Brixton riots 30 years on: What has changed?

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Three decades, one inquiry and the Stephen Lawrence scandal separate us from the Brixton riots. On the anniversary of the worst disorder seen in London in a century, the BBC asks: where are we now?

When the smoke cleared after the Brixton riots, both the government and the black community were in agreement - something had to give.

Police were said to have mounted a campaign of harassment against the black community in south London that one former officer claims amounted to "torture".

On 11 April 1981 tensions erupted into serious violence, resulting in London's worst 20th Century disorder.

The evening before, a Friday, unsubstantiated rumours of police brutality against a black man resulted in an angry crowd confronting police for a few hours before the disturbances were contained.

But an arrest the following night sparked off the rioting in earnest.

In the trouble lasting three days, some 300 police officers and 65 members of the public were injured.

The sky was tinged black with the smoke of burning cars, while pavement slabs were ripped up and used as missiles.

The Scarman Report into the disorder recommended widespread changes to police training and law enforcement.

Thirty years have now passed, and police race relations have often been turbulent - especially over the flawed investigation into the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence.

And only last week, the spectre of the riots was in the spotlight again.

'Enormous journey'

During a Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) meeting, members of the public heckled senior officers over the death of reggae singer Smiley Culture, who died during a police raid from a reportedly self-inflicted knife wound.

MPA member Cindy Butts, who is black and grew up in west London, was visibly moved, telling the meeting: "It has been 30 years since the Brixton riots and so much has changed - [but] we have so much to do."

On the eve of the anniversary of the rioting, Ms Butts said: "Both the black community and the police force have changed, grown and learned.

"The Met in particular has gone on such an enormous journey - not just from 30 years ago, but even 20 years ago.

"There has been a huge advancement."

Ms Butts says the grillings the public dish out to the Met commissioner at the MPA's monthly board meeting have improved accountability.

And she thinks rising numbers of black officers have made a huge difference.

She said: "That means the organisation is changing from within, as well as from outside."

But Ms Butts had strong words over the death of Smiley Culture.

She said: "The way the incident was handled was very frustrating. The Met needs to be careful it's not resting on its laurels.

"I know there is an IPCC investigation - but there was just not enough engagement."

The Met says it is doing all it can to keep the community informed about the investigation.

So what was the behaviour of the police like in the run-up to the riots?

Peter Bleksley, a young Met officer at the time, does not mince his words.

He told BBC Radio 4's The Reunion: "Young black men in Brixton were routinely fitted up, beaten up, tortured and worse.

"I was turned from a pretty decent 18-year-old into a violent, racist thug."

Mr Bleksley said black suspects were often physically hurt in the interview room until they admitted to crimes.

'Absolutely terrifying'

It is an approach Clovis Reid, who lived through the riots, remembers only too well.

The 61-year-old, now working as a school liaison officer, said: "Brixton was a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

"When it kicked off the police went totally overboard.

"It was absolutely terrifying. But I intensely believe the community made their point."

Three decades on, Mr Reid says the Met have improved markedly - but have a way to go.

He said: "There is much better liaison compared to 30 years ago. But they need to interact even more.

Image caption,
Buildings and cars were burned, police pelted with pavement slabs

"Long before things got bad in Brixton we and the police respected each other - I knew my local bobby by name.

"There needs to be more of that."

Met boss in south-east London, Commander David Zinzan, insists community policing is already a reality.

He said: "Safer Neighbourhoods teams are the bedrock. They are the jewel in the crown.

"Across the whole of the Met we have made enormous improvements.

"I am not saying we're perfect - but we are always up for listening to the communities we serve."

He added: "Note the word 'serve' - we are there to serve communities, not do things to them."

Commander Zinzan admits the force could do better in applying public feedback to operational practice.

He said: "We could get better - it's a large organisation and it could be more nimble."

But he points to rising numbers of black officers as proof of progress.

In the borough of Lambeth, home to Brixton, there are 114 serving ethnic minority officers compared to nine in 1981.

Ms Butts was nine years old at the time of the riots and their impact coloured her perception of the police for years.

She said: "I remember it perfectly, people were talking about it.

"I was already aware of the way police treated the black community.

"I was brought up to know it was my responsibility to watch interaction an between police and a black person - so I could be a pair of eyes and recount what happened as a witness."

Ms Butts added: "I strongly disliked the police - until I realised how much they had changed, and I had changed."

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