Brixton Uprising 1981

Uncover the tensions around the Brixton Uprising

We Want To Riot, Not To Work: The 1981 Brixton UprisingsBlack Cultural Archives

Employment and economic conditions

At the time of the Uprising unemployment was rife in Brixton. This disproportionately affected the Black community: unemployment in Brixton was at 13% whilst 50% of young black men were unemployed, Black people were also four times as likely to lose their jobs as white people during this period. The experience of racism that the Black community experienced was not only limited to their interactions with the police, it affected all aspects of life. The economic problems that the Black community face only acted to deepen the anger that many young Black people felt towards the structural racism that oppressed them. 

Ephemera from the papers of the Brixton Defence CampaignBlack Cultural Archives


Racist policing tactics were weaponized against Black communities in the UK during the late 1970’s and 1980’s. The 'SUS' or 'suspected person law' gave police the power to stop and search anyone they suspected of committing a crime. These powers were abused by the Metropolitan Police and used not only to harass Black people but also to commit violence against them. Operation Swamp, a police campaign in early April 1981 also heightened tensions between the Metropolitan Police and the Black community in Brixton. 

Images and Reflections, section four: 'SUS' the Black child and the lawBlack Cultural Archives


Furthermore in response to the police abuse of power and the Stop and Search Law other groups including Brixton Black Women's Group and Black Liberation Front led by people such as Mavis Best heavily campaigned against the use of 'SUS laws', under the campaign banner 'Scrap SUS’. They created leaflets and flyers raising awareness about its discriminatory usage, and the extent to which the justice system failed to provide those who were arrested under 'SUS' with a fair trial. These responses to the Uprising show the resilience of the Black community both in London and across the country in their grassroots response to the structural racism they faced.  

The Battle for Brixton (1981) by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

The Uprising

The Brixton Uprising took place in the summer of 1981. They were violent protests which saw violent clashes between the predominantly Black youth of Brixton and the Metropolitan police force. The uprisings initially began with an incident where a Black youth who had been stabbed, was subsequently stopped by the police several times who ultimately removed him from a taxi whilst he was on his way to hospital. As a result of the police’s actions a large crowd gathered and when the police called for back up and more police arrived, violence soon erupted. 

Grass Roots: Black Community NewsBlack Cultural Archives

The Uprising lasted for three days between 10th April and 12th April. Over the course of the uprising 279 police officers had been injured, over 100 cars were damaged and 82 people had been arrested. Within the Black community in the UK the became a rallying cry, it was a legitimate protest to racist policing.

Grass Roots: Black Community News Grass Roots: Black Community News (1978-1986) by Black Liberation FrontBlack Cultural Archives

Furthermore groups like the Brixton Defence Campaign were set up to support those wrongfully charged and to challenge the racist narrative presented in the Press and official reports like the Scarman Enquiry.

The Battle for Brixton (1981) by UnknownBlack Cultural Archives

Over 100 plain-clothes police officers flooded Lambeth and Brixton to harass and oppress the Black community, stopping and searching well over 2000 people over 4 days.

This abuse of power and inherent racism from the police led to hugely increased tensions which culminated in the Uprising only a few days later.

Brixton Defence Campaign: Published Material (1)Black Cultural Archives

Brixton Defence Campaign and other organisations 

The Brixton Defence Campaign was created in 1981, in response to the Uprisings. The campaign had three goals; to show that the uprising was a legitimate protest against racist policing, to give full legal representation to those arrested and to continue to fight against police oppression. However, the Brixton Defence Campaign grew into a larger movement which looked to fight all forms of racist oppression across the country. 

Brixton Defence Campaign Brixton Defence CampaignBlack Cultural Archives

As the campaign continued it acted to support other inner-city uprisings in Toxteth and Moss Side, and campaigned against racism in the press and government.

The work of the Brixton Defence Campaign worked to show how the response of the Black community to The Uprising was to continue to fight against the oppression that had caused it.

Brixton Defence Campaign Poster (3)Black Cultural Archives

Visit Black Cultural Archives

Find out more about the Brixton Uprisings and the subsequent defence campaign by visiting BCA in Brixton, London.

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