On April 11, 1981 the arrest of a black man sparked off three days of riots in Brixton, south London. Rioters fought police, attacked buildings and set fire to vehicles; over 300 people were injured and the damage amounted to approximately £7.5 million.
The riots shocked the UK but tensions had been building up for a while and finally boiled over. Brixton was (and still is) an area with a large minority population and especially West Indians. Half of all black men had no jobs and many young black men accused police of discriminating against them particularly through the unfair use of the “Sus” law which allowed police to stop and search anyone they suspected of planning to carry out a crime. While an amended Race Relations Act had become law in 1976 police forces were exempted from its provisions. The week before the riots, a special police operation called “Operation Swamp” had seen police stop and search over a thousand people under the “Sus” law supposedly in an attempt to crack down on street crime. The operation caused widespread resentment among the young men of Brixton who felt that they were being unfairly targeted and heightened tensions. On the evening of April 10th, a crowd had gathered to confront police after rumours of police brutality against a black man but they had dispersed. The following night, an arrest resulted in full scale riots.
Although the arrest of a man had sparked the riots in Brixton, high unemployment, deprivation, racial tensions and poor relations with police were not unique to Brixton. The next few months would witness a host of similar disturbances including in Manchester and Liverpool.
An inquiry was commissioned by the Government and headed by Lord Scarman. His report published in November 1981, stated that there was "no doubt racial disadvantage was a fact of current British life". He recommended that "racially prejudiced" behaviour be made a specific offence under the Police Discipline Code with offenders liable to dismissal. The report also led to the end of the “Sus” law, the creation of the Police Complaints Authority and police/community consultative groups and new approaches to police recruitment and training.
However, he concluded that "institutional racism" did not exist in the Metropolitan force and it would be another twenty years before the scope of the Race Relations Act would include the police. Ironically, eighteen years later, Lord Macpherson’s report stemming from an inquiry into the police investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a group of white youths would arrive at a totally opposite conclusion: that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist.
The Brixton riots drew national attention to the situation of black people living in Britain and led to blacks becoming more politically active. However there were sporadic disturbances in the 1980s and 1990s and black people continue to face numerous problems ranging from discrimination, deaths in custody, racist attacks, poverty, unemployment and low academic achievement among boys. With the focus of Britain now on its Islamic population and particularly those of Pakistani origin, the challenges facing blacks have assumed even less importance.