How tension turned into violence

Brixton riot: Deaths in police custody provided the spark that ignited a night of trouble and evoked uneasy memories of 1981
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"The word I hear on the street is that too many blacks have died in police custody," said Steve Morse, editor of Vauxhall View, a South London free newsletter which has highlighted several of the incidents leading to last night's violence.

The riot grew out of a protest at the death in custody last week of Wayne Douglas, 26, an aggravated burglary suspect. He was said to have broken into a flat in Brixton, threatened the family inside with a knife, stolen bread and then made off. He was chased into a nearby children's playground in New Solon Road, where he allegedly drew a kitchen knife on two policemen who confronted him. After a struggle in which the new long batons issued to the Metropolitan Police were used to overpower him, he was arrested.

An hour after he was put in the cells at Brixton police station, Mr Douglas was found to be unconscious, and taken to King's College Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His family said he was overweight and suffering from a heart condition, a fact confirmed by a post-mortem examination.

His sister, Lisa Douglas, 23, helped to arrange last night's demonstration, which was meant to be peaceful. "We are just so angry about this. The police never learn from what they have done to us. They keep doing these things. We decided to show them we are upset," she said.

Tension had been raised, however, by what Mr Morse called "an uncanny coincidence": the death last summer in the same small group of streets in south London of another black man, also named Douglas, also arrested by police using long batons. Brian Douglas, who was no relation to Wayne Douglas, was arrested in Clapham High Street in May after an incident in which a knife and CS gas canister were allegedly produced.

He was taken to Vauxhall police station, then transferred to hospital later the same day, suffering from partial facial paralysis which was said to be the result of a fractured skull. There were angry scenes at the opening of his inquest as his family and supporters accused the police of brutality.

Both deaths formed part of a tragic series involving black people and the authorities which had alarmed the black community and strained relations with the police. Joy Gardner died in north London after a struggle with officers who had arrived to enforce her deportation. Also in north London Shiji Lapite, a young father, died of asphyxia following a struggle with police.

The families of Mrs Gardner, Mr Lapite and Brian Douglas were united at Mr Lapite's funeral, when they joined with church and community leaders in calling for public inquiries into the deaths, and investigation into the treatment of black people by the authorities.

The deaths of both Brian Douglas and Wayne Douglas are being investigated by the Police Complaints Authority, but Mr Morse said local activists had no faith in the independence of the PCC from the police. Their alienation was underlined by another fatal incident, just yards from where both men were held.

Two years ago, police officer Patrick Dunne was shot dead when he went to investigate shooting at a house in Cato Road. The policeman's murder, believed to have resulted from his intervention in a dispute among drug dealers, remains unsolved, because of an almost total lack of witnesses.

Dawn Thomas, a black resident who has lived all her life in Brixton, denied it was to do with race. "The race issue is the relationship between the community and the police. It's unfortunate, Brixton needs policing, but one feels good in one way that the issue is out in the open. We need to be treated like human beings. The police cannot understand us - from top to bottom. This takes us back to square one."