Night fell. My arms were spent. Electric blue still flashed in the heavens.

I had witnessed surreal sights: a lone policeman’s helmet aflame on the pavement, a pensioner pushing a pram up Brixton Hill that contained a new TV set, a brick rebounding from a jeweller’s store-front window, and a young lady trying to pull off a gold sovereign ring that didn’t quite fit.

Just before midnight, I headed home via Brixton Water Lane and Leander Road. At one point I had to hide in a council rubbish bin as police reinforcements poured in from Tulse Hill.

Residents were out, asking what had happened. Flames from burning cars kissed the skies, and you could taste the petrol fumes on your lips.

I reached Brixton Hill and discovered that every single convenience store had been hit and looted.

Opportunists employed their shopping trolleys and suitcases to cart home crates of beer, boxes of cigarettes, Mars bars, Tic Tacs, spearmint gum, toilet paper – anything you can imagine.

When I arrived home, I started to pen the first few lines of my Uprising Chant. I still perform it to this day in schools and readings.

Workers clearing debris from a burnt-out welding shop in Railton Road, Brixton, after the Brixton riots in 1981.
Workers clearing debris from a burnt-out welding shop in Railton Road, Brixton, after riots

I was arrested a few weeks after the Brixton uprising and served five months in prison.

Now, I reflect on what has occurred in recent years in race relations in the UK.

I watched a Prime Minister not bothering to display any empathy for the victims of the Grenfell Fire.

I’ve heard our present premier state the problem with Africa is that the British are no longer in charge.

Many Windrush scandal victims are still awaiting compensation.

There wasn’t any royal acknowledgement, visit to the site or laying of a wreath where two black women were brutally murdered in north-west London in June 2020, and the present Home Secretary did not describe the manhandling of the athlete Bianca Williams, when she was forced out of her car for a random stop where her young child was left unattended and in distress in the back seat, as “unacceptable”.

Police take action in the streets of Brixton during the Brixton riots
Police take action in the streets of Brixton during the Brixton riots

It heartened me to observe all colours, young and old, marching all over the world in 2020 in support of The Black Lives Matter movement, but it dismayed me to read the Sewell Report that claimed institutional racism was a thing of the past. An utter betrayal.

Until the great institutions of the British state address their subconscious bias and their apathy towards the pain and injustice of the black experience, the racists among us will be empowered and enabled.

  • Alex “Brixtonbard” Wheatle is the author of East Of Acre Lane, the Crongton series, Cane Warriors and other novels



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