Steve, the Pub Philosopher, has written a thoughtful analysis of the legacy of the rioting of 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth, and its consequences twenty five years later.
The 'sus' laws were abolished in 1981 after the riots in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. However, the received wisdom is that the changes to the law and policing methods brought about by these riots were, on the whole, a Good Thing. The BBC's coverage of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disturbances was typically on-message.The "sus" law was:
The 1981 riots, then, are mostly presented in a positive light. They caused us to root out prejudice in the police force, to understand and tackle racism in the wider society and to spend government money on alleviating the problems faced by black communities, or so the story goes.
But perhaps there is another story behind the Brixton riots and their aftermath - that of the capitulation of the state and the criminal justice system in the face of a determined attack.
Twenty years later, the sons and daughters of those who rioted in the eighties are shooting at each other. Two decades of sensitive policing have allowed a generation of black youths to graduate from cannabis and machetes to crack and machine-guns.
Today's gun crime among black teenagers has been allowed to happen because, as well as emasculating teachers in schools, the Conservative government surrendered control of the streets to gangs of rioters.
the informal name for a stop-and-search law that permitted a police officer to act on suspicion, or `sus', alone. The law was widely believed to have been abused by the Metropolitan Police to harass young black men.I moved to Brixton in 1983, maybe 18 months after the riots had made it notorious. Burnt-out houses could still be seen on Railton Road - the "Front Line" - but a large area of one side of the street had been bulldozed to leave an area of waste ground next to a small row of shops. After 10:30pm, when the pubs shut, groups of young and middle-aged black men would start to congregate there when the weather permitted. Cars would pull up, the boots would be opened and sugar cane produced and split open with machetes. Joints were smoked openly, and you could walk down there, be ushered up a side alley, and buy weed. The biggest risk came from police cars that were often parked a little way up the road. They wouldn't arrest black people but if you were white, you were at risk.
Cannabis does not induce violent behaviour - whatever excuses people might try to use when accused of crimes. The atmosphere in Railton Road was friendly and relaxed. One night, I was helping a printing company just a few doors along from this patch of waste ground run through a rush job for me and between 10:00pm and perhaps two in the morning, when we finished, I didn't see another white face. But I saw lots of black ones - smiling, coming in to chat, offering cans of Red Stripe lager and tokes on joints. It was one of the most pleasant evenings I can remember.
The early 1980s were when cannabis went mainstream. Phrases like "wacky baccy" entered the language as the white working class embraced the drug. At the summer fairs - there were loads of mini-Glastonburies all over the West Country and the Midlands - the police stayed offsite and people could walk around smoking joints, sit at mobile food and drink stalls rolling joints, all with absolutely no need for concealment.
One afternoon in 1986, I sat in a back room somewhere in Glasgow, rolling joints and chatting to two uniformed policemen who were swigging scotch from a flask. As one detective told me around that time, they only arrested someone for cannabis if they had been irritated by them. Once, when a serious crime squad searched a house and found cannabis, they left half so the person who lived there could "have a puff when you get out".
If a policeman had stopped every plumber's van and searched it, I reckon they'd have had a 10% hit rate for cannabis possession. But stopping a Rastafarian on Acre Lane in Brixton offered close to 100% certainty. Setting aside the fact - and it is a fact - that the police were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly racist, what were they supposed to do when the "sus" laws were introduced?
But let's just look for a moment at this racism. I knew the man who was the model for the main character in the movie For Queen and Country. He had joined the Parachute Regiment, served in the Falkland War, then returned to London to look for work. In the movie, he became a bodyguard to a drug dealer. Why? In real life, he became a fireman - his sister joined the police. One evening he was walking through the car park of the - very well maintained, schoolteacher-filled - flats where he lived in Deptford, carrying a video recorder. A police car stopped, the occupants didn't believe the video was his and called for backup. Thrown in the back of a van with two policemen sitting on his back, his respiration was restricted and he nearly died. He received something like £20,000 compensation.
That didn't help my neighbour in some industrial units; an immensely courteous family man who owned a business fixing sound systems, he was stopped randomly walking down Brixton Hill twice during the year I was there. I walked down that street frequently and no police car ever so much as slowed down. Can you guess what colour he was?
I remember having a long and at times heated conversation with a group of detectives in a strip club in Hackney, just as the Stephen Lawrence affair was kicking off. They swore blind they were not racist. But when I had arrived and said I'd been able to park nearby because I'd found a street without any yellow lines, one of them had said "That's 'cos the blacks have nicked them all".
So, let's rewind back to 1981. A law had been introduced that permitted - indeed, required - the police to stop people they suspected of carrying drugs. It was absolutely true that a large proportion of the black residents of some parts of the country were very likely to be doing just that and so the police stopped, searched and arrested a lot of young black people for something that not even the police thought was bad.
When you have immigration, you get the whole immigrant. We saw that with the Yardies, we're seeing it now with Muslim migration, we saw it in the 1980s with Cypriot armed robbers. It's one reason why immigration should be controlled, so that assimilation has a chance to operate.
I can remember listening on the radio to an election campaign speech from Jamaica in the 1970s. While the Prime Ministerial candidate spoke, I'm pretty sure it was Michael Manley, gunfire could be heard in the background. His bodyguards were having a gunfight with supporters of his opponent at the door of the hall. Many of the people being arrested under the sus laws came from a political culture in which violence was commonplace.
What on earth did people expect to happen? The riots were caused by a collision between bad laws and people with a tradition of political violence (rather like the English a couple of centuries ago). And then, as Steve rightly points out, there was a capitulaton to violence and the surrender of the streets, the consequences of which we're still facing.
The answer to this is simple. Don't make bad laws. Make as few laws as possible. Don't attempt to prohibit the consensual recreational activities of adults. Restrict the criminal law to the protection of the person and of property from non-consensual violence (if I ask you to smash up my car, that shouldn't be a crime; if you do it against my wishes it should be).
Then enforce the law that is left with rigour, energy, determination and without fear or favour.
The events of 1981 broke all these principles, and we are continuing to suffer the consequences.
There has also been a complete withdrawal of discilpline for children. As Steve pointed out in an earlier post:
The rapper Black Twang was interviewed on Radio 4 yesterday. [link] He argued that the government should return power to parents and teachers and let them discipline children. They should, he said, be able to smack children without getting a visit from the police or social services. Local pastor Ben Okechukwa had a similar message. [link] He too said that teachers should be given more power to discipline pupils and he warned that most teenagers know more about their rights than adults do. While they may show a total disregard for the law, they also know how to use the law to protect themselves from teachers and the police.
No group of people is suffering them as severely as black inner-city dwellers. It certainly doesn't affect the middle class "liberals" who have been celebrating the 1981 riots, but then, as I have pointed out in an earlier post, this never stops them causing terrible social harm in the interests of making themselves feel admirable, stooping down from on high to grasp the little hands of the poor, and black.
Caught between the hammer of the conservative "drug war" and the anvil of liberal self-satisfaction and interventionism, we're going to see things get worse.
Roll on the libertarian century.