Linton Kwesi Johnson





ON A SATURDAY night in April 1981, I switched on my radio and heard a news report from what I took to be one of the world's hotspots. Cars were overturned, buildings ablaze and the forces of law and order in retreat. In the mind, an eerie parallel was drawn with TV pictures remembered as a kid in the late 60's from Detroit, Chicago and other faraway places.

But when the agitated radio commentator gasped that the tube station had been closed, It dawned with a tense shiver that these events were happening In Brixton – three miles away in south London – and what had cosily seemed for so long could never happen here, was happening and here.

I remember travelling around the country in the weeks that followed, sharing with the rest of the population a sense of disbelief and perverse excitement. The newspapers carried full page pics of smashed police cars and gutted buildings and made laughable predictions as to where the next riot would be. At one point I was on a London-to-Sheffield train which was delayed for several hours en route. The passengers mooted apprehensively that Sheffield must be under siege (in fact, there had been a signal failure).

Bristol's St Pauls, Brixton's Railton Road ('the front line') and Liverpool's Toxteth are now etched into the British national consciousness. With hindsight, the events which took place were inevitable. In areas that had endured years of neglect and deprivation and where the ethnic population were being subjected to an intensified police presence.

The notorious 'sus' law had been introduced (under which anybody could be stopped and searched merely on suspicion of having been involved in crime – used mostly against black youths), and was enforced with vigour and glee by the uniformed thugs of the newly created Special Patrol Group. The tension finally boiled over.

On a cold day in 1985 I walked down that same 'front line', still an evidently run-down area with a clogging greyness in the atmosphere, past a new estate entered by a road named Marcus Garvey Way, to meet Linton Kwesi Johnson in the modest offices of Race Today.

To continue reading this article and to discover many more (over 140,000 words-worth!), purchase Mick Sinclair’s Adjusting the Stars: Music journalism from post-punk London. 



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