Brixton Riots 1981 Anniversary: Does Margaret Thatcher's Legacy Still Live On?

Brixton Riots 32 Years On

Thirty-two years ago today, protesters and police clashed violently on the streets of Brixton, South London, in a confrontation that injured 325 people and left 30 buildings gutted by flames.

To the largely Afro-Caribbean demonstrators it was a "show of strength" against police brutality, high unemployment and institutionalised racism.

To Margaret Thatcher this notion was ridiculous. The acts were simply "criminal".

A police car blazes at the corner of Atlantic Road and Brixton Road

Author Alex Wheatle was 18 and living in Brixton at the time of the riots.

Recalling the riots of 1981, which he still describes as "vivid in my mind", he says: "The tension had been building up for a number of weeks in Operation Swamp in which they approached any young black guy between the ages of 18 and 35, stopped them, humiliated them and beat them up occasionally.

"There was a lot of bitterness and resentment and we felt the Thatcher government used the police as its military wing, we really felt under siege," he told the Huffington Post UK.

"When we pleaded and screamed and cried that police were abusing us in police cells no one listened. As far as we were concerned [Thatcher] was head of a racist government."

Some believe the same mix of social and economic factors that led to the 1981 riots are still present today.

Lambeth Labour Councillor, Pete Robbins, says: "Thatcher's part in the Brixton riots was that the government had a lack of compassion and that is something that is increasingly being felt now because of the way [the government] are implementing welfare reforms."

Cleaning up the aftermath of the violence

More than three decades later and Brixton appears a transformed place.

You can sit in Starbucks and watch young, smartly dressed and upwardly mobile 20 and 30 somethings exit the tube station and walk past the newly opened Foxtons estate agents.

Brixton Village teems with boutique food stalls and restaurants whilst just over the road a new housing development promises "bespoke one and two bedroom apartments" in a "fantastic location".

The new Foxtons estate agents in Brixton

But past the glean of gentrification, problems still persist.

Unemployment amongst black youths in 1981 is estimated to have been 55%. That figure has been hovering close to 50% since the start of the recession in 2008.

Investment in property has put most houses out of financial reach for locals. The average house price in Lambeth is £405,374, compared to the national figure of £238,293.

In 1981 the national average was only £69,573 in today's money.

In a clear sign of the changing fortunes of the area a quick look at the Foxtons website shows stunning palatial rooftop apartments costing anything up to £1,750,000.

Relations between police and the Afro-Caribbean community have undoubtedly improved since 1981.

People in Brixton speak of officers willing to engage with young as well as programmes run in co-operation with police to give them something to do and keep off the streets.

But things are far from perfect.

The death of British reggae singer and DJ, Smiley Culture, in 2011 is one of a number of recent cases that ensure tensions remain.

Smiley culture died of a stab wound to the heart which police say was self-inflicted

Aaron McDonald and Kelly Thomas work in development and outreach in the Brixton community.

Aaron, 31, says: "There are still issues deep, deep, deep underneath.

"People say they haven’t crossed over into Brixton [from the estates] in three months. A lot of people in Brixton don’t feel engaged in all of this nice stuff that is happening.

"They feel like it's for someone else.

"You walk through this market and you see no one from the estates and these places are the cornerstone of Brixton."

The housing estate just over the road from Brixton Market

Kelly, 31, says: "There's a lot of resentment towards the new people that move to Brixton."

Referring to Foxtons she adds: "The majority of people that walk past it can't even look in that window!"

Tellingly, the window of Foxtons was daubed with the words "yuppies out!" at the end of last month.

When asked about the violence that erupted in Brixton in 2011, both Kelly and Aaron are dismissive, blaming it on simple "thievery and opportunism", denying there was a political motive.

Even if this is the case, the demonstrators of 1981 complained they were bullied by police and ignored by politicians, and similar sentiments are echoed today.

Kelly agrees that the Thatcher legacy lives on although she recognises that it's up to the people to change things.

She says: "You can't keep on blaming her for stuff that is happening now.

"But people still feel disenfranchised and not empowered to change things, they don’t feel they have the confidence to go out and do things."

Aaron describes his experience of politicians visiting Brixton at a recent Labour meeting.

He says: "There was security on the front and back entrances, they did a couple of hours of pretty talking and after that they were off.

"They didn’t engage with anybody from Brixton."

Ed Miliband visiting Brixton market shortly after the violence in 2011

A whole generation of young people appear to be being dealt a double blow.

At the same time as having a seemingly unobtainable lifestyle dangled on show outside their doorstep they simply don't know how to address their grievances.

Fifteen-year-old Keaunu is young enough not to know about Thatcherism, yet his view on politics is remarkably similar to those who are old enough to.

He says: "It's not something you are encouraged to get involved in. They don’t really teach it in school and they don’t let you know you have a choice.

"Whatever happens, happens and it's not up to us anymore."

Keaunu is not optimistic about the future in a present shaped by recession, welfare reforms and unemployment.

He says: "I think job-wise it seems slim. A lot of our teachers are smashing it into our heads that you have to be good because jobs are running out.

"Right now the future looks bleak."

The Thatcher "death party" in Brixton this week

The death of Thatcher this week saw around 200 people gather in Brixton to celebrate her death. Wheatle dismisses the gathering as "white liberals trying to be cool".

When asked how he felt when he heard Thatcher had died, Wheatle says: "I wasn't jubilant.

"Although she has physically passed away her policies and Thatcherism still lives on."

British Crime - Civil Disturbance - The Brixton Riots - London - 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

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