Uncovering Brixton’s history of activism and police brutality

Photo by Press Association UK

Undeniably, the London borough of Brixton has gotten a bad rap.

The neighborhood is in the south of London. A 2014 survey by YouGov revealed that Londoners tend to think of the Southside as more “rough,” “dirty” and “poor” than “arty,” “posh” or “intellectual.”

And of course, Urban Dictionary, the sociology resource of the people, does not betray any stereotypes to the contrary.

The top definition for Brixton reads, “Some ****hole says that Brixton isn’t that much more dangerous than other parts of London. Perhaps that ****hole should consider getting off the weed and read some police statistics for Lambeth.” Likewise, an entry reads, “A depressing hole south of the [Thames] river. Where the only grass is the dried kind. Don’t make eye contact with anyone unless you want to be shot. London’s ghetto.”

Often, race and class can be conflated when talking about social injustice. But considering Brixton has historically been inhabited by African and Caribbean immigrants, this language is as coded as you think it is.

Of course, some people cut straight to the chase. “A place in England for black people,” someone wrote. “If you are white and you go there, you’ll get shot.”

For tourists and natives alike, hearing you’re heading to Brixton will traditionally raise a few eyebrows. I wanted to take a tour of Brixton today not for edge-lord points or shock value, but to learn more about the Afro-Carribbean history coursing throughout the city.

In the heart of Brixton is a clearing called Windrush Square. It’s named after a ship called HMT Empire Windrush, which brought the first, big, post-WWII wave of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K. in 1948. It’s for that reason older Caribbean folks are referred to today as “the Windrush generation.” 

Nearby is Ritzy Picturehouse, which opened in 1911

As I was taking the Tube and the bus toward Brixton, I could feel the difference. The faces were varied, but I noticed that I was sitting in a Tube car amidst all men of color. As I traveled closer to Brixton, I began to see more faces that looked like mine.

I saw carefree black girls in moto jackets on bikes, rolling around like something out of “Bande de Filles.” And that provided me with a sense of ease, a little comfort. Not the fear that seems to be apparent in (rich and/or white) Londoners.

I knew at least that if anyone was staring at me, it wasn’t because they hadn’t encountered any black people lately. It was because I looked cute and fly. Or pitiful trying to figure out which bus to take since the Victoria line was closed.

Also at the core of Brixton are its markets, such as Granville Arcade, known today as Brixton Village. There you can find foods such as sweet potatoes, mangoes, salt fish and plantains.

Here is a vintage clip on Granville Arcade from the early sixties.

Next to being a hub of Afro-Carribbean culture in London, Brixton was also the site of civil rights activism.

Brixton was the headquarters for the British Black Panthers.

British Black Panther Olive Morris, photo by Neil Kenlock

A few differences our tour guide outlined between the American and British Black Panthers include 1) black people in Britain dealt with a different historical context for their civil rights movement and 2) the British Black Panthers were interested in community outreach, not public office.

When asked about the link between the two groups, British Black Panther Neil Kenlock emphasized as much.

“It was just an adoption of the name. There was informal contact, but nothing on an official basis. They were a political, radical and revolutionary party. We were a movement,” Kenlock told VICE.

Image256 2
Sign in Balham (south London) in 1972, photo by Neil Kenlock

“We were never interested in gaining seats in Parliament or behaving like a political party. We were a movement aiming to educate our communities and to fight injustice and discrimination,” Kenlock continued.

“America was just coming out of segregation then, while we never had it. So there was a huge difference between our problems and theirs.”

The existence of the British Black Panthers is a lesser-known part of Brixtonian social justice history. Brixton is more known for the 1981 riot that occurred in response to the neighborhood’s police brutality.

Photo by Press Association UK

The events leading up to the riot took place over the course of three and a half months.

In January of 1981, 13 black kids died at a house party due to a fire that broke out. Determining the cause of the fire was the root of the controversy. Some came to the conclusion of an accidental fire. Some believed it was intentional. While police pursued the idea some of black partygoers themselves had started the fire (there had been a fight that night), the community was largely convinced it was a racially-motivated arson.

Activist Darcus Howe organized “The Black People’s Day of Action” for that March in response. Howe lead thousands of people (BBC says 15,000, Howe himself says 20,000) the 17 miles from Brixton all the way to Hyde Park and Parliament.

Darcus Howe, photo by Neil Kenlock

That April, however, Brixton took a turn for the worst. On April 10, 1981, a black boy named Michael Bailey ran by London police, stabbed and bleeding by police. There was a bit of confusion in his encounter with the police.

Officers tried to help him by wrapping the wound and then seeking further medical attention. First, they wanted to put him in a cab to go to the hospital. Then, they put him the backseat of a police car. Bailey resisted, thinking he was being arrested. All of the local on-lookers swarmed the police and grabbed Bailey from police custody.

The consensus was that the police’s treatment of Bailey is what ultimately caused his death.

Meanwhile, over the course of six days, about 1,000 people had been stopped and frisked in Brixton. This rush of police descending upon the borough is referred to as “Operation Swamp” or “Operation Swamp ’81.” The department had been acting on “sus laws” that permitted police to search anyone who looked “suspicious.”

So, following the death of Bailey, the next day brought community backlash. From 4pm to 9pm, Brixton was in an uproar. Bricks and petrol bombs were thrown at police. A van was set on fire.

Photo by Press Association UK


Photo by Getty Images

Over the next three days, the riot raged on. And yes, there was looting. At the end of it all, about 300 people were injured and there was £7.5 million in damages.

There were subsequent Brixton riots in 1985 and 1995. The former occurred because the innocent mother of crime suspect Michael Groce was shot by police during a house raid. The latter occurred because Wayne Douglas was arrested by police and later died in their custody.

Walking around the district was eye-opening on several fronts. Seeing famous landmarks like Windrush Square (or even the non-descript little grey house where the Black Panthers once worked) gave me a real sense of what the British civil rights movement was like.

Learning the stories behind the construction of monuments or the etymology of roads put Brixton in perspective far more than anything I could have read about the neighborhood’s poverty or crime rates would have.


By Caroline Colvin

Black retro-obsessed non-binary baddie ♡ pleasure & wellness advocate ♡ aesthetic archivist ♡


  1. Very informative article. I have only spent a day in London and I have heard of Brixton but not this history of it. My family is Jamaican and many of them immigrated to Britain. Looking forward to visiting again and this area.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: