How The Brixton Riots Exploded In London — And Forced A National Reckoning On Race

Published September 14, 2021
Updated September 21, 2021

In the spring of 1981, clashes between Black youths in Brixton and London's mostly white Metropolitan Police force culminated in an uprising that would change the city forever.

Police Car Burning During The Brixton Riots
Running Past Fire During The Brixton Riots
Police During The Brixton Riots
Mannequin And Destroyed Store
How The Brixton Riots Exploded In London — And Forced A National Reckoning On Race
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After the first night of the Brixton riots, a police officer wandered around the South London district in a daze. It struck him that the scene felt oddly familiar. As morning light illuminated the destruction, he realized that it looked like the Blitz — like someone had bombed Brixton.

But a young Black man on the scene had a different take. He'd long felt that white Londoners didn't understand how much racial discrimination existed in their city. As he looked at the ruins, he thought: "Now they know."

So what caused the Brixton riots, which tore through the South London district from April 10 to April 12, 1981? What happened after the dust settled? And how did they change the way people thought about race in the United Kingdom?

What Caused The 1981 Brixton Riots?

By the time the Brixton riots broke out in April 1981, tensions had been building for years — if not decades. Many of the young people living in Brixton were children of the "Windrush Generation," a wave of immigrants from Caribbean countries who'd arrived between 1948 and 1972.

But by the 1980s, their dreams of a better life for their children had faltered. Black people in Britain faced discrimination over jobs and housing. They also faced the ongoing threat of police brutality. And nowhere was their pain more acutely felt than in the South London neighborhood of Brixton.

There, Black residents had long contended with an aggressive police force.

"Everyone knew of a tale of a young Black guy being hauled into the police cells and getting beaten up," recalled Alex Wheatle, a Black author who was a teenager during the riots. "No one listened to us, no one believed us."

In the early 1980s, tensions between residents and police began to escalate. Police had started regularly using a stop and search law called "sus" to search anyone whom they suspected of acting suspiciously. Many Black residents resented this law, which they felt allowed for racial profiling.

Though community groups warned that tension between police officers and Brixton residents was reaching a "breaking point," authorities planned a massive "sus" operation for April 1981. Calling the plan "Operation Swamp 81," they began to patrol the area in large numbers to crack down on crime.

However, the operation would soon come to a screeching halt.

How The Uprising Tore Through South London

Brixton Riots

Wikimedia CommonsPolice officers stand with shields during the Brixton riots in April 1981.

On April 10, 1981, a police officer tried to stop a young Black man who had been stabbed. Though the man fled, a rumor raced through Brixton that the officer had prevented him from getting medical care, resulting in his death.

The next afternoon, two police officers approached a Black man who was sitting in a car outside of a car rental agency and began to question him. For many furious Black residents in Brixton, this was the final straw.

Sick of the "sus" law, racial profiling, and discrimination in Britain, Black youths in Brixton began to flood the streets. They overturned police cars, set fires, looted businesses, and threw bottles, bricks, and petrol bombs.

Though some of the damage was indiscriminate — and included Black homes — the participants also specifically targeted businesses that were known to be racist. For example, they burned down one pub because its white owner "would break your glass after you had finished using it."

The police responded to the uprising in massive numbers. Some 7,000 officers flooded the neighborhood, using dogs to dispel the crowd.

After two days of intense violence, which pitted mostly Black youths against the mostly white Metropolitan Police, the neighborhood finally began to calm. The Brixton riots — at least for the moment — had ended.

In the end, the riots caused £7.5 million in damages, destroyed two dozen buildings, and left more than 300 people injured — most of whom were police officers. They also exposed the stark racial divide in Britain.

"Britain Discovers A Race Problem, To Its Surprise," trumpeted The New York Times a few days after the riots. What happened in Brixton resulted in a national reckoning about race, and an acknowledgment of the discrimination that Black people in the U.K. faced. The old "sus" law was soon repealed.

Brixton Today

Su--May/FlickrThough Brixton is gentrifying today, the 1981 riots left their mark on the neighborhood.

"I believe that these riots sent a stern message to government, telling them that they can no longer treat diverse communities so badly," said Wheatle.

A public investigation into the riots admitted as much. In November 1981, a report said there was "no doubt racial disadvantage was a fact of current British life" but also denied that "institutional racism" was a problem among the police. However, another report released years later changed tracks.

In 1999, a British judge named Sir William Macpherson described the inadequate police response to the racially motivated murder of a Black teenager as "institutionally racist." While Macpherson received some pushback, his recommendations did lead to some big changes, like the creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Though the Brixton riots officially ended in April 1981, they proved that the fight for equal rights was necessary and ongoing. That's all too clear even 40 years later, as racial justice movements continue the struggle.

As one witness to the riots said: "We are the original Black Lives Matter."

After reading about the Brixton riots, learn about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Then, see how riots in New York have changed the city's history.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "How The Brixton Riots Exploded In London — And Forced A National Reckoning On Race.", September 14, 2021, Accessed June 16, 2024.