Swamp 81

by Harry on June 24, 2021

I’ve been listening to longform radio documentaries ever since I started listening to Radio 4/The Home Service more than 50 years ago. I can’t remember anything better than this series about the Brixton Riot of 1981, hosted by a chap called Big Narstie (of whom I had never heard, but who my somewhat-cooler-than-me son-in-law assures me is a generally good chap). The combination of careful historical analysis, eyewitness testimony, dramatic recreation (of which I am generally skeptical, but is done, here, carefully and sparingly) is brilliant. Mr Narstie himself is charming. He seems genuinely moved by some of the stories within the story, and manages to convey his enthusiasm about just how much progress has been made while insisting that much is left to do. It’s not until episode 7 (of 8) that we get to the riot itself. What the series does is explain why the riot (and the riots that followed in the summer of 81) happened, and to do that it traces the history of police/community relations in south London from the mid-1960’s. It’s not perfect. There’s no real discussion of the St. Paul’s riot from the previous year. And the thread about the New Cross house fire loses steam a little bit: it is not made clear to the listener that forensics eventually established that the fire began inside the house, which is a pity, because the relevance of the New Cross fire is that however it was started no reasonable person in that community could believe anything that the police told them.

Two police officers from the time tell their stories. One is frank and straightforward – the police force he joined was populated substantially by racist criminals, and almost entirely, otherwise, by people who were either implicated in, or happy to turn a blind eye to, the lawlessness of their colleagues. (Political scientists can correct me here, but from casual observation there does seems to be a pretty general rule: when you’re trying to explain rioting during peacetime in liberal democracies a good starting point is police/community relations, and it’s not unusual to find a long history of criminality toward the rioting community on the part of the police). The other officer is much more defensive, tarring the young men who were regularly stopped and searched under the Sus laws, beaten up, arrested, and “fitted up”, as criminals. But there is one amusing moment, in which he says, probably with at least an element of truth, something to the effect of “People say we were racist. But Blacks had moved into that area, and we treated them the way that we treated the people who had lived there before”.

Many of the stories of individual encounters with police officers that are told in the first few episodes are shocking and should be very hard to believe. I think it is worth dwelling a little, as the podcast doesn’t, on just why so many people not directly affected by the way Brixton and other Black communities were policed, did not understand the problem. To understand it you had to be willing to believe that (often violent) lawbreaking was the norm in the Metropolitan Police. Think of your own workplace. Imagine that you violently assaulted a someone you had just grabbed off the pavement/sidewalk in front of 10 of your colleague. How much push back would you get? Wouldn’t somebody get a little nervous that you, or they, would get into trouble? Now imagine that you do it again the next day. Now imagine that several of your colleagues do the same thing in the next few weeks. And then boast about it in the cafeteria. Most people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations did not inhabit workplaces where that was normal, and, I think, found it very hard to take seriously the idea that the police, in particular, were like that. Especially if they lived in part of the country (and there were some) which was relatively well policed. [1]

Unless, of course, you had some direct experience of the Met yourself.

One Saturday afternoon in May 1981, shortly after the riot, my dad somehow persuaded me to attend a 21st birthday party in a posh part of Oxford, for the daughter of someone he knew. I’ve no idea how he did that. I didn’t even attend the parties of people I knew and liked, and this person was a stranger to me. But somehow he convinced me. When I got there the party was already under way, with about 40 young adults, most of them male. To my dismay, nearly all of them were serving Metropolitan police officers. And they were drinking (I didn’t drink, which may, or may not, have been a good thing in the circumstances).

After a while I got into conversation with one of them and talk turned to the riot. It turned out that nearly all of them had been working that weekend, and most had been sent to Brixton on the Saturday of the riot. I, rashly and, I now realize, rather rudely, opined that perhaps the riots were a reaction to a pattern of harassment (the podcast confirms this, though shows how much more complicated the full story is). The reaction was not friendly.

As if aiming to confirm all my prejudices, a group of officers launched into a series of anecdotes about things they had done, proudly claiming to have attacked and maimed, charged at, and beaten the young men who were rioting. I think the most terrifying story was a cop who boasted of driving as fast as he could at “a —–” who was thrown over the top of the car. I realise, now, that this might have been empty boasting and, obviously, if so it is possible that the young man in question was not pathologically violent. Even so, that this was an acceptable, if empty, boast on a calm sunny afternoon in a leafy part of Oxford tells you something quite unpleasant about the culture of the Met at that time. They openly relayed their experiences of “fitting up” young black men. Though they didn’t use the phrase “young black men”. They used language I have not heard before or since — describing their victims as (specific) animals, using the “n” word in every sentence, always modified by a swear word. At one point, despite being in a charming back garden in Iffley, I was afraid for my own safety. I left early.

During episode 2 of the podcast a (then) young lad describes how being arrested, abused and fitted up affects you — for years you view every uniformed cop you see with fear and suspicion. In my case, this party had roughly that effect on me.

Not much later I learned that being arrested, beaten up, and fitted up has a stronger effect. In 1985 at the final London demonstration in support of the (failing) Miner’s Strike, a group of police officers, unprovoked, charged my section of the march. One officer knocked me over, then he and another officer hit me repeatedly (fists!!) as I tried to stand up. They dragged me into a van where, along with 4 or 5 other people, all of us on the floor, I was systematically kicked by the officers, who were seated either side of us. In front of us, and with no embarrassment, they decided who was going to lie for whom in court, and told each other what to say. Two officers (the arresting officer and another officer, who had not actually witnessed what happened, but enjoyed kicking me in the van) subsequently told contradictory lies at my trial (these men did not strike me as particularly bright – they really did talk in clichés, just like off the telly, and either couldn’t, or couldn’t be bothered to, get their stories straight). Being attacked and beaten up, and then kicked, and lied about, is all quite bad. But the worst thing was being in a hot, airless, cell in Bow Street station for 12 hours or so. The first 5 I was alone, going slowly crazy, at some points wondering whether I had, in fact, thrown a petrol bomb as they had said (I know I hadn’t, because i) I have a good memory, ii) I wouldn’t and ii) none were thrown), and constantly trying to remind myself that it was quite rare for people to die in police custody. The addition of a second, and then a third, person to the cell improved things a little, but only after I realized that they, too, were unlikely to be violent criminals (I later learned that one of them was, indeed, a violent criminal, something he basically indicated even when we were in the cell). We were released into central London long after the tube and busses had stopped for the night.

I was white, middle class, a successful student, and not especially surprised by the behavior. My dad (unbeknownst to me) knew senior officers in the Met (whom he’d worked with while at ILEA). I could walk away. My college tutor enthusiastically testified to my character at the trial. Everything was in my favour. Still, it was at least 2 decades before I could see a police car or uniformed officer without an immediate jolt of anxiety, and even now I have to work to control my immediate suspicion when encountering a police officer.

Imagine a community in which a very large number of young men, many of them underemployed or unemployed, few of them with skills highly valued in the labour market, all subject to considerable discrimination by employers, none of them with parents who in the ordinary course of their working day can ask a senior police officer what the hell is going on, or a posh-sounding Philosophy Professor to testify to their character in the joke of a trial, but all of them related to numerous other people who trust them, know they’re telling the truth, have had that experience or something like it, over a period of 15 years. That’s the story that Brixton: Flames on the Frontline tells.

[1] I should say that, although she didn’t inhabit a workplace like that, my grandmother hadn’t the slightest difficulty believing it. My mother didn’t tell her about what had happened till the trial was done with, for fear of worrying her. In fact, my grandmother’s immediate response to the story was “Of course. The police are like that!”. I assume that she immediately told her brother about it, because 2 days later a card turned up from my great uncle and his family, telling me how proud of me they were, and enclosing a cheque that exactly covered the fine. But they grew up in the Rhondda, so what else did I expect?



SamChevre 06.24.21 at 10:09 pm

“People say we were racist. But Blacks had moved into that area, and we treated them the way that we treated the people who had lived there before”.

This is a big piece of the story, and I think under-told.

I had an acquaintance who was shot by the police and left paralyzed. He had some serious mental health issues, and had gone to his psychiatrist and they’d changed his meds. He went to the ER of the hospital where his psychiatrist worked because he thought he was “not right”, was left sitting for 7 hours, then checked out, put in an exam room, and left for another long while; he was completely out of control when he was shot, but he was in a hospital where he’d voluntarily showed up the night before.

He was white. That didn’t mean he was fairly treated.


J-D 06.25.21 at 1:11 am

One point that occurs to me is this:

Are bigoted people likely to be better or worse in their treatment of people outside the group against which they are bigoted than are less bigoted people?

On reflection, my guess is that the general answer is probably ‘Worse’.

The point is relevant, I think, to other forms of bigotry as well as racist bigotry.

For example, I would guess that sexist men are likely to treat other men less well than less sexist men do, that homophobic people are likely to treat other straight people less well than less homophobic people do, that xenophobic people are likely to treat their fellow countrypeople less well than less xenophobic people do, and so on.

That’s just guesswork, though.


Tm 06.25.21 at 9:50 am

From the observation that policing is structurally racist, it doesn’t in the least follow that whites are always or usually correctly treated by the police. It’s weird how often this insinuation comes up. It makes no sense whatsoever.


J-D 06.25.21 at 11:35 am

Another reflection:

I know that there is a difference between understanding something intellectually, in the abstract, and having direct experience of it. I expect that if I ever were directly exposed to this kind of police behaviour it would be a shock to the system, no matter how much I think I’m intellectually prepared for it. Still, why do stories like this not surprise me? What was it that I saw or heard or read or was told that prepared me intellectually, given that it wasn’t any kind of direct exposure? And how early in my life did the preparation happen?

As I don’t know the answers myself, I can’t expect anybody else to provide them, but this is something that goes through my mind, and maybe something similar goes through other people’s minds.


derrida derider 06.25.21 at 12:44 pm

” I would guess that sexist men are likely to treat other men less well than less sexist men do, that homophobic people are likely to treat other straight people less well than less homophobic people do, that xenophobic people are likely to treat their fellow countrypeople less well than less xenophobic people do, and so on.”

Absolutely – certainly that is my life experience. Shorter version: Arseholes are arseholes to everyone.


Kiwanda 06.25.21 at 6:01 pm

Cops lying is common. (A twitter thread of links to incidents.)


He was white. That didn’t mean he was fairly treated.

I believe the response from some here would be that his unfair treatment would’ve been worse if he’d not been white (quite possibly true), and therefore it doesn’t matter (not true). For these people, empathy for suffering is gated by identity: there is no common humanity. And building a broad base of support for reform isn’t a significant goal.


oldster 06.25.21 at 10:32 pm

Do you think that your exposure to this deep corruption plays any role in your not-quite Christianity?

Had I been in the back of the van when the cops were laughing about who would tell which lies — where the point of the open bravado is precisely to rub my nose in my own impotence before the system — I would have been tempted to say to them,

“Stranger, there is a Zeus who oversees all things, and brings justice to the high as well as the low. Though you may revel in your wickedness today, these deeds will not go unpunished. The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.”

And, hey, I don’t even believe in Zeus!

But I have certainly been impressed with the role that Christianity plays in African American justice movements, and conversely the role that the legacy and contemporary reality of injustice to African Americans has played in Black Christianity. All my trials, Lord, soon be over.

So my question is, I suppose, do you think that in your case, the belief in an extra-human structure of justice was perhaps influenced — not started, but perhaps strengthened — by the grinding exposure to all-t00-human injustice?


Alan White 06.26.21 at 3:05 am

My brother was a life-long cop–rising from pounding the beat in California to being assistant chief in Pulaski TN, traditional home of the KKK. He may be a Trumpster, but also pursued education while serving as a cop and completed an MA in criminal justice and a PhD in Public Administration. But throughout his career he took duty seriously. I’d characterize him as probably homophobic, for example. But he told me once that one of his officers insulted gays in the course of duty, and as his superior officer, he took him aside and told him that if he did that again, he’d be disciplined. He became something of an authority of handling KKK-type demonstrations after managing several such in Pulaski and publishing articles in police journals on how to do so. So my own brother is something of an enigma–he is Trumpish yet tried to conduct himself by the laws that he enforced. Maybe he is an outlier, but his example has always given me some hope that despite personalities and politics, maybe some cops value duty to the law over their own personal attitudes.


nastywoman 06.26.21 at 8:31 am

and I don’t want to be to… ‘critical’ –
BUT I (ME) –
always was treated by ‘the police’ –
any type of police –
in any country –
and especially in the UK and the US –
ONLY in the kindest at utmost friendly way –
as ALL it needs to be treated in ‘the kindest and utmost friendly way’
is to be:

‘A beautiful blue eyed Blond’

And with this information – you guys can… make anything y’all want!
(even not posting it)


SC 06.27.21 at 9:27 pm

Thanks for pointing to Brixton: Flames on the Frontline!

I thought I had a pretty good idea of the history of the ’81 Brixton riots but, sigh, I got a lot wrong. I learned a lot from the awesome Big Narstie.

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