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Race, policing and the 1980s riots


In 1981 and 1985 major riots broke out in British cities. These included: in 1981, Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham) and Chapeltown (Leeds), and in 1985, Broadwater Farm (London), Brixton (London) and Handsworth (Birmingham). Long standing tensions between local communities and the police had been exacerbated by the disproportionate use of 'stop and search' ('sus') powers against young black men and the increasing economic decline of inner city areas (in particular the rapid growth in unemployment).

= This symbol after a link means that it links to catalogue descriptions of the documents (including the reference numbers which will help you to order up the original documents at the MRC).


The Modern Records Centre's archive collections include contemporary documents about the riots of the 1980s, as well as the broader issues of policing and social conditions in Britain's inner cities. Information about some of these sources is given below. A 'ready-made' search of our archive catalogueLink opens in a new window which identifies some additional items on this subject is also available.

We have been unable to publish digital copies online as all of the material listed below is in copyright. Researchers are welcome to look at the original documents in the MRC reading room.

Selected sources:

'Attitudes of young immigrants', 1971Link opens in a new window 

Runnymede Trust pamphlet by Peter Evans. It contains the results of "a survey of young immigrant males" (divided into groups of Indians, West Indians and Pakistanis), and includes responses to questions about perceptions of the law abiding nature of their communities and discriminatory treatment by the police.

'Black Voice', 1972Link opens in a new window 

Newspaper of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, a British Black Power group - front page headline 'Liverpool: Fascists, skinheads, and police gang up against black people'. It reports on events in Liverpool 8 (Toxteth).

'Talking Blues: The Black Community Speaks about its Relationship with the Police'Link opens in a new window, 1978

Collection of interviews published as a pamphlet by the Birmingham-based group AFFOR, in an "attempt to communicate to a wider audience the experiences, frustrations and sense of bitter injustice of young black people concerning police behaviour".

Black Peoples Organisations Campaign Against SUSLink opens in a new window, 1978

BPOCAS broadsheet published as part of the campaign against police use of 'stop and search'.

'Kick SUS Out!'Link opens in a new window, [1970s]

Handbill from the People's National Party Socialist Youth Movement about the use of 'stop and search'.

'Brick Lane 1978: The case for defence',Link opens in a new window 1979

Pamphlet published by Tower Hamlets Trades Council and Hackney Legal Action Group. It relates to anti-fascist protests in the Brick Lane area of East London (led by members of the local Bengali community), arrests of protesters by the police, and the work of the Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee.

'A cause for alarm: A study of policing in Lambeth',Link opens in a new window c.1979

Pamphlet which includes introduction on institutional racism and chapters on 'Sus', the 'Special Patrol Group', 'What were the SPG doing in Lambeth?' and 'The accountability of the police'.

'The Fire Next Time - Youth in Multi-Racial Society: The Urgent Need for New Policies'Link opens in a new window, 1980

Pamphlet published by the Commission for Racial Equality. It includes sections on 'The disadvantage of urban youth', 'Youth in racial strife', 'Types of disadvantaged youth', 'Black youth and the statutory services', 'The police and the courts' and 'Black self help'.

Police, riots, violenceLink opens in a new window, 1978-1985

File of photographs included in the archives of the National Union of Public Employees. It includes several images taken during riots in Brixton.

Trades Union Congress files on race relations and conditions in the inner cities

The TUC archive includes a large amount of material on race relations in Britain, including a series of files on "Colour Problems and Racial Discrimination"Link opens in a new window during the 1970s and 1980s. The collection includes several files which contain material on the riots of 1981, including:

"Colour Problems and Racial Discrimination"Link opens in a new window, 1981

The file includes the TUC policy statement on 'Regenerating our inner cities', press releases on the riots, correspondence (including with the Home Secretary) and circulars (including from Merseyside Community Relations Council).

'Justices of the Peace, Magistrates, etc.; Police (and Security Firms)'Link opens in a new window, 1980-1983

Includes briefing notes, correspondence and reports on policing and race relations.

Unemployment (General)Link opens in a new window, 1981-1982

Contains material relating to conditions in Britain's inner cities, including a report of a meeting between the Trades Union Congress General Council and the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet about the TUC's 1981 policy statement on 'Regenerating our inner cities'.

Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure

The RCCP was set up in 1978 to examine the duties and powers of the police and the rights and duties of suspects in respect of the investigation of criminal offences and the procedure for prosecution in criminal cases. It reported in 1981. The Modern Records Centre has copies of evidence submitted to the Commission, including:

Written evidence from the Commission for Racial Equality,Link opens in a new window 1978

'Criminal procedure and black people, written evidence from the Institute of Race Relations,Link opens in a new window 1979

'A fair deal... for all', written evidence from the Scrap SUS Campaign Steering Committee,Link opens in a new window undated

Transcript of oral evidence given by the Commission for Racial Equality,Link opens in a new window 1979

Transcript of oral evidence given by the Institute of Race Relations and Runnymede Trust,Link opens in a new window 1979

The Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency)

Two files specifically relating to riots during the 1980s are included in the archives of Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist group which operated within the Labour Party during the 1980s (and ran Liverpool City Council between 1983-1987):

"Brixton 81. Sects and other campaigns"Link opens in a new window, 1981-1986

File which includes leaflets and press releases about the Brixton riots and behaviour of the police in London and Liverpool, produced by various organisations, 1981.

"Militant cuttings 81 riots": "Toxteth, Brixton, Southall, Bristol, Tottenham"Link opens in a new window, 1981-1987

File which includes leaflets from various organisations; photocopied information re Brixton People's Enquiry; ephemera and reports relating to the Broadwater Farm riots; and Leeds Labour Party Young Socialists pamphlet 'Youth Campaign Against Unemployment: The night that Brixton burned!!', c1981.

Racism and race relationsLink opens in a new window, 1981-1983

File of correspondence from the archives of the Coventry MP William Wilson. It includes letters on both local and national topics, including the Scarman Report into the causes of the 1981 riots.

'Coventry: A multicultural city. The religious, linguistic and cultural backgrounds of principal minority groups in the City of Coventry'Link opens in a new window, 1982

Booklet published by the Lord Mayor's Committee for Racial Harmony, an independent body set up in 1981 to assist "in the promotion of racial understanding and co-operation, encouraging the due observance of the law and identifying policies, approaches and organisations which could help to eliminate racial tension".

Arrests following the 1985 Broadwater Farm riotsLink opens in a new window 

Amnesty International press release, report and update, all from 1988, on arrests and prosecutions following the Broadwater Farm riots. The convictions of Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite for the murder of the police officer Keith Blakelock during the riots were overturned in 1991.

Anarchist and alternative publicationsLink opens in a new window 

Newspapers, journals and 'zines in this collection include articles and comment on riots during the 1980s, usually from an anti-establishment perspective.