From ‘Bloody Brixton’ to ‘Burning Britain’: Placing the Riots of 1981 in British Post-Imperial History

Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements book series (PSHSM)


The ‘short, hot summer’ of 1981 started with a springtime misunderstanding.1 On a warm and sunny Friday evening in early April, when police constable Stephen Margiotta, on duty in Brixton, first glimpsed a black youth running towards him, he could not have known that this was but the beginning of a long weekend of violent unrest that would trigger a national debate on the questions of identity and belonging in post-imperial Britain. Presuming that the youth had committed a crime, he and his colleague proceeded to attempt an arrest, only to discover that the young man was suffering from a stab wound to the back. Trying to help, the police officers called an ambulance, but these efforts went unnoticed by the group of onlookers that had congregated in the meantime. Rumours rapidly spread that the officers were arresting the stab victim rather than helping him, and agitated black youths dragged the injured young man away. Tensions that had been simmering for weeks in this district of South London soon escalated into extensive rioting that continued uninterrupted throughout the night and went on until Sunday evening.2 The confrontations on Saturday evening alone saw 279 policemen and 45 members of the public injured and many police cars and 28 buildings damaged or destroyed by fire.3


British Society Black Youth Daily Mail Police Constable Street Violence 
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    L. Marks (1981) ‘Riot Britain: Our Short Hot Summer of Discontent’ Observer, 12 August, p. 13, p. 16; M. Kettle and L. Hodges (1982) Uprising!: The Police, the People and the Riots in Britain’s Cities (London: Pan Books), p. 155.Google Scholar
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    For the official and widely accepted version of events see L.G. Scarman (1986) The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10–12 April 1981, reprinted edn. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books), pp. 38–41.Google Scholar
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© Almuth Ebke 2016

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