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The Luton Riots of 1981 - Brixton comes to Bedfordshire
In 1981 a wave of riots swept across England, starting off in Brixton in South London and spreading to many other towns and cities. The Brixton uprisings are recognised as of historic importance, prompting the landmark Scarman report into policing and race relations. The riot in Toxteth, Liverpool, is also sometimes recalled for its impact on urban regeneration policy - in the immediate aftermath Michael Heseltine, then Environment Secretary, spent 3 weeks in
The riot in Luton, Bedfordshire, in July 1981 was immediately dismissed in these terms at the time. Vivian Dunnington, the Conservative leader of Luton Council, claimed: 'It was a copycat riot - the kids had seen the riots on TV and thought it a lot of fun. The town was neurotic with rumour. It went crazy' (Luton News, 23/7/1981).
In his reflections on 'Race, riots and and policing' in this period, Michael Keith warns against explaining different riots by a single cause: 'Generalizations, by definition, exclude the significance of the historically and geographically specific; by suppressing memory, they become the vehicles through which time is lost and place is forgotten' (Race, riots and and policing - lore and disorder in a multi-racist society, 1993).
The following account is an attempt to recover what was specific to events in Luton in 1981, as well as what they shared with experiences elsewhere. The Luton riot – like each of the others - did not come out of nowhere. While undoubtedly inspired by events elsewhere, those taking part had their own reasons for doing so, with the riot as a key event in a longer period of racism and resistance in the town.
I have covered some of the history leading up to July 1981 in previous posts here. The far right National Front had been active in the town since the mid-1970s, and there had been ongoing opposition to them, including to their meetings in Luton Library (see: A School Kid Against the Nazis in Luton 1979/80). An attack on the mosque by racist Chelsea fans in December 1980 had led to further community organising against racist attacks. In early 1981 the Luton Youth Movement, inspired by Asian Youth Movements around the country, had been set up to oppose racism and organise self-defence. An LYM march through Luton in May 1981 had been attacked by racist skinheads (see: Blinded by the Light - memories of 1980s Luton racism). Which brings us to July...
‘In the summer of ’81, Britain seemed to be two entirely different countries, slapped on top of each other, like two films being shown on the same screen at the same time’ (Mark Steel, Reasons to be cheerful: from punk to new Labour through the eyes of a dedicated troublemaker, 2001).
|Temporary Hoarding, Rock Against Racism zine, August 1981 - |
the cover depicts the Royal Wedding coach against backdrop of a burning city
The big news story in
July 1981 was supposed to be the preparations for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. But in
the weeks immediately before this ill-fated union, the youth of
The first of the summer
riots occurred in an area with similarities to Luton - Southall in
On the same evening,
four nights of rioting erupted in Toxteth,
By the end of the week, many people were just waiting for the wave to hit Luton. The talk was of little else at a Luton Youth Movement meeting on July 9th. In the previous week there had been two major incidents in Luton. On Saturday 4th July a group of 30 racist skinheads charged a group of Asian youths in St George's Square, where a crowd was watching a Punch and Judy Show organised by Luton Children's Library. Then in the early hours of the following Monday morning two petrol bombs were thrown at the Sikh temple in Portland Road, Luton. Volunteers from amongst Luton 1000-strong Sikh community mounted a round the clock vigil to prevent further attacks (Luton News, 9/7/1981). Notorious local racist Robert Relf told a local paper that it had 'probably' been the work of a right wing group (Herald, 9/7/1981).
On Friday 10th July many town
centre shops had taken the precaution of boarding up their windows as rumours
spread of impending violence; by Saturday morning others must have wished that
they'd done the same. By 8.30 pm on Friday night 'two hundred mainly Asian and West Indian
youth had organised to defend their community and had gathered outside the
In effect there were
two riots in
The Plume of Feathers
The following day 12 of the 21 people who had been arrested on Friday night were brought before a special court, a mixture of racists and their opponents.
|'Day the Town Went Crazy' (Herald, 16 July 1981)|
'The scene could have been Belfast, or even Brixton or Liverpool'
On Saturday afternoon the town was buzzing with rumours. There was a mixture of anger, determination, curiosity and excitement. Everyone was waiting for something to happen, with lots of people hanging around in the town centre. Here's my memories written down not long after:
'The signal was
the police and security guards locking the doors of the Arndale shopping
centre, apparently panicked by the crowd forming inside. The group of people I
was with at the St George's Square end ran down to the side entrance of
C&As and through the store. When we got to the front, the grill had been
lowered so we couldn't get into the main bit of the shopping centre, but faced
with having a section of the crowd loose in the store the management opened the
doors briefly to let us join the rest. There was now a surreal situation with
the shopping centre malls deserted except for a couple of hundred African-Caribbean, Asian and white youths, while thousands of shoppers watched
on from behind the locked doors of the shops. There was a real feeling of power
as the crowd moved through the Arndale. A line of police moved on ahead making
no attempt to stop us as we moved without incident out into the high street and
back along in the direction of the Town Hall. The rumour going around was that
a community festival in
On Saturday night, some
racists were still on the streets of
The situation was
moving rapidly from self-defence towards a full-scale riot, and a number of
fires were started. At 8.20 pm, there was an arson attack on Jack's curtain
shop in West Side Centre. At 10.05 pm, a fire bomb was thrown into Maurice
Davis hat makers in
The police's priority
seemed to be move the focus of the riot away from the town centre, and the main
shopping area, towards the predominantly Asian area of
The most serious fighting occurred as the crowd
A line of police
advanced banging their riot shields - 'Soon the banging came from hundreds of
bricks pounding into the shields' (Herald, 16/7/1981). People ‘broke pieces from garden
walls and used them against the police’ A police van had its windscreen
smashed. The fighting spread into
At 2.30 am, groups of young people were still defiantly on the streets but 'youths refusing to shift paid the penalty and we saw and heard the truncheons crack' (Herald, 16/7/81).
A total of 107 people were arrested; '64 of them white, 30 of West Indian extraction, and 13 of Asian extraction' (the white category included both racists and those fighting alongside black youth against racists and the police). Special court sessions were held on the Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, with 67 people appearing before the magistrates, 51 of whom were bailed with strict conditions including being restricted to their homes between 8 pm and 7 am . Almost all of those arrested were under 25 years old, with over half of them teenagers ((LN, 16.7.81).
|Herald, 16 July 1981|
Reactions to the riot
On the weekend of the
As the riots started to spread across
Other local Tories took a slightly more sophisticated approach than the local MP: 'A top Luton Tory has told the Government to spend more on jobs, council housing and sport - to help prevent further street riots… Cllr Vivian Dunnington, leader of
Adult employment had more than doubled in Luton between June 1980 and June 1981, with 7,840 people officially registered as unemployed (10.5% of the labour force). The Trades Council estimated that that the real figure was closer to 12,000 (Luton News, 2.7.81). Most of the major employers were making redundancies. The week before the riot, 330 workers at the Electrolux fridge and cleaner factories in Luton received redundancy notices (Luton News 9.7.81). In March 1981, Whitbread brewery made 300 workers redundant, followed by 200 at Kent engineering in June 1981 (Luton News, 23.7.1981). Just days after the riot the town's main employer, Vauxhall Motors, announced 2000 redundancies in addition to hundreds of jobs that had already been cut that year.
For young people leaving school there
were very few opportunities. Two weeks before the riot Jim Thakoordin,
secretary of Luton Trades Union Council and a Labour councillor, claimed that there were 'over 2,000
young people in
John Solomos (2003) has written of the ‘racialisation of the 1980-81 events' as demonstrated in press reports of ‘mobs of black youths’ in the Daily Mail and elsewhere (Race and racism in
Labour Councillor Jim Thakoordin put forward a different view, claiming that ‘police action to clear black youngsters off the streets caused some of the worst violence’ (LN 16/7/81).
As we have seen,
In the days immediately following the riots, summary justice was dealt out by the local courts. Two people were jailed, for four months and four weeks respectively, for ‘threatening behaviour’. They had been part of a group of ‘youths of all nationalities’ (the police description) which ‘threw bricks and bottles at police’. Another 17 year old was fined for the same offence, saying in a statement ‘We were just there to fight the skinheads’.
Members of the skinhead
gang also appeared in court, two of whom were jailed at a later trial. Two
skinheads, aged 18 and 19, were jailed for 3 years for 'throwing a destructive
or explosive substance with intent to cause grievous bodily harm'. One of them claimed that the police had frightened him into making an untrue statement that
he had lit a petrol bomb for his friend to throw (
In a remarkable case at St Albans Crown Court, a 21-year-old 'West Indian youth' was acquitted by a jury of 'throwing a destructive or explosive substance with intent to burn two police officers' during the Luton riots. He admitted throwing a petrol bomb but said that someone handed it to him and he had thrown it as 'a spur of the moment thing. I didn't mean to harm anyone' (LN 26/11/81). He also denied he had told police that petrol bombs were being made at the mosque.
This was one of a number of sympathetic verdicts
reached by juries in this period. In
A jury also acquitted the ‘Bradford 12’, members of the United Black Youth League, even though they admitted that they had made petrol bombs on 11 July 1981 – the same day as the main Luton riot. The jury accepted that it had been legitimate for them to do so to defend their community against the threat of racist attacks.
The Luton Community Defence Committee
At a hearing at Luton
Magistrates Court on the Monday after the riot, CDC members complained from the
public gallery that the police had not allowed parents to see their children in
custody and that those arrested had only been allowed to see duty
solicitors. Sibghat Ali, a solicitor
‘involved with the legal aspects of the Brixton and Bristol riots’ was in court
and was described as ‘A legal representative of the newly-formed Luton
Community Defence Committee’ (‘Police Kept Children From Us’ Claim,
The first public
meeting of the Community Defence Committee was held at
Despite this there was general support for continuing with the CDC with the objectives including ‘To defend all victims of racism’ and ‘to provide advice, information and assistance in terms of legal advice, financial and moral support to all victims of racism’. The following week a steering committee meeting was held with '40 representatives of most the major ethnic minority groups and youth and political organisations’(LN 20/8/81). While some other defence committees were primarily focused on those arrested in the riots, the Luton committee had a broader remit in promoting community defence against racism in all forms.
The formation of the
CDC incensed John Carlisle MP who called for the group to be prosecuted under
the Race Relations Act for being ‘racially biased’ and planning to compile a
dossier of racist attacks in the town (LN 27/8/81).
On 30 July 1981, the
Luton Youth Movement held its own post-riot public meeting at the International
Centre.in Old Bedford Road. There were a couple of speakers from the Brixton
Defence Committee, including Monica Morris who called the Brixton riot 'a
legitimate uprising against police harrassment' (LN 6.8.81). Another speaker
talked about the case of Richard Campbell, a black youth from Brixton who had died in custody in the previous year. John Gardner of Luton Labour
Party also spoke. The meeting agreed to picket
The question of whether a black-only
defence committee (as set up in Brixton) should be established in
On 3rd October 1981
The meeting heard reports of continuing racist attacks in the area. Mr Bhim Dookie, originally from
Members of Luton Youth Movement participated in the CDC and its steering committee, and in some ways its formation can be seen as a reaction to the earlier activities of the LYM and to the summer riots – events that galvanized the older activists of established community organizations to take a more militant stance. At the same time, the formation of the CDC threatened to drag militant anti-racism back into the internecine feuds of the local Labour Party and Community Relations Council which the LYM was partly a reaction to in the first place. The difference of approach was shown in the aims of the organizations – as well as offering defence and support to ‘victims of racism’, the CDC sought to ‘To liase between various ethnic groups and institutions, such as the police, young people, local authorities, the community relations council and Government agencies’ (LN 20/8/81). Some of its leadership saw it as having a role in mediating with the authorities rather than confronting them.
The LYM on the other hand had a generally more militant approach. As Fahim Qureshi of Luton Youth Movement has recalled, ‘young people had enough of seeing their parents cowed down and they said enough was enough… We used to go and sit with families.... We had self defence vigils in family homes’ and would go outside and confront racists who were harrassing people in their homes. The LYM was part of a network of similar movements across the country and 'We worked closely together especially after the riots’ (Fahim Qureshi interview with Taj Ali, youtube, 2020 - see below). Coaches bringing Asian youth movement activists from Southall and East London would stop off in Luton and pick up people on their way to picket courts in support of the Bradford 12, and Luton activists travelled down to Brick Lane to support their East London counterparts opposing racists there - the area was notorious for its National Front paper sales and associated violence.
|The Luton Youth Movement are listed in this list of supporters of the Bradford 12 - a who's who of radical movements from that period|
The Luton Youth Movement continued into 1982, when it was involved in protests after a pig’s head was left at the local mosque, but it seems to have faded away soon afterwards. Youth Movements tend to be short lived by their very nature, as members grow up, move away or move on to other things. LYM never reached the size or maturity of some of the other youth movements of this period, some of which for instance published their own magazines, but it was a significant chapter in an important national movement (see Black Star: Britain's Asian Youth Movements by Anandi Ramamurthy, 2013, for more on this).
The British Movement
In the weeks after the riot, the far right British Movement stepped up its activities in
I remember going to Bedford on 1 August to oppose a rumoured BM plan to put a wreath on the war memorial as an alternative to their banned demonstration. Our van was stopped at a police road block outside
Two weeks later, the British Movement announced a plan to march in
Many of the BM claims were undoubtedly hot air, but their supporters were still a real threat. On 1 August, youths with British Movement sympathies threw a petrol bomb into an Asian family home in
It is doubtful whether the British Movement actually had the capacity to organise significant demonstrations in
'Under heavy manners': Crisis culture
While it is possible to reconstruct events from memories and newspaper clippings, it can be more difficult to recapture how people were thinking. One feature of the ‘structure of feeling’ of this period was a generalized sense of crisis. Aspects of this crisis culture were evident in everything from political discourse to popular music. The economic crisis was real enough, as shown by the rise in unemployment discussed above, and this was reflected in a range of responses across the political spectrum.
On the right, politicians had invoked the spectre of crisis throughout the 1970s, to articulate a sense of the British way of life being threatened by an enemy within of strikers, Irish republicans, migrants, radical students and other malcontents . This sense of unraveling of the social fabric informed some responses to the riots themselves – Luton Tory Council leader Vivian Dunnington blamed the violence on the ‘general deterioration of society’ (Luton News, 16 July 1981).
On the left, there was a sense that new forms of authoritarian policing and racism were paving the way for some kind of quasi-fascist ‘crisis state’. For instance, Stuart Hall and the other authors of ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain’ (1982) argued that ‘the construction of an authoritarian state in Britain is fundamentally intertwined with the elaboration of popular racism’ in the context of ‘the organic crisis of British capitalism and race’. The sense that the racism of the far right National Front was now being taken up by the Conservative Party had been heightened by Margaret Thatcher's remarks in 1979 about Britain being 'swamped by people with a different culture.'
Another ingredient of this culture of dread was the overarching threat of nuclear destruction, prompted by a heightening of Cold War tensions and giving rise to the rebirth of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Luton branch of this was very active and coachloads from the town went to London in October 1980 for the huge ‘Protest and Survive’ demonstration.
Imagery of social contradiction and collapse was at the heart of punk (Luton’s main punk band were called UK Decay), with an apocalyptic language borrowed from reggae and rastafarianism. In 1979 The Clash covered Willie Williams ‘Armagideon Time’, and The Ruts sang of ‘Babylon’s burning’. The phrase that summed up this sense of crisis more than any other was ‘under heavy manners’, coined in Jamaica during the violent political conflicts of the 1970s and popularized in Britain by The Clash and subsequently Rock Against Racism. The peak period of RAR was passing by 1981, but some people from Luton attended the big RAR carnival in Leeds on 4 July, just a week before the riot, where the Au Pairs, The Specials and Misty in Roots played. I saw the latter play at Luton Recreation Centre on a snowy night in January 1981 - the UK reggae band had been involved in the anti-National Front demonstration in Southall in 1979 where anti-fascist Blair Peach had been killed. Music was a key means by which anti-racist struggles circulated and a sense of a national and indeed international movement was created and sustained.
Famously, the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ was the number one record in July 1981, providing a suitable soundtrack for the riots with its depiction of urban dereliction and its cry of ‘people getting angry’. For Paul Gilroy, writing immediately after the riots, the Two Tone movement of which the Specials were part prefigured the movement of July with its ‘self-conscious anti-racist politics’ and its impact of African Caribbean culture on white youth; it also encapsulated ‘youth’s own perceptions of economic crisis and the consequent crisis of social relations’ ('you can't fool the youths ... race and class formation in the 1980s', Race & Class, Autumn 1981).
In the aftermath of the riots, Socialist Worker reproduced a photo of a banner from 1908 stating flatly ‘work or riot, one or the other’ with the caption ’73 years on – the same fight’ (SW 18.7.1981). Earlier in May 1981, the TUC organized People's March for Jobs from Liverpool to London passed through Luton, met by 2000 local people in the pouring rain, an attempt to resurrect the spirt of the 1920s/30s hunger marches.
The movement of riots can certainly be seen as a kind of reaction to mass unemployment, not in the narrow sense of demanding jobs, but as an angry response by young people to their situation as a 'no future' generation condemned to the dole queues or low-paid work. In his reflections on the riots, A. Sivanadan argued that: ‘Nowhere have the youth, black and white, identified their problems with unemployment alone… There is a different hunger – a hunger to retain the freedom, the life-style, the dignity which they have carved out from the stone of their lives’ (A different hunger: writings on black resistance, 1982). Another response was summed up in the title of an anarchist pamphlet published after the Brixton riot: ‘we want to riot not to work’.
Whatever the underlying causes, the spark for the Luton riots was undoubtedly the presence of far right skinheads and mobilising to oppose this, in a similar pattern to the Southall riots. This differed from the situation in some areas such as Brixton where the rioting was more of a direct response to policing. In both scenarios it was racism that was key, whether coming from the National Front, the British Movement, or the police.
|Luton features on this riot map on cover of ‘Like a Summer with a Thousand Julys’, a situationist-influenced account of the 1981 events that declared that ‘the UK is tripping down the primrose path to social revolution’.|
|Report of the Luton riot - Socialist Worker, 18 July 1981|