Locals came together to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Uprising at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) this week. Arts co editor Barney Evison went along to experience poetry, song, debate and memories from those who were there.
The events of 10-12 April 1981 left an indelible mark on Brixton. Both physically – 150 buildings were damaged and over 300 people injured – and more profoundly; the word Brixton calls to mind many different things to different people, from street riots and racial tension to social inclusiveness and cultural vibrancy. The violence that erupted in 1981, and again four years later, still sparks debate today and stirs strong emotions.
On the 35th anniversary, locals gathered at the Black Cultural Archives to remember the uprisings and try to make sense of them for a 21st Century Brixton. The evening was kicked off in style with powerful a rendition of Brixton Rocks from poet Michael Groce – whose mother’s shooting in 1985 sparked further clashes between locals and police.
BCA director Paul Reid then formally introduced the panel, formed of Michael; local author Alex Wheatle (aka ‘the Brixton Bard’); Brixton Griot Devon Thomas, who acted as chair; Desrie Thomson-George, a founder member of the 1970s Brixton-based independent publisher Black Ink; and activist and academic Cecil Gutzmore.
Paul then looked back at his childhood in Brixton, with memories of locals such as Bishop, who ran a local gambling house, and Mr Chin, known for his “magical, spiritual powers” (prompting chuckles from the audience). He was inspired by the birth of Rasta in Britain and started to resist the establishment, noting the difficulties of the black experience at the time: “I remember being beaten up by the police.”
Next up was Cecil Gutzmore, a formidable activist and founding member of the Brixton Defence Campaign. “It was a very racist atmosphere,” he said of ‘70s and ‘80s Brixton, “policing was brutal. There was a history of institutional, state racism which provoked the uprising.” He shocked us all by reminding us of the words of a former Met Commissioner at the time: “black youth are congenitally disposed to being disorderly.”
He also considered the way we talk about it today: “the state says riot; the community says uprising. It was a mode of resistance.” Resistance to what the community felt to be an occupation, by the racist Met Police, of their living space.
By 1981, Brixton had had enough. On Friday 10 April, it came to a head when rumours circulated that the police had stabbed a young black man on Atlantic Road. Crowds gathered, culminating in violent confrontations between the police and locals the following day.
At the BCA, we were shown a harrowing clip from an interview with reggae artist Jahnnie Brixton, famously one of the first protesters to be arrested and taken to the police station. You won’t find his story on Wikipedia. He tells of being locked in a cell and listening as others were brought in throughout the night.
From 5pm to 5am all he could hear was screaming and beating, he says. “We sang Rivers of Babylon until we were hoarse. In the morning, when I came out of my cell there was blood everywhere. I still have nightmares about that night. They beat us, and they had fun.”
Desrie remembers the night for another reason – she was launching ‘Black Eye Perceptions’, an anthology of black poetry, with a spoken word performances in Black Ink’s former offices on Gresham Road opposite the police station. “That night, the voices of young black people were heard inside and out on the street.”
Griot Devon Thomas contemplated the issues facing Brixton today, mentioning the council library cuts in his closing remarks:“people tend to just accept things these days – the future is to be made, we should make our own histories.”
For more information on archive materials relating to the 1981 Uprisings visit www.bcaheritage.org.uk.