December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

SUS law – a cause of the 1981 riots

2 min read
The stop and search SUS laws were based on the Vagrancy Act of 1824 and caused massive resentment among black youth in the 1980s
SUS law

You have to wonder how a law passed in 1824 to deal with rough sleepers, many of whom were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, came to be associated with the harassment of black youth in the 1980s. But the Vagrancy Act was the basis for the stop-and-search police powers known as SUS in London that fuelled the the 1981 Brixton riots.

The SUS law did impact black people very heavily. Nobody denied that. Community organisations and others said it was indicative of a police force in London that had too few BAME officers and was shot through with institutional racism.

The Metropolitan Police – back in 1981 – claimed rather provocatively that certain crimes were more prevalent among young black people. Comments were made by senior police officers in the early 1980s that would completely unacceptable now.

DISCOVER: The Manchester riot of 1981

SUS law and other police action causes resentment

The Institute of Race Relations submitted evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure in 1979 and it painted a pretty unhappy picture. The police were accused of “overmanning” black events; raiding black clubs and meeting places and what was taken to be punitive or revenge action against black communities.

A police tactic called “fire brigade policing” – where most police officers patrolled in cars directed from a central mobile reserve – was believed to be resulting in overreactions to minor events in black areas.

FIND OUT MORE: Shocking racism in the early 1980s

The West Indian/African Association in Deptford was one of many organisations that campaigned to scrap SUS. There were meetings between the black community and police liaison officers but nothing ever seemed to be resolved.

2 thoughts on “SUS law – a cause of the 1981 riots

    1. Hi – Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been mad busy with work lately. The leaflet I got in Brixton in 1981. I’ll need to find it but I think it was a local, Deptford based community group. It was just a photocopied leaflet as they often were back then. Tony

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