Brixton uprisings – 1981 – 2011
Thirty years after the Brixton Uprising that was a watershed in the political, economic and social recognition of black people in Britain most of the challenges within our community still remain.
Walking through Brixton today, I realise how little we have been able to take advantage of initiatives that were set up to benefit us. The fault I believe is in our inability to sustain our community organisations.
It was an uprising by young African and Caribbean people fighting against oppression from the police. The best analogy for the uprising is the current fight for democracy taking place in the Middle East now, except that instead of our asking the UN to create a no fly zone for us to fight this oppression, the government unleashed more policemen onto to the streets of Brixton to brutalise the young people.
But, the violent methods by the young people against the authoritarian behaviour of the police should not be seen as the worst riots this country; this was a genuine fight for recognition much in the same way as the black panther movement in America in the likes H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, the Soledad Brothers, Stokely Carmichel, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davies and the many more young activists of the time took on the police to supplement the much applauded non violent methods of Martin Luther King Jr.
All these African-Americans matured into the mainstream much in the same way that those in Brixton who took this stand against oppression have moved into respectable careers.
The signal to government that black people were not passive or exotic visitations in this country who would go away, but had come to stay and wanted a legitimate stake in affairs in this country and were prepared to resist oppression by whatever means paid off.
The Scarman report that followed the inquiry made useful recommendations on how to address the racial disadvantage faced by the black people and several initiatives were set up.
The uprising created an important forum for discussions and expression of opinion. Several enterprise initiatives to support African and Caribbean people to set up in business were implemented; training programmes were set up to help the young gain training in skills for jobs and to gain access to further and higher educations programmes. Local, regional and central government funded cultural projects and more importantly several black people found their voice to fight for the increase in political representation in this country; black people fought for local council seats in London and across the country, some made it to be council leaders and within a short period of 6 years black people had entered parliament in this country.
Several community and voluntary sector organisations were set up that produced advancement in several sectors, we got our own housing associations, BYFHAA, Black Roofs, Ujima etc, most of them now defunct, we had a lot of community based training organisations and agencies, Community Roots Trust, Project Full Employ, etc. Many second tier civil society organisations such as SIA, KENTE, have not stayed the course, we also had our own enterprise agencies, Wandsworth, Deptford, North London, South London; none exist now. The large number of arts organisations espousing our culture that were funded have now disappeared.
After the riots a number of black professionals moved into Brixton to create a symbol of black development; Bowman and Ziade, Francis and Co, New World Business Services, Choice FM, Voice Newspaper and Equinox Consulting did good business in the area working to support the many black community organisations that existed.
But thirty years after this remarkable transformation, we seem to be under siege and powerless to take charge of our problems of fighting crime within our community and keeping our young people safe.
Individuals within the black community have done very very well and have entered the mainstream, but they have not been able to take the community along with them. We are still not achieving in education that is the route for the social and economic mobility that we so need. Those who have been successful in their careers seem powerless to assist in our collective development.
Either we have forgotten that the strength of our community is based on the strength of our community organisations, or we have failed to recognise that without organising and taking charge of our own problems, no one would care about our community.
Multiculturalism is under attack, the wish is that we integrate and be assimilated; our politicians are even winning in lily white safe seats. But political advancement is of no use if our social fabric is weak and fragmented.
So whilst I doff my cap to the young people who took a stand in Brixton and fought off the oppression of the police several years ago, the challenges of our collective community remains, we need to start organising again and we need to take charge of our community problems and provide a better aspiration and future for our young people.
Ade Sawyerr is partner in the diversity and equality focussed consultancy, Equinox Consulting. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog.