Whitewashing state racism then and now: 40 years after the Brixton uprising

Whitewashing state racism then and now: 40 years after the Brixton uprising
5 min read
09 Apr, 2021
Comment: Today, just as in the 80s, communities of colour are being driven to protest, only to be met with a government that denies the painfully obvious, writes Malia Bouattia.
A protester in Brixton, south London demonstrates against police brutality [Getty]
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton uprisings, when young people took to the streets in protest against racist policing, high unemployment and poverty. 

The "riots" took place against a backdrop of oppression, far-right terror and both complacency and complicity from the British state. This was all too painfully demonstrated months before in nearby New Cross, when 13 young black people were killed at a party in a fire thought to have been ignited by National Front members.

Inaction by the state, and the press' dehumanising treatment of victims as well as their families, angered many, especially across black communities. Later, thousands marched, chanting "Thirteen dead, ­nothing said" during 'Black People's Day of Action' in London.

In addition, around the same time, "Operation Swamp" was launched to supposedly tackle crime on the streets of Brixton. This led to even heavier over-policing of black communities. Thousands of police officers were deployed, disproportionately harassing black people through stop and searches. By the time the uprisings erupted, over 1,000 people had been stopped in just six days. 

Neither the social and economic issues, nor the state's response to the popular rage they generate have changed much

Enough was enough. Thousands demonstrated in the streets of south London across three days, state property was targeted, police cars were set alight and windows of businesses were smashed as the masses expressed their anger and frustration at their living conditions, the violence they experienced at the hands of the state, and the general indifference shown to them by elected officials and the mainstream media.

Many young people were subsequently arrested and the communities were condemned for their violence. Black youth were overwhelmingly targeted with heavy sentencing.

Despite the criminalisation of many protesters, the Brixton uprising brought the question of racism in Britain to the fore, and others were inspired to also take action. Demonstration swept Moss Side in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds and Toxteth in Liverpool.

In many ways the commemoration of the uprisings is a timely reminder. It follows a year of protests against police brutality, which is still heavily racialised in the UK. From Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US, to the Kill the Bill rallies against the UK's Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the people continue to fight oppressive and repressive state institutions.

Home Office official Robert Morris (left) and Malcolm Ferguson,
in charge of community relations at Scotland Yard, visit Brixton,
South London, after the uprising in 1981 [Getty]

In this context, the events that shook working class communities four decades ago continue to be relevant to us, because neither the social and economic issues, nor the state's response to the popular rage they generate, have changed much. 

Read more: Kill the bill: Resisting a police state in the UK

Child poverty is rising at an alarming rate, unemployment is worsening, and Covid-19 deaths have ravaged working class communities - all of which disproportionately impact people of colour. And instead of addressing these multiple crises, the state has spent its energy and resources on targeting dissent, hunting migrants at sea, and, just to add insult to injury - publishing a report to demonstrate that structural racism was a thing of the past. 

There are many lessons we can and should learn from the examples of radical action taken by the people in Brixton in the 1980s. 

The government at the time responded to this expression of indignation in the same way Boris Johnson did in the face of mounting criticisms of racism today: an empty whitewashed report.

Back then, it was the 
Scarman report that denied the existence of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police. Today, we have the Sewell report which is being used in the same way: to deny the painfully obvious. In the 1980s, police were harassing and beating up black youth in the street. Nothing has changed on that front either. State violence abroad and repression at home under the cover of fighting terrorism are also themes which run from then to now. 

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that as we mark 40 years since the Brixton Uprising, we are about to mark a decade since the Tottenham riots. They were sparked by the cold blooded assassination of Mark Duggan on the streets of London and, just like their predecessors, spread like wild fire across the UK. Young people ignored by politicians, harassed by police officers, and pushed out of education and the job market hit the streets in exasperation.

A decade on, the social, political, and economic causes for their anger have intensified - as has the arrogance of our rulers

A decade on, the social, political, and economic causes for their anger have intensified - as has the arrogance of our rulers.

Cecil Gutzmore - who organised the Brixton Defence Campaign to support those arrested in the 80s - summed up the situation powerfully: "Nothing has changed with regards to urban police forces… Look at the way they have increased the disproportionate use of stop and search on black people. And the economy is not working for people at the bottom…Young people in 1981 had cause to resist, and it's the same system today."

In the months to come, as we continue to organise against the policing bill and the government that is pushing it forward, we should remember the struggles of the past.

Their demands for a better, fairer, more equal society echo in our own. As we take to the streets to defend our right to protest, we should remember that we don't only stand on the shoulders of previous generations, but in our struggle, in our victories, in our stride forward, we also carry their revenge.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.