Spotlight On: Brixton Riots – video transcript

Hi, my name is Kevin Searle and I’m a record specialist at The National Archives. Today we’re going to be looking at a document from our Home Office record collection. This document is from 1981 but was opened or made available to the public in January 2012, and that’s because of the 30-year rule where records are transferred to The National Archives after a period of 30 years, although the rule has now been changed to 20 years.

So the Home Office describes itself as the lead government department for immigration and passports, drugs policy, crime, fire, counterterrorism and the police. Well, the Home Office was formed in 1782 and so the records of the Home Office stretch way back to the 18th century and even further if one includes the departments that predated it. So obviously with records stretching back this far one can find all sorts within it including letters reports, minutes, photographs, newspaper cuttings, many of which appear within the particular file that we’ll be looking at today.

So before we look at our example from this collection, notice that our document has a unique reference number. So we can use our catalogue to find it. HO, which stands for Home Office, and then 266/89. So let’s take a closer look at our document and work out what it’s about.

So what type of document is it? Well some might remember what were called the ‘London riots’ of 2011 – of course, as historians we know that these weren’t the first incidents of disorder or protest in London or Britain’s streets. 30 years before the so-called London riots there was what some have referred to as the Brixton Riots and others the Brixton Uprisings, and these were a series of clashes between multi-racial groups of mainly young people and the Metropolitan Police in Brixton, London, between the 10th and 12th of April 1981. And you might want to think why some might choose to call the events in Brixton ‘riots’ and others ‘uprisings’.

Here we have a file of papers that were used to put together what was called the Scarman Report, or to give it its full title, the Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10th to the 12th of April 1981 – Report of an Inquiry. Now this was the official government commissioned report into the disturbances. The file has the title ‘Inquiry into the 1981 Brixton Disturbances – Scarman Inquiry, Evidence and Papers’. And this means that it’s comprised of evidence and papers that were used to write the report. So it’s not the final report in itself, which we do actually have a finished copy of. However, it’s certainly worth looking at this file of evidence and papers because not all of the material within it made it into the final document.

So who has produced it? Well, it’s a Home Office file with a HO reference because the Home Secretary at the time responded to calls for a public inquiry which would be chaired by Lord Scarman who was a respected judge and this is why it’s widely known as the Scarman Report, although the decision to make him the chair wasn’t supported by everybody.

So if we open it up – and it’s often important to put down some some weights so the flaps don’t get in one’s way. So this includes a brown envelope labelled ‘Ordinance survey maps of Brixton’. Of course, this took place before Google Maps. We have a red folder labelled ‘Exhibit Six’, which includes numerous photographs, a leaflet entitled ‘Police and public – Complaints against the police’, which explains the procedure for members of the public who consider they have grounds for complaint against the conduct of a member of the police force and hints at one of the key causes of the disturbances, which was the provocative policing of many officers in the area, particularly under what was called ‘Operation Swamp 81’. And the clue is in the title here as the police swamped Brixton with extra numbers of officers who used what were called the ‘sus laws’, shorthand for ‘suspicious behaviour’, to stop and search young Black people in disproportionate numbers. And there’s a lot more evidence in the file as well.

So what does it say? So this is evidence gathered for the inquiry, so the file doesn’t reach a conclusion in itself and it’s perhaps worth saying that The National Archives often holds the documentation which contributed to the creation of official or government papers and reports. However the Scarman Report itself is known for arguing that the disorder emerged out of political social and economic disadvantage. It was however criticised for ignoring or downplaying accusations of police misconduct and taking the position that institutional racism did not exist in Britain which the Macpherson Report, which followed the botched investigation into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, would highlight almost two decades later.

So is this document useful for understanding the Brixton uprisings? Absolutely. The photographs alone for instance provide a powerful visual record of the disturbances and this was in a time when people didn’t have smartphones or walk around with high spec cameras in their pockets. The photographs provide an insight into the damage caused on the Saturday, which was the high point of the disturbance. There were 82 arrests made. 279 officers and 45 members of the public were reported injured. 117 Vehicles including 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed and 145 properties were damaged. The photos also provide an insight into police tactics. We can certainly see evidence of what’s been termed the militarisation of the police, where the police increasingly use military equipment and tactics which might have previously been used in Britain’s colonies to police her inner city communities. This has led some commentators such as Robert Reiner to describe the police as looking more like Darth Vader than than the traditional bobby.

So why does The National Archives have it? The National Archives is the official archive of the UK government. Government departments and some law courts select and then transfer records that now are at least 20 years old to be archived here for future generations. As this was compiled by a Home Office commission, it is held at The National Archives.

So don’t forget we’ve only looked at one document on this period of history, and remember as a government archive, The National Archives is not always the best place to come for a community perspective. Although the file does contain important documents, such as this press release from the Council for Community Relations in Lambeth, which begins with this paragraph: ‘CCRL sees the events of last weekend as the inevitable result of longstanding and consistently provocative policing policies in the area. This combined with persistent official neglect of the community and the refusal time and time again to meet well articulated demands meant that the weekend’s violence was the only way people could express legitimate resentment of persistent injustice. Black youths were at the front of this demonstration just as they are at the front of the state’s assault on Black people, but it was overwhelmingly a whole community response to an intolerable situation’.

So nonetheless, and although this document is included it is really important to mention that many community groups such as the Brixton Defence Campaign, which was established to support those arrested in relation to the disorder, actually boycotted the inquiry as they thought it would be a whitewash, meaning it would effectively absolve the police of any wrongdoing and any evidence submitted would be used against Black defendants. The records of the Brixton Defence Campaign are actually held at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, which highlights how important it is to visit other community archives as well. And this must be borne in mind when evaluating this particular file and thinking about how much it can tell us.

So this is just one of many documents to be found in our Home Office collection, which can be used to find out more about the Brixton uprisings.