Alex Wheatle and the Brixton Riots
TWO years ago, British media reflected on one of the darkest incidents in their country’s modern history.
It was the 40th anniversary of the Brixton Riots, which destroyed that south London district, home to thousands of West Indians since the 1950s.
It revived painful memories for Alex Wheatle, who served a one-year prison sentence for his part in hostilities that caused numerous injuries to police and residents, destruction of homes and businesses, and 82 arrests.
Wheatle, a best-selling author who was 18 at the time, has become the face of those riots. His recollections of the April 10-12, 1981 disturbance can be read in Brixton Rock, his first book published in 1999; and Uprising, a well-received play.
They recall a frightening exchange sparked by racial profiling of blacks in Brixton by white police officers, under the Sus Law â€” a stop-and-search procedure that had been on the British books since 1824.
Many black leaders believed communities with large West Indian communities, such as Brixton, were unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Most of them were immigrants who came to the United Kingdom between 1948 and 1971. They are known today as the Windrush Generation.
Wheatle was born in the UK to Jamaican parents but knew little about them. He was raised in Shirley Oaks Children’s Home, a tough facility with a history of children being sexually, physically and racially abused.
Two months after the Brixton clashes, Wheatle was in court to be sentenced for his part in a fracas that exposed Britain’s racial problems to the world. He remembered that day in a story for The Guardian newspaper.
“It was June 1981 and I was 18. I stood in the dock at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in south London. I was just about to receive my sentence for my role in the Brixton uprising of that April, after being arrested for assaulting a police officer. Ignoring the summary of my case, I stared into the public gallery. Relatives of the other six accused sat there in quiet, hopeful silence. I imagined they were mums, dads, aunts, uncles, siblings and grandparents. But not one belonged to me. I studied their faces, trying to comprehend what it might be like to have someone of your own blood supporting you. I tried to picture what my own parents looked like and what they might feel as I was handed down my sentence. If my mother were present, would she be weeping? I barely heard the 12-month custodial term being given to me,” he wrote.
The Brixton Riots inspired many articles, books, songs and poems. Firebrand poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recalled it in his 1996 piece, Di Great Insohreckshan, while Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 2020 film series Small Axe dedicated one of its episodes to Wheatle, who was made a member of the British Empire in 2008.
In the aftermath of the riots the Government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commissioned an enquiry into the incidents, led by Lord Scarman. His report, released in November 1981, confirmed that while the stop-and-search procedure had resulted in mistrust of the police by black residents, there was no proof of “institutional racism”.
There were similar riots in major British centres of Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, and Nottingham during July, 1981.