Rearranging the ‘social kaleidoscope’?: Looking back at the 1981 Moss Side ‘disturbances’

Leaflet produced by members of the community in Moss Side following the arrest of a youth worker in which he sustained injuries, probably from 1982 (Elouise Edwards collection, ref GB3228.5/3/11)

In an article published in 1982, academic Clive Unsworth borrowed a phrase used by Lord Scarman in suggesting that the 1981 uprisings have resulted in ‘rearranging the social kaleidoscope’, highlighting the polarising debates on the intersection of ‘race, class and generation and bringing them sharply into view to the wider majority. But what prompted the disturbances that occurred 30 years ago? And have we really moved on that much? In the first of two articles on the Moss Side disturbances, using the AIU RACE Centre’s Elouise Edwards Collection, Claire Fox (academic director of the AIU RACE Centre), explores whether the ‘social kaleidoscope’ remains more static than rearranged.

[Please note: In this piece we use the term global majority communities. By this we mean Black, Asian, people of colour, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Often labelled as minority in the UK, global majority communities represent 80% of the world population,  something we hope to highlight by moving on from terminology such as Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME).]

The uprising of Moss Side had an air of inevitability about it, following hot on the heels of the disturbances in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. These places were characterised as being sites of high unemployment (particularly among the young people living in inner city areas), poor housing provision, a lack of investment in the area, and high racial tensions, with little positive effort being made to rectify these situations. Taken together, these factors combined to create a maelstrom of discontent. At the heart of the Moss Side uprising were the actions and perceptions of the Greater Manchester Police within the community, coupled with the Thatcher government’s authoritarian law and order agenda.

The Moss Side locality had a reputation, like others affected by disturbances, for high levels of crime and hostile policing activities. It has been well documented that the policing during this period of global majority communities, particularly those from less privileged neighbourhoods, was fraught with explicit and more subtle forms of discrimination.

The very reputation of Moss Side as criminogenic – a high crime area – was repeatedly and vociferously challenged and denied by the Moss Side Defence Committee, the organization set up to support those who were subject to unwarranted police attention and to provide an opposition to such policing tactics, who called this ‘the myth of Moss Side’.

Such assumptions about the area were intrinsically linked to the responses from the police and from government to the widespread frustrations and dissatisfaction expressed by residents within the area. These attitudes also, arguably, ensured that other approaches, ones that promoted the idea of policing by consent, community engagement and the accountability and transparency of police actions, were made unobtainable, deepening the distrust of the police by local people.

The Stop and Search laws of the time (known as the ‘SUS’ law) gave the police the discretionary power to stop, search and, if deemed necessary, arrest individuals on suspicion of loitering with an intention of committing an offence, in breach of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act (1824). This dated legislation was from another era – used in the wake of the Napoleonic wars – but was revitalised and increasingly used in areas with a high number of global majority residents.

As the Institute for Race Relations pointed out in its 1979 submission to the Royal Commission on Policy Procedure, the level of discretion awarded to the police made contesting any stop, search and subsequent arrest ‘virtually impossible to rebut’. The powers were increasingly and disproportionately used against global majority populations in London and other inner city areas, culminating in the Metropolitan Police’s enacting of the heavy-handed stop and search approach named ‘Operation Swamp 81’.

It was also seen as provocative and inciting more trouble, through tactics such as ‘swamping’ – whereby large numbers of police flood an area – that antagonized an already angry and disaffected community. Repeated claims that police officers goaded and hurled racist abuse at Black people in the Moss Side area were dismissed by Chief Constable James Anderton but can be found in various accounts of the time. The tension within the area was further fuelled by the circulation of rumours and the cyclical process of claim and counter-claim that was going on between the police and various community groups and individuals. The continuing excessive and unwarranted harassment of black people, especially young men, by the police, ostensibly through invoking the ‘SUS’ laws, was recorded and highlighted by the Moss Side Defence Committee, prompting additional demonstrations.

Press release by the Moss Side Defence Committee on the report of the Hytner Enquiry, 13 October 1981 (Elouise Edwards collection, ref GB3228.5/3/1)

Previous disturbances, notably in Toxteth, Liverpool, had served to justify a strengthening of near-paramilitary police tactics to quell crowds, through the use of CS gas and riot gear. With the rise of policing tactics, such as the increased stop and search of ‘suspect populations’ and other strong-armed approaches, which have been likened to those used in Northern Ireland at the time (see Peplow, 2019), the law and order focus on these uprisings was undeniable. The approach to policing and controlling the ‘riots’ was noted by the Home Secretary of the time, William Whitelaw, to be a ‘conspicuous success’. Following the publication of the Hytner Report, the government commissioned enquiry into the Moss Side disturbances, the view that the Chief Constable’s actions should be endorsed was seen by the Moss Side Defence Committee as ‘scandalous’. For the Committee, the Hytner Report ‘evaded the main issues….[and] failed to positively identify the existence of contact harassment of youths by police’, although the Scarman report, published in November 1981, found that the tactics used in Operation Swamp were ‘unwise’ and that the ‘ill considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions’ and behaviours of some officers were a contributory factor in the riots. Whilst the presence of racial tensions was identified, the report fell short of pointing to the existence of ‘institutional racism’ within the police, preferring instead to label it as ‘unwitting discrimination’. Furthermore, the view of the police as ‘the oppressive arm of a racist state’ was dismissed as ignorant and grossly unfair, particularly on senior officers. The ‘hard-policing’ tactics witnessed during the Moss Side riots and elsewhere were, Scarman stated, a necessary part of the policing toolkit, albeit alongside ‘softer’, more community-focused forms of policing that he recommended be implemented. Although the report was openly accepted by Whitelaw, it was largely ignored by the Thatcher government. It was not until 1999 that the Macpherson Report, in reviewing the policing operation in the wake of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, identified the existence of ‘institutional racism’ within the Metropolitan Police.

Press release by the Moss Side Defence Committee regarding serious injuries sustained by four Black people during a stop and search incident, September 1982 (Elouise Edwards collection, ref GB3228.5/3/2)

The Sus law was repealed and replaced by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984), which changed the threshold for the grounds to stop and search to ‘reasonable suspicion’. This still allowed police officers a significant amount of discretion and it is unsurprising, particularly with the extension of such powers extended in later years (notably in 1994 with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act), that the targeting of Global Majority communities persisted.

The occurrences in Moss Side, and elsewhere in the country, had a long-lasting impact upon the policing of disturbances that can still be felt to this day. The use of riot equipment and of the tactics of ‘hard’ policing, including the use of ‘snatch squads’ and dispersing crowds by driving a police car at speed into the gatherings, that were influenced by the actions of the armed forces in Northern Ireland was something of a watershed moment in the policing of protests and riots. Thatcher’s confidence that those involved in the policing of the 1981 summer disturbances acted ‘superbly’ and the actions of the judiciary were both impartial and fair bolstered Thatcher’s austere law and order policies. From the Conservative Government’s perspective, the blame for the disturbances lay with a criminal minority who were out of control and who required the heavy hand of the law and its defenders – primarily the police – to proactively suppress what was labelled as mindless disorder.

Concerns over the (mis)use of police powers have not been confined to this era and there is ample evidence that has shown how discrimination has underpinned – and continues to do so – the policing of Global Majority communities, with stop and searches of Black people said to be more than 9 times higher than that of white people, and Black people being 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched under section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which allows police to use this tool without any basis in ‘reasonable suspicion’, bolstering their discretionary powers. The far more neglected ‘stop and account’ provision, which allows police to stop and question a driver on their actions, contained within the Road Traffic Act 1988 has been shown to also be focused disproportionately on young black men. Worryingly, the justifications for stopping vehicles and the provisions in place for ‘on-the-street’ stop and searches under PACE are absent. Neither ‘stop and accounts’ or vehicle stops have to be recorded or reported.

Despite warnings of the strain that these racial disparities are placing on police and community relations, there has been little evidence of alternative approaches being used. The allegations of disproportionate use of stop and search powers against Global Majority populations have been contested by the police, who point to the higher population of Global Majority people within the Greater London area, which has unfairly skewed the national figures; an argument that has been disputed by many who view these figures as evidence that racism – unbiased or otherwise – underpins much of today’s policing activities.

Whilst it seems naive to discount or minimize the impact of ‘race’ on these disturbances, this is what happened – the framing of these events was focused on the lawless Black youth in conflict with the police and their actions. As the second part of this post will discuss, there were several motivations for this framing; motivations which haven’t necessarily disappeared.

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