Esme Choonara spoke to novelist Alex Wheatle about the racism and intimidation young black people faced in the 1980s, and the problems they face today
When I heard last month about the government’s plans to give police more powers to stop and search, my mind flicked back to the early 1980s and all that happened in the days running up to the riots in south London on 10 and 11 April 1981 that we call the Brixton Uprising.
The police stopped thousands of people at that time under the “sus” laws, which allowed them to stop and search people “suspected” of wrongdoing, and to arrest people for “loitering”.
They were used to systematically harass black people.
I remember going down to Brixton and being stopped maybe two or three times a day. I wasn’t totally innocent – I was a bit of small time hustler – but the huge police operation hit many innocent bystanders who were going about their daily business. That fuelled the resentment we felt.
Just before the uprising, the police launched Operation Swamp – a massive police operation in Brixton. In just four days the police stopped 943 people and arrested 118 – over half of them black. That added to the anger.
Of course there was anger already – going back a number of years – at how the police treated black people. But that tension was really cranked up with Operation Swamp and with the experience of the fire in Deptford, a few miles from Brixton, in January 1981.
The fire, which happened in New Cross Road, killed 13 young black people. We felt that the police didn’t bother to investigate it properly.
We strongly felt that a crime had taken place, but that the police were not using their powers to try and solve it. So there was a protest march.
I was on that march and I remember the police trying to intimidate us. We had a police “escort” all the way along the route.
There were confrontations on the fringes – though I never saw any of that. The way it was reported in the press was as if we were “public enemy number one”. We had marched peacefully, but the next day the press called us thugs and hooligans.
We really felt that although we were born here, we might as well not have been. We were made to feel like outsiders and that we were not wanted. It was driven home to us that we didn’t belong.
The far right never had much sway in Brixton. But we had our ears to the ground so we knew there had been incidents in nearby Lewisham where the far right wanted to march.
We heard about the police killing activist Blair Peach during an anti-Nazi demonstration in Southall in west London in 1979.
Blair Peach changed everything in a way because that’s when we realised that they could kill us on the street and nothing would be done. Blair Peach was a white teacher from New Zealand. He was killed in the broad daylight. So we started to fear.
We began to resist arrest even more because we feared that we would be killed too.
Music played a big part in the events of the time. We were listening to Burning Spear, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. We had album covers with clenched fists.
I was politicised in a way that is maybe not normal for 17 or 18 year olds because of the music I was listening to.
It made you aware of the political landscape around you.
It made you think about what Margaret Thatcher was trying to do when she made her speeches. For us it felt like the Tories and police just wanted to purge us off the streets. We were expendable. That’s how we felt – expendable rubbish.
The uprisings didn’t just happen in Brixton. All over Britain people erupted with fury at the police – not just in the big cities, but in many smaller towns.
Many of us involved in the uprising were quite young – I was 18 at the time. We were in conflict with an older generation.
Our parents didn’t quite believe what we were telling them – that we were being physically abused by the police. They thought this couldn’t really be happening. So there was conflict there all the time.
This made us feel even more isolated and when a young generation feels isolated then you get to a stage where you don’t care any more.
That’s how many of us felt on the first day of the rising. We looked into our futures and we thought we would probably end up in a prison cell anyway. When you reach a point where you don’t care anymore you can do dangerous things.
The uprisings didn’t change things straight away. In Brixton, it was still very much a “them and us” situation with the police.
But the uprisings forced the Tories to hold an inquiry headed by Lord Scarman. His criticisms of police racism were not acted on.
It wasn’t until the Macpherson Report in 1999 into the investigation of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence that we saw any change in the establishment and the recognition of “institutional racism” in the police.
I was arrested soon after the Brixton Uprising and spent three months in prison. That’s when I started to turn my life around.
I had spent most of my childhood in council care. I was in a care home in south London from the age of four to 14. I was living in a hostel in Brixton Hill and hustling to survive. I wasn’t really going to school much and got expelled a few times. A social worker did get me a job once as an apprentice carpenter but I messed that up.
I started to read in prison – that was what really changed me. I had a mentor – a Rasta friend who I shared a cell with – and he encouraged me to read.
I remember reading the Black Jacobins by CLR James about the slave revolt in Haiti and that really changed my mindset.
I started listening to different sorts of music, not just reggae, and that set me on course. I started to think that I could contribute to society rather than being outside it.
I began thinking that maybe I could achieve something, that I am worthwhile. I see so many black youngsters today who feel that they are not worth anything. They need to be told by someone that they are.
Instead they have a government that seems to despise them, calls them “hoodies” and fears them.
My son wears a hoodie, and he graduated from university last year. Young people need less of the fear – they need encouragement.
If the government effectively brings back the “sus” laws, it will bring back all the old anger and resentment again. Any work that the police have done in recent years to try to engage with the community will be lost.
The calls for more stop and search are not about stopping crime. They are about politicians trying to show off their muscles to “Middle England” to say how tough they are.
Both Labour and the Tories seem to be scared of losing authority. They want to be seen as the ones that control what’s going on.
It seems they are chasing after each other’s policies.
They don’t seem to realise that they are playing with fire. It makes me think they learnt nothing from what happened in 1981.