81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance event image

The Brixton Uprising – 40 years on

When the black community rose up in Brixton in 1981 they didn’t simply throw petrol bombs at the police – they hurled them into the very heart of a British society indifferent to cries for justice and equality.

During three days in April, South London exploded. The consequences would resonate across the country, around the world, and down through successive generations.

Forty years later, the drivers of the Brixton ‘riots’ have still not properly been acknowledged by society at large, let alone dealt with. The global Black Lives Matter protests have recently made that plainly obvious for all to see.

This year, the 40th Anniversary of the Uprising will be marked by a unique creative collaboration in Brixton.

81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance will see the community working together with creative practitioners to recall, reflect and learn from the past. A total of 81 creative responses – spanning art, drama, music and much more will, the organisers hope, forge a unique understanding about how we can build more resilient communities in the 21st century.

It promises to be an artistic celebration unlike any other, and best of all, everybody is invited to get involved.

Charlie Waterhouse caught up with the founding brains behind 81 Acts, Chloe Osborne and Tony Cealy.

So what is 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance all about?

Tony Cealy running a workshop in Brixton Library

Tony: Not one ting can actually say what it is!

It’s a cultural heritage, arts, politics, community project. A festival, and an event that will enable everyone in the community to engage with and participate in activities that people want to debate.

It will shine a light and lift the rug up on unheard narratives around the 1981 uprisings – all done in a dynamic and fresh, colourful, vibrant way – that really is really coming from the ground-up.

Chloe Osborne

Chloe: It’s a community-led experiment, to see how we might come together across difference to mark a hugely symbolic moment in the UK’s history that has so far been undermined and undervalued. In repositioning the significance of the 81 Uprisings in disrupting the UK’s race relation politics, we might have a chance of learning, and of preventing future injustices.

It’s about working in a way that uses art as a powerful tool to disrupt notions of race, equality and equity. Art as a way of making change happen.

Creative programming is a way of getting people to stop and connect, to reconsider, it’s a chance to call for the changes they want to see happen. It’s not Art For Art’s Sake it’s art as a way of galvanising, and art as a way of catalysing.

81 Acts is being delivered in partnership with creative, civic and community organisations across Brixton – working together as a consortium. The whole collaborative approach of it is important, and why it’s going to work.

It sounds like this is not going to be just another Arts Festival. From that opening description it feels like activism using art as a metaphor, something that turns the notion of what an Arts Festival might be on its head. How else is it different from the way these things are normally organised?

Tony: Well first, ‘the acts’ are being developed by grassroots people, around their experiences. People are coming together from all walks of life, to put on something that is about them and their roots– and it’s about time. It hasn’t been done before in this kind of community way.

That’s why I feel it’s different. People want to put their perspective into it, whether that’s from an artist point of view, whether that’s from a business point of view, or a community group. To connect, and relate, and identify with many other voices – and I just think it’s a really wonderful opportunity to, you know, really shine a light. Galvanise people. To come together and make something more than just a festival.

It sounds like turning an Uprising into a Rising Up of that community.

Chloe: I think that is what we’re trying to do. To create an invitation that allows people to connect. The collective nature of this opportunity gives a strength that no individual contributor could achieve alone.

So it’s an expression of resilience?

Chloe: That’s exactly what it is… not just resilience, but also resistance.
Part of the intent of it is to help this community to come together and develop new strategies for resistance.

A real key to that experimental nature is the fact that the driving force of it is a self-organising, unconstituted group of people that represent the diversity of lived experience in Brixton. We want it to respond to the needs of our whole community, and not be just be driven by people who have most capacity to be able to move it forward. So we need to be fluid in order to be fully representative.

People contribute when they can, and when they don’t, the door is left open for them to come back at any time. And what that means is that we have contributions and insight from people who have not been involved before in community organising. Who haven’t felt comfortable in activist spaces before, and yet they feel comfortable to come to an ideas laboratory, to an exploratory session, to sit in a one-to-one conversation about what it could be, and how to make it meaningful for them and their personal network.

We already have so many voices involved, and this is just a springboard stage where we open it up and invite more people to connect.

So that idea of resilience is really key isn’t it? Could you give a couple of examples of how that resilience might manifest after 81 Acts? What does that resilient legacy look like?

Chloe: I think that one of the most important strategies of resilience is about connecting pockets of activism and community organising, so that there’s an idea of moving out of contained conversation – and silos of community organising – into a more joined-up approach. That gives us a greater power and greater collective voice to be able to stand up to the money-driven change that happens to the community, as opposed to with it.

Tony: That’s how we can kind of safeguard in a way the future of activism for Brixton. It seems that hearts are collectively coming together in sustainable solidarity.

What do you want 81 Acts to leave in the hearts of every Brixton citizen?

Tony: I think something about a refreshed view of how we think about those times. A reflection on what’s going on at the moment… witnessing this solidarity amongst Brixton, that people can be together. I think it’s an opportunity to really solidify some of those real, deeper connections across communities in a way that perhaps just hasn’t really been dug into before.

I think it gives that possibility for people to come come out the other end and realise yeah – ’81 – we are bonded, we are connected.

Chloe: I think there’s also something about going… Brixton is really fucking special.

Brixton, what it represents, its symbolism – across the whole of the UK and across Europe – needs to be preserved. And people need to be aware of the complexity of the narratives.

This is an act of reclaiming that heritage, and it symbolises what needs to happen across the whole of the UK. We believe that you can activate something like 81 Acts across Brixton because Brixton has fire in its belly in a way that other places don’t.

We think we can connect the newer generations of Brixton, who are often seen as the problem, to that radical heritage. And if we can bring them together to become part of the conversation around the solution – around resilience and around resistance – then we stand a much stronger chance of stopping the destructive process of gentrification, and of preserving the great vibrant uniqueness of Brixton.

OK. So in Brixton we call it the Uprising, but to most people it’s The Riots. What would you say to somebody who thinks it’s inappropriate to celebrate acts of violence?

Tony: I think it’s an understanding and perspective from that individual – what they believe in, and what they perceive is right for them. And who am I to challenge? I think that the challenge comes with the actual expression of the work and further debate about that expression. So maybe there’s not an answer to that question – but a start point to exploring the answer. It’s in the community voices.

Chloe: I think there is a long long history of the struggle for equality, and it hasn’t been recorded as a continuous stream because that makes it too powerful. It’s been recorded and preserved in bursts, and that makes it palatable and possible to pacify it, and we want to join up that narrative.

We want to be able to have the conversations that have been suppressed. We want to be able to think about why it is that the 1981 Uprising (or riot) is not considered valuable in the UK Civil Rights Movement.

How come the Suffragettes, the first recorded movement to use terrorist tactics are lauded as heroes of equality? That conversation is not a conversation about ‘Is violence necessary to effect change?’ because they were bloody white women. They were white women who came from privilege.

Would you say what’s happening here is the swapping out of the violence for art, because it’s just a mechanism of expression?

Chloe: It’s swapping out one mechanism for another, but being very very careful not to mainstream it. It’s not going to manifest in works of art that sit in culturally ‘approved’ spaces. It’s about disrupting public space and daily life. It’s about things bubbling up and appearing and allowing people to stumble across them and spread the word.

And in so many ways that is how activism works. People join together, and spread the word, and new people connect and it grows, and the strength of the movement grows, allowing people to connect on their own terms.

Tony: It provides that space for community debate. And we need those views to be held in safe spaces, where we can explore these questions. That’s exactly how it should be. People coming in to debate with many other voices. We need the oppressors and the oppressed in the same space.

That suggests that what puts the fire in Brixton’s belly is the ongoing tension between the polarities of our community?

Chloe: It’s a space of agonism, a space where we don’t try and pacify. We don’t try and coerce people into all having the same opinion. The idea of 81 Acts is not that everybody comes out thinking the same. The idea is that we hold up a mirror to be able to understand and explore the complexity of it.

Tony: The complexities and the contradictions as well. It’s all in that Dutch pot!

How does 81 Acts fit into the Black Lives Matter narrative, and has it changed what you are planning?

Chloe: There’s definitely something in the space that 81 Acts provides to explore the current context. In the mirror it holds up to all the initiatives that have been created since 1981 that have aimed to improve relationship between the community and the police. There’s something important about making a space to learn from what hasn’t worked, to create strategies that might work better now, rather than blindly going into the same fights with the same weapons.

Tony: A chance to go ‘what if?’ You know, ‘what would it look like?’ And we can create that I think, we can create what it might look like, and test it and probe it.

I hope what comes from that process is a solidarity of understanding, of the things that we have in common.

Chloe: I agree. We have this really unique moment of global solidarity. Catalysed by the death of George Floyd the conversation has changed. There is a real poking at white fragility and the responsibilities of people living in privilege to effect change. I think this moment offers us possibilities that perhaps haven’t been there before, but there was a great threat of a dissipating as the global pandemic subsides, and people move towards this idea of a new normal. Like, how do we capitalise on this? How is it not a moment but a movement?

And actually what 81 Acts does is provide a framework to come up with strategies for change. It creates an invitation that allows people who are reluctant activists, who are accidental activists to connect and be part of that movement. People who are not in any way part of the mass protests on the street. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It means that that is not the form of expression which makes them feel part of it.

What would like you say to everyone now about coming into the 81 Acts process?

Tony: Now is a good opportunity to get involved, to share your concerns, things that are important to you around 1981. To realise that you’re amongst a group of people that can really experiment, and develop something that has never ever been seen before in Brixton – and that’s a one-time opportunity.

Chloe: It’s also acknowledging the fact that people with the lived experience of the 1981 Uprising are not going to last forever. We have to connect generations and experience now, before it’s too late – and this is a unique moment in time to be able to catalyse that.

How can people get involved in 81 Acts?

Chloe: There are multiple ways for people to get involved. The first one is that if you want to be part of The Builders and The Dreamers, get in contact! Our steering group always has space for new voices.

If you are an artist an activist, and you have an idea, we’re looking for Makers.

If you are a tenants’ association or community group, a school or a service provider and we haven’t managed to reach you and talk to you yet, we’d like to. Come and talk to us. You don’t have to have an idea of what you want to do yet. You just need to know that you want to be involved.

81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.