Darcus Howe remembers the "insohreckshan"

To the press they were the Brixton riots, but Linton saw something different. He called it "di grea

In the late afternoon of 10 April 1981 Brixton was set ablaze as hundreds of local black youths fought the Metropolitan Police in every nook and cranny of this tiny urban village in south London. Through the rest of that weekend the battle continued. Armies of police officers were diverted from other parts of London to Brixton. Young blacks made their way in from other south London communities to engage the boys in blue. The encounter was bloody, fiery and fought on both sides with great intensity.

At the end of this engagement Brixton town centre lay in scorched ruins, firebombed almost to extinction. Even the roads and pavements had been dug up to provide a supply of missiles for the insurgents.

Any objective assessment would conclude that the police were routed. Such was the ferocity of the onslaught on them, in fact, they barely managed to protect the local police station on Brixton Road.

The press called it "the Brixton riots", giving the impression that it was the work of an uneducated and hysterical mob. Linton Kwesi Johnson, in a poem written in Jamaican dialect, redefined the moment as "di great insohreckshan". "It is noh mistri/we mekkin histri," he wrote.

In the days and weeks that followed, the "insohreckshan" snaked its way from the south, through the Midlands to the north of England, with young blacks setting districts ablaze in most of the major cities in Britain.

In Brixton, tension between local people and the police was nothing new. It had been ever-present, simmering beneath the surface for two decades before that April day. As early as 1961 the West Indian Standing Conference, a genteel organisation which co-ordinated the activities of various societies around the country, produced a report describing police activities in this part of south London.

"For the seven years that I have been residing in Brixton," recorded the report's author, "I have been constantly besieged by members of the immigrant population with matters of conflict between them and members of the police force." He continued: "It has been confirmed that sergeants and constables do leave stations with the express purpose of 'nigger hunting', that is to say they do not get orders to act in this way but among themselves they decide to bring in a coloured person at all costs." And he explained further: "The difficulty to apprehend the policemen in these hunts lies in the fact that they go out in plain clothes, they use their own cars and in many instances, persons who are threatened or assaulted cannot get their numbers."

Twenty years later "nigger hunting" returned to Brixton with a vengeance. Between 6 April and 10 April 1981, the Metropolitan Police mounted Operation Swamp 81. "The purpose of this operation," officers were told, "is to flood identified areas in L district to detect burglars and robbers. The essence of the exercise is therefore to ensure that all officers remain on the streets, and success will depend on concentrated stops, on powers of surveillance and suspicion by persistent and astute questioning." L district was Lambeth, and ten squads of between five and 11 officers were assigned to the operation, four of those squads to Brixton.

There was no surveillance, the stops were random and gratuitous and no astuteness whatever was involved. I lived and worked in one of the designated areas and was stopped and searched several times in a couple of days as I made my way to and from the shops. By the evening of 10 April we had had enough. All hell broke loose after one stop-and-search on Railton Road. Some ten of us, members of the Race Today collective, set up a communications post at the group's headquarters on Railton Road. I toured the area on several occasions as the events unfolded.

Within half an hour of the rioting beginning, a group of young men had taken command, directing groups of insurgents through the alleyways that linked the community together. Barricades were erected and petrol bombs manufactured. They organised scouts, who moved around on roller skates and bicycles, and who returned with detailed information on police positions. A spontaneous social explosion transformed itself into an organised revolt.

The police were at a disadvantage. Most had come from other parts of London and did not know the terrain. They were also ill-equipped: with no plastic shields, they used dustbin lids. From our communications post, members of Race Today contacted organisations and individuals throughout the UK. We gave interviews to newsrooms across the Caribbean and in the United States.

Margaret Thatcher, prime minister at the time, was livid. She talked about calling in the army and had to be dissuaded by her home secretary, William Whitelaw.

Such was the impact of these events that a right-wing regime was forced into conciliation. Lord Scarman was brought in, and the mood of his inquiry was actually placatory; so were its recommendations. Over the 25 years since then, scarred though they have been by numerous other instances of "nigger hunting" and by the death of Stephen Lawrence, that mood of conciliation has survived.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes Special