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In 1980 and 1981, London's Metropolitan Police force relied on a law known as "sus" to fight crime. Short for "suspected person," the law allowed them to arrest someone if they believed that the person was "loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence."
The law rankled many Black residents of Brixton, who felt that it allowed the police to unfairly target them.PA Images via Getty Images
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A man runs past a burning building during the Brixton riots. In all, the uprising cost £7.5 million in damage. SUTTON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Between April 6 and April 11, 1981, London police planned to conduct "Operation Swamp 81" in Brixton. In the first few days, 100 officers patrolled Brixton and other nearby areas and stopped about 1,000 people. Tensions grew.
Here, police drag a young Black man during the Brixton riots. Simon Dack/David Levenson/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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On April 10th, a police officer tried to stop a young Black man with a stab wound. The man fled, but a rumor spread around Brixton that the police officer had refused to help him seek medical care, leading to his death.
When police approached a man sitting in a car outside of a car rental agency the next afternoon, the neighborhood exploded — Black residents had had enough. Simon Dack/David Levenson/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A man gives a Black Power salute and sticks out his tongue from atop a burned out car on April 13, 1981. The riots exposed a deep racial divide in London. Simon Dack/Keystone/Getty Images
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A police officer injured during the Brixton riots is led away by two of his colleagues.
By the end of the riots, over 300 people had been injured — most of whom were police officers. Arnold Slater - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images
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The people who participated in the uprising were mostly young Black men. Furious at the racial discrimination they faced in their neighborhood — especially the much-despised "sus" law — they looted businesses, overturned police cars, and threw bricks, bottles, and petrol bombs.
At the time, British authorities stressed that white youths had also participated, insisting that the Brixton uprising was not actually a "race riot." However, it could not be ignored that most of the participants in the uprising were Black, and most of the police officers were white. PA Images via Getty Images
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Brixton residents and police officers walk past a burned out building after a night of riots. Gary Weaser/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Police officers make an arrest during the Brixton riots. Community groups had long warned that tensions between local residents and the police were at a "breaking point." David Levenson/Simon Dack/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Residents walk past a destroyed building after a night of rioting. Brendan Monks/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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Though the Brixton riots lasted just a few days in April 1981, tensions continued to flare. Here, a business posts a sign joking about looting after a resurgence of rioting in July 1981.Barham/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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People work to clear out debris after a night of rioting.Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A tense moment between police and a young Black man. Over the course of the 1981 riots, about 7,000 police officers descended on Brixton and arrested nearly 300 people. Douglas Doig/SSPL/Getty Images
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The aftermath of a police search in July 1981, when officers came looking for drugs and petrol bombs at a resident's house. The neighborhood felt aftershocks of the Brixton riots long after they happened. Geoff Bruce/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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British officials tour riot damage. A November 1981 report acknowledged that there was "no doubt racial disadvantage was a fact of current British life" but also denied that "institutional racism" was a widespread issue among the police in London. Geoff Bruce/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Police crouch behind their shields during the Brixton riots.
One young Black woman who witnessed the riots later said, "There's a quote, and I think it's Martin Luther King who said it, that 'riot is the language of the unheard'. And we had been unheard for a long time."Arnold Slater - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images
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Police charge on April 11, 1981, with batons drawn. John Downing/Getty Images
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A young man injured in the Brixton riots is given aid by the police. John Downing/Getty Images
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Police staring down the uprising. On April 10th and April 11th, dogs were used to help dispel the crowds. David Levenson/Simon Dack/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Blood streams down the face of a policeman who was injured by a brick during the Brixton riots. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A policeman stands guard outside of a destroyed building after a night of rioting.
Black residents later acknowledged that they'd targeted establishments that were known to be racist, like a bar where "the white man who owned the pub would break your glass after you had finished using it."Rob Taggart/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Policemen run during the Brixton riots. Simon Dack/David Levenson/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Locals walk past a destroyed building. About two dozen buildings had been set on fire during the Brixton riots, which caused millions in damages.
Black author Alex Wheatle, who participated in the riots as a teenager, later said that "there was a bit of despair after the riots as we realised we had laid waste to our community."Graham Turner/Keystone/Getty Images
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A child bikes between a broken window and a burned out building. Though the riots caused damage to Brixton, they also led to the repeal of the old "sus" law and the creation of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which attempted to regulate stop and search.David Levenson/Simon Dack/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Residents walk past a burned out building. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A newspaper during the Brixton riots declares: "Brixton: The Inquest On Hate."Rob Taggart/Central Press/Getty Images
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A young man walks by a crowd of police officers with shields. To uprising participants like Wheatle, the Brixton riots were ultimately worth the damage they caused.
"We saw it as standing up to a racist police force," he said. "I believe that these riots sent a stern message to government, telling them that they can no longer treat diverse communities so badly."Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
How The Brixton Riots Exploded In London — And Forced A National Reckoning On Race
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
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.
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."
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 double degree in American History and French.