The ugly scenes of violence that engulfed much of the south London district sparked a summer of uprising in the UK – in Brixton alone, 324 people were injured and 28 premises burned.
Later, in the autumn of 1981, the Scarman report scathingly attacked the 'racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life', and demanded a shake-up in the way ethnic groups were treated by police and local government.
Lord Scarman's criticism also generated debate about how public sector comms teams should deal with the issues surrounding social disadvantage and race. A quarter of a century on, these concerns are just as pressing.
Lambeth Council is based just a few steps away from The Front Line, an off-licence on Railton Road whose sign recalls the street's nickname at the height of clashes between residents and police.
'For many people, all they know of Brixton is the riots,' says Lambeth head of comms Louise Ansari. 'Today, the task of the comms team is to [recognise] cultural sensitivities without reinforcing prejudices.'
At the time of this interview, Ansari and her team are preparing for the media spotlight that will invariably fall on Brixton for the anniversary, and they hope to 'set the story in context'. The Black Cultural Archives is being rehoused and will reopen later this year after what Ansari calls 'delicate and sensitive negotiations'. However, Ansari stresses that it is not a memorial to the worst riots Britain has seen, and its timing is coincidental.
The legacy of 1981 – and that of subsequent race riots (see timeline) – is still felt by today's public sector PROs. Their mantra is to maintain a dialogue with local people in an effort to minimise feelings of disenfranchisement.
Lambeth's comms department, for instance, is in consultation over a large-scale regeneration programme in the borough. Much of the plan appears wholly uncontroversial – such as improving the disabled access at Brixton Recreation Centre to conform with regulations. But even this project must be dealt with sensitively: any discussion of the fate of 'the Rec', as it is known locally, is highly charged. The building was a result of Scarman's recommendation to supply more facilities for residents. 'Consequently the community feels a strong ownership of it,' says Ansari.
She adds: 'It's symbolic: there's a tangible sense of history there. People want to make their views known about how we can develop it, so we are [enabling them to] do that.'
Perhaps the biggest change in comms policy can be found at the local branch of the Metropolitan Police. One of Scarman's recommendations was for more positive dialogue between police and residents. This led to the setting up of Community Police Consultative Groups (CPCGs) – independent bodies in which community leaders share information with police in an effort to reduce suspicion and tension. Inevitably, Brixton was one of the first
areas to be given a CPCG.
'This has been a particularly successful measure,' says Brixton Police press officer James Nadin. 'There are obviously times when we need to keep things confidential. But where possible we share details of upcoming operations – telling the community about what we're doing and why. It works both ways – the CPCG helps us to understand how the community feels about local issues.'
A new deal
The Brixton CPCG was most recently brought into play when police launched their No Deal operation against cannabis pushers. The operation was potentially troublesome because it involved stop and search – the practice that had triggered the 1981 riots (back then, Operation Swamp saw large numbers of black youths pulled over on racial grounds). Nadin says: 'Some in the community were unhappy about No Deal because they were going to get caught. But most residents were pleased we were doing something to get rid of aggressive dealers.'
Indeed, the evidence is that after many years of slow and painful change, the attitudes of south London's black community to the police are becoming more positive. Take 'Blacker Dread', the manager of a record shop on Coldharbour Lane. A community activist since 1981, he claims the police have 'done a good job in learning to listen to us. They've changed immensely'.
But worryingly for Ansari, Dread feels differently about the council's level of respect for the black community. '[Lambeth Council] does not help local businesses: it gives companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury's priority,' he complains. 'For example, we've invited the council to the meetings of the Coldharbour Lane Business Forum at least twice to talk about parking problems, and they don't turn up.' Lambeth declined to comment.
The council is striving to escape its past associations. It has managed to improve on its 2003 'poor' rating by the Audit Commission – last December the two-star authority was deemed to be 'improving well'. But last year it topped the London borough league table for hate crimes (those motivated by race or sexuality).
More pertinently, in last year's King report – commissioned by Unison and Lambeth council – the authority was criticised for not tackling racism internally after an employment tribunal found that an employee of the council had suffered racial discrimination. Meanwhile, former chief executive Faith Boardman, who stood down last July, had been heavily criticised for her use of the phrase 'coloured people' during a 2003 local public enquiry into racism. Current chief executive Derrick Anderson, installed last month, will hope to distance Lambeth from such history.
In terms of greater community engagement, a council spokesman refers to a series of events recently organised by the council, intended to give young ethnic minorities a voice. The first, held earlier this year, was for Muslim youth; another, for Afro-Caribbeans, is due later this spring.
After 7 July
The council was certainly quick off the mark last July when locations within the borough were affected by the aftermath of the London bombings. Oval was one of the stations targeted by the attempted bombings on 21 July; a few days later, Jean Charles De Menezes, a Lambeth resident, was shot at the next station on the line, Stockwell.
Within Stockwell itself – whose Somali community was the focus of
police efforts to track down would-be suicide bombers – a hastily produced edition of residents' magazine Home Ground emphasised the positive aspects of a diverse society.
Immediately after 7 July, the council arranged daily meetings with representatives of a variety of faith groups and public bodies. These went on for three weeks, ensuring an outlet for any strong feelings. A public meeting after the Stockwell shooting, for instance, attracted a sizeable audience from the local Portuguese community.
During this time the council organised a photocall on the steps of Stockwell Mosque with members of the local Faith Forum. The image was published in local and national media, helping 'Lambeth United' become the slogan of efforts to avoid racial tension.
The London attacks highlighted the need for cross-agency action and openness. Unlike in the 1980s, working in isolation is not an option in today's public sector. The 1999 MacPherson report into the police handling of the death of Stephen Lawrence, six years earlier, in Eltham, south-east London, was a turning point for the Met. Previously disinclined to allowing scrutiny of its practices by outsiders, the force accepted the charge of 'institutional racism'. Later, an amendment to the Race Relations Act in 2001 reinforced the need for public bodies to outlaw discrimination within their ranks.
And London has not been the only witness of change. The summer of 2001 brought riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. A culmination of tension that had its roots in fears over immigration, higher awareness of global terrorism – and the rising influence of the British National Party – the violence was a wake-up call for many local authorities.
A report commissioned by the Home Office at the end of 2001, and written by former Nottingham City Council chief executive Ted Cantle, said different ethnic communities were living 'parallel lives', and that their ignorance of each other was a major driver of the riots.
Such conclusions were echoed this February by Commission for Racial Equality chair Trevor Phillips, who claimed the UK was 'sleepwalking into segregation'. But vitally, Cantle's comments have formed the modern basis of local councils' race relations efforts. Where the 1990s were about celebrating diversity, councils are now trying to emphasise common ground between ethnic groups – the buzzwords now are 'community cohesion'.
Some councils, such as Burnley, have chosen to set up dedicated community engagement and cohesion departments, while others, including the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, have pledged to make such work integral to all departments.
Cantle is now in the process of setting up an Institute of Community Cohesion, which will exist to share best practice among local authorities. He tells PRWeek that he is encouraged by councils' attempts to break down the barriers between community groups. 'I think the most effective communications are those apparently banal encounters that we can engineer between members of different faiths or races.'
He says even something as simple as Oldham's Asian and white women swapping chapattis and pancakes has the potential to dispel racially founded myths. 'All the evidence shows that when communities see themselves as closed and isolated, that is a dangerous situation,' Cantle adds.
The 2001 riot cities, as well as others across the country, have vigorously reacted to this idea. In Bradford, for example, schools with a high proportion of Asian children have been twinned with schools in predominantly white catchment areas to encourage the kids to interact. Elsewhere, similar schemes have twinned schools in multicultural Leicester with those in predominantly white Wigan, where a shared love of football has proved a useful tool to encourage different-race children to mix.
Meanwhile, East Lancs Together provides an example of local authorities and voluntary groups working together. The Home Office-funded organisation is currently trying to improve the accuracy of the media's reporting of racial issues by forging better links between the press and community groups. A Community Media Panel set up last November has been credited with the creation of a cartoon strip, running in local newspapers, inspired by matters of community integration.
But University of Leicester professor Richard Bonney – who works in the Centre for History of Religious and Political Pluralism – believes that one of the stumbling blocks of such programmes can be the differing agendas of public bodies. 'Councils and other public authorities are starting to work together, particularly on projects to encourage young people from different communities to mix. But until now they have all largely been working to different agendas,' he warns.
Indeed, the prevailing thought on avoiding racial tension goes beyond the encouragement of communities to talk to each other. It is also vital for government at all levels, and the various stakeholder voluntary groups, to set aside political differences and work to a common aim.
As campaigning gets under way for May's local elections, the subjects of race and culture will inevitably be mooted. In recognition of the need to educate media about certain sensitivities, the CRE has outlined, for example, its strategy to deal with discrimination against travelling communities. A dedicated page on its website warns reporters to steer clear of offensive terms to describe gypsies, and details ways to make reports fair and accurate.
This need to actively engender good community relations stems not only from the decrees of the Race Relations Act, but from a history that reveals the serious consequences of perceived exclusion. It is a burden on comms teams, but a task that can also be one of the most rewarding.
Riots erupt in Brixton when stop-and-search policy causes tension in black community.
Police attacked by ethnic minorities in Liverpool's Toxteth riots.
The Brixton rioters regroup after police shoot a woman during a house search.
Violence returns to Toxteth and spreads to Peckham, London.
Policeman stabbed to death in Tottenham after woman dies in another house raid.
Trouble in Brixton again, this time after the death of a black man in police custody.
Asians riot in Oldham when the British National Party wins a seat in the council.
Race violence in Burnley between Asian residents, whites and the police.
Two nights of riots in Bradford complete the 'summer of discontent'.
Anger on the streets of Blackburn after the BNP wins council by-election.
Birmingham's black and Asian residents clash over the alleged rape of a girl.