“You can’t organise a riot”: racism, riots and arrests in 1981

John Bradbury


In memory of John “Brad” Bradbury of the Specials who topped the charts with Ghost Town whilst Britain burst into flames of riots and racism in 1981 – Colin Revolting remembers how anti – racists danced to the Specials and fought against racism and unemployment. 


A fire at a house party in New Cross kills 13 teenagers. They are all black and it is believed to be a racist petrol bombing.



With some members of my band, I move into a squat on New Cross Road, the same street as the burnt out house. The fire building stands as a monument to the teenagers, the bricks blackened above the gaping holes where the windows were.

On the first evening I go out to make a phone call. New Cross Road is eerily quiet. The pavements are empty, parked in the side streets there are green coaches packed with coppers, and though I check all the red phone boxes along the mile long road the phone-lines are all dead.

Back at the house the TV reports, “The arrest of a black man has led to hundreds of youths rampaging through the streets of Brixton in south London for a second night.”

July 3rd-5th

A hot weekend.

Friday night.

Thames Polytechnic Cellar Bar

I am part of the Woolwich Right To Work Campaign. There’s about fifteen of us, we are all between 16-22. Our claim to fame? A month ago we managed to get over a thousand pupils to stream out of their secondary schools and join a march against unemployment in the town centre. The march ended with kids racing round the streets after one of our group was hauled off to the police station.

The march was the result of a lot of leafleting and arguing at the gates of the local secondary schools. Our group doubled in numbers after that march. I’m actually working at the moment but my big brother – the driving force of the group – makes sure I’m involved.

Our other way of agitating amongst local youth is organising gigs. My band play at most of them, but tonight we have persuaded two of the other local punk bands to play under our Right To Work banner.

Convincing them was difficult because the local punk scene is heavily influenced by a gang of Nazi skinheads. Tonight’s bands would never play for Rock Against Racism, but we’re hoping to win their crowd away from the Nazis by uniting around our mutual hatred of unemployment, shitty jobs, crap government and the police.

While we are hoping to see lots of punks and skinheads turn up for tonight’s gig, we fear the appearance of the Nazi skins. Last year they attacked hundreds of blacks queueing for late night Kung Fu films at cinema round the corner – in court the attack was described as a “serious, organised and premeditated riot”.

Knowing that their notorious leader was recently jailed for four years for “incitement to racial hatred, assault and affray” makes me feel a little less nervous, but not much.

Nazi gang leader jailed

As 7.30 becomes 8.30 almost no one has turned up for the gig. To a virtually empty dance floor the DJ announces, “At Number One in the charts, Ghost Town by The Specials…”

This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

Why must the youth fight amongst themselves?

Government leaving the youth on the shelf

Sitting in the hot sun on the steps outside the venue the band’s crop-haired bass player explains that a load of their crowd have gone over to Southall to see the 4-Skins play and the rest don’t like coming to Woolwich. The 4-Skins are the favourite band of the Nazi British Movement skins.

The venue they are playing is the Hamborough Tavern – my band was booked to play there last week. We trekked across London only to be turned away when the publican cancelled our gig. That pissed us off. “I hope they wreck the place,” I say.

The conversation turns to racism. It starts okay, “You’ve got to respect the blacks,” he says, “they don’t take no shit – those Brixton riots, they hammered the police…”

“Black men got a lot of problems but they don’t mind throwing a brick” (White Riot, The Clash)

Where our conversation breaks down is when the bass player goes on, like so many others, to slag off Asians. Our small RTWC group includes a couple of black kids and one Asian. Whilst we are arguing we have no idea what is happening at the 4-Skins gig in Southall – I wish we did…

“As 200 skinheads converged on the area, local Asians were racially abused, windows were smashed, racist graffiti daubed on walls and Nazi slogans were shouted. Local Asian youths took to the streets to protect the community with bricks and clubs. The publican called for protection and the police formed a cordon around the pub, and deployed riot shields. But clashes only intensified as the police attempted to disperse the crowd. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was incinerated. 87 police and 27 civilians were injured.”


With the let down of the gig only me and Tich, who’d come down from Luton to help out, get up in time for the coach to Leeds. With a load of students and other anti-racists we chug up the A1 to the Northern Carnival Against Racism.

I’m nearly 21, I’ve had boring office jobs, I’ve had a dose of the dole, I’ve sung on a record and run a fanzine, I recently went for an interview at for a Media course at Walsall Poly but they didn’t want me, despite my mohican haircut and white suit. What’s left to do? I’m losing faith in my band getting anywhere…

This place is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

At least today should be good.

RAR carnival leeds 1981 poster

A black and white band singing sharp-as-a-knife anti-racist songs at Number One. The Specials are brilliant and irresistible for dancing to. They are what those of us putting on Rock Against Racism punk/reggae gigs have only dreamed about.

The Specials

As one of Leeds RAR says, “A group of about 20 of us – including five, like myself, who were teenagers – decided that we were going to put on a massive carnival. We phoned up The Specials and they agreed to headline. We had no money, but we had loads of credibility and support – and we put everyone to work. Every night gangs of kids would head out in our van and cover the city in posters, and during the day we’d be leafleting schools and colleges.”

Like the previous RAR/ANL Carnivals, today starts with a march from the city centre to a park in an ‘immigrant’ neighbourhood, this time, Chapeltown.

Compared to the first two carnivals in London, this is a much more mixed crowd, both black and white and male and female. Tich even spots another Asian kid in the distance… its only when we walk over to him that I realise it’s Tich’s brother. They talk excitedly about the Asian youth chasing the Nazi skinheads out of Southall…

We’re gonna chase those crazy baldheads out of town… (Bob Marley)

Then Tich’s brother tells us, “Liverpool is burning as well. There was a riot last night in a place called Toxteth.”

…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. (Chris Harman, ISJ).

Photo of Northern Carnival black and white fans. credit Syd Shelton
Photo of Northern Carnival black and white fans. credit Syd Shelton

All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead…

The whole park is bouncing around to The Specials. But in the middle of their brilliant set, Tich and me have to drag ourselves out of the sweaty crowd just in time for the coach back to London. We can hear Ghost Town in the distance as we leave the park.

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang as the music played in any boomtown

This town is coming like a ghost town

Our coach trundles along the A1 at 30mph and within an hour coaches full of people who have seen the whole gig soon over take us. “They’ve given us an old banger,” says the student union President.

Coaches loaned for ANL counter marches are prone to attack. Nazis specialise in turning up at the ANL meeting-points and smashing the coach windows with bricks and pick axe handles – so coach companies drag out their old wrecks for occasions like today.

By midnight we’re still crawling along the A1. Meanwhile…

In Toxteth, on Saturday night 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.

The Guardian 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 on Saturday night. ‘By then as many whites as blacks had joined the rioting”.

With the area clear of police, “there was an assumption that anyone who was not police would help themselves’ in the wholesale looting of shops. Of the rioters, ‘fewer than 40% were black’. The deputy chief constable, Peter Wright, made it clear that ‘at the savage climax of the trouble, the rioters were mostly white.”

It is almost impossible to sleep with the grinding noise of the coach and the grumbling of the SU President who has a ticket for a flight to Greece leaving at 9am in the morning.

The coach finally reaches South Bank Polyechnic at 7am.

Woolwich RTW are going to protest at the Henley Regatta today but I can’t stand the thought of another coach.

About 10.30am Tich bursts into my bedroom. “The coach is outside.” My brother has brought it to my door, hoping that me and some of my squat-dwelling mates will come.

I’m the only one who does. The coach is only a quarter full.

“Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers…”

There’s only a fifteen of us but they are singing our favourite song, about a bloke called Harry Roberts in prison for murdering three policemen.

“Let him out to kill some more, do us all a favour.”

I can’t sleep. The recent film The Warriors comes to mind, it’s about what would happen if the different warring gangs of youth came together to defeat the police…

the-warriors poster-1

As soon as we arrive at the Henley Regatta things aren’t looking good. Last year the protest was called by the National RTWC and 200 of us invaded the regatta in our orange hi-vis jackets.

This year, apart from the 15 of us, there’s about another ten who call themselves the Cockney Reds – left wing Man United fans.

There’s not many of us as we set off across the bridge, but we’ll make up for that with volume… We sing and make ‘tosser’ signs at the Tory boaters in their straw hats and blazers,

“Wanky wanky wanky Tories…”

I’m grabbed from behind and frogmarched towards a police lorry. “Alright, alright,” I complain, “I’ve been nicked before…” Stupid bravado that I will later regret.

Within a minute I am stuck in a sweat box in the back of the police lorry. They have taken all my possessions including my glasses. The white box is like a tiny toilet cubicle, so small I can’t stand up or turn round. There’s a little window but its heavily frosted.

Doors open and close. They’ve arrested someone else. It’s 16 year old Pete. He doesn’t give his real name – two reasons, his dad’s a copper and he’s on the run from Detention Centre. They put him in the sweat box next to me. We don’t talk about what we were arrested for in case the cops are listening. “Did they take your possessions?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers, “3 plastic bags and a matchbox with my pet caterpillar in.”

The bags are for glue sniffing. “What’s your caterpillar called?”

“Harry Roberts,” he replies. That cheers me up.

About an hour later we are released, and met by big brother. Our friends had refused to leave town until the cops let us go. On the coach home we briefly swap stories. The march didn’t get any better. Arresting us had the desired effect and no one else wanted to step out of line. “You can’t organise a riot,” my brother says and looks disappointed.

I fall asleep thinking about The Warriors film. The cops are not just the most powerful gang but they have back-up and resources that won’t be broken by all the gangs of kids uniting against them. It’ll take more than that.

Though tired the others are soon singing and laughing on the coach home. It’s alright for them – I have to get up for work in the morning. What a weekend.

Toxteth continues to burn and riots break out across Britain over the following week.

On Thursday we even get a taste in Woolwich. On police instructions, schools close early, shop windows are boarded up and rumours spread that the local Nazi skins are coming to attack the ANL meeting in the Sikh temple. A friend and me go by bus, but the bus is instructed not to enter Woolwich and we have to walk into town. The streets are deserted.

The ANL meeting is packed with 300 people listening in a tense calm – we leave after 5 minutes. We spot some kids (including a couple of familiar faces) trying to overturn a car – it’s not easy. But the police report confirms they managed it…

“Statistics from the Met’s ‘R’ district (Woolwich) showed that 37 people had been arrested in Woolwich, with four minor injuries to police, 8 windows broken and two cars overturned.”

Later that summer I took a day off work to make the two hour journey to Maidenhead court. I went alone, my brother said plead “not guilty” and we’ll organise a protest for when you’re called back to court.

In the court the accusation is read out, “You were singing an obscene song and making a masturbatory gesture with your left hand” – this sounded ridiculous – I’m right-handed. There’s rules about not bringing up previous convictions but the copper stated “When apprehended he said, “I’ve been arrested before.” Stupid bravado.

I pleaded “not guilty”, and a new date was set. But as I was about to leave the building I felt alone and totally despondent. Another day off work, another expensive train journey and I couldn’t see that protesting outside the court would make much difference. I asked for the case to be heard again today, saying I’d plead guilty this time.

Back in the court the judge said, “So how do you plead to the charge of threatening words and behaviour?” Behaviour as well? That damn masturbatory gesture. All I could say was, “No one mentioned threatening behaviour…”

“How do you plead?” insisted the judge.

“Guilty,” I sighed.

I was fined a weeks wages and got a record. Not the kind I wanted.

The case was reported in some detail on Radio London that evening. It wasn’t through my band, but my singing got me onto the radio after all…


Further reading

Chris Harman The Summer of 1981: A post-riot analysis, ISJ


  1. The real enemy of all youth is poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of a decent education and a social and economic system that actively works against people of all colours from council estates and ‘humble’ origins from moving up and basically competing against the privileged who float through life and end up wealthy and affluent, regardless of what talents or lack of talent they have. We have a totally crocked system that benefits the posh, privately educated and mostly white, that directly works against everyone else, to a lesser or greater degree.


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