Black History Month: The 1981 Brixton Riots

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WATCH: 'We felt that we didn't belong' Alex Wheatle tells his story of the Brixton Riots

October is Black History Month in the UK and it's been celebrated nationwide every year for nearly 40 years.

As a part of the celebration, many people choose to learn more about black history and go to special events to celebrate black culture.

They often do research into big important events that affected a lot of people so Newsround's been looking back too.

To 1981 to be exact - a time where racial tensions meant that many of Britain's inner cities were divided.

That's when big fights called riots started, first in Brixton but then they quickly spread to many cities across the UK.

Rioting in Brixton 1981
What were the Brixton Riots?

In April 1981, big fights began between some black people and the police in Brixton in London.

For three days, rioters - mostly young black men - fought with police, attacked buildings and set fire to cars. These fights became known as the Brixton Riots.

The damage came to an estimated £7.5 million.

Brixton Riots 1981PA Media
Why did people riot?

Many felt the country was divided, there was high unemployment, racial tension and in many places the country's black population had poor relationships with the police.

Many young black people believed that police officers treated them badly, unfairly and used the 'stop and search' law as one of the ways to do it.

Under this law, the police could stop anyone to search them if they thought they might be planning to commit a crime.

Many black people involved in the riots felt that they were being targeted for these searches just because of the colour of our skin.

Award winning author and lecturer Alex WheatleAlex Wheatle
Award winning author and lecturer Alex Wheatle

One person who was involved in the Brixton riots is award-winning author and lecturer Alex Wheatle.

He has been telling us about the riots from his point of view.

Almost 40 years ago, Alex was a teenager in Brixton where he took part in what was happening.

He was arrested for the part that he played in the riots and spent six months in prison.

Speaking about being arrested, Alex said: "It was the lowest point of my life, because I spent nearly all my life in a children's home, so to see the prospect of going to prison, it felt like my dreams had been crushed.

"I had brushes with the police and suffered racist intimidation, so all those bad feelings and experiences I had against the police came out on that weekend."

Riot Police and Alex WheatlePathe/ BBC
Riot police and Alex Wheatle

"I was a young angry man and I didn't think of the consequences of my actions."

Alex used his time in prison to educate himself through reading. He became an author and wrote many award-winning books.

He also goes into schools and teaches children about creative writing, what it was like being in care, and encourages kids to read in order to take every opportunity to do well in life.

burnt-out-pub-in-brixton.Getty Images
A burnt out pub in Brixton 1981
What happened after the Brixton riots?

After the riots, there was a public investigation into why the riots happened, carried out by Lord Scarman.

He produced a report in November 1981 which said there was "no doubt racial disadvantage was a fact of current British life".

But that "institutional racism" did not exist in the London's Metropolitan police force.

Reflecting on what happened in the 1981 riots, Alex told Newsround: "For us who experienced it, we saw it as standing up to a racist police force.

"After these events we believe that finally society began to start listening to us and to our concerns.

"For the first time black people like myself became leaders of councils, Politicians and community activists.

"I believe that these riots sent a stern message to government, telling them that they can no longer treat diverse communities so badly."