The summer of 1981 saw the most violent and extensive disturbances on Britain’s streets since the war. That was the press’s verdict on the week of July 3rd-11th. And for once the press was right. The barricade, the overturned police van, the milk floats driven at police lines, the burnt out cars and pubs and the looted hi-fi shops – all were something new on the streets of Britain. Above all, the novelty was symbolised in the cascades of petrol bombs. The weapon of Budapest ’56 and Watts ’65, of Paris ’68 and Derry ’69 was now the weapon of Brixton and Southall, of Toxteth and Moss Side. The sequence of riots began before 3 July – 14 months earlier, to be precise, in the St Paul area of Bristol. Police raided a black cafe and attempted to make an arrest. A crowd gathered and soon the police were retreating from the area under a hail of broken bricks. For several hours they did not dare return: shops were looted at will and buildings were burnt down. The biggest confrontation took place in Toxteth, Liverpool. It began with a relatively small disturbance the same night as Southall (3 July): the police tried to arrest a black youth who, they claimed (wrongly) had stolen the motor bike he was riding; a crowd rescued him, but another black, whose family had been subject to a campaign of police harassment, was seized. The next evening rioting erupted on a huge scale. Barricades were built with overturned cars and a builders’ compressor; scores of petrol bombs were thrown at the police; rioters donned Ulster-style masks to avoid identification. The police could not cope. The press reported, ‘the police produced a show of force sufficient to enrage the black population, but not enough to quell the riots’. The streets were barricaded again the next night. ‘By then as many whites as blacks had joined the rioting’.
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