Past Riots

As the 30th anniversary of the Brixton riot approaches on Sunday, Metro notes that a royal wedding, public spending cuts and growing anger towards ‘the establishment’ – the same situation we have today – is the same backdrop against which the riot erupted. Here’s what the witnesses say…

Thatcher government documents show similar reactions to 2011 riots, with lessons unlearned, underlying social causes ignored and mistaken remedies set to be repeated

The subject I have been asked to address is vast and it is simply impossible to do justice to it in the time I have been given.  For one thing, a ‘historical perspective’ raises the question:  where does history begin? …So what I want to do is say something briefly about the types of riots there have been that have involved black and ethnic minority people and to look in more detail at the riots thirty years ago, the riots in August this year and what they tell us about the society and how the nation should respond if they are not to become an even more regular occurrence in a society that remains decidedly ill at ease with itself.

Last night’s riots in Tottenham come exactly twenty-five years after the infamous Broadwater Farm riots in the same part of London. Not vastly dissimilar from recent events, Cynthia Jarret died whilst the police conducted a search of her home. Just the week before that Dorothy Groce was shot by police instigating the 1985 Brixton Uprisings

The conflagration currently consuming London and other cities in the English Midlands is generating much heated debate. Little of this commentary demonstrates much of a sense of history.

  • 01/12/2005 London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding: Diary 

Of the many graffiti to be found in the Paris banlieues just now – and creeping into the city itself – the most apt has surely been the simple injunction: ‘Riot!’

Recourse to riot on the part of those disposed of any other means of representing their interests or simply defending themselves from attack and harassment of various types has a long history. (Hobsbawm 1959) What is perhaps more remarkable is its survival into the mature liberal democracies of advanced capitalism…. [ see updated version of article here]

From April to July 2001, the northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford saw violent confrontations between young Asians and the police, culminating in the clashes of 7-9 July in Bradford in which 200 police officers were injured.

In October 1985 Britain witnessed a spate of social unrest in Birmingham and in urban centres of London. These violent events were marked by the death of an elderly black woman, Joy Gardner and a white policeman, Keith Blakelock. Handsworth Songs takes as its point of departure these events and the subsequent response by the British media.

  • 17/09/1981  London Review of Books, Paul Rock: Rioting

Riots have the appearance of disorganised and confusing events, lacking clear definition and structure. They seem to be a kind of sudden rupture which is only uncertainly related to its immediate environment – life in Brixton or Southall or Toxteth.

  • 16/07/1981, London Review of Books, M. Ignatieff: It’s a riot

The morning after Toxteth and Moss Side, the Daily Express front page asked its readers ‘HOW MUCH MORE MUST WE TAKE?’ This ‘we’ lends itself to easy caricature. It is ‘Outraged, Tunbridge Wells’ writ large, an army of indignant blue rinse. It is the passive ‘we’ of embattled parents, distributing blame to the ungrateful children with the aggrieved cry ‘What have we done to deserve this?’

The black and white neighbours of a residential street in the heart of devastated Brixton fear a return to violence unless there are radical changes 

This seminal text follows anti-racist struggles in Britain, with a specific focus of the 1981 ‘riots


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