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.