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Racism, Rumours, Revolution! The Brixton Riots

Riot relevance
In the notoriously colourful decade of fashionably and musically iconic innovation, and the decade in which Rick Astley was “never gonna give us up”, racial contention and rumours dominated South London society. In today’s political arena, racial contention is seen in the attitude of nativist, protectionist, and welfare chauvinistic parties, which favour native inclusion and promote foreign exclusion. Rumours cloud the characters of people engaged in political and social networks, and catalyse spontaneous mass
mobilisation, which spark substantial action amongst the masses.
The Brixton Riots, though little known and embedded in 40 year old history, are still pertinent today because they epitomise how racism in multicultural societies and “the word on the street” can escalate into violence and protests.

Law’s flaws
The Race Relations Act of 1976 prohibited discrimination based on colour, race, ethnic and national origins. In practice, however, societal behaviour exempted itself from this legal premise, and discrimination against 40% of the Lambeth community, particularly the African-Caribbean population, persisted. The Borough of Lambeth in South London, at the heart of which Brixton lies, was a notoriously crime- ridden corner of South London, and in fact one third of all crimes in Lambeth were perpetrated in Brixton. In an attempt to curtail crescendo crime rates, the police force was permitted to evoke the Sus Law, which enabled them to stop and arrest every person suspected of having the intent to commit an arrestable offence, despite not yet having committed it. Word of mouth had it that the police was abusing this new legal empowerment to persecute black citizens, which further exacerbated racial tension within London society

In the company of legally flawed behaviour were the unemployment rates in Brixton. While 10% of the Brixton population was unemployed, the rates stood much higher amongst the black community. Of that 10%, 25% consisted of ethnic minorities, and 55% consisted of black Brixton citizens. These proportions were incorporated into further rumours and suspicions of racial discrimination lying within the state apparatus, in the government and workplace. Meanwhile, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to invest in cities like Brixton, which suffered from criminality, unemployment, and racism, claiming that “Money cannot buy either trust or racial harmony”, and refused to ease police presence or revoke powers conferred through the Sus Law.

“Look! He’s killing him!”
It is said that Michael Bailey, a boy of colour, had been injured and running away from three other black boys. He ran into a family’s home, where he was temporarily treated, but a police officer, who had noticed him earlier, attempted to send him to hospital in a minicab, so that he may receive the necessary medical attention. As this scene was unfolding, a crowd assembled and, watching the officer handle the boy as such, intervened with the belief that medical aid was not being provided rapidly enough. Some crowd members thought the officer was trying to harm the boy, “Look! He’s killing him!” The boy was seated in the minicab nonetheless, which made its way to the hospital. When a police car stopped the cab and the officers saw the injured Bailey, it is said that they tried to seat him in the back of their car and drive him to hospital quickly themselves. Another crowd had observed this affair and, based on the belief that the police were arresting him, demanded his release. Over the next two days, more rumours had propagated: claims that the police had left Bailey to die or neglected him in some other way, were soon reformulated into a black boy’s death by the hand of police brutality. The rumours mobilised masses of people into large-scale protests against racism, excessive police intervention, police brutality, and generally poor living conditions and discontent.

Legal reverberations
The riots took place for the three days, primarily between the black Brixton population and the officers. Over 300 people were injured and £7.5 million worth of damage was caused. Lord Scarman produced a report, known as the Scarman Report, which listed evidence of racism within society and racially discriminatory implementation of the Sus Law by police officers. The report encouraged the establishment of a new code for police behaviour, which was embedded in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, as well as the creation of an independent Police Complaints Authority in 1985. These legal modifications showcase how, in theory, the state’s mentality changed in response to rumour- and racism-induced protests, though racist attitudes continue to exist even within government policy today.


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