In 1980–81, anti-police collective violence spread across England. This was the earliest confrontation between the state and members of the British public during Thatcher’s divisive government. This powerful and original book locates these disturbances within a longer struggle against racism and disadvantage faced by black Britons, which had seen a growth in more militant forms of resistance since the Second World War. In this first full-length historical study of 1980–81, three case studies – of Bristol, Brixton and Manchester – emphasise the importance of local factors and the wider situation, concluding that these events should be viewed as ‘collective bargaining by riot’ – as a tool attempting increased political inclusion for marginalised black Britons. Focusing on the political activities of black Britons themselves, it explores the actions of community organisations in the aftermath of disorders to highlight dichotomous valuations of state mechanisms. A key focus is public inquiries, which were contrastingly viewed by black Britons as either a governmental diversionary tactic, or a method of legitimising their inclusion with the British constitutional system. Through study of a wide range of newly available archives, interviews, understudied local sources and records of grassroots black political organisations, this work expands understandings of protest movements and community activism in modern democracies while highlighting the often-problematic reliance upon ‘official’ sources when forming historical narratives. Of interest to researchers of race, ethnicity and migration history, as well as modern British political and social history more generally, its interdisciplinary nature will also appeal to wider fields, including sociology, political sciences and criminology.
‘Turning point’ or ‘opportunity lost’? The legacy of 1980– 81
This closing chapter initially examines the nature of and differing reactions to the events of 1980–81, before providing an overview of the subsequent developments since, in terms of race, policing, protest and public inquiries. It shows how the legacy of 1980–81 had a differing impact upon various aspects: for example, it cannot be said to have vastly altered authorities’ views on racial issues or the police’s attitudes towards accountability and policing by consent – other than increasingly hardening views towards combatting public disorder. While there have been a number of advancements – such as municipal anti-racist programmes, increasing presence for black and minority ethnic politicians, widespread acknowledgement of police ‘institutional racism’ – recent statistics regarding the policing of minority ethnic groups and deaths in police custody demonstrate many of the issues remain unresolved.
This introductory chapter introduces the main themes of the book, which locate the anti-police collective violence that spread throughout England in 1980–81 within a longer struggle against racism and disadvantage faced by black Britons that had seen a growth in more militant forms of resistance since the Second World War. This chapter provides introductory overviews of the existing literature related to race and immigration, collective violence, spread of disorder, and the disturbances of 1980–81 themselves. The history of public inquiries is briefly examined, demonstrating their perceived importance within the British legal system and initiating discussion of why they have proven controversial. The chapter ends with a note on the work’s use of a number of key terms, and a brief overview of the book’s structure.
This chapter addresses the history of black and minority ethnic people in Britain following increased colonial migration after the Second World War, and subsequent relationship with an often-hostile society, experiencing widespread discrimination, racial violence and a political consensus to depoliticise and marginalise racial issues. It examines the development of activism, militancy and black mobilisation, considering the build-up of antipathy towards the police due to their policies, actions and general criticism, illustrating the gradual building of discontent towards a British state offering minority ethnic groups little support. The chapter’s title ‘Resistance to rebellion’, inspired by Ambalavaner Sivanandan, itself provides a basic overview of the change demonstrated through these years; discussion, in effect, acts as a ‘roadmap to 1980–81’.
This chapter explores the disturbance occurring in the St Pauls area of Bristol on 2 April 1980; examining the response to and impact of this disturbance, this chapter considers a number of aspects through study of local and national records, media representations and interviews with participants. First, it observes previously poor police/community relations in the area, including numerous accusations of police misconduct and growing concern regarding their tactics. It subsequently examines the police action that ignited disorder – a raid on a local café popular with black locals – and resulting disturbance, which saw the police withdraw from the area for nearly four hours, prompting widespread fears of the emergence of police ‘no-go’ areas and a movement towards ‘hard’ policing tactics. The chapter ends by examining how news of the disturbance spread, initially within the city and later elsewhere, concluding that its influence on subsequent disturbances is undeniable.
This chapter charts the divided response to the St Pauls disturbance, through rejected appeals for a public inquiry and the authorities’ alternative reaction, which attempted to divert attention onto law and order and away from governmental policies. There was a clear division of local attitudes between moderates, who desired the societal legitimisation of a public inquiry, and radical or younger groups, more likely to have been involved in disturbances, who believed it would be a diversion or ‘whitewash’. Other government measures that were implemented – such as select committees turning their focus to the city – were thus boycotted by various groups, who thought their attendance would imply satisfaction with this limited response; similarly, attempted left-wing inquiries were snubbed by local people who rejected attempts to introduce party politics. This chapter lastly examines failed court trials to convict twelve locals under the serious charge of riotous assembly; influenced by criticism directed towards Bristol police for their temporary withdrawal during the disorder, authorities continued their focus upon law and order to the detriment of wider social or political issues, attempting to obtain criminal sentences to reassure the public and deter future violence.
Study of recently released records of Lord Scarman’s public inquiry into events and grassroots political organisations allows this chapter to chart Brixton’s history of troubled police/community relations and the impact that perspectives of this poor relationship itself had upon deployed officers in the area, who often depicted local people purely as criminals. Examining attempted formal police/community liaison prior to the disturbances, which broke down due to tensions regarding policing attitudes and tactics, the chapter notes how provocative police actions and the detrimental effect of saturation-policing operations, further to the influence of events elsewhere, led to the most well-known outbreak of disorder in 1980–81. Continuing analysis into the disturbances themselves, the key events are charted, noting the impact of rumours on events in spreading and maintaining anti-police discontent, and the media in spreading news of disorder nationwide.
This chapter addresses various responses to the Brixton disturbances; the authorities and media focused upon criminality and law and order aspects, leading to repeated calls for the police to be further equipped to respond – but, due to the scale of events, a public inquiry was established. Hence, this chapter discusses Lord Scarman’s inquiry through in-depth examination of recently released inquiry records, such as police radio messages and witness statements, and papers of grassroots political organisations, to explore numerous accusations of police misconduct not included in his Report, addressing some of the gaps between submitted evidence and what was published as official record. Scarman chose not to examine such accusations, suggesting his inquiry could not provide necessary safeguards and that allegations should be directed through the police complaints system; however, this system had lost the faith of marginalised groups, who believed it was ineffective. Conversely, many local groups, such as the Brixton Defence Campaign established to support those arrested in relation to the disorder, vociferously boycotted the inquiry as they believed it would be a ‘whitewash’ and that any evidence provided would actually be used against black defendants.
This chapter examines some key policing developments of the 1980–81 disorders, focusing on Toxteth, Liverpool and Moss Side, Manchester through interviews and original local records. Reaction to previous disturbances strengthened police tactics and riot control equipment, with this transformation demonstrated by the first use of CS gas within mainland Britain and suggestions of arming the police or mobilising the army; radical black groups even alleged the police instigated the July disorders to justify enhanced equipment and ‘stronger’ police tactics. In Moss Side, during a contentious meeting between local community organisations and the police, apparent advances in the police/community relationship were alleged to have actually been a ploy to justify a forceful police response to disorder, employing tactics modelled upon Northern Ireland examples – including using police vehicles to disperse crowds and ‘snatch squads’ targeting influential participants. Authorities again framed disturbances around law and order, rather than addressing broader issues of racism, discrimination or their economic and social policies; Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton’s actions were described by the government as a ‘conspicuous success’, but did little to improve poor police/black relations at the heart of spreading disturbances.
This chapter provides detailed discussion of the Moss Side Defence Committee, through local and understudied national records and original interviews, which is often overlooked in discussions of 1980–81. The Defence Committee, formed to aid those arrested in relation to the disturbances, vehemently opposed the Greater Manchester County Council-established local inquiry into the Moss Side disturbances, and organised a boycott. It was later suggested that dichotomous local responses to state mechanisms allowed progress: that radical groups, such as the Defence Committee, ‘being noisy’ allowed moderates previously unattainable access to the authorities – but the extent to which this was a conscious tactic is debatable. The chapter ends by exploring unstudied interviews with residents and inquiry proceedings, demonstrating the high level of accusations of police misconduct not appearing in the inquiry report, and the continued discontent created by such exclusions.