- Created: Sunday, 11 February 2018 17:40
- Written by FRFI
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 10 – May/June 1981
It was the profit motive that built the tenement house and the city project. Profit and loss prevents repairs and maintenance. Free enterprise brought the monopolistic chainstore into the neighbourhood. The concept of private ownership of facilities that the people need to exist brought the legions of hip-shooting, brainless pigs down upon our heads, our homes, our streets. They're there to protect the entrepreneur! His chainstore, his property that you are renting, his bank.
- George Jackson
On the weekend of 10-13 April the black people of Brixton, joined by some of the white working class people who also live there, rose up against police tyranny and racism. They fought with all the anger that long years of oppression have stored in their hearts. They fought with complete understanding of the British state and its police which long years of suffering at its hands have developed. They fought with the courage which only those who have nothing to lose can display. And the people of Brixton fought this battle with the weapons used by working class insurrectionists the world over, from South Africa to Belfast – the brick, the barricade and the petrol bomb.
The Brixton uprising was a rising by the most oppressed, by the people of no property. It was a rising not only against the police but against the system which the police are paid to defend. A system which decrees that a few shall possess riches whilst the oppressed and poor have nothing. The black people of Brixton have been robbed by this system. Robbed even of the right to earn a living. Robbed even of the right to walk the streets unmolested by the police.
Brixton has long been an area where the police show their real purpose – keeping the working class down. Raiding homes, beating people, using arbitrary arrests, open corruption and racist abuse and attack – these are their methods.
One week before the Uprising the latest operation by the police in Brixton began. Called ‘Operation Swamp’ it consisted of putting large numbers of plainclothes police onto the streets. Over 1000 people were stopped and questioned during this week. In particular no black person was safe from being stopped, searched, insulted and arrested.
During the late afternoon the anger and outrage of local people finally broke when they saw police detaining and questioning a man suffering from severe stab wounds. A crowd gathered to demand that the police get the man medical attention. The police continued to question him for 15 minutes. The people, knowing that the police were quite capable of watching a black man bleed to death in front of their eyes, rushed the police van to rescue their brother. He was rescued and taken to hospital. Meanwhile the police brought in reinforcements and used dogs and truncheons to attack the people. One police van was driven directly at the crowd and it hit a black youth who was thrown right over the van. In Derry the Army drove a van into a crowd of youths killing two of them. Such is the callous disregard the British state has for the oppressed.
The people of Brixton would not tolerate this murderous behaviour and the police and their vehicles came under attack from stones and other missiles. The police were forced to get out of the area.
Hundreds of police were evident in the area. The police were intent on proving that they ruled the streets of Brixton. Along Atlantic Road and Railton Road small groups of police gathered on every corner whilst pairs of policemen patrolled every few yards. All day the harassment continued. Finally in the late afternoon the police arrested a black man outside the mini-cab office on Atlantic Road. As he was led to the police van the anger of the people erupted. The van windows were smashed and the doors pulled open. Bricks were thrown as more police arrived in the area. A policeman was felled by a brick. Within minutes an ambulance arrived to take him away. The people remembered the fate of their brother left bleeding the night before. No ambulance had come for him. Their anger mounted. More bricks were thrown at the police.
Senior Police officer: ‘It is an outburst against private property. They stone us and then run away into the back streets and then reappear somewhere else.’
Feeling the fury of the crowd the police were forced to regroup at the end of Mayall Road. Police cars and dog vans doubtless summoned by panic-stricken radio messages raced up and down Railton Road. But when they tried to get into Atlantic Road they were driven back by stones. Police cars that ventured up Atlantic Road were systematically stoned. Paving stones and a local demolition site supplied ready ammunition and the youth led a determined charge against the police who beat a hasty retreat up Mayall Road. A dog van they had left behind in their flight was overturned and set ablaze.
The people were jubilant at the victory they had achieved. The police had tasted their own medicine. But they also knew that soon greater forces of police would arrive and like maddened dogs the police would seek their revenge. And so word went round, barricades must be made to keep the police out.
Local Resident interviewed in Daily Star: ‘What’s an extremist? A communist? We are all bloody communists around here. What else can you be when you live in a depressed, run down area where most of the people are out of work and with no hope of getting a job. The communists talk about redistributing wealth, don’t they? Well last night saw a greater distribution of wealth than any government will ever allow.’
If stone throwing is the first stage of working class fightback on the streets then barricades are its second. For with the barricade comes an area that, for no matter how short a time, belongs to the people. Within that area the people will rule. And if there is one thing that the British state finds intolerable it is that there should be an area where the people are in control, that there should be, as they call it, a ‘no-go’ area for the forces of the British state.
Barricades went up alongside streets leading off Railton Road and at the junction of Railton Road and Atlantic Road. Within that area the people made their decisions on where the barricades should go. They treated their wounded. They organised the defence of the area. They recalled the fact that many photographers were around and so the word passed – wear masks. Strangers walking around were challenged. A bus was seized. Contrary to lies in the press, the driver was not chased with an iron bar. He was firmly told where the bus was wanted and then the youth took possession of it and it drove down Railton Road with the youth aboard it and hanging from its sides. The driver walked untroubled from the area.
Communist Party GLC candidate and representative of Stockwell Park Tenant’s Association, Jean Styles: ‘God knows what will happen to the community policing experiment on our estate. We’ll probably have to start from scratch and rebuild.’
The police made numerous efforts to regain Railton Road, particularly through Leeson Road. But the youth kept them at bay using bricks, as well as petrol bombs. It was during this combat that the Windsor Castle pub got burned down.
Meanwhile barricades were being strengthened and fortified. While these were being doused with petrol the people chanted ‘Militant! Militant!’ Police lines the other side of the barricade cowered behind their riot shields but soon discovered that they were no match for petrol bombs or for the militant fighters who jumped above the riot shields to land blows on the police.
The police launched an effort against the barricade at the end of Railton Road. The van and car comprising the barricade were set ablaze and the 30 or so youths defending the barricade held their fire until police were within ten yards. Then a hail of petrol bombs and bricks forced the police to retreat taking their many casualties with them.
Fighting also raged in Coldharbour Lane, Electric Avenue and Brixton Road. Shops were broken into and goods so long out of the reach of local people were taken. Many a child got Easter eggs. Many a family got a new TV set. Many a person suddenly possessed a diamond as the jewellers shops were entered. So preoccupied with defending themselves were the police that people had the leisure to try on shoes and clothes before taking them away.
At around 9.30 the police made a determined and successful charge to clear Railton Road. Banging their riot shields and screaming they rushed in. Groups of black and white youths fought fiercely to keep them out. A considerable number of white people had by this stage joined the uprising following the lead of their black brothers and sisters. In Barnwell Road a 15-minute combat took place before police were able to break through. It was at this stage that firemen assisted the police by turning their hoses on the youth. Behind the lines of police came snatch squads who pounced and arrested those unable to escape in time.
Woe betide those who were captured at this stage. Time Out reporter Colin McGhee witnessed a black youth of about 14 viciously beaten by police while other police jostled to land a blow on him. Freelance photographer Neil Martinson took one picture of a black man being arrested before he was himself violently assaulted and his camera smashed.
The police also broke into homes. They broke into the home of the Swaby family, dragged out two of the Swaby sons and violently assaulted 50-year-old Mr Swaby breaking his arm and leaving him covered in bruises.
Despite the fact that the police had won back control of Railton Road nothing could rob the people of the victory they had won.
The police spent the daylight hours conducting a Public Relations job for the benefit of the hundreds of pressmen who flooded into the area. The streets were littered with rubble, glass and burned out cars and resembled a scene, as many newspapermen were to write the next day, from the North of Ireland. Whilst local people were still jubilant at the beating they had given the police they knew their enemy well enough to know that as night fell and the Press disappeared the Police would be on the streets with revenge in mind.
William Whitelaw hurriedly walked up Brixton Road, keeping well away from the frontline, guarded by armed Special Branch men. Had his visit been publicised in advance he would have received a reception much rougher than the jeers and shouts of ‘Sieg Heil’ which greeted him.
A Defence Committee was announced by Rudy Narayan as meeting at 7pm. When the time came many of the youth who wanted to participate in it were reluctant to enter the Melting Pot building lest the police should trap them inside. Large numbers of police reinforcements were present in the area. The youth therefore gathered on the street and wanted the meeting there. Suddenly the police attacked the crowd driving their vans at high speed into the crowds. Meanwhile in Barnwell Road a police coach was trapped and the police realised with terror that they were being attacked from both front and rear. As police reinforcements arrived the youth dispersed. Large numbers gathered near the Town Hall and here about 30 youths tried to erect a barricade. Railings were ripped from the church to provide ammunition. Smaller scale confrontations continued throughout the evening.
Soviet Union – ‘The descendants of the slaves of the British Empire have raised their voices to defend their human dignity. The flare up of the people’s wrath in the Brixton ghetto has again exposed one of the ugliest sides of British society. Official London’s attitude to non-whites is in fact the continuation of the racist policies pursued by Britain for centuries in its former colonies. The British bourgeoisie which built its prosperity by plundering colonies would like to prosper now at the expense of the non-whites who are subjected to ruthless exploitation.’
At around 8pm the police chased a group of youths up Stockwell Road. Police vehicles again drove into the crowd. Their plans were foiled however when they came under a hail of masonry and rocks from youths high up in a building. Several vans were wrecked.
Stockwell Park Estate was sealed off for three hours with nobody allowed to leave or enter. People witnessed a handcuffed black youth have his head repeatedly banged against the wall by the police.
Throughout Brixton the police were out for revenge. They picked off individuals. A young black woman was seen being viciously assaulted by police who ran off when people approached. The Swaby family was again raided and their third son was arrested.
A widespread cordon had been thrown round Brixton and a police helicopter used a high-intensity searchlight and infrared cameras over the area. Police cordons were used not only to keep people out of the area but to encourage fascist hooligans. Witnesses saw two black youths let through a cordon only to be followed by 8-10 fascist types. To the latter the police said ‘Get them Lads!’
The Brixton Uprising was more intensive and covered a wider area than any previous working-class fightback for decades. It has sent shivers of horror down the spines of the British ruling class. Even on the Saturday night the authorities had an Army Liaison officer on hand in Brixton police station to liaise with the Army should the police have proved unequal to dealing with the Uprising. There will come a day when they use the troops, as they do on the streets of the North of Ireland, to put down rebellion by the workers.
One factor, in particular, horrified the ruling class. Under the leadership of black people, whites joined in. Many of the young white people have no stake in this system. That they responded to the Uprising by joining in is of great importance. Black people have once again shown the way to fight the system. In taking militant action against their oppressors they have given an example to and pointed out the revolutionary road to the working class as a whole. And a section of white youth responded to this revolutionary lead.
The Brixton Uprising, like the St Paul’s Uprising points to the future. As this vile racist, profit-seeking system lays ever more burdens on to the oppressed and poorest workers – they will unite to fight back. They spurn the weapons beloved by the corrupt and aristocratic official Labour Movement – Parliament, peaceful protest and petition. They choose the weapons which are the only weapons understood by the British state – the weapons of revolutionary Uprising.