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International Socialism, Winter 1983


Martin Barker & Anne Beezer

The language of racism

An examination of Lord Scarman’s Report on the Brixton riots


First published in International Socialism Journal 2 : 18, Winter 1983, pp. 108–125.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To listen to the comments that followed publication of the Scarman Report into the Brixton riots of 1981, you would be hard put to it not to think that this was a liberal, possibly radical, investigation with matching recommendations. The right thought some of the recommendations positively dangerous (the Daily Mail, for example, warned against the dangers of ‘positive discrimination’), whilst the liberal and some of the left press accepted the value of some of his demands for reforms. Comments ranged from describing the Report as ‘honest, fair and representative’, ‘courageous and innovative’, to weaker praise that, although not going far enough, the recommended improvements in police complaints procedure were a ‘major development’. Whilst it would be a misrepresentation to suggest that this was a completely unified response to the Report, there was nonetheless a remarkable degree of agreement in identifying the Report as liberal, whether to laud or castigate that liberalism.

It was consequently rather startling to read the Report in the light of our understanding of what we call the ‘new racism’, and to find it literally riddled with the language and assumptions of that racism. It is, in short, a liberal Report, but one within entirely racist parameters. This paper is an exploration of Scarman’s assumptions, and of the strategies that, apparently successfully, allowed his Report to hide its unacceptable racist face.

The first curiosity is, in fact, why the Report has been so highly praised for cogency, clarity and objectivity when to our eyes it is so blatantly racist in its assumptions. Commentators have often praised those very features which, in our opinion, ought to be giving alarm – the careless thinking, subjectivity of analysis, and un-examined assumptions that pervade it. Let the following do service as indicative examples:

1. On his first page, Scarman reports the two views he heard most frequently expressed: that the ‘disorders’ were the result of oppressive policing, and especially harassment of young blacks; and that they were in the tradition of riots in this country, where very deprived and frustrated people give vent to their feelings as a way of getting attention. Without discussion, he remarks:

I have no doubt that each view, even if correct, would be an oversimplification of a complex situation. (Para 1.4)

But on two further occasions (Para 2.30 and Para 6.39) Scarman considers the highly complicated and arguable question of ‘copy-catting’; the unclear notion that the media, in particular, may somehow stimulate imitative behaviour by showing exciting action. A sort of Brixton with a little justification today, Toxteth and the West Midlands mindlessly copying tomorrow, as the argument runs. Without discussion, and paying no heed to the complex arguments throwing doubt on this kind of simplistic explanation, he noted:

There is ... one other factor which I identified as figuring in the causation of the disorders following upon Brixton: the copycat element ... The media, particularly the broadcasting media, do in my view bear a responsibility for the escalation of the disorders ... in Brixton on Saturday 11 April ... and for the imitative element in the later disorders elsewhere. (Paras 6.38 & 9)

It appears that Lord Scarman’s dislike for too simple explanations works pragmatically, rather than as a matter of principle!

2. Scarman discusses the issue of crime statistics at some length, first quoting the available ones which suggested that crime levels were especially high in “L” District covering Brixton, noting that police evidence referred to them as “unique”. He then considers important challenges to these statistics, including a study by the Home Office itself. Senior police officers, he remarks, must obviously not act on unsatisfactory statistics, and

it would be wholly reprehensible were police policy to be moulded on the basis of unsafe statistical generalisations, giving false credibility to racial stereotypes and myths derived from simplistic assessments of data.

Yet the very next sentence simply concludes:

I do not believe that the analyses of crime available to successive Commanders of “L” District were essentially unsound, or that they had a distorting influence on the perceptions of the Commanders as to the problems of policing the area. (Para 4.15)

3. One of the major attacks levelled at the police was of consistent racist practices, authorised at a high level. Here is Scarman’s whole argument in the dismissal of the claims, many of which have been strongly backed by evidence:

The direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist. I totally and unequivocally reject the attack made upon the integrity and impartiality of the senior direction of the force. (Para 4.62)

4. One of the main lines of analysis of the background to the riots wanted to talk of ‘institutional racism’, of which the police, immigration laws and practices, the new Nationality Act and much else were part. Here is Scarman’s “considered” conclusion on this type of approach:

It was alleged by some of those who made representations to me that Britain is an institutionally racist society. If by that is meant that it is a society which knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminates against black people, I reject the allegation. If however, the suggestion is being made that practices may be adopted by public bodies as well as private individuals which are unwittingly discriminatory against black people, then this is an allegation which deserves serious consideration. (Para 2.22)

In each of the examples quoted (and they are chosen from a huge range of similar ones), a pattern of discussion emerges. An initial criticism is presented, contextualised by reference to argument, and then abruptly rejected, to be replaced by an unreservedly subjective argument by Scarman himself. ‘I do not believe’, ‘I totally reject’, ‘I have no doubt’ are typical openers to this kind of judgement. What is going on here, and where is the much lauded objectivity of the Report? Scarman is not an expert in media analysis, criminology, or political theory, so what is the basis of these peremptory judgements? It is our view that they are neither based on careful argument nor are they simply subjective failings; rather they are based on a particular variety of commonsense, and the reason why the Report has been seen as balanced and objective, rather than the mishmash of unsupported assertion and prejudice that it actually is, is due to the fact that this commonsense is so much a taken for granted in discussions of race, that it takes real effort to see the absurdity of what it claims. This is what we mean by the new racism. [1]

The Language of Scarman

In order to get inside the Report and see its organising structure, consider first the following ‘table of oppositions’ in the way the police were described, compared with the description of the black people in Brixton.





Para 2.35 ‘Some young blacks are driven by their despair into feeling that they are rejected by the society of which they rightly believe they are members ... Young black people feel neither socially nor economically secure.’


driven by despair,

Para 2.36 ‘In addition they do not feel politically secure. Their sense of rejection is not eased by the low level of black representation in our elective institutions. Their sense of insecurity is not relieved by the liberty our law provides to those who march and demonstrate in favour of tougher immigration controls and ‘repatriation’ of the blacks.

Rightly or wrongly, young blacks do not feel politically secure.’


sense of rejection,
sense of insecurity

rightly or wrongly, feel

Para 3.18 ‘Later that evening, Chief Superintendent Nicholson took a number of important decisions.’

took decisions


Para 3.19 ‘Finally, concerned at the rumours about the incident ... which had rapidly begun to circulate in Brixton, Chief Superintendent Nicholson decided to call in several leaders of the community.’



rapidly circulate

Para 3.23 ‘It has been said that they should have allowed the car ... to proceed with all speed to a hospital. I reject the criticism. The officers could properly and reasonably reach the view that it was better to await the ambulance. They had to exercise judgement in a difficult situation.’

properly and reasonably
reach the view,
exercise judgement


Para 3.24 ‘The crowd, however, thought otherwise. I doubt if this caused the officers any surprise. Distrust of police action was too common a phenomenon of life in Brixton. Had the crowd dispersed after making their protest, the sad little incident of the injured youth, its detail forgotten or distorted, would have followed many others into that limbo of the half remembered and the half forgotten from which popular attitudes and beliefs are wont to derive their strength.’


forgotten or
limbo of the half
remembered and the half imagined,
popular attitudes and beliefs

Para 3.26 ‘I am satisfied that Chief Superintendent Nicholson (for whose decisions Commander Fairbairn who was kept informed, accepted full responsibility) saw the dangers and took decisions, which, with one exception, were appropriate.’

kept informed,
saw the dangers,
took decisions


Para 3.27 ‘If not anti-police, they are against the policemen whom they see as pursuing them and harassing them on the streets.’


see as

Para 4.1 ‘Whatever the reason for this loss of confidence, and whether the police were to blame for it or not, it produced the attitudes and beliefs which underlay the disturbances.’


loss of confidence,
whether the
police were to blame or not, attitudes and beliefs

Para 4.17 ‘Commander Adams made a number of imaginative innovations ... It is unfortunate that, while successful liaison was established with the probation and social services, few of the proposed attachments to youth clubs occurred because of hostility and suspicion within the local community.’



Para 4.33 ‘I have no doubt that the style, language and contents of this (Lambeth Working Party) report succeeded only in worsening relations with the police. But I am also satisfied that it reflected attitudes, beliefs and feelings widely prevalent in Lambeth since 1979.’



Para 4.43 ‘Notwithstanding the good intentions and the efforts of Commander Adams and local leaders, the history of relations between the police and the people of Brixton has been a tale of failure. The Police Liaison Committee ... ultimately suffered shipwreck on the rock of the ‘Sheepskin Saga’ arrests. The police and others tried to salvage something from the wreck; but their tiny retrievals were blown away in the storm of distrust which reached galeforce with the publication in 1981 of the Lambeth Working Party’s report.’


storm of

Para 4.64 ‘Nor is racially prejudiced behaviour by officers below the level of the senior direction of the force common: but it does occur, and every instance of it has an immense impact on community attitudes and beliefs ... It goes far towards the creation of the image of a hostile police force, which was the myth which led the young people into these disorders.’


impact on
and beliefs,
image, myth
which led

The contrasts are striking. Consider what is happening. The police are described as concerned, seeing dangers, being informed, exercising judgement, taking decisions and accepting responsibilities; as having good intentions and making imaginative decisions; and even where there was failure, they were able to salvage retrievals. This is the language of rationality, of people who capable of acting on information, and taking appropriate decisions. Although they may make mistakes, the basis from which these mistakes were made is not itself to be doubted. It is, above all, reasonable.

Now compare this with the language used for the people of Brixton. They do not take decisions, but are the subject of rumours by which they are swayed. They do not act, but are driven into action by feelings; they feel insecure in all manner of ways; they believe and feel rather than know and act, and their activities, because so prone to rumour, are likely to end in a limbo of half remembered and half distorted attitudes. At the stroke of the magician’s pen, they disappear, not into a cloud of smoke, but into a cloud of emotions, atmosphere and feelings. This kind of language is subtly oppressive; it denies the possibility of taking stock of situations and moving from information and knowledge to positive action, purposive action. This is the language of emotion, disconnected from reasoning.

The force of these silent categorisations becomes clearer if we deliberately reverse the language for a typical paragraph. Compare these two versions of one of Scarman’s summarising paragraphs:

Para 4.67 ‘Whether justified or not, many in Brixton believe that the police routinely abuse their powers and mistreat alleged offenders. The belief here is as important as the fact. One of the most serious developments in recent years has been the way in which the older generation of black people in Brixton has come to share the belief of the younger generation that the police routinely harass and ill treat black youngsters.’


Our version: ‘Many in Brixton have come to the conclusion that the police, whether with justification or not, routinely display attitudes which make them abuse their powers, giving vent to their feelings in their treatment of people they feel to be offenders. The belief here is as important as the fact. One of the most serious developments in recent years has been the way the older generation of black people in Brixton have arrived at a clear parental judgement that the police feel they can routinely harass and ill treat black youngsters.’

It makes a difference, doesn’t it? Without altering the basic information, the respective rationality and emotionality are effectively reversed. And especially the presumption of police good sense has gone.

The test of such categories comes, of course, when they cannot easily be made to fit. What to do with police error, or illegality? Scarman, at one point, describes the illegal use of watercannon by Chief Superintendent Robinson, when under great pressure during the riot. He manages to use a language of calm, rational decision making that, if true, would make Clint Eastwood look like a hysterical schoolboy:

... considering the situation, it seemed to Mr Robinson that extraordinary measures were necessary if he was to save the situation and prevent his officers or the firemen being further injured or even killed. He took a hose from the fireman, ordered other officers to do likewise and turned the jets on the crowd. The action achieved the effect Mr Robinson desired. (Para 3.70)

Other mistakes are classed as ‘errors of judgement’, ‘unfortunate but understandable’, or the ‘result of inexperience’. Where the police act illegally, overreact or are just plain brutal, their actions are judged from this unshakeable standard of rationality.

Not so the crowds. The language of emotion predominates throughout. Only at one point does it change. In the section entitled Were the Disorders Organised? (Paras 3.101 to 5), Scarman deliberates on the available evidence, which consisted of an eye witness report that ‘grimly determined blacks’ had broken into a pub and a newsagent because they had the reputation of being anti-black and anti-gay, a police constable’s evidence that there were faces in the crowd that he did not recognise as Brixton people, and witnesses’ reports that whites had set up a makeshift bomb making factory. In all these cases, Scarman refers to the organising element as deriving from strangers, outsiders or whites; the black rioters continue to be described as spontaneous and irrational, even where clear evidence to the contrary is provided. Many have picked on this as one of the liberal aspects of the Report; however we are arguing just the opposite. By removing the possibility of planning and processes of judgement from the rioters, Scarman achieves the effect of infantilising them. They are as misguided children who, in their ignorance and simplicity, try to get their own way in a mistaken, but understandably mistaken, way. They are to be gently chided and led to better ways, and Scarman wags a fatherly finger towards the Rastafarians, reminding them that the smoking of cannabis has done substantial harm to their reputation in this country. Not only are the black people of Brixton described in a language that denies them the power of reasoning, the subject of their grievances is marginalised, not to say evaporated. In an early part of the Report, remarkably titled The Young People of Brixton: A People of the Street, Scarman expresses the view that:

The street corners become the social centres of people, young and old, good and bad, with time on their hands and a continuing opportunity, which, doubtless, they use, to engage in endless discussion of their grievances. (Para 2.11)

The people of Brixton are subject to collective emotional myths, and this is especially so for the ‘young black person who makes his life on the streets’. This was to be the earliest hint in the Report of a connection between the language of emotion and reference to a ‘way of life’, to an analysis of which we now turn.

The many meanings of ‘community’

It is vital to see exactly what Scarman is saying about the non- rationality of the people of Brixton. It is not that they are stupid, or emotional by nature; indeed in his final acknowledgements he states that he was ‘greatly impressed by the quality of the evidence received’, and there is a scarcely hidden tone of surprise that he should have come across such impressive ability to give evidence. No, the problem is not individuals; rather it is in the nature of communities in general, and this one in particular, that ideas run rife. [2]

It does not even matter whether what is believed is true. Communities are composed of beliefs, they cohere around them. Simply the Brixton community, because of its mixture of ‘street life’, its ‘exuberant youth’ and its general frustrations and poverty, was particularly prone to rumour racing. And it will prove to be very important that all communities, any community is prone to this. But first we need to look at the way Scarman uses the word ‘community’ itself. For it is pressed into very active service. No other word occurs more often, or works so hard for him, as ‘community’.

The fact is that Scarman uses the concept of ‘community’ with at least seven different meanings:

i. Para. 2.11 ‘It remains to be seen to what extent the opening of the Recreation Centre will meet the community’s needs.’


A broadly geographical meaning in terms of population and area, or sometimes neighbourhood.

ii. Para. 2.16 ‘As immigrants to a strange country, they undoubtedly experienced problems in adjusting to a different culture and way of life, as well as on occasion, hostility and discrimination from the host community.’

A main or home community which can and sometimes does meet non-members with hostility.

iii. Para. 2.26 ‘I do ... note the importance of the existence of the belief among Asian community leaders about police inaction – whether justified or not – in influencing the attitudes of members of that community towards the police.’

Ethnic minority communities, for whom all the language of feelings, beliefs, attitudes – whether justified or not – is natural and appropriate.

There are three other meanings of ‘community’ which are made explicit in the Report: community as the pattern of informal communication networks among people (see, e.g., Para 3.21), as a diverse mixture of different interest groups (see Para 4.11), and, much more importantly, community as ‘silent majority’, the ‘public opinion’ so beloved of the Press (see Para 5.56). Six meanings, then, evident. But where is the seventh? It remains hidden in Scarman, so let it remain that way here for a while. For its concealment is very significant.

Let us concentrate for now on the ethnic minority community, for it is here that one of the most important links is made with the new racism. Not surprisingly, Scarman has a lot to say about what he feels (sic) about the Brixton black community, and black communities in general. Where did they come from? They came in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the demands for unskilled labour. ‘As immigrants to a strange country’, he tells us, ‘they undoubtedly experienced problems in ‘adjusting to a different culture and way of life.’(para 2.16).

Scarman several times repeats this claim that they faced ‘difficulties of adjustment’. Certain key terms are evident here. ‘Culture’, ‘way of life’, ‘strange ‘, ‘adjustment’. Other terms are significant by their absence. ‘Work’, ‘provision of adequate housing’, ‘increase in educational budgets’... this list of absences is an infinitely longer one than that of ‘difficulties of adjustment’. Notice also how ‘demand for unskilled labour’ becomes lost as a relevant consideration of the problems, in a positive crescendo of culturally determined difficulties. The work-relation was just the initial impulse for coming; the rest is culture. ‘Culture’ is here playing a vital role. The Brixton community is its culture, its way of life.

They are a ‘people of the street’ – a remarkable description that we noted earlier. Its loaded and dangerous nature becomes apparent if we try some substitutions. Try: ‘the people of Hampstead are a people of the Heath’, or think what descriptions we would think it appropriate to attach to, say, the people of Ilford, Nottingham, or Sutton Coldfield. Or what would we mean if we described some people as a ‘people of the racing track’ or a ‘people of the public house’. The oddity of the examples show something about the nature of the claim. It is as though being ‘on the street’ is part of the personality of a Brixton dweller, the very soul of his or her being, to the exclusion of all other social, economic or political relations. [3] Such a way of defining people is worrying enough, but Scarman does not stop there, for in the same paragraph he goes on to argue that this kind of cultural personality makes for a protocriminality. Their tendency to conflict with the police is therefore almost natural, almost inherent:

And living most of their lives on the streets, they are brought into contact with the police who appear to them as visible symbols of authority of a society which has failed to bring them its benefits or do them justice. (Para 2.23)

The problem, beyond this immediate one of incipient criminality, is one of lack of understanding between main and minority cultures. We must ‘understand each other’s background and culture’ (our present situation presumably not being so important), as well as giving young blacks a thorough training in the skills necessary to ‘adjust’ them to our technological society. Black criticisms of the ways they are failed by the British education system become a matter of ‘lack of understanding by teachers of the cultural background of black pupils’, and ‘failure of the curriculum to recognise the value of the distinctive cultural traditions of various ethnic minorities.’ (Para6.16)

Notice how central ‘culture’ is becoming. It is not a mere pattern of preference, a way of doing things, but a total determinant. So strong is this determination that when it is taken away (Scarman refers to the problems West Indian parents face, when traditional modes of discipline over their children are removed), nothing except social problems and potential criminal statistics remain (see Para 2.17). Notice, also, how increasingly adjustment is seen as a one-way process. They must adjust to ‘our’ culture. Our responsibility is to understand their ‘background’ (and indeed reflect on its marvels) so as to be able to understand the difficulties they will have adjusting to us; and we must provide resources to help them adjust to our ways.

Cultures know, or rather feel, when they are being threatened. As with the black community, so with the ‘national community’; ‘the belief is as important as the fact’. Communities, whether black minority ones or the nation as a whole, cannot distinguish between the real and the imagined. Or rather, the imagined becomes the real, and all that matters is that the community feels itself to be threatened.

We can see the force of this logic at work in Scarman. When he, repeatedly, declares that it does not matter whether or not the fears of Brixton people about police harassment are justified, it has two effects. On the one hand it marginalises their rational basis for believing it. On the other, it removes the possibility of a rational solution. The only response to such a feeling is another feeling. Since feelings are precisely what defines the community, then the only solution must be at that level: the community will have to change its attitudes. We shall see how Scarman gets to this conclusion, shortly.

The vanishing of politics

In the light of this extensive use of the assumptions of the new racism in Scarman, it is interesting to make a comparison of the following two quotations:

(i) In analysing communal disturbances such as these in Brixton and elsewhere, to ignore the existence of these factors is to put the nation in peril.

(ii) The disruption of the homogenous ‘we’ is now approaching the point at which the political mechanisms of a ‘divided community’ take charge and begin to operate autonomously.

The first quotation is in fact from Scarman, while the second comes from a speech by Powell in 1978. It is the shared concepts that are striking. The remarkable continuity of the idea of ‘communalism’ and the threat to the ‘nation’ must alert us to the other thing all these views have in common, and which is paramount to our understanding of Scarman. This is the complete disappearance of politics and of the state.

Let us be clear. It is not simply because Scarman is a judge conducting an Inquiry for the Home Office that an awareness of politics becomes submerged. It is because, by the working of the slides between different meanings of ‘community’, the concept of the state, and all that refers to it, has been enabled to vanish. For the state was, of course, the seventh meaning of ‘community’. Scarman’s inability/unwillingness to refer to it (as paymaster of the police, as main agency of social control, as creator of the succession of immigration controls, culminating in the Nationality Act) comes particularly to the fore at the climactic part of the Report.

After discussing social conditions in Brixton, and telling the ‘story’ of the disorders, he comes to deal with the issues they have raised. They are issues such as: could the police be regarded as harassing the black population? Was there prejudice in the force, etc.? Before he can cope with these questions, Scarman feels he needs to establish the ‘principles of policing in a free society’ (Para 4.55). There are two such principles – (i) Consent and balance, and (ii) Independence and accountability.

The first refers to that mediation between maintaining the ‘Queen’s peace’, preserving a ‘state of public tranquillity’; and the prevention of crime. If the latter is pursued at the total expense of the others, it can lead policemen into tactics ‘disruptive of the very fabric of society’. (Para 4.57)

The second principle also involves mediation – but between what? This is how Scarman defines his second principle:

The police must exercise independent judgement: but they are also the servants of the community. They enforce the law on behalf of the community: indeed they cannot effectively enforce it without the support of the community. The community pays them and provides them with their resources. So there has to be some way in which to secure that the independent judgement of the police can not only operate within the law but with the support of the community, (para 4.60)

So the mediation is between the community and … the community – but now which version of the community? We have noted seven meanings evident in the Report: community as state, public opinion, diverse interests, area, social organisation, host, and ethnic population. Again, by playing a substitution game, it becomes evident how important the conceptual slippage is at this point. Consider how it looks if we ask for clarification of meaning for each use of the term:

The police must exercise independent judgement; but they are also the servants of the (state, host, area, social organisation, public opinion, diverse interests, ethnic) community. They enforce the law on behalf of the (state, host, area, social organisation, public opinion, diverse interests, ethnic) community; indeed, they cannot effectively enforce it without the support of the (state, host, area, social organisation, public opinion, diverse interests, ethnic) community. The (state, host, area, social organisation, public opinion, diverse interests, ethnic) community pays them and provides them with their resources. So there has to be some way in which to secure that the independent judgement of the police can not only operate within the law but with the support of the (state, host, area, social organisation, public opinion, diverse interests, ethnic) community.

As soon as we do this, we realise the need to dissolve the concept of community into a complex of political, social and economic processes. But in Scarman’s version, the state has become merged into the other senses of community, and it is this that has allowed Scarman, among other things, to fudge completely the issue of institutional racism. The community is the state is the law which is enacted by the police on the community. In such a circle, how could there be institutional racism? The law hereby also becomes an independent, objective factor, separately constraining the police. If however, we disentangle these different meanings of community, and allow the state to re-emerge, then we can see that the police can be empowered by racist laws (such as the Nationality Act), or can be empowered to be racist (for example, by the Sus laws, and the law that is likely to replace it). That being so, we have a quite different kind of conflict among the meanings of community: between the state and the black population of Brixton.

The damage done by such conceptual slippage (or perhaps concealment would be a better term) is apparent if we examine Scarman’s notion of a police state which immediately preceded that crucial passage:

The police officer must act within the law; abuse of power by a police officer, if it be allowed to occur with impunity, is a staging post to the police state. (Para 4.60)

Notice how this definition absolves the law of any role in the construction of a police state. In Poland it was just the ability of the state to enact laws that empowered the police, that created a police state; and in this country it is the state-made laws that enable racist policies to be pursued by the police.

It is not just that Scarman has overlooked these possibilities, or even that he has hidden the state in his report. No, he has redefined it as the community’s rational face.

The eye of the storm

We have seen the police emerge as the rational opposite of emotional communities, their temporary lapses and personal prejudices being just a deviation from that unquestioned norm. So certain is this that even now, we are assured, the Metropolitan Police are devising scientific measures of race prejudice, to root out the occasional bad apple. We can therefore rely on them in the barrel-load; indeed we have to since:

They stood between our society and a total collapse of law and order in the streets of an important part of our capital. For that they deserve, and must receive, the praise and thanks of all sectors of our community. (Para 4.98)

We recognise the imagery easily; the police are an unchanging rock, ‘upon which the silent, law-abiding majority’ (a group of people, note, apparently immune to gossip, rumour, and half-formed prejudice) can depend. The police exist, as do rocks, timelessly: they are the calm weather-eye of the storms of community moods.

So it is natural that we should have a complete police-eye view of the Brixton disorders, Friday to Sunday, April 10–12, 1981. The narrative of these events (which earned praise for its clarity and lucidity from many a commentator) situates us, the readers, firmly by the police’s side from which we view the anonymous threatening ‘crowds’. (See Part III of the Report.) As in a TV detective thriller, we shadow the police as they go about competently and professionally executing their duties. Any errors they make are understandable and forgiveable, since we have been given access to the processes of their thinking; and out there is a dangerous seething mass, prone at any time to group hysteria.

Consider the police-eye view of the ‘sad, little incident’ (Para. 3.24) said to have sparked off the first day’s clashes:

At about 6.10 p.m. on the warm evening of Friday 10 April 1981, Police Constable Stephen Margiotta (PC 643L) was on duty in uniform in Atlantic Road, when he noticed that the traffic had come to a standstill. Crossing the road and walking toward the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane he saw a black youth in the road running towards him. The youth appeared to be very distressed and was apparently being pursued by two or three other black youths. PC Margiotta thought that this youth might have committed some offence and decided to try and stop him. After an initial unsuccessful attempt the youth tripped and fell and PC Margiotta fell over him. (Para 3.4)

When PC Margiotta and the youth stood up, the officer noticed that his own arm and shirt and the back of the youth’s shirt were covered in blood. The youth broke away, but stopped on the north east corner of the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane where PC Margiotta, who had been joined by another officer, PC 523L Sanders asked the youth what was the matter and the youth replied by taking off his shirt to reveal a wound some three or four inches long just below the centre of his back in between the shoulder blades. The wound was bleeding profusely. The youth was clearly distressed. He was also struggling to get away. (Para 3.5)

So the narrative begins. All our presumptions are mobilised by its seeming reasonableness. PC Margiotta, going about his normal work, ‘noticed’ something. A black youth – a ‘person of the streets’ – was running towards him, away from three others ‘chasing’ him. Naturally, PC Margiotta assumed that a black youth in a distressed state might well have committed some offence. What other motive could there be for such behaviour? Despite his distress which, it was now evident, had a physical cause (the stab wound) the youth still tried to get away despite the police’s ‘evident’ desire to help him (even if they had to fall over him and then corner him in order to convince him of this). A wise judgement by the police is in the offing.

This is all so obvious and self-evident, and the way the story is told helps to make it so. We have been well prepared to read it this way, since the whole of the preceding section of the Report has informed us of the problems of Brixton, the difficulties of adjustment West Indians face in coming here, and how they are a people fond of hanging around the streets and liable to become involved at any time in criminal activities. PC Margiotta is the epitome of levelheadedness and clear, incisive thinking in the midst of emotions and myth-living.

It is difficult to escape this understanding of the disorders, but not impossible. It could have been different, so let us make it so. Let us put the police at the centre of the narrative, but in a different way, as the problem in Part II. In this section of background information, imagine that we were informed of long standing arguments over the need for controls over the Metropolitan Police, of the difficulties of recruiting which had led over the years to the present poor quality of the recruits (requiring only four O-levels). Most of these came from educationally disadvantaged areas. The class division between these recruits and those above Inspectorate level, who came from solidly upper middle class backgrounds, was the cause of resentment and a general atmosphere of tension and hostility. (This might even be compounded by their tendency to hang around the canteen, when off duty, endlessly swapping grievances.) And so on. Let us imagine finally that the Lambeth Working Party report had been mentioned here, with its summary of prejudiced behaviour by many police against local black people. This behaviour had particularly been displayed by the white youth of the force. How might that story have looked then?

It is hard to conceive it being told any longer over the shoulder of PC Margiotta. Conceive it instead like this:

At about 6.10 p.m. on the warm evening of Friday 10 April 1981, Dave Shepherd, a young black resident of Brixton had been forced into a fight, in the course of which he sustained a knife wound. Managing to escape from his aggressors, he was making his way quickly for help when he came across three of his friends. They warned him that there were police youths about, spoiling for trouble. Ignoring their warnings, he continued down the road quickly. Mr Shepherd was in considerable pain. When he came to the road junction, he saw one of the police youths, who began running towards him. Reasoning that the youth might be about to harass him, he attempted to leave, but was grabbed and forced to the floor, with the police youth on top of him. This caused considerable further pain, and increased the flow of blood from the wound. Fearing that the police might arrest him and so delay his finding medical assistance, Mr Shepherd once again attempted to leave; but the degree of pain he was suffering forced him to pause on the north east corner of the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane. Meanwhile the first police youth had been joined by another, and together they cornered Mr Shepherd. In an effort to persuade them not to delay him, he showed them the wound in his back. Once again he attempted to leave, in order to seek the medical help he knew he urgently needed, but once again they prevented him.

The feel is different, isn’t it? Now the calm rationality of the police is not so self-evident, especially as this narrative has been preceded by the section dealing with the tensions within the police, the difficulties young officers have in adjusting, and their disadvantaged background. The obvious follow-up to this would be to explore the nature of myths and stereotypes held by the police, which could lead to such unreasonable attitudes towards a person such as Dave Shepherd.


We began by noting that the Scarman Report was received by most as a critical appraisal of the police. In fact nearly all the police’s role is assumed by the very nature, structure and language of the Report. Despite particular and rather marginal criticisms, a far larger legitimation of police powers is built into it. Not argued for, simply coming out of the organising assumptions of the Report, there is a very real authoritarianism. In our view, Anderton and McNee correctly interpreted Scarman when they said, in effect: Scarman has said the police must be independent, effective, and trusted. We, the police, are the only ones with the experience and expertise to determine what we need to be effective; therefore we may liaise with you, but if we say we need swamping operations, that is not for Scarman to say no to. He is being inconsistent with his own premises in criticising us.

The slippage in uses of ‘community’ is crucial here. And it is here that Scarman has, in a sense, added to the power of the new racism. Now ‘nation’ which, prior to the Report was ephemeral and rather softly defined in terms of traditions has acquired a very hard and positive centre. In order for the nation to survive (note the word) in the face of the breakdown of law and order, it legitimately, on our behalf and demanding our active cooperation, requires an effective, professional means of preserving the Queen’s peace. The nation, the homogenous ‘we’, the community, require the police, for they are the embodiment of rational judgement when all else is insecure. They become now the guarantors of community itself, the library of our traditions. We are too volatile for our own good; the police will save the community from itself.

Where Scarman sows, other, more sinister forces will reap. For Enoch Powell, quite consistently, the riots were evidence of the chaos he has so long predicted, if the ‘heroic measures’ of repatriation were not soon undertaken. Not surprisingly, just a few days after the riots, he welcomed them inasmuch as they might provide the spur to those heroic measures. Hear the terms in which he did so:

As towns and cities are transformed by the automatic expansion of what Lord Radcliffe once called ‘the alien wedge’, a volume of mutual fear, mistrust and resentment builds up like water filling a cistern. It is not the sum of antagonisms between individual and individual. It is collective, instinctive, human, the imperative of territory, possession and identity. (Sun, July 13, 1982)

The liberal language in Scarman is a mask to concepts that more naturally take their place in Powell’s grim future.

It is sadly ironic also that, shortly after the publication of the Report, the long awaited Home Office report on racial attacks came out. Politicians and police alike expressed grave disquiet at those horrific statistics which showed that an Asian was 50 times as likely, and a West Indian 36 times as likely to be attacked on the streets as a white person. No doubt something will be done to combat this unofficial, uncontrolled racism. Meanwhile the official version, in the form of ‘passport-mugging’ and the new Nationality Act, will continue unabated and largely unprotested. For in its institutional form, racism is rationally administered by the police and other officials of the state.

The subdued reaction to the Scarman Report, and the failure of many socialists even to recognise the racism and renewed ideology of the state it embodied, must bring into question the nature of that socialism. For Marxists, a renewed attack on reformist attitudes is not only a theoretical nicety, but an impelling political necessity. When reformist attitudes have ceded so much ground to right wing justifications of the ‘nation’ and increased state authority as witnessed by the orchestrated chauvinism of the Falklands fiasco, the spreading of a crude anti-union mentality and the legal legitimation of institutionalised racism, then the line between reformism and reaction should be recognised for what it now is – a matter of rhetoric only.


1. See in particular Martin Barker, The New Racism, Junction Books 1981. There, it is argued that since 1968 and Powell’s speeches on immigration, racism has tended to take the form of appeals to ‘British culture’ and the ‘national community’. Immigrants threaten to ‘swamp’ us with their alien cultures; and if they are allowed in in large numbers, they will destroy the ‘homogeneity of the nation’. At the heart of this ‘new racism’ is the notion of culture and tradition. A community is its culture, its way of life and its traditions. To break these is to shatter the community. These are non-rational (and indeed, in the fully-fledged version, instinctual), built around feelings of loyalty and belonging. As one of the fiercest proponents of this view put it: ‘National consciousness is the sheet anchor for the unconditional loyalties and acceptance of duties and responsibilities, based on personal identification with the national community, which underlie civic duty and patriotism.’ (Alfred Sherman, 1978).

Given the apparent strength of cultures and the way we are supposedly nothing without them, it is odd to find that they are so vulnerable. It is, of course, those dreadful ‘alien cultures’ that are so threatening. How do we know when they are likely to do such damage? Easy. When we feel our ‘genuine fears’ aroused. For communities are matters of ‘feeling’ and ‘belief. If we feel threatened by immigrants, we must be. And round and round we go.

2. Or as Scarman put it in explaining to a reporter the results of his visit to Brixton at the opening of his inquiry: ‘I’ve learnt something that I have known all along, that blacks and whites can get on perfectly well as individuals; it is when they get together in groups, and the herd instinct takes over, that the trouble starts.’

3. An article by David Lamb very usefully considers the politics of such uses of the idea of culture in the context of anthropology. See Lamb: Preserving a Primitive Society, Sociological Review 1977.

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