London Race Riots22 minute read

During the post WW2 period Britain experienced significant levels of immigration, especially from the Caribbean (Peach, 1967). For an array of reasons, many Caribbean and African migrants gravitated to London in their search for permanent settlement. During the 1950s, areas such as Notting Hill and Brixton soon became centres of black settlement (Matera, 2015). The dual status of these newly settled West Indians and Africans as people of colour and immigrants posed many problems for these communities (Lee, 1997). As black immigrants, they experienced high levels of segregation from the white majority and were often subject to acts of prejudice and discrimination (Okokon, 1998). The growing tension between the indigenous white population and the newly settled black migrants came to a head when, in 1958, Britain experienced some of the worst racially motivated violence in the form of the Notting Hill riots (Okokon, 1998). Similar riots involving black communities in London continued to occur throughout the rest of the 20th and 21st century.

The focus of this essay will be to investigate the role that riots have played for black communities in London. Particular attention is paid to the causes and function of each of these riots. Since data on this topic is limited, this essay will be focusing on a small period of time, 1950 to present day. In particular, this essay will focus on three specific riots: The Notting Hill Riots (1958), the Brixton Riots (1981) and the London Riots (2011). The reoccurrence of riots in London involving the black community allows us to try and understand these riots through a ‘palimpsestic narrative’, (Smith, 2013) allowing us to draw out similarities and differences between the three riots. Through the study of these three riots, this essay hopes to understand how the nature and function of riots involving the black community has changed over time. This understanding will hopefully allow us to draw links with the political economy in order to understand how it has shifted over the past 60 years, with particular attention being paid to labour markets and institutions.

Literature review and theory

Understanding race is important because race is considered a ‘master status’, one which gives us all an identity that overrides all others (Renn, 2000). As Winders (2009) notes race has been used to support social stratifications for hundreds of years. Race has the power to ‘organise people’s activities, actions and ordinary lives in particular ways’ making some spaces accessible for particular groups and not for others (Mitchell, 2000). In the context of the riots studied in this paper, difference in race between the indigenous white majority in London and the newly settled black migrants, served as justified grounds for discrimination. As Winders (2009:54) aptly points out ‘race works geographically’. This interaction between race and space, and particularly the contestation for space between races (Hiro, 1991), is partially what has given rise to riots led by black communities across London for decades.

Using Takahashi’s (2009) school of thought allows us to attempt to understand the role of riots for the black community in London. If we recognise riots as a form of activism we can understand riots as a way of a collective group of people trying to change situations/circumstances they deem to be unfair or unacceptable. In the case of the riots fronted by black communities, Takahashi’s framework of radical activism may be more apt. If we understand the riots through this lens, we can recognise riots as a way of bringing about structural change, ‘where current institutions, the framework of decision making’ (2009: 3) and social mores are seen as unacceptable or illegitimate.

By putting race and activism theory together, we can start to make sense of the role of riots for the black community in London. Perhaps, rioting has been used as a way of fighting back against the race-based discrimination faced by black people both at the hands of the indigenous population and the state. Further investigation of the literature later on will shed some light on this.

The idea of palimpsest may be useful in helping us understand the reoccurrence of riots involving the black community in London. Studying the areas in which the riots occurred through a historical lens can help us understand that the Notting Hill Riots (1958), Brixton Riots (1981) and London Riots (2011) did not occur from out of nowhere (Smith, 2013). Instead, they were born out of the multifaceted discrimination faced by the black community throughout their history in London; the inability to tackle this discrimination has led to the reoccurrence of riots involving this particular community.


This research has employed the use of secondary interviews with people who have participated in each of the riots. Interviews are an important research tool as they allow us to hear from those with first hand involvement, instead of simply relying on the representation of riots constructed by people who were not present (Parsons and Knight, 2015). Secondary as opposed to primary interviews have been used because they provide a much bigger sample of informants. Since the secondary data has used a bigger sample of interviewees, they have a more representative view of the rioters, thus allowing for more meaningful conclusions (Jones, 2010). However, the use of secondary interviews means that I have no way of assessing the quality of the data collected and whether it is biased (Parsons and Knight, 2015). To counteract this, I have only used interview data from sources which have no vested interest in the outcome of the data, but are only interested in representing all the facts.

As part of my research I have also looked at archival data from the LSE archives. Looking at historical archival data in unison with literature allows me to assess the reliability of the literature (Parsons and Knight, 2015).


Notting Hill Riot 1958

The primary motivations for the Notting Hill riots was racism. In the years leading up to the riots newly arrived black immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean faced a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination. Two particular markets in which they faced discrimination were the housing and labour markets.

Labour market

A popular belief in the 1950s was that the majority of West Indians who had immigrated to the UK were poorly educated agricultural labourers. However, the reality was that 24% of the West Indian immigrants had professional/managerial experience, 46% were skilled workers and only 13% were unskilled manual workers (Pilkington, 1988). The result of this fallacy was that skilled West Indian immigrants were forced to de-skill. (Pilkington, 1988).

Even after deskilling, they faced huge barriers when trying to find work. Most employees only took on black workers as a ‘last resort’ often paying them less than half of what their white counterparts were paid (Okokon, 1998). Their struggle to find employment was reflected in unemployment rates; ‘when unemployment crept back in 1956 black people were the first to lose their jobs. By 1958 over 8% of black people in Britain were jobless, with only 2% unemployment amongst whites’ (Pilkington, 1988: 39).

The sad reality was that the local labour markets massively favoured white workers to black workers; a large proportion of black workers refused jobs that were being advertised. Racial discrimination in the workplace was rife and the tension between white and black workers fostered mutual hostility (Hiro, 1991).

Housing Market

As Pilkington (1988) describes, the process of finding housing for West Indians was extremely difficult. A survey, which was undertaken in 1956, found that 90% of landlords in London would not accept black student lodgers. This issue of finding housing was not exclusively reserved for working class West Indians. Wealthy West Indians also found it extremely difficult to find accommodation; in the same survey it was found that in Bloomsbury (a wealthy central London area) only 9 out of 111 landlords would rent to black lodgers (Pilkington, 1988). Such discrimination fostered bad relations between the two races (Hiro, 1991).


There was a general consensus that people of colour had been failed by governmental institutions (Matera, 2015). In the days leading up to the riot, many black people were targeted and attacked on the street, and homes known to house black people were damaged (Pilkington, 1988). Despite these attacks, very little was done to protect the black community in the Notting Hill area. The lack of institutional protection, both in the form of policing and in the failure of the government to overturn colour bars made it very apparent to the black community that they had to look after themselves (Pilkington, 1988). In a documentary filmed by the BBC, a West Indian man, who took part in the Notting Hill Riots, said: ‘The police themselves, we did not see them as holders of law, they took sides and they didn’t take sides with us. We saw them as part of the enemy because that was their behaviour. So we had clashes with the police as well. Even without the riot, is was very clear that there was no one protecting us, so we had to protect ourselves’ (BBC, 2009).

The riot

As Travis (2002) describes, the Notting Hill Riots were triggered by ‘300-to 400-strong “Keep Britain White” mobs, armed with iron bars, butcher’s knives and weighted leather belts, who went “nigger- hunting” in Notting Hill. These mobs indiscriminately attacked any person of colour they came across (Rowe, 1998).

Reclaiming space

The Notting Hill Riots symbolised breaking point for the black community. The Notting Hill Riots were ‘the first time that the British public witnessed, through much media attention, the intense anger of black communities toward an injustice they felt strongly about’ (Jan-Khan, 2003:35). As Tarinski (2015) explains, the black community, fully aware of their lack of protection from the state took matters into their own hands in order to reclaim both public and private space. As one West Indian resident explained, ‘black people were so frightened at that time that they wouldn’t leave their houses, they wouldn’t come out, they wouldn’t walk the streets of Portobello Road’ (BBC, 2009). ‘We had to put our foot down’. ‘Our homes were being attacked’, ‘it’s only right that one should defend one’s home, no matter who you are’ (Pilkington, 1988: 121). In situations like this, it is common for resistance and rioting to ensue with the aim of reclaiming and recreating both public space (Tarinski, 2015) and private space. As the West Indian people saw it, those in a position of authority had failed them and rioting and fighting back was the only way of protecting themselves; and it worked. As the same West Indian resident comments ‘the following morning we walked the streets free because they knew we were not going to stand for that type of behaviour’ (BBC, 2009).

The Brixton Riots 1981

Decline in the Brixton area was rife and was hastened by the influx of black immigrants into the area and the corresponding exodus of whites (Kettle and Hodges, 1982). Racial discrimination was still rife; this discrimination was especially reflected in the labour market and policing in the area.

Labour market

In the build up to the 1981 riot Brixton was suffering social and economic decline; Brixton had one of the highest unemployment rates, with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black (RNTWC, 2013). Exclusion from the labour market due to the ‘informal’ colour bar meant that many black people turned to the informal economy as a means of earning money. This participation in illegal forms of work helped solidify the image of black people as inherently ‘criminal’ (Izhar, 2015), further preventing the community from accessing jobs in the formal economy. The association of blackness with criminality prevented areas with a large black population from receiving investment, which accentuated decline and unemployment (Izhar, 2015). Exclusion from the formal economy fostered widespread resentment toward the government for not doing more to protect the black community from colour bars (Kettle and Hodges, 1982).

Sus law and policing

According to Kettle and Hodges (1982) ‘One in four of Brixton’s blacks between the ages of 13 and 24 have said they have been in trouble with the police through being stopped and searched or charged with ‘sus’. ‘Sus’ law under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 ‘allowed police to arrest a person on suspicion of loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence (1982:91). The allegedly discriminatory use of sus law against black people, particularly in Brixton, fostered resentment and distrust of the police in the area.

Operation Swamp ‘81

Collective ethnic spaces that foster a sense of familiarity are particularly valuable for minorities (Winders, 2009). Around the time of the riots, such a space was ‘Railton Road’ (The Frontline) in Brixton; it was a space where young black men felt safe from the police. This space was invaded by the police force under ‘Operation Swamp 81’, a large scale drug raid of people and property on The Frontline (Kettle and Hodges, 1982). Operation Swamp ’81 saw over 1,000 people stopped and searched (RNTWC, 2013), over half of whom were black (Kettle and Hodges, 1982). However, of the people searched, only 8 were charged with offences which were directly related to the operation. This all added to the increasing frustration of black people residing in Brixton and contributed to further distrust of the police (RNTWC, 2013). Many saw Operation Swamp ’81 as the breaking point, causing riots to ensue (Lea and Hallsworth, 2012).

The riot

The ’81 Riots were sparked by an inaccurate rumour that suggested that the police had allowed a black youth to die. However, the dire relationship between the police and the black population in Brixton meant that all it took was a rumour for 3 days of rioting to begin.

Reclaiming space and structural change

For 3 days ‘young black men battled the police on the streets of Brixton. These youngsters were faced with the toxic combination of unemployment, racism and a society which marginalized their political voice and addressed the symptoms of urban decay with systematic over-policing’ (Lea and Hallsworth, 2012). As Kettle and Hodges (1982) explain, these people used the riots as a way of challenging the racialized hierarchies imposed by institutions and the economic elite which had prevented them from being treated as equal with the indigenous white population. Moreover, the riots were used as a way of reclaiming ethnic space. Railton Road, had particular sentimental value for the black community in Brixton. The infiltration of this safe space under Operation Swamp ’81 caused distress for the black community and heightened the anger amongst the community towards the police. Thus, rioting allowed the community to reappropriate and reclaim this space which they deemed to be theirs (French, 2008).

The London Riots 2011

Mark Duggan

The primary cause of the London Riots was the shooting of Mark Duggan. Duggan, a young black man, lived on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, ‘an area with a history of tension between the black community and the police’ (Briggs, 2012: 28). In August 2011, Duggan was shot dead by the police. The way Duggan’s death was reported suggested that Duggan was armed and had fired at the police first. However, evidence now suggests that he was not armed and the shot supposedly fired by Duggan was actually fired by another police officer (Slater, 2011). The lack of clarity surrounding what truly happened prompted a protest organised by Broadwater Farm residents outside Tottenham Police Station. The crowd grew agitated by the fact that ‘no senior police representative materialised to give transparency on the issue’ (Briggs, 2012: 30) and within hours the initial riots erupted.

Stop and Search and The Police

The reasons for people taking part in the London Riots are wide spanning. Though the death of Mark Duggan prompted the start of the riots, the reasons for many people participating in the riots went beyond that. One reason was ‘widespread anger and frustration at people’s everyday treatment at the hands of the police’ (Lewis et al, 2011: 4). ‘Nowhere was the singling out of black people more apparent in the minds of the rioters than when the police use stop and search’ (Lewis et al, 2011: 19). The disproportionate amount of stop and searches carried out against black people fostered a lack of respect and anger towards the police amongst many black people (Briggs, 2012). As such, many rioters took part in order to ‘take control back’ ‘from the clutches of the police – who were seen as a corrupting influence in the community’ (2011: 20).

Youth unemployment, increased university fees and cuts to EMA

Youth unemployment had been a huge problem in the decade leading up to the 2011 London Riots, particular amongst black youths where half were unemployed (ONS, 2012). As one interviewee concludes ‘If I had a job…I honestly wouldn’t have stolen nothing’, ‘I don’t condone it [the looting] but like, it’s like, it’s helped me out financially’ (Lewis et al 2011:26).

Many rioters interviewed after the London Riots claimed that another motivating factor for participating was the increase in university tuition fees and cuts to the educational maintenance allowance (Slater, 2011). For these rioters, participation in the riots was largely due to anger at what they saw as social and economic injustices (Smith, 2013).

Palimpsest and the political economy

Studying these three riots through a palimpsest lens has allowed us to assess how the nature and function of the riots involving black communities in London has changed over time and how this reflects changes (or lack thereof) in the political economy.

Labour market inequality is still a principal reason that present day riots are taking place. According to the Cabinet Office (2003) throughout the mid to late 20th century, unemployment rates amongst Black Caribbean’s, were disproportionately high; at its peak, unemployment amongst Black Caribbean’s was around twice that of their White counterparts. The most recent census paints a similar picture. According to the ONS (2014) ‘Other Black’ and Black Caribbean’s had the highest proportions of 16-64 year olds who were unemployed. The persistence of unemployment inequality today is reflective of the persistence of discrimination present in the labour market. A study by Hales et al (2009) finds a job success rate gap of 29% between equally qualified White and Black and Minority Ethnic applicants. Assessing the political economy from the perspective of the labour market would suggest that there hasn’t been much change, as racial discrimination is still rife.

Institutional racism within the police is another primary reason cited as the cause of all three riots studied in this paper. In 1958, much of the black community in London had deep mistrust for the police, as an interviewee comments: ‘black people soon found out during the riots that you can’t go up to a policeman and expect to be treated decently’ (Pilkington, 1998: 147). This same sentiment was present during the London Riots as 85% of people stated that policing was an important factor in why the riots occurred. This was particularly salient amongst the black community who expressed extreme anger and frustration at the way they had been treated by the police (Lewis et al, 2011). As Gilroy (2011) comments ‘the criminal justice system and places of incarceration have become blacker and browner places’ but the data doesn’t show that these people are ‘more criminal than anyone else’. What it suggests is that ‘they’ve been subjected to processes of criminalization’. In 2011, police were 28 times more likely to use stop and search powers against a black person than a white person (IRR, 2016); a figure arguably worse than 30 years ago (Gilroy, 2011). Such statistics suggest that racial bias and prejudice is still present in the police force today and thus, from this perspective there hasn’t been much change in the political economy.

One big change that can be identified through studying these riots is who and why people are rioting. The Notting Hill Riots ‘were the first real incident of black people fighting back, both literally and symbolically in Britain’ (BBC, 2002). The Brixton Riots 1981 were referred to as the ‘black rebellion’ (Smith 2013), but race becomes less salient when considering the London Riots. The London Riots, which started in Tottenham, began as a protest against the police sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, yet another young black man to die at the hands of the police (Briggs, 2012). Duggan’s death struck a chord with the black community as it encouraged reflection on ‘specific incidences of black people dying in custody or during police raids’ (Lewis et al, 2011:19) prompting protest. However, this protest turned into a riot as people used Duggan’s death as an opportunity to express a wider lower class anger towards ‘a system that has failed them’ (Smith, 2013: 139). The London Riots quickly became much less about race and more about the working class, who felt excluded, isolated and locked out of mainstream society” (2013: 139). An interview with a Brixton youth worker in Smith (2013: 139) sums up this sentiment. He states “what has really changed in the past thirty years is that, while many young black people continue to feel the same way as his generation had in 1981, “now that feeling is shared by white working-class people””. The shift in who exactly is rioting is reflective of the growing economic inequality in London. ‘London has the highest proportion of households in the top tenth of incomes nationally, and the highest proportion in the bottom tenth’ (Lupton, 2011:1). While racial inequality still exists in London, during the London Riots it was overshadowed by the growing concern over economic inequality in the capital.

Is it clear that, the persistence of inequality and injustice will foster an environment in which rioting is likely (White, 2011). Riots do not just erupt and the underlying causes of them need to be addressed. Before the turn of the century, there was a larger focus on racial inequality as London adapted to the influx of foreign migrants. However, over a decade into the 21st century, attentions have shifted towards economic inequality as London’s middle class continues to grow and the poor get left behind (Lupton, 2011). Failure to address these inequalities will likely result in further rioting (White, 2011). This sentiment is reflected in Lewis et al (2011) whose research finds that of those London rioters interviewed: 81% thought that riots would happen again and 63% said that they thought more riots would occur within three years.


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