Brixton: an earlier chapter in the story

In November 1981, Lord Scarman, one of the most respected law lords, produced his report on the Brixton riots, which portrayed Britain as a divided society, damagingly riven by discontent and racial tension. As he put it himself in his conclusions: "What we have got to get out of this is one, two, three or four societies back into one society."

On the weekend of 10-12 April 1981, Brixton had erupted, with several hundred young people, most of them black, taking to the streets with stones, bricks and iron bars. It was the first time petrol bombs had been thrown on mainland Britain. Some 270 policemen and 45 members of the public were injured; 28 buildings were burnt and there was widespread looting.

The 150-page Scarman Report was quite clear about the causes: there was a collapse in law and order, and the police had to carry some responsibility for the disorder. Urgent action was needed, said the peer, to prevent the disease of disadvantage from "threatening the very survival of our society". He called for a "direct co-ordinated attack" by central government and local authorities to eliminate racial inequality from the country's social fabric.

For those who have complained during the course of the Macpherson inquiry into the Lawrence affair that the police on the streets are racially prejudiced, the Scarman Report makes familiar reading. Familiar, too, are the arguments that dominated the 1981 inquiry: whether all police, across the ranks, are racists, and whether the community needs to share its burden of responsibility for meeting the police halfway.

Lord Scarman's main criticisms of the police were that not only had they been partly responsible for the breakdown in Brixton's community relations, but there were instances of harassment and racial prejudice among junior officers, which gave credibility and substance to their critics. There had been a failure to adjust policies and methods to meet the needs of policing a multiracial society.

Lord Scarman's recommendations included forming statutory liaison com- mittees at local level, reform of the police complaints procedure, better and longer police training, and more black police recruits.

Racially prejudiced behaviour should be a dismissable offence. But senior officers, he maintained, were not racist.

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