Brixton in South London was an area with serious social and economic problems. The whole United Kingdom was affected by are cession by 1981, but the local African-Caribbean community was suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate.
81 a house fire, a suspected racially-motivated arson, had killed a number of black youths in New Cross; the police investigation was criticised as inadequate. Black activists, including Darcus Howe organised a march for the "Black People's Day of Action" on 2 March. Accounts of turnout vary from between 5,000 to 20 to 25,000. The marchers walked 17 miles from Deptford to Hyde Park, passing the Houses of Parliament and Fleet Street. While the majority of the march finished in Hyde Park without incident, there was some confrontation with police at Blackfriars. Les Back wrote that "While the local press reported the march respectfully, the national papers unloaded the full weight of racial stereotyping." The Evening Standard's front page headline was a photo of a policeman with a bloody face next to a quote from Darcus Howe referring to the march as "A good day". A few weeks later, some of the organizers of the march were arrested, charged with inciting to riot. They were later acquitted. At the beginning of April, the Metropolitan Police began Operation Swamp 81, a plainclothes operation to reduce crime. Officers were dispatched into Brixton, and within five days around 1,000 people were stopped and searched, and 82 arrested, through the heavy use of the 'sus law' (stop and search powers). The 'sus laws' were a type of law which allowed police to arrest members of the public when it was believed that they were acting suspiciously and not necessarily committing a crime. The African-Caribbean community stated that the police were arresting black people without a specific reason.