Student protest: Reminder of inner city uprisings

As protesting students took to the streets this month Marc Wadsworth remembers the many community uprisings and asks can Black people benefit from being more rebellious?

No one can fail to have been shaken up by the scenes of fury on TV from the student demonstration that turned nasty in London this week. Lecturers at Goldsmith's College strongly supported the protestors and as a fellow member of their union I back what they said.

They congratulated staff and students "on the magnificent anti-cuts demonstration" and added: "We wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by NUS and [national] UCU concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts."

The passion of  the protestors was a timely reminder of the riot 30 years ago when Black youth rose up against police harassment in a rebellion that sparked uprisings throughout Britain’s inner cities.

African Caribbeans, Asians and their white working class allies in Bristol, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and several towns across the country forcefully sent home the message to the authorities that “enough is enough”.

Youth had suffered years of humiliation at the hands of police who misused the notorious “Sus” stop and search law. Their parents had also been criminalised at christening and wedding parties that officers raided on the pretext that they were illegal shebeens. Thirteen black people died in the Deptford fire in suspicious circumstances. Black children were failed by an education system that put them in the dustbin and adults faced the colour bar in employment and housing.

Liverpool community activist turned academic Wally Brown told a Black History Month meeting at the British Library titled Our memories of the uprisings: the 1980s revisited: “The police hated Black people and, because of their criminalisation by them, Black people hated the police.”

Racist immigration barriers affected Asian newcomers whom Margaret Thatcher, as a curtain raiser in 1978, cast to the fascist National Front and their sympathisers in the Conservative Party with her “swamping” remark on TV.

In 1981 – a year after St Pauls, Bristol - the biggest and most ferocious uprising came in Brixton after police launched a paramilitary-style stop and search operation against Black youth called “Swamp”.

The uprising – TV images of which were flashed around the world - made politicians and news media sit up and notice the previously ignored grievances of Black people. Eminent judge Lord Scarman was drafted in to hold an official inquiry. But, though he indentified race discrimination by law enforcement officers and economic disadvantage, Scarman lamentably refused to recognise the “institutional racism” of the police that the post Stephen Lawrence murder Macpherson report declared two decades later.

As a result of Scarman, government money was poured into inner city projects allegedly aimed at tackling unemployment and inequality. But white businessmen and one or two Black entrepreneurs benefited. The people who had rioted remained at the bottom of the pile.

Yes, through the struggle of Labour Party Black Sections activists, there was a three-fold increase in Black councillors in the UK, four Black MPs put into parliament and three Black council leaders in London. But these gains, constantly undermined particularly by the white supremacist Labour leadership, were rolled back once Black activism was parked by its beneficiaries.

And Islamophobia became the new racism. The Runnymede Trust, a race think tank, noted that in 1981 there were 7,000 racist attacks reported to the police. By 2008/9 racist and religion-based attacks had risen to 160,000 – only 10,000 of which were reported to the Crown Prosecution Service. Educationally and economically Black people are faring better than in the 1980s. But in the criminal justice system Black people have taken a hammering.

Shocking facts include that the proportion of Black people in British jails today is much greater than in the US and that Black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.  The unpunished deaths of Black people in police custody is a national scandal.

Former Commission for Race Equality Chair Lord Ouseley told me: "One can look back to 20 years ago and say that there were Black council leaders and local government executives, whereas today there are very few. In some town halls it's an all-white structure at the top."

He added: "It's inexplicable why talented Black and minority ethnic people are no longer in key decision-making positions."

That we have gone backwards can be explained. The end of Black rebellion has resulted in a loss of ground.  Maybe we handed the baton of dissent in 2010 to the student movement.

* Marc Wadsworth is the former Chair of the Labour Party Black Sections and Editor of