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  • Imperial SuspectPolicing Colonies within “Post”-Imperial England
  • Nicole M. Jackson (bio)

In his final report on the 1981 Brixton disorders, Lord Leslie Scarman devoted considerable space identifying Black parental failures and “foreign cultures” as explanations for youth participation in the riots.1 For instance, speaking specifically about Black mothers, Scarman notes:

It was, and largely remains to-day, the custom for women—mothers, grandmothers, and aunts—to hold the extended family together. They offered security to the young, the old, and the disabled members of the family: and they imposed a strict discipline upon the children . . . Mothers, who in the West Indies formed the focus of the family became [in England] in many cases wage earners who were absent from the family home.

(Scarman 8–9)

For Lord Scarman, it was Black mothers who had failed, even if their perceived failures were understandable. These critiques of Black parenting in the Scarman report participate in a neat erasure of years of work by Black activists, most of whom were parents, who warned specifically that an event like Brixton might occur.

Other scholars have considered the importance of the Brixton riot in the context of restrictive immigration reforms in the late 1970s and 1980s and life under Thatcher, but in light of Lord Scarman’s response I suggest that Brixton must be considered as part of a longer historical arc.2 Lord Scarman’s denigration of Black parents to explain youth actions erases the policing of Black youth in public spaces by the Metropolitan police. The use of section four of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, commonly referred to as “sus,” was almost universally believed to have lit the match of the riot.3 This act allowed police officers to arrest a suspect based on their believed intent to commit a crime. Black activists understood sus as a petty way for police to harass them in public. Rather than deterring street crime, I argue that sus demonstrated a redrawing of the boundaries of the nation and legitimate versus illegitimate citizenry. Because the ordinance was disproportionally used against Black people, it aided in their marginalization in society and they were recast as an internal colony within the nation.

The framing of a post-imperial England ignores the policing of (young) Black bodies to isolate them from membership in the nation: an imperial act. If England had transitioned to a post imperial state, it did so through the erasure of the empire from popular memory and an attempt to quarantine Black (read here as former colonial) people resident in the nation. Black communities became colonies within the nation; and Black British youth riots anti-colonial revolts. [End Page 203]

One of the earlier instances of black revolt emerged, fittingly, at the Notting Hill Carnival. After the events of the 1958 Notting Hill riots and the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, many Black residents hoped to establish themselves in England, culturally, to aid their settlement.4 One of those avenues developed into the Notting Hill Carnival, now held annually over the August bank holiday. Even as the carnival became an important part of Black life in Britain, the neighborhood surrounding it transitioned from the working class, im/migrant neighborhood from which it emerged.5 In the mid-1960s the area was the subject of redevelopment projects that displaced poor Black families, who had lived in virtual slums at the caprices of shady landlords, and squatters.6 New single-family housing replaced multi-family dwellings, forcing migrants to move elsewhere for affordable places to live. Notting Hill’s new inhabitants, mostly White (immigrant and British-born), lacked an historical connection to the carnival and grew to resent its annual “intrusion.” By the mid-1970s the number of attendants had grown exponentially and in 1975 tension between revelers and residents reached an all-time high when organizers introduced large sound systems to play music, mostly reggae, throughout the day. This year also saw a rise in reported muggings, further frustrating local residents.

Responding to complaints from the previous year, there was an increased police presence in 1976. When an officer arrested a young man for an alleged pickpocketing incident, the carnival devolved into a two-day...


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