55. The Clash – The Guns of Brixton (1979)

One more track from the Clash, and then I will force myself to move on (although it pains me to leave so many great songs about London behind.) I might add, though, that if you don’t already own a copy of London Calling, the Clash’s masterpiece from 1979, you should probably let Santa know…

Brixton is a vibrant community is south London with a substantial African-Caribbean population. You might recall an earlier post about Lord Kitchener arriving on the Empire Windrush in 1948 along with 500 other new British citizens; Brixton is where this “Windrush generation” settled, for the most part. But because Brixton has been so visibly multicultural, in recent decades it has often been the battleground where racial tensions have turned into conflicts.

Paul Simonon, the bassist for the Clash, grew up in Brixton, and was well aware of the tensions that were nearing a boiling point in 1979, as disenfranchised British youths became increasingly fed up with a system that treated them as non-entities. Particularly troublesome to them then — and now — was the power given to the British police to stop and search anyone they felt was a “suspicious” person (the “sus” law), a power that was used disproportionately against non-white citizens, who were apparently “suspicious” only because of the colour of their skin. “The Guns of Brixton” issues a call to arms for the citizens of Brixton to fight back.

The song proved prophetic. In early 1981, there were peaceful protests in London against unjust and discriminatory police practices, including a march for the “Black People’s Day of Action” that attracted a crowd in the tens of thousands. There was a minor scuffle at the event, and the organizers were arrested for inciting a riot (but then acquitted). Police responded by cracking down even harder on Brixton in the weeks to follow, sending in plainclothes officers who stopped and searched more than 1,000 “suspicious” people, arresting just 82.

On April 10, police detained a black youth names Michael Bailey, who they discovered was bleeding from a stab wound; and when they made little effort to get medical attention for him, a crowd formed and grew angry. Things escalated over the next day or two, until a full riot broke out, and eventually more than 2,500 police officers were called to the scene. Rioters were armed with bottles and bricks, and more than 300 people (299 of them police officers) were injured, 28 businesses were burned down, and more than 100 businesses were damaged and looted. Similar riots broke out over the course of the summer in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and a dozen other British cities.

The government launched a formal investigation late in 1981 and the findings were published as the Scarman Report, which found that the police were guilty of disproportionate and indiscriminate use of their stop and search powers, but nevertheless denied that there was “institutional racism” in the police force. Minor changes were made to police powers but it is not clear how much of a difference this made in practice . In 1999, another investigation determined that Metropolitan police were indeed still plagued by institutional racism; and in the wake of this summer’s riots, another investigation is underway.

But hey, on a lighter note, here are my confrères, the Arcade Fire, covering “Guns of Brixton” back in 2007 in London, with a hurdy-gurdy no less. (They’ve left the stage and are playing the audience acoustically.)

The Clash (again...)

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