All This Week: Beating the Bounds

Beating the Bounds – also sometimes called ‘Gang-Days’ – was an old folk custom, generally used to keep alive knowledge of the boundaries of a parish, and pass this knowledge on from older to younger generations. In centuries before mass literacy and availability of consistent maps and charts, this was achieved by parading round a parish boundary once a year, and ensuring the markers and landmarks associated with this border were drummed into the heads of the youth – often by literally beating them at each marker.

Beating the Bounds may have evolved from a collection of diverse origins in pre-christian ceremonies, adopted into Christianity like so much pagan worship was. Early-mid May is often a glorious time of lovely weather, longer days, blossom; a great time for festivals and outdoor activities. From celtic Beltane, through Roman to medieval Mayday and into modern times, May is month for celebrating growth, life, renewal and for partying. In pagan and Christian cultures where the goodwill of a god or gods was held to be vital for crops to grow, for fertility and abundance, May also saw rituals to honour the deity/ies inquestion and earn their favour. Mingling fun and frolics with the serious business of blessing the seeds that would grow into the food that sustained the community.

Beating the bounds often took place in May, at Rogation Week in 2021, 9th-13th May). Rogation began as a Christian service in the mid-fifth century, and was possibly influenced by a pagan Roman procession known as Robigalia, (at which a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the deity of agricultural disease). The Rogation days gradually evolved into days of fasting and prayer between the fifth Sunday after Easter Sunday (‘Rogation Sunday’) and Ascension Day the following Thursday. The ‘Gang Days’ were the Days of Rogation, leading up to Ascension Day. Priests would bless crops and ask God to intercede (latin rogation). The alternative name for rogation days, still used in some places, of Gang or Gange Days, comes from the Anglo-Saxon gangen meaning to ‘go’ or ‘walk’, indicating the procession itself was an early adopted part of the ritual.

By the middle ages, the ritual had generally become fixed as a yearly march, celebrated with bread, cheese, cakes and ale, around the border of the community. In earlier times particular stones or boulders, trees, hedges, streams probably formed the majority of markers; later, buildings, fences, walls would have been added. Adolescent boys would be beaten at the landmarks, with thongs made of willow or birch, or even thrown into ponds and bushes, or sometimes held upside down and bumped against rocks or the ground (possibly the origin of ‘getting the bumps on your birthday?) The violence or benevolence of drumming knowledge into boys heads varied wildly – in some places they were given coins, in others their fingers were pricked. The girls and women would wear and carry garlands of flowers and foliage.

The priest would say prayers for good weather, asking for God’s blessing for the crops etc, at the boundary markers (often these then acquired names linked to the ritual, like Gospel Oak or Amen Corner?) Over time the bounds march evolved into dances in some places (contributing to the murky evolution of morris dancing and ‘Obby ‘Oss- type figures being carried. In other communities Rogation ceremonies seem to have been transcended into general festive merriment, as with the ‘youling’ or ‘apple howling’ custom.

As society became more complex, administrative boundaries and authorities evolved, and lordships and internal borders became more prevalent, ways to resolve local border disputes became more important. In Anglo-Saxon times it’s thought ceremonies such as Beating the Bounds acted like a kind of local charter. Over the centuries and into Norman times, as feudalism was imposed on the population, these rituals could also have been vital for imposing the sense of whose land you belonged to, as well as marking the obligations and vertical ties from serf, to landlord. These were times when the poor folk working the land were barred from leaving and moving elsewhere without permission; was Beating the Bounds also an annual march around the manor you were supposed to stick to? Literally beating your horizons into you?

Postcode War-like Disputes with neighbouring parishes may have been not uncommon – especially if two crowds met on a boundary and there were unresolved border issues…

In theory, the ritual demanded absolute adherence to the exact boundary.

4th December 1913: Girls’ Beating the Bounds’ at a fence near St Albans in Hertfordshire.

Exact treading of the boundary in a legal sense was very likely replaced gradually by a strict insistence on following every twist, carried out either in that nerdy-stickler for propriety ethos familiar to anyone familiar with some local government practices, or else with a sense of festive fun, like a rural version of parkour or hedgehopping.

“This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents.  If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water.  Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places.  If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it.”

This could lead to slightly ridiculous scenes, if this account is to be believed:

“A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present [19th] century.  As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, &c, followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St George’s, Hanover-Square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman’s coach was standing just across the boundary line.  The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house.  The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way.  “I won’t!” said the sturdy coachman; “my lord told me to wait here, and here I’ll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!”  The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers.”

Here’s an example of a procession: an in-depth description of the Beating the Bounds on the parish of Mitcham in 1879

Later, Beating the Bounds not only reinforced a community’s sense of its own extent and made sure this sense was transmitted to younger members – it was also used to police offences against the border by neighbouring parishes, and sometimes encroachment against common land by its own residents or landowners whose land lay in the parish. Fences, obstructions and buildings agreed to be offending against collective use or access could be noted and the offender dealt with, and were sometimes thrown down or demolished as part of the ceremony. Beating the Bounds could act as a community asserting their common rights, or generally letting people (lords of the manor? Other enclosers?) that their memories were long and they would defend their rights. For instance, a parade in Rogation Week around the old borders of one parish ended in 1751 with an incursion into Richmond Park, which had been built a century before by king Charles I by buying, acquiring and enclosing land from several parishes – an act that had caused decades of anger and friction, as people not only lost access to common land for subsistence, collecting firewood, grazing livestock etc, but were also denied access along traditional footpaths. Although this discontent had simmered, the 1751 incident may have brought things back into focus, as the following years saw a legal struggle against the loss of access to the parkland that would end with rights of way being restored across it.

Regulation of common rights, encroachments and enclosures was often negotiated at parish level, and parish officials were sometimes the authority chosen to head up anti-enclosure protests. Knowledge of who owned what in the parish and where boundaries lay was also sometimes crucial in legal disputes about commons and their usage.

The ritual inspired other ceremonies which came to represent slightly different interests, but kept something of the spirit of community memory and assertion of rights. For instance, the archery companies of London evolved a custom of marching around the traditional archery practice grounds north of the City (Moorfields and Finsbury Fields) and demolishing constructions or buildings that they claimed encroached on their traditional right to use the Fields. Because archers were crucial to English military might in medieval times, the companies generally had a lot of power and influence. Interestingly the march and occasional disorder associated with it are not really recorded until the 16th century, when archery would beginning to lose its importance  – maybe the need for the march and conflict only arose as the bow was starting to lose its prestige? This march lasted a lot longer than the military presence of archers in the army – into the late 18th century.

‘Bumping’ – in late stage Bounds ceremonies, older blokes obviously took the place of young boys?!

Enclosure of land across the country obviously had a huge impact on the Bounds. Old borders and boundaries were lost, landmarks removed, ploughed under; and the social structure that the old ritual formed a crucial part of was broken down.

Although Beating the Bounds has fallen into disuse, like many folk customs, it has been revived in some places. Sometimes for its own sake; sometimes to continue the struggle against the ongoing theft of open land.

The New Lammas Lands Defence Committee revived ‘Beating the bounds’ around Leyton Lammas Lands in the 1990s to commemorate the 1892 riotous defence of the lands against enclosure, and to protest newer enclosures…

In 2018 Brighton residents Beat the Bounds of Whitehawk Hill Nature Reserve to defend against development.

The Open Spaces Society encourages communities to ‘beat the bounds’ of your local common or village green.

A good idea, as this can help maintain a sense of community ownership and access, when so many open spaces are faced with enclosure, development, being built over…

All over London, while big parks and woods are generally protected from being built on, smaller pieces of open space, for instance on council estates, is being considered for development – often by local authorities desperate to address the massive housing crisis we are facing in the capital.

We need more social housing, there’s no doubt – in a city where private rents have gone through the roof and buying a home is beyond the reach of millions. But cramming more homes into already densely populated areas, taking away small areas of open space on estates where many people have no gardens, is not the answer.
The destruction in 2018 of the Tidemill Community Garden in Deptford showed how councils are willing to bulldoze self-built community projects in their quest for more housing.

But there’s been recent success: Southwark Council have been forced to retreat on their proposal to build on a small open space at Brenchley Gardens estate after the community campaigned against the idea.

Many more such proposals are constantly being imposed and resisted across London. We need to be ‘Beating the Bounds’ more – asserting our common ownership of open space, refusal to let it be enclosed and built over. Part of this may also be coming up with solutions to the housing crisis…

It’s not just about space…

Read an article linking modern struggles to evolve a ‘commons’ of open source seeds in defiance of the capitalist enclosure of seed copyrights and genetically modified seed by agriculture and biotech corporations.

A long lost communique from the Situationist Tendency of the Labour Party, 1990

The following communique was sent in the post to London anarchist freesheet Autognome in mid-1990. Autognome was a provocative rag, the halfblood child of some of the rowdy London end of the free festival-oriented Free Information Network, with refugees from Brixton squatters mag Crowbar, based around publishing dates of upcoming radical events, news of demos and campaigns, and potshots at the left, the right and pretty much everyone…

The Autognome collective intended to publish the STLP communique in the next issue… We’ll never know if this would have drastically changed the course of the UK history, as Autognome folded before another issue could emerge (with some of the collective going off on their Hajj and others getting wrapped up in taxing the Poles).

Having then got lost for a few years, the communique was re-discovered in a box of archive material rescued from the old 121 Centre, lost again, and recently unearthed by an anarcheological expedition. We’re finally publishing it here, 31 years later (after some debate as to whether this was too soon for it to see the light of day.)
NB: it arrived typed in all capitals, always a worrying sign…


To Constituency Parties and Other Organisations

“We are not amused!

Greetings from your new comrades (although for some of us our paths
have no doubt crossed before).

We are contacting you to make our intentions clear. In short we have tired of the continual failure of the proletariat to bring about the radical transformation of society. We believe this failure is due to misguided tactics on the part of the left, and the increasing apathy and passivity of the working class – the mere fact that we have to mention the ‘left’ and the ‘working class’ separately is an indication of this failure for both terms should be interchangeable.

The left’s greatest mistake has been its failure to fully understand the conscious and unconscious workings and tactics of the enemy. Capitalism and bureaucratic communism have reduced the purpose of existence to the satisfaction of ever expanding false desires as embodied by consumer society. In general, modern society can satisfy these false desires, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but when such vacuous demands are all that the working class expects from life then those in power have an excellent way of controlling people.

However, there is one desire that capitalism cannot satisfy and that is the desire to control our everyday lives as individuals and as communities, for capitalism relies on people surrendering their independence to the dependence of the market. It is this impossible demand that the left has too often failed to make. If we can communicate such ideas to the working class, and offer a vision of a more satisfying, creative, richer life, to ‘expand their minds’!, then they are unlikely to be satisfied as passive observers of the world around them. This has been the failing of the working class, to fatalistically accept their alienation and the servile role they are allotted in life – and how can one respect willing victims?

Most of the working class deserves to be criticised, not just for its shallowness but also for the way it has too often ignored and/or scabbed on workers in struggle (the prime example being the miners’ strike of 84/85). Much of the left still seems to regard the working class as something sacred and glorious though, and patiently continues to try and convince it of this or that ideology without offering any inspiration for the passionate reconstruction of this world into a playground where life can be lived to the full.

In short we need to challenge the working class over its passivity instead of apologising for it, and in the process expose the unnecessary mediocrity of its existence and thus make our class aware of its ability to emancipate itself. It will be quite a party, quite an adventure, it will be fun.

An obvious question is: “why should we choose to practise our politics
in a decaying labour party?’. Well, during the 60s we situationists wrote
that the revolutionary struggle should take place within the banal events
of everyday life. It seems to us that the present labour party is more
banal than ever before, all image and no substance. It is also imperative
that we involve more and more people in political activity and we see the
party as the easiest way of contacting the working class who for
to constituency parties + other organisations choose it as our theatre for struggle – so far we have people in 42 constituency parties. We look forward to meeting many of you.

– The Situationist Tendency of the Labour Party.




As far as we know, the Labour Party Situationist fraction issued no further Communiques. Whether they continued their deep-level entrism into Labour is unclear… though reading between the lines of the following, we’d guess that the subsequent career of New Labour under Blair constitutes their finest work, a paragon of Society consumed by the Spectacle of itself. Evidence suggests the situs only went from strength to strength, as Labour ate itself from the inside and evolved into a hollow shell, a hologram of ‘voter appeal’ with all the substance of melting ice.

Some might suggest the Corbyn years show the Situationists finally achieving the goal of taking over the decaying edifice and seeking to transform it into a radical vehicle. We’d disagree: the SItuationist entrists would never have sought to re-create the turgid leftism of Corbynism. On the contrary, it’s obvious that it is the New labour tradition – Blair, and his natural heir, Starmer – who represent the triumphant project at its peak. Starmer’s posturing, especially, shows that he has rightly realised that he needs to completely eliminate substance and transform himself into just a vague collection of gestures. It’s clear that the three decades of pretentious entrism the situationist tendency embarked on inside the labour party are rapidly approaching a climax…

PPS: Don’t get in touch with us trying to join the Tendency – we don’t know who they are. 


Go, Move, Shift: 1000 years of laws against travellers, wanderers & trespass

The clauses making serous attacks on the right to protest in the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently on pause, but soon to be brought back before Parliament, have garnered much of the attention from the media and protestors.
However, the Bill also contains substantial clauses aimed at strengthening law against trespass and targetting Roma and other travelling people.

The Bill would create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”, and allows much easier police action against  ‘unauthorised encampments’. Amendments would also allow the police to remove unauthorised encampments on (or partly on) highways and prohibit unauthorised encampments moved from a site from returning within twelve months.

The proposed new police powers include a new criminal offence where trespassers have the ‘intent’ to reside

Part 4 of the Bill sets out the details of the new offence, to be inserted into Part 5 of the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act. This will apply when:

  • A person aged 18 or over resides or intends to reside on land without consent of the occupier of the land;
  • They have, or intend to have, at least one vehicle with them on the land;
  • They have caused or are likely to cause significant damage, disruption or distress;
  • They, without reasonable excuse:

o Fail to leave the land and remove their property following a request to do so by an occupier of the land, their representative or a constable; or

o Enter or, having left, re-enter the land with an intention of residing there without the consent of the occupier of the land, and with an intention to have at least one vehicle with them, within 12 months of a request to leave and remove their property from an occupier of the land, their representative or a constable.

Powers to seize a vehicle/home, imprisonment and fines

This new offence will be accompanied by powers to seize a vehicle (which in real terms is someone’s home and possessions) as well as imprisonment and fines, as outlined in 60C(5)/(6) and 60D PCSCB and in the Government’s response;

  • Where there is reasonable suspicion that a person has committed this offence [trespass with intent to reside as outlined in Section 60C PCSCB] confers power on a constable to seize their vehicle/other property for up to three months from the date of seizure or, if criminal proceedings are commenced, until the conclusion of those proceedings.
  • The maximum penalty will be three months’ imprisonment or a fine not exceeding level 4 (£2,500) on the standard scale, or both.
  • The arrest and vehicle/property seizure powers will be exercised where a constable has reasonable grounds to suspect (for arrest) or reasonably suspects (seizure power) that a person has met the conditions of the offence. The reasonable excuse ‘defence’ enables a person to escape liability where they can show they have a reasonable excuse for failing to comply as soon as reasonably practicable with a request to leave and remove their property or for entering or re-entering within 12 months of the request with an intention to reside without consent.

The Bill also proposes amendments to existing police powers of eviction:

  • Amend section 61 to broaden the types of harm that can be caught by the power to direct trespassers under that provision, to include damage, disruption and distress;
  • Amend sections 61(4)(b), 62B(2) and 62(C) to increase the period in which trespassers directed away from the land under sections 61 and 62A must not return from 3 months to 12 months;
  • Amend section 61(9)(b) to enable police to direct trespassers with a common purpose of residing on land to leave land that forms part of a highway.

Like the police need new powers to evict travellers:

There are already a range of eviction powers available for police, local authorities and land owners, including powers in the CJPOA and possession proceedings under Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules6 . Some of the powers, such as Section 61 of the CJPOA, can be triggered easily and enforce eviction as quickly as in an hour.

A good guide to the drastically negative impact these provisions would have on travelling people can be found in this briefing

As with the public order sections of the proposed bill, these are ‘issues’ the powers that be have been legislating against for a long time. For at least 1000 years in fact…

As a companion piece to our post on the history of public order acts, here’s a brief summary of laws enacted around control of and access to land, against trespass, and to suppress and harass travelling people and wanderers. It’s a dense post, because it is a very long list… We have also definitely missed some laws out!

But remember – resistance is as old as repression…

Land, trespass and access

Born in the common by a building site
Where the ground was rutted by the trail of wheels
The local Christian said to me
You’ll lower the price of property

You’d better get born in some place else
So move along get along
Move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift
(Christy Moore)

Norman Forest Law

In Anglo-Saxon England, though the kings were often great huntsmen, they never set aside areas for hunting. When William the Bastard and his small band of heavily armed psychopaths conquered England in 1066, the new king began to rewrite the law on land ownership. Firstly by declaring all titles to land up till then null and void and that henceforth all title would derive from the royal  gift under a hierarchical feudal system.

The most significant legal innovation relating to land brought in by William and his successors was the Forest Law. This set aside land where the needs of one class were elevated over another, and specifically placed it under different laws from other parts. During the Middle Ages, the practice of reserving areas of land for the sole use of the aristocracy was common throughout Europe.

It’s even thought that the very origin of the word ‘forest’ comes from ‘foris’, outside, perhaps via a Germanic source akin to Old High German forst, from Latin foris “outside” (related to the word foreign) – this was land declared to be “outside” the law of the land.

The Forest Law was designed to protect the “noble” animals of the chase – notably red and fallow deer, the roe deer, and the wild boar and prevent the lower classes from hunting or killing them – but it also protected the greenery that sustained these creatures, and gave them cover. This was not an animal rights measure – this was to stop the plebs getting their hands on meat that their betters needed to be chasing. Hunting was considered a noble sport, and the noble quarry was not for the poor.

The extent of royal forest in the Middle Ages

Forests were designed as hunting areas reserved by prerogative  for the monarch and by invitation the aristocracy. At the height of the Forest Law, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a whole third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest; this included at one point the entire county of Essex. On his accession king Henry II declared all of Huntingdonshire forest.

It’s worth pointing out that land declared ‘Forest’ in this way was not necessarily covered in trees. It was a legal designation – not a geographical one. Royal forests usually included large areas of heath, grassland and wetland – anywhere that supported deer and other game. When an area was initially designated forest, any villages, towns and fields that lay within it were also subject to forest law. This obviously restricted locals in their use of the land they had previously relied upon for their livelihoods. Common rights were not extinguished, but limits were placed on what people could do and at what times of year (so as not to inconvenience the toffs during hunting season).

The Forest Laws in many areas banned trapping game for food, collecting growth, wood etc for fuel, grazing animals on forest land, building on your own land itf it disturbed the ‘vert’ that sustained the game, and allowed for taxes and fines by foresters for all sorts of necessary economic functions. The common inhabitants of the forest might, depending on their location, possess a variety of rights: estover, the right of taking firewood, pannage, the right to pasture swine in the forest, turbary, the right to cut turf (as fuel), and various other rights of pasturage (agistment) and harvesting the products of the forest.

All this had a massive impact on the ability of the poor to subsist in areas declared to be ‘forest’.

A particular beef was the creation of the “New Forest”, an entirely new hunting playground for the royals, in Hampshire. The New Forest was proclaimed a royal forest, in about 1079. It was used for royal hunts, mainly of deer. It was created at the expense of more than 20 small hamlets and isolated farmsteads; hence it was then ‘new’ as a single compact area.  According to 12th century chroniclers William I  had villages rooted out and people removed to establish the forest.

Henry II’s reign (1154-89) saw a vast increase in the total area of the forest. By 1189, between one third and one quarter of England was considered by the king as within the bounds of the royal forest8 and some twenty-nine counties were affected to a greater or lesser degree. The Forest Laws were in part codified under the Assize of the Forest (1184).

Forest law laid down harsh punishment for anyone who committed any of a range of offences within the forests; ranging from heavy fines up to blinding, castrating and death.

Anyone dwelling or holding land within the forest bounds was subject to a complex set of regulations, implemented by royal officials answerable only to the king. They were prevented from hunting freely and the laws of the ‘vert’ denied them the right to utilise their land as they saw fit. Penalties were imposed for offences falling into three main categories: waste, assart and purpresture. Waste occurred when land was cleared. Individuals found guilty of waste were not only burdened with a punitive amercement but also had to pay a sum equivalent to the value of any trees or brushwood that they had cut down.

The waste of forest land could result from collection of wood for fuel or building, or from  assarting: creating new arable land. As with waste the creation of an assart frequently resulted in a dual financial penalty; an initial charge could be supplemented by an annual rent for the maintenance of the newly cleared ground. If the assarted land was enclosed or built upon, an additional charge would be imposed for what was called a purpresture.
Finally, there were payments connected with the grazing of livestock.

This ‘arbitrary legislation’ was enforced by a complicated network of courts and officials: riding and walking foresters, responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the forest law, under foresters-in-fee who in turn served under a warden or keeper; supported by agisters, verderers and regarders.

Declaring massive areas to be forest land, in particular the creation of the New Forest, was to develop into a central plank of in folk history, boosting the idea of the “Norman yoke” – the native English oppressed by the Norman landowning class. The size of the forests had expanded under the Angevin kings (from 1154). Forest laws not only provided for leisure grounds for the king – the wood and other resources made contained within these lands was hugely valuable to the monarchy. Especially later, when the monarchs started building navies…

Totally Off the Charters

The absolute rights of the king and aristocracy were never static and unchanging – they were tempered, by resistance. Initially, resistance to the king’s total control actually came from his barons, leading to the civil wars of the 13th century, when aristos fought the king to restrict his powers over them, and the populations of some cities and towns used the aggro to attempt to extend their own rights. But class struggle by the poor against the landowners was a constant factor, forcing concessions from the wealthy.

This resulted in the passing of charters in the early 13th century which had a lasting impact on land use, trespass and squatting.

The Magna Carta, first agreed in 2015, had some important clauses relating to the royal forests; clauses 47 and 48 promised that the lands added to the forests under king John and his predecessor Richard would be removed from Forest Law, and that the king would investigate the use of royal rights in this area, but notably did not address the forestation of the previous kings, while clause 53 promised some form of redress for those affected by the recent changes, and clause 44 promised some relief from the operation of the forest courts.

Magna Carta’s companion piece, the Charter of the Forest, adopted 2017, mitigated Forest Law to some extent, and re-established for free men rights of access to the royal forest that had been eroded by William the Conqueror and his heirs.

The main clauses that had an impact on access to forest land were that it:

  • reduced forests back to those declared so in Henry II’s time and ordered investigation into origin of some of those even
  • banned foresters or beadles from imposing levies of corn on inhabitants
  • allowed pannage (feeding your pigs on what could be found in the forests or on common land) and stopped prosecutions of men for driving pigs through forests or for sleeping there overnight while doing so
  • ended punishment of death or loss of a limb for killing game – instead reducing it to a heavy fine, or a year in prison if not able to pay, then banishment if you couldn’t pay sureties. Gee thanks boss!
  • ended prosecutions for people building a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit, a ditch, or arable outside the covert on their own land if inside forest
  • allowed residents rights to ‘the eyries of hawks, sparrowhawks, falcons, eagles and herons in his woods, and likewise honey found in his woods’.
  • restricted the right of foresters to charge ‘chiminage’ – a toll levied on transport in the forest.
  • pardoned some outlaws who had been outlawed just for offending against forest law.

Forest law entered into folklore – texts or bastardised texts of the clauses spread to all parts of the kingdom, and elements from the law became integrated into folk belief, legends and myths of outlaws like Robin Hood, protests against injustice from literary texts to folksong, and onto the legal defences of poachers and others hauled up in court… Here’s a great discussion of forest law in popular culture.

However, neither Magna Carta nor the Charter of the Forest proved entirely satisfactory as a long-term way of managing the political tensions arising in the operation of the royal forests.

And a crucial development – though long in coming to its full effect – took place in parallel with these Charters, with the passing of the 1235 Statute of Merton. This was to give a legal basis for the enclosure of common land. One of its most far-reaching clauses gave authority for lords of the manor to enclose commons and ‘waste grounds’ in their lands, on condition that there was a permanent excess of land beyond the grazing needs of the commoners’ livestock, and other commoners’ entitlements, and that any of their tenants who complained were left with sufficient pastureland left to plough.

This enactment was of benefit to all lords of the manor and this included monasteries and other ecclesiastical bodies. By the terms, simple proof that sufficient pasture for tenants was available would allow for dispossession of common land.

The Statute of Merton was operative throughout the medieval period and hotly debated. This change to English law had minor effects for 300 years, and the clauses relating to enclosure fell into disuse… But in January 1550, in Edward VI’s reign, long after the Statute had fallen out of use, it was revived by the regent of England, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to enable lords to enclose their land at their own discretion. This enabled the legal wholesale theft of access to the land from the poor.

The fundamental aim of enclosures was to exclude people form the land and combine holdings/remove obstructions and reduce traditional usages, so as to exploit resources more comprehensively. In that sense, Enclosures tried to redefine access to land.

Most were achieved by agreement by existing landowners – a remainder usually by acts of parliament for the land in question. 15th-19th century a huge percentage of land in England was enclosed

The scope of resistance to this should not be under-estimated. The better known riots and full blown rebellions (list) are only the tip of the iceberg – daily trespass, removal of gates and fences, was probably even more prevalent. Enclosure formed a massive re-adjustment of rural life across Britain: but it was only imposed by force on a hostile population in many places.

By the mid-17th century, enforcement of Forest law had largely died out, but many of England’s woodlands still bore the title “Royal Forest”.
But even after Forest Law began to decline in use, there was a hangover in some of those areas designated Forest, which remained hugely contested, and were at the centre of long wars over enclosures.

Huge protests in fact accompanied the process of dis-afforestation – the removal of Forest law from applying to particular areas – mostly because the Charter of the Forest and subsequent agreements had made access to resources inside he Forests beneficial for many inhabitants. Pressure to enclose land and dis-afforestation began to erode this access, which could affect the livelihoods of thousands. Dis-afforestation was the partial cause of two rebellions in the  West Country, in 1548-9 and 1626–1632.

laws against travelling

“all persons wandering abroad…not giving good account of themselves”

Born at the back of a hawthorn hedge
Where the black hole frost lay on the ground
No eastern kings came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift

You’d better get born in some place else
Move along, get along
Move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift

In parallel with Forest Law and then enclosures restricting poor people’s access to much of the land, there were another set of laws, aimed at preventing people from moving around the country unless approved of by the powers that be.

There were several motivations for this, including:

  • Restricting the number of beggars, wanderers and itinerants; partly because they felt these people were involved in crime, especially collective crime; or became a ‘nuisance’, but also because some of them genuinely were outlaws or rebels spreading underground political or religious ideas, or et a bad example, inspiring others to leave their home parishes
  • Stopping serfs from leaving the land they worked and looking for better paid work elsewhere or a freer life in a town, which undermined the feudal system and prevented landowners getting maximum value from the work of the peasants
  • Generally targeting migrants and specific ethnic groups – ie Roma

The 1285 Statute of Winchester was passed by King Edward I ostensibly to keep roads safe and towns secure from strangers. Also known as the Statute of Winton, the statute enacted that reformed the system of Watch and Ward (watchmen) of the Assize of Arms of 1252, and revived the jurisdiction of the local courts. The law displayed the fear and loathing of strangers  – it notably laid down At what Times the Gates of great Towns shall be shut, and when the Night Watch shall begin and end.’

The Statute was the primary legislation enacted to regulate the policing of the country between the Norman Conquest and the Metropolitan Police Act 1829. Of particular note was the requirement to raise hue and cry, and that “the whole hundred [an administrative division of each county]… shall be answerable” for any theft or robbery, in effect a form of collective responsibility for policing…

The Ordinance of Labourers and later the Statute of Labourers were passed in 1349 and 1351 respectively, to prevent people leaving their own district, in the wake of the black death, when the huge death toll lead to a massive labour shortage, which encouraged people to flee crap living and working conditions and seek better ones, or even to combine to demand improvements.

In 1360, the Statute of Labourers was amended to further curtail the movement of potential labourers.

In 1376, these laws against leaving your home district were confirmed and strengthened: anyone who ran off from serfdom was considered outside the law and could be punished even before being forcibly returned to their own area.

It’s worth noting that laws to enforce employers’ power over workers to prevent them from leaving their jobs lasted until 1875: the Master and Servant Acts allowed for prosecution of a worker quitting without due notice and could lead to imprisonment. Between 1858 and 1875 10,000 workmen on average were prosecuted each year for breach of some aspect of their “contract of service”.

In 1383, Justices of the Peace were ordered to examine ‘vagabonds’ and bind them over to good behaviour or imprison them. Extra impetus was added to the persecution of wanderers and force people back into what the ruling elites saw as their place, after the cataclysmic events of the Peasants Revolt in 1381. Wandering agitators and people moving from district to district were perceived as having helped spread the revolt.

1388: vagrancy was outlawed. Beggars unable to work were banned from moving around, and had to stay in own parishes, or be sent back to the parish they were from, or the towns in which they were living at the time of the Act; unless they could produce a written testimonial, showing reasonable cause for his departure, to be issued under the authority of the justices of the peace. Beggars able to work were punished, usually by being put in the stocks.

This is often regarded as that the first Act for the Relief of the Poor, for within its many restrictions each county “Hundred” was made responsible for relieving its own “impotent poor” who, because of age or infirmity, were incapable of work. Although lack of enforcement limited its effect.

Despite their potential significance for the English economy, however, over the next 150 years vagrancy laws were initially amended to increase penalties, but then gradually diminished in importance due to their overall inefficiency.

“The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.” (Karl Marx, Capital)

From the late 15th century, laws against ‘vagrants’, travellers and beggars were passed by the government tediously often. In the Tudor era, the moral panic par excellence was ‘sturdy beggars’ – able bodied vagrants.

“all wandring persons, and common Labourers being persons able in bodye using loytering and refusing to worke for such reasonable wages as is taxed or comonly gi,,, in such Parts where such persons do or shall happen to dwell or abide,not having lyving otherwyse to maynteyne thernselves.”

1494: The Vagabonds and Beggars Act tried to re-instate the 1388 vagrancy law. Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons were to be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then put out of Town. Every beggar ‘suitable to work’ was ordered to return “to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid”. Beggars who were too infirm to work were to remain in their Hundred and be permitted to beg.

In 1530, dormant vagrancy laws were revived to serve the additional purpose of curtailing criminal activities. New laws sought to punish ambiguously-defined persons, such as “someone who is merely idle and gives no reckoning of how he makes his living”or those considered to be “rogue[s]”. Penalties for such offences were increasingly severe and included having an ear cut off, being whipped until bloody, or even facing the death penalty. Under these evolving vagrancy statutes, “persons who had committed no serious felony but who were suspected of being capable of doing so could be apprehended”.

The Poor Law Act 1531 directed “how aged, poor, and impotent Persons, compelled to live by Alms, shall be ordered, and how Vagabonds and Beggars shall be punished”. The former were to be licensed to beg, the latter if found begging were to be whipped or put in the stocks for three days and nights with bread and water only and then to return to their birth-place and put to labour.
Justices of the peace were ordered to issue a licence to beg to the infirm poor, thus making begging by the ‘sturdy’ an offence.

Elizabethan beggars

The 1535 (Poor Law) Act required that “all Governors of Shires, Cities, Towns, Hundreds, Hamlets and Parishes shall find and keep every aged, poor and impotent Person, which was born or dwelt three years within the same limit, by way of voluntary and charitable Alms … for as none of them shall be compelled to go openly in begging. And also shall compel every sturdy Vagabond to be kept in continual labour … “ and gave powers to apprentice children aged between 5 and 13. Voluntary contributions for the relief of the poor were to be collected by the justices of the peace and churchwardens.

A year later an Act For Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars provided that “sturdy” vagabonds should be set to work after being punished, and even children should be put to service. This Act was not renewed, but was a harbinger of later laws.

The largest flurry of Tudor legislation came after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which sparked a social crisis, as the monasteries had provided the main welfare structure for centuries. Dismantling this over only a few years left many of the sick, elderly and beggars etc with nowhere to turn.

In 1545, as he was invading France, Herny VIII issued a proclamation “Ordering Vagabonds to the Galleys”, which ostensibly aimed to prevent people from avoiding the press gangs (conscription), but it didn’t end with the war. From that point on, vagrants could be used as galley-slaves, and the practice continued till the end of the reign of Elizabeth.

The Vagrancy Act authorised branding and slavery as the punishment for persistent vagrancy. Any person who had offered vagrants work which they refused, was authorised to brand them on the breast with a “V”, hold them in slavery for two years, feed them during that period on bread and water, and hire them out to others. Attempts to run away were to be punished by lifelong slavery, and further attempts by hanging. Slavery, at least, was a step too far. Justices were reluctant to enforce such an appalling measure, plus it was  impractical, and it was repealed in 1550.

In 1552, the Act For the Provision and Relief of the Poor banned begging altogether, under the (bold) assumption that licenced poor would now be relieved by the parish collections. A 1552 Pedlars Act made an exception to allow “Tinkers, pedlars, petty chapmen and “such like vagrant person” who were self-sufficient and not reliant on charity. But they had to be licensed by 2 or 3 justices on pain of 14 days imprisonment.

The 1555 Act For the Relief of the Poor required licensed beggars to wear badges designating them as such.

The Statute of Artificers in 1562 provided for the compulsory work of the able-bodied upon demand by two Justices, the breach of its particular provisions resulting in imprisonment.

“swarmes of idle persons”

Increasing enclosure and the lack of a welfare system led thousands to seek work in the growing towns and cities. This created problems for the authorities. In 1569, the City of London tried to deal with the huge increase in the poor and destitute flocking in to the City, by ordering that they must all be put into some institution out of sight, by category: able bodied beggars and vagrants to the Bridewell (originally a palace, then a proto-workhouse-cum-prison) where they be put to work; the sick and impotent to Barts and St Thomas’s Hospitals. City gates were guarded against economic immigrants who were sent packing. An Act of 1572 extended this idea nationwide. This remained the basis of the poor law till 1834. The foundation of the system was keeping people in the parish and not go to bother others. Begging licences had to be obtained… or you would go to jail if nicked. (Obviously this led to a trade in old/forged licences). Also discharged prisoners, soldiers etc had to be able to show papers to allow them to beg on their way home. Labourers refusing to work for ‘reasonable’ wages could be sent to the Bridewell.

A 1576 Poor Law Act authorised Justices of the Peace to establish houses of correction for vagrants; and set out the “Punishment of the Mother and reputed Father of a Bastard”. Overseers of the Poor were created. In 1580, poor folk on welfare were ordered to spin cloth for their dole, illegitimate kids were forced back on the sole responsibility of their parents.

An Act of 1578 stated that “…vagrants were to be summarily whipped and returned to their place of settlement by parish constables” (aka beadles).

In 1582 the Recorder of London, Judge William Fleetwood, had a sweep of ‘rogues’ in London, nicking over 100… Fleetwood was known as a very efficient justice, who often sped up trials and expedited executions of ‘crims’…

“Falling within the statutory meaning of “sturdy rogue and beggar” were all those outside of organised wage labour, as well as those whose activities comprised the culture, tradition, and autonomous self-understanding of this volatile, questioning, and unsteady proletariat. Marx and Engels called the expropriated a motley crowd.” (Peter Linebaugh)

Expropriation and resistance fuelled the process of colonisation, peopling the Sea-Venture and many other transatlantic vessels during the first half of the seventeenth century. While some went willingly, as the loss of lands made them desperate for a new beginning, many more went unwillingly, often being sentenced to be transported by the courts. This policy was expressed by leading justice (later Lord Chancellor) Francis Bacon in the aftermath of 1607 Midlands Revolt against enclosures: “For the surest way to prevent Seditions” was “to take away the Matter of them. For if there be Fuell prepared, it is hard to tell, whence the Spark shall come, that shall set it on Fire.” Arguments in favour of colonising Ireland in 1594 or Virginia in 1612 held that the “rank multitude” (unruly plebs) might thus be exported and the “matter of sedition … removed out of the City.”

An entire policy originated from the 1598 Act For the Punishment of Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars, whereby vagrants and rogues convicted of crimes (mostly against property) in England would be transported to the colonies and sentenced to work on plantations, within what Hakluyt saw as a “Prison without walls.” Here was the place for the inmates of London and indeed the whole realm. The first known English felon transported to the Americas was a dyer’s apprentice who took his master’s goods and absconded from a workhouse before being sent to Virginia in 1607, Thousands more would follow. The partisans of the Virginia Company knew that enclosure and  expropriation created “swarmes of idle persons” who had once been sustained by the commons. The merchant, investor, and publicist Robert Gray recalled a time when the

“commons of our Country lay free and open for the poore Commoners to injOY, for there was roome enough in the land for every rnan, so that no man needed to encroach [on] or inclose from another, whereby it is manifest, that in those dayes we had no great need to follow strange reports, or to seeke wild adventures, for seeing we had not onely sufficiencie, but an overflowing measure proportioned to everie man.”

Although Gray’s assertion that encroachment and enclosure had been caused solely by population growth and overcrowding was inaccurate, Gray understood that many people in England had once lived differently more freely, sufficiently, even abundantly. When the commoners of the Sea-Venture decided that they wished to settle in Bermuda rather than go on to Virginia, they explained to the Virginia Company officials that they wanted the ease, pleasure, and freedom of the commons rather than the wretchedness, labour, and slavery awaiting them in Virginia.

The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 is often cited as the beginning of the Old Poor Law system – this legislation lasted for almost two centuries. It clearly distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor: the former deserved aid, the latter were rogues, vagabonds, and beggars who were to be whipped or otherwise punished for their unwillingness to work. Able-bodied beggars who had refused work were often placed in Houses of Correction. Of course, refusing “work” meant any work offered, which was typically on appalling terms. In the end, deciding who deserved what was up to the Overseers of the Poor, usually churchwardens or landowners, who had zero incentive to be generous or fair. They tended to recognise as few “deserving” poor as possible (since they’d be responsible for them as Overseers, plus taxed for them as landowners), and were prone to tyrannical behaviour.

And a few years later, the 1604 Poor Law Act commanded that rogues be branded with the letter “R” on their bodies.

Roma and travellers

‘outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians’.

Born in the middle of the afternoon
In a horsedrawn carriage on the old A-5
The big twelve wheeler shook my bed
You can’t stay here the policemansaid

You’d better get born in some place else
Move along get along
Move along get along
Go! Move! Shift

Amidst the general onslaught of laws against wandering, moving around and not working, specific and targeted legislation was passed against Roma people, who arrived in England around the early 16th century, as part of the Romany diaspora. Many lived as itinerant traders, entertainers and fortune tellers, outside the frameworks of settled society.

The laws arose from a general suspicion of wandering peoples, seen as undermining the established order of settled life, work, staying in your place, being controllable. Being a specific ethnic group also opened up the Roma to the usual racism, as well as being a handy outside group to scapegoat, to divert attention from class tensions and unite rulers and ruled against a common ‘enemy’.

1530 saw the first specifically anti-Roma law, The Egyptians Act, ‘An Act concerning outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians’. Who were accused of fortune-telling, deception, felony and robbery. ‘Egyptians’ were ordered to leave England within 40 days of the Act or be imprisoned and forfeit all their goods.

Mary I and Philip passed a new Egyptians Act in 1554, labelling ‘Egyptians’ as illegal aliens and ordering their removal. This law accused Gypsies of ‘such abominable living as is not in any Christian realm to be permitted’.

During reign of Elizabeth 1, in 1562, yet another Egyptians Act extended the penalties of the previous two, sentencing Roma to death: “All persons of their company, whether foreigners or English-born, except only children under 14, were liable to be treated as guilt of a felony by definition of being travellers, leading to the death penalty and forfeiture of goods.”

The Elizabethan statute also criminalised anyone ‘seen or found’ in Roma company, ‘or counterfeiting, transforming or disguising themselves by their apparel, speech or other behaviour like unto such vagabonds’.

Several dozen ‘Gypsies’ were executed over 100 years, though none after 1628, and the statute was regarded as obsolete when repealed in 1783. Roma however, remained exposed to the vagrancy laws and were frequently arrested for ‘not giving a good account of themselves’.

Thomas Harman, a Kentish magistrate, took a special interest, publishing a tract, ‘Caveat for Common Cursitors’, depicting Roma as ‘wretched, wily, wandering vagabonds … all thieves and whores’. Magistrates condemned them as ‘a pestiferous people’, ‘idle, lewd, and roguish’.

The Poor Law Act 1596 declared as rogues and vagabonds “…all tynkers wandering abroade… and all such p’sons, not being Fellons, wandering and p’ tending themselves to be Egipcyans or wandering in the Habite Forme or Attyre of counterfayte Egipcians”.

After a celebrated case in the mid 18th century, when a miscarriage of justice almost brought the Gypsy Mary Squires to her death, a journalist wrote that ‘if she were hanged, though innocent, what might matter, she was but a Gypsy’.

General Laws against travelling ‘vagrants’ as well as specific laws against Roma were revived in the eighteenth century.

The Justices Commitment Act, 1743, laid down that “all persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians, or pretending to have skill in palmistry, or pretending to tell fortunes”, were to be dealt with as rogues and vagabonds. Vagrancy offences were extended to new categories of persons, including those collecting money under pretence and “all persons wandering abroad and lodging in ale houses, barns, out-houses or in the open air, not giving good account of themselves”. Offenders were forced into workhouses.

In 1744 came the template of modern vagrancy law, King George II’s Vagrant Act, which divided beggars and idle persons into the unemployed without means of support and those refusing to work “for the usual and common wages” and those not supporting their families; rogues and vagabonds; and “incorrigible rogues” – those already convicted of one or more offences.

Rewards for rounding up beggars and vagrants had existed since 1713, with parish overseers being bound to pay five shillings to anyone who arrested an “Idle or Disorderly Person”. This became a serious abuse and encouraged corruption: one Hornsey overseer rounded up over 500 people in one year. Constables conspired with offenders to share the proceeds, and whole families would sometimes hand themselves in for a share of the reward.

By 1752, pamphleteers were calling for even more draconian sanctions, amid fears that the vagrants would turn into even more serious criminals such as pickpockets, burglars and highwaymen. One declared: “You may hang, or transport, or cut off a number of felons at this sitting, but like Hydra’s heads there will be more spring up at the next and ever will do so, as long as idle Vagrants [..] are suffered to go as they do unmolested”.

Another Egyptians Act in 1783 repealed the specific previous laws re ‘gypsies’, ending the death penalty for being Roma. But in parallel, another Rogues and Vagabonds Act was passed that year, which extended provisions dealing with Roma, wanderers and beggars

The laws had little effect in reducing the number of vagrants because they did not address the underlying causes of vagrancy. In 1821, a report from the Select Committee on the Existing Laws Relating to Vagrants noted the increasing number of vagrants and observed that the expense of administering the existing laws was significant. The report further noted that the procedure of sending vagrants back to their municipalities of origin was onerous and ineffective. The Committee recommended that, instead of sending vagrants back home, they should be imprisoned for longer periods to dissuade them from vagrancy.

English vagrancy laws evolved, and were subject to intense ‘mission creep’, being constantly adapted to deal with a range of concerns (labour, crime, popular morality, entertainment, religion and public health) as they arose through social and economic change, through prosecution of the offences of idleness, disorderly conduct, or status as a rogue or vagabond.

Concern about the problem or wanderers led to the formation of the Mendicity Society, one of those lovely private rightwing citizens’ societies (like the Society for the Reformation of Manners and the Society for the Suppression of Vice) which lobbied Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel for harsher vagrancy laws.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824

‘every person wandering abroad’

To cope with the obvious fact that previous laws were not working, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 was enacted “for the more effectual suppression of vagrancy and punishment of idle and disorderly persons” in England. The Vagrancy Act repealed all previous statutes on the subject, amended the definitions of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds and set out powers to search persons and premises. The 1824 Act retained many of the traditional vagrancy offences whilst including new categories, such as offences of a kind that only “professional” criminals might commit (e.g. loitering with intent to commit an arrestable offence) and offences against public decency and morality (e.g. offensive behaviour by prostitutes and indecent exposure). Repeat offenders were deemed incorrigible rogues and could be whipped and incarcerated. The resulting Vagrancy Act 1824 survives in part today.

According to Section 1: “Every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in a public place, street or highway, court or passage to beg or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do, shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person”. On conviction following the evidence of one or more credible witness or witnesses”, such an offender can be jailed for one month.

Section 4 was a catchall clause to tackle rogues and vagabonds, who might include:
“every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects”;
• “every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself”;
• “every person wilfully exposing to view, in any street, road, highway, or public place, any obscene print, picture, or other indecent exhibition”;
•  “every person wilfully openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person with intent to insult any woman”;
• “every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms”;
• “every person going about as a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence”;
• “every person apprehended as an idle and disorderly person, and violently resisting any constable, or other peace officer so apprehending him or her.”
“every suspected person or reputed thief, frequenting any river, canal, or navigable stream, dock, or basin, or any quay, wharf, or warehouse near or adjoining thereto, or any street, highway, or avenue leading thereto, or any place of public resort, or any avenue leading thereto, or any street, or any highway or any place adjacent to a street or highway; with intent to commit an arrestable offence. . . shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond”

The ‘not giving a good account of yourself’ effectively means – if you’re on the street without a ‘proper’ defence, you’re suspect by definition… The last of these clauses formed the basis of the infamous ‘SUS’ laws, used by police into the 1980s to stop, search and arrest. people, generally Black youth. The previous one, about resisting arrest, was generally used to charge anyone nicked with assault on police… This led to campaigns against the law including the “Scrap Sus” campaign. The sus law was repealed on 27 August 1981, though Stop and Search powers under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act generally revive the spirit of 1824.

For section 4 offences under the 1824 Act, the penalty was three months’ imprisonment.

Since 1838, there have been amendments (palmists and fortune tellers were removed in 1989)…

The anti-Roma clauses in the Vagrancy Act were also used against spiritualist mediums, who were presumed to be committing trickery and fraud by claiming psychic arts. It was no defence that both client and the medium might be sincere believers in the spirit world, since it was considered that the deception had worked! Even having a home could not protect you from a conviction, as a home-owning medium called Monck found when he was jailed for three months in 1878.

In 1875, a further Vagrancy Act was introduced to stop people gambling and gaming with cards or dice in the streets. The anti-begging clause was invoked haphazardly against charitable collections; but in 1884 striking miners won a notable victory in the High Court with a ruling that you were not a vagrant if you were collecting money or food for strikers and their families (Pointon v Hill, 1884)

Meanwhile an astonishing proliferation of 19th century, especially Victorian era, statutes attacked Roma people, loading them with fines for obstructing highways, grazing animals, lighting fires, or ‘damaging the growing grass’.

The Turnpike Roads Act, 1822: Any ‘gypsy’ encamping on side of turnpike road was liable to a fine of 40s.

The Highway Act, 1835, again penalised Roma who camped on the highway.

The Pedlars Act, 1871 extended the penalties in the Hawkers and Pedlars Act 1810). This was again extended in 1881.

The Prevention of Crimes Act, 1871 made applicable to Scotland the section on Roma in the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

The Commons Act, 1876, empowered local authorities to make bye laws effectively closing Commons to Roma, on the grounds that their ‘intrusions’ caused a ‘nuisance’ affecting ‘the health, comfort, and convenience’ of the area’s inhabitants.

The Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1885, applied provisions of housing laws to ‘nuisances’ in tents, vans, etc. District Councils were empowered to make by laws in this respect, enabling attacks on Roma on the grounds of health provision (much as Sanitation Acts had allowed poor people in city slums to be evicted an masse).

The Hawkers Act,1888, extended previous Acts re hawkers.

The Local Government’ Act, 1889 allowed County Councils to make bye laws for the prevention of vagrancy

In the Local Government Act 1894 parish Councils were empowered to regulate village greens and open spaces and this allowed them to prevent ‘gypsy’ encampments.

The Commons (Inclosure) Act 1899 allowed District Council to apply to the Board of Agriculture to make bye laws for the regulation of Commons.

Yet another Vagrancy Act became law in 1898, this time against prostitutes (of both sexes) and those involved with the White Slave Trade, and to tackle kerb crawling.

The twentieth century did not see a let up in either anti-Roma or vagrancy measures.

The Law of Property Act of 1925, while guaranteeing public access, made it an offence to bring a caravan onto common land without permission, or to camp or light a fire on it.

The Highways Act of 1959 again made it illegal for a traveller to camp or pitch a stall on highway verges or laybys.

Some measure of sanity began to appear with the Vagrancy Act 1935, which provided that a person ought only to apprehended where s/he had a lodging or hostel available but had refused it. This still did not stop abuse of the Act by over-zealous constables, and in July 1936 the magazine Justice of the Peace approved a magistrate’s decision to throw out a charge against a man who had left a shelter early in the morning and fallen asleep on a bench on the Embankment. The editor held the law should not condemn a man who had “exchanged the close smell of the doss house for the freshness of a summer morning”.

It was also accepted that a person was not a vagrant if they were sleeping on the street under a cart or wagon, providing it was their own vehicle.

In response to this avalanche of discriminatory laws, battles over stopping places and camping sites have raged for over a century, fuelled by politicians, the press and local bigotry. In 1889 travelling showmen in Britain form the United Kingdom Van Dwellers Association, later called the Showmen’s Guild, to fight the Moveable Dwellings Bill, which restricts Travellers’ movements.

Laws attempting to redress the balance or even simply recognise the fact that if you block travellers from roadsides they have to have somewhere to go, have not been enforced. The Caravan Sites Act of 1968 required local authorities ‘to provide adequate accommodation for Gypsies’, but the law was never fully enforced and was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Under the latter Act local councils became duty bound to identify land for private purchase by Travellers. Few local councils adhered to this. More than 5,000 families now have no legal home.

Settling doesn’t help Roma, as planning permission laws and other legislation is generally used to attack travellers who buy land and try to live on it.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 amended the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, creating a new power for a senior police officer to “direct a person to leave land and remove any vehicle or other property with him on that land”. Certain conditions have to be met before any directions can be given – at least two persons must be trespassing on the land, they must have between them at least one vehicle, they must be present on the land with the intent of residing there, and the occupier of the land has asked the police to remove them. In addition, after consultation with the local authority, there are relevant caravan sites, which have suitable pitches available for the trespassers to move on to.

The 2003 Act also created an offence if a person fails to comply with a direction by an officer given under the above, or if, within 3 months of the direction being given, he returns to any land in the area of the relevant local authority as a trespasser with the intention of residing there. It also gives a police constable in uniform a power of arrest…

The new powers proposed in 2021 are just more of the same shit, really: tightening the screw on already near impossible conditions for travellers.
‘Significant damage, disruption or distress’ can mean anything; the sight of one vehicle an encampment is enough to trigger overkill.

The proposed exclusion period from an area for 3 months has quadrupled to 12 months, making it nearly impossible for families without a site to live on to keep any consistency in life – eg keep their places at school or to attend medical appointments.

Interesting how there’s a clause in new powers about ‘intent’  – remind you of anything? The SUS law – ‘looks to me like they’re about to do something, sarge’ is a crime again.


‘any entry into any lands and tenements’

The eastern sky was full of stars

And one shone brighter than the rest
The wise men came so stern and strict
And brought the orders to evict

You’d better get born in some place else
Move along, get along
Move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift

We’re not really going to address trespass in terms of buildings in detail here: squatting has a whole other set of histories. Trespass was historically mainly dealt with through civil law, except where force had been used to enter – the common law offence of forcible entry and any offence at common law of forcible detainer (holding somebody against their will while trespassing).

This applied to both buildings and to land. The crucial legislation in that case was a series of Forcible Entry Acts passed in 1381, 1429, 1588 and 1623. All these were repealed and replaced by the 1977 Criminal Law Act.

The Forcible Entry Act 1381 was enacted to establish order in land disputes. It forbade forcible entry on any land for any purpose – or so it appeared. It states:

‘And also the King defendeth that none from henceforth make any entry into any lands and tenements but in case where entry is given by law and in such case, not with strong hand nor with multitude of people, but only in lawful peaceable and easy manner. And if any man from henceforth do to the contrary, and thereof be duly convict, he shall be punished by imprisonment.’

In other words, even a squatter who was on land when there was a forcible entry committed could prosecute for forcible entry, affording squatters protection from violent eviction. Technical amendments to the Forcible Entry Acts were made by the Acts of 1391, 1429, 1588 and 1623. The Acts gave some defence to tenants and squatters, though this was more about the Crown’s constant struggle with the powerful feudal lords to acquire for itself a monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion, in its own interests…

According to folklore or common law in Britain and in many parts of Europe, it was widely accepted that if a person succeeded in erecting a dwelling on common or waste land between sunset and sunrise and lighting a fire in it, they could not lawfully be dispossessed. There are innumerable variants on this formula and on the definition of the amount of land that might be enclosed. ‘As much as he could inclose in the night within the throw of an axe from the dwelling’ was the belief in Radnor in Wales. There are also a variety of mistaken beliefs as to the period of time for which property should be occupied unchallenged to gain title ranging from six months to 30 years. In fact, in English law squatters obtained ‘a good title’ (ie ownership) when they have retained peaceful possession for twelve years against the owner (Adverse Possession). NB: This has been now amended to make it much harder to claim.

1000s of squatter houses were built in this way over the centuries. Frequently they were people who had been squeezed out of the lowland villages where no more land was available. Hence in a county like Northamptonshire the so- called ‘forest villages’ in the 17th century were on an average half as populous again as the non-forest villages, because they had attracted so many of the rural poor who found the various common rights in the forests sufficient to give them a precarious living.’

In 1588, this trend sparked legislation to prevent squatters building DIY homes: the Erection of Cottages Act 1588, ‘against the erecting and maintaining of cottages’, which made illegal the building of a cottage unless it had four acres of land attached to it to support the occupant. The Act was directed against the dwellings of the poor.

“For the avoiding of the great inconveniencies which are found by experience to grow by the erecting and building of great numbers and multitude of cottages, which are daily more and more increased in many parts of this realm, be it enacted … that … no person shall within this realm … make, build and erect, or cause to be made, built or erected, any manner of cottage for habitation or dwelling, nor convert or ordain any building or housing made or hereafter to be made or used as a cottage for habitation or dwelling, unless the same person do assign and lay to the same cottage or building four acres of ground at the least, to be accounted according to the statute or ordinance De terris mensurandis being his or her own freehold and inheritance lying near to the said cottage, to be continually occupied and manured therewith so long as the same cottage shall be inhabited; upon pain that every such offender shall forfeit, to (the Queen) … £10 of lawful money of England for every such offence.”

Exceptions were made for those too old or inform to support themselves: cottages for the ‘impotent’ poor could be built on the village waste, so long as they had the consent of the lord of the manor and the parish officers. Other cottages might be licensed by the justices in Quarter Sessions, and much of the business of the Sessions in the 17th century was taken up by the pressing question of cottages, with ordering their demolition or sanctioning their erection, always as a measure connected with poor relief and the parish poor.

NB: The act was repealed by the Erection of Cottages Act 1775. The principal reasons for the repeal were the 1588 act had made it difficult for poor people to find ‘habitation’ (well, duh) and also that it may have caused a reduction in the rural population.

Enclosures, dispossession and other rural pressures increased in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Risings in Western England in the late 1620’s and early 1630’s turned in large part on Royal Enclosure and rights of squatters in the forests.

During the dislocation and upheaval of the English Civil War, the ferment of ideas combined with great poverty, hunger and suffering to produce political movements for whom land, access to it and how it was controlled were paramount questions. While the Leveller movement did write about the problems caused by enclosures, their more radical cousins the True Levellers, or Diggers, took matters in to their own hands, defying laws of trespass by squatting land and beginning to work it in common. This not only opposed existing rural social relations – including common rights as negotiated, established by custom or struggle on a local level – it called into question the entire system of property =, of ownership of land. No wonder they were so heavily repressed…

But even after the fledgling ‘digger’ communes were scattered, squatting continued, as it has always done, on the level of the individual family and cottage.

In 1662, after the restoration of the monarchy, the Act of Settlement was passed to restrict the movement of those who were not freeholders or who could not afford a rent of £10 a year. It declared that “by some defect of the law, poor people are not restrained from going from one parish into another and, therefore do endeavour to settle themselves in those parishes where there is the best stock, the largest commons or wastes to build cottages, and the most woods for them to burn and destroy”.

Access to land for leisure

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way

I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wageslave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday
(Ewan MacColl)

The working class movement that arose in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century developed a fierce consciousness of their and their ancestors’ dispossession from the land, of enclosure and how they had been forced into a wholly wage-based factory economy. Parallel to their struggles for better wages and conditions, for the vote, the ideas of the Spenceans, the Chartists, the land and Labour League often expressed the longing for a (sometimes idealised) rural past, rage against the theft of their ‘birthright’, and sometimes concrete plans to reclaim the land – whether by emigration to countries with more opportunities, establishing rural colonies, or revolution.

The mass trespass on Kinder Scout

The late 19th century saw the beginning of struggles by these largely urban working class movements over access to open space within towns and cities for recreation and healthy exercise – reviving furious battles to maintain or establish urban green spaces. And as rambling and climbing became popular pastimes, thence to battles to access land in rural areas that their ancestors had been dispossessed from. This led to famous struggles around access and against trespass as at Winter Hill in Lancashire and Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932.

Entering as a Trespasser

In the 20th Century squatting mainly of buildings became massive, particularly in the late 1940s and then again from 1969-2012. The vast majority of squatting cases came under civil laws, except where it could be shown force was used to enter.

The Forcible Entry Acts (see above) in fact gave some protection to squatters against violent eviction.

However, some exceptions to the civil nature of trespass had crept in in high profile cases. In R. v. Bramley (1946) however, five communists involved in the organisation of squatting in London in 1946 were convicted of conspiring to incite others to trespass; the trial judge had directed the jury that if they thought the matter had “transcended the sphere where the property owner had ordinary redress in the civil courts”, and “passed into that sphere where it became a matter of public Concern of citizens interested in the maintenance of good order and security”, then they could convict on the conspiracy charge (they did). The Labour government in fact briefly considered passing a Criminal Trespass law – before the squatting threat receded as rapidly as it had appeared.

In 1974, the offence of “Conspiracy to Trespass” was virtually created where a wrongful action was considered to have involved ‘Invasion of the public domain’. Nine students from Sierra Leone appealed their convictions for conspiracy to trespass, and unlawful assembly. Together with others who did not appeal, they had organised the occupation of the London premises of the High Commissioner for Sierra Leone in order to publicise grievances against the government of that country. Upon their arrival at the Commission, they threatened the caretaker with an imitation firearm and locked him in a reception room with ten other members of the staff. Their appeal was dismissed, establishing a precedent for this offence.

In 1977, this was altered to a certain extent, with the introduction of the 1977 Criminal Law Act. conspiracy charges could now be brought in respect of any of the five new criminal trespass offences,

Part II of this Act related to ‘Offences relating to entering and remaining on property’. This Part implemented recommendations contained in the Report on Conspiracy and Criminal Law Reform (Law Com 76) by the Law Commission.

The crucial part was Section 6 – Violence for securing entry.

Section 6 created an offence of using or threatening unauthorised violence for the purpose of securing entry into any premises, while there was known to be a person inside opposing entry. Violence is taken to include violence to property, as well as to people.

Ironically, this section was usable by both owners and their agents and squatters – since the latter could get done for breaking in, but bailiffs etc could not use force to evict squatters while actually in the property, unless a Possession Order had been granted. (If you left the place empty they could break in and secure the place)

This section was widely used by squatters in England and Wales, as it made it a crime in most circumstances for the landlord to force entry, as long as the squatters were physically present and expressed opposition to the landlord’s entry.

Section 6 was referred to in printed legal warnings, which are commonly displayed near the entrances to squatted buildings.

Reasonable force used by a bailiff executing a possession order would not be considered unauthorised violence, so landlords can still legally regain possession through the courts.

Section 7 – Adverse occupation of residential premises – Section 8 – Trespassing with a weapon of offence, and Obstructing Court Officers – were also relevant to squatting, allowing for arrest / eviction under PIO, DRO and prosecution for resisting bailiffs…

Repeal of the Forcible Entry Acts while passing the 1977 act in fact also affected licensees, and subtenants, as it strengthened the position of landlords to evict them after asking them to leave or while they were out…

The 1977 act was in part an attempt to prevent workers occupying their factories, a then huge trend in the UK, as well as at cracking down on the then massive squatting wave.

The emergence in the 1970s and 80s of ‘new age travellers’ as a culture – mostly people dropping out of settled society to go travelling in vehicles, intimately connected to the festival scene – sparked a moral panic among government, police and property owners reminiscent of the 16th century scare about ‘Egyptians’ and ‘study rogues’. (In fact one description of them that caught on was that they were like ‘medieval brigands’)

Police surround a travellers’ bus in the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’

The campaign against new age travellers – in particular the ‘peace convoy’ – climaxed with the banning of the Stonehenge free festival in 1985 and the heavily armed police attack on the convoy at the ‘Battle of the Beanfield in June.

Legally, police mainly used existing legislation up till 1986. Injunctions were used by police to try to prevent the travellers from coming near Stonehenge. Injunctions are court orders banning a specific action, usually pending a court case (civil or criminal). Some injunctions carry a financial penalty – others can result in imprisonment. (Injunctions have since become an important weapon against protestors, being especially used to stop blockades, pickets, protests at particular sites, useful as they can be targeted at both individuals and organisations.)

The 1986 Public Order Act gave police the power to break up any group of 12 or more vehicles, which made it easier to break up and harass the convoy.

However, rave culture and the resulting revival of free festivals led to further legislation in the passing of the Criminal Justice Act 1994. This Act brought in a further criminal offence of ‘aggravated trespass’.

The whole of Part V of the Act covered collective trespass and ‘nuisance’ on land and included sections against raves and against disruptive trespass, squatters, and unauthorised campers. Significantly this involved the criminalisation of previously civil offences. This affected many forms of protest including hunt sabotage and anti-road protests.

Under the Offence of aggravated trespass:

(1) A person commits the offence of aggravated trespass if he trespasses on land [in the open air] and, in relation to any lawful activity which persons are engaging in or are about to engage in on that or adjoining land in the open air, does there anything which is intended by him to have the effect—

(a) of intimidating those persons or any of them so as to deter them or any of them from engaging in that activity,

(b) of obstructing that activity, or

(c) of disrupting that activity.

(2) Activity on any occasion on the part of a person or persons on land is “lawful” for the purposes of this section if he or they may engage in the activity on the land on that occasion without committing an offence or trespassing on the land.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale, or both.

(4) A constable in uniform who reasonably suspects that a person is committing an offence under this section may arrest him without a warrant.

(5) In this section “land” does not include—

(a) the highways and roads excluded from the application of section 61 by paragraph (b) of the definition of “land” in subsection (9) of that section; or

(b) a road within the meaning of the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.

It’s worth noting civil law offences against trespass are superseded in the interests of law ‘n’ order – eg the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which allows the police to enter private land for the purposes of carrying out an arrest. Hence cops can come into your home and nick you.

However – under legislation in Scotland, ‘trespassing on a moor with the intention of disrupting (even peacefully) a legally organised shoot and other similar activities is now a criminal offence, punishable with a fine of up to £2500 or a 3 month prison sentence’.

Swinging Back the Other Way: Access legislation

The Ramblers Association and other reasonably respectable organisations had objected to the ‘aggravated trespass’ clauses in the 1994 CJA as they felt they could easily be used against walkers in rural areas.

Their long campaigning around access to previously closed land was rewarded by Tony Blair’s New Labour government.

In 2000 the Government legislated to introduce a limited right to roam, without compensation for landowners. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) was gradually implemented from 2000 onwards to give the general public the conditional right to walk in certain areas of the English and Welsh countryside: principally downland, moorland, heathland and coastal land. Forests and woodlands are excluded, other than publicly owned forests, which have a similar right of access by virtue of a voluntary dedication made by the Forestry Commission. Developed land, gardens and certain other areas are specifically excluded from the right of access. Agricultural land is accessible if it falls within one of the categories described above.

The 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 secured the traditional rights and freedoms to access land, coast and inland water in Scotland.

However, as noted in our companion piece of Public Order Legislation – passing this (undoubtedly liberal) law which had great positive consequences for walkers was not accompanied by repeal of the Criminal Justice Act. Labour felt the need to hang on to all the repressive legal armouries the tories had bequeathed them…

Laws regarding squatting residential properties were revised in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which effectively criminalised squatting in residential property. Squatting remains more possible in commercial premises.

It’s My Way – or the Highway!


Wagon tent or trailer born
Last month, last year or in far off days
Born here or a thousand miles away
There’s always men nearby who’ll say

You’d better get born in some place else
Move along, get along
Move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift

It’s also worth noting that laws can often be flexibly interpreted to make them useful to the propertied, even when they don’t seem to apply in a given situation. For instance – when is a public highway NOT a public highway? When you are using it to protest or hold a rally or meeting…

19th century radicals and socialists spread their ideas in many ways, but holding meetings in the open air, whether on the street or on open green spaces, was long a popular tactic. This faced decades of repression from the authorities and the police, and speakers were often arrested, charged and imprisoned. In the street this was for Obstruction of the highway under a succession of Highways Acts (currently applied under Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980).

In parks and green spaces, there was often a local authority bylaw against holding meetings (check out the back of those bog notices at park entrances – there’s a long list of things you aren’t permitted to do there…) ‘Free speech fights’ over arrests of speakers became a regular occurrence in the 1880s and 1890s for UK socialists and anarchists.

There’s also a legal precedent, going back to a law case from 1892 (Harrison v Duke of Rutland, 1892), laying down that if your on the road you should be walking and nothing else… A man was prosecuted for obstruction of the highway when he attempted to disrupt a grouse shoot on the moors outside Hathersage in the Peak District. The owner of the land and head of the grouse shoot, the Duke of Rutland, got his servants to restrain and hold down the man on the road. The man appealed for unlawful imprisonment, but his appeal was rejected because he was ‘admittedly on the highway, not for the purpose of using it as a highway but for the purpose of preventing the Duke and his friends from exercising their undoubted right of shooting [therefore] he was a trespasser on the road’.

This was a significant judgement as free passage along a public highway is a common right, whether or not it goes across private land, but the case proved that people could only use the public highway for getting from A to B, and not for other purposes!

Katrina Navickas cites this case as an example of what she calls the ‘static/mobile’ binary, in which landowners and static uses of property have precedence over mobile or nomadic uses.

Undoubtedly this could be applied to much of the above legislation. From the Statute of Winchester, and perhaps before, the assumption has always been that the stranger, anyone who doesn’t remain in one place, is a danger and a threat to the ‘settled’ community. It’s worth adding that the threat is defined by those with property, and aimed at those without, though they can enclose many of the latter to gang up on others on the basis of any number of false dichotomies – colour, race, nation, religion and what kind of home people live in…

The law remains fully committed to backing the ‘static’ but specifically to the propertied ‘static’. Modern methods of control over space and access to it are not only legal but technological – CCTV and other surveillance, ID cards, swipe cards, fingerprint and face recognition software. Open space in many of our cities appears free and easy, but lots of concourses, squares and plazas in new developments are privately owned, and you can be prevented from protesting, hanging out or doing pretty much anything depending on the power and will of private corporations. Meanwhile London councils are planning to build on any open space they can get way with.


… If wandering offends against the controls ruling elites have over us…

… If our collective defence offends the laws they make to fence us in and fence us out…

… If their hirelings can arrest and fine us for not respecting their imaginary boundaries…

The powers that be have trespassed against us for 1000 years.



We have concentrated here on the legal and repressive actions of the authorities, rather than on resistance, though obviously some of that has been mentioned.

Some articles we have written on resistance to enclosure


For advice/legal help

Travellers rights:

Friends, Families And Travellers

A directory of Roma organisations


Advisory Service for Squatters


Open Spaces Society

Ramblers Association





Today in London radical history, 1834: massive demonstration from Islington in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834, 30,000 people rallied at Copenhagen Fields, Islington, to protest the sentences on the Tolpuddle Martyrs: six Dorset farm labourers sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies for seven years, after being arrested for meeting to organise a branch of an agricultural workers trade union.

On 24th February 1834, Dorset farm labourers George Loveless, his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and Thomas’s son John – were charged with having taken an illegal oath. But their real crime in the eyes of the establishment was to have formed a trade union to protest about their meagre pay of six shillings a week – the equivalent of 30p in today’s money – and the third wage cut in as many years.

Although the ban on forming and being a member of a trade union had been overturned in law nine years before, the ruling classes still had many weapons in their armoury to prevent working people from getting together to improve their lives; the six Tolpuddle men had been convicted of administering oaths to members of the union, illegal under the Mutiny Act. The arrests were undoubtedly influenced by the massive rural labourers’ revolt of 1830, the Captain Swing movement – any collective action by farmworkers following 1830 induced panic in the upper classes.

So when the local squire and landowner, James Frampton, caught wind of a group of his workers forming a union, he sought to stamp it out.

The Tolpuddle workers met either under the sycamore tree in the village or in the upper room of Thomas Standfield’s cottage. Members swore of an oath of secrecy – and it was this act that led to the men’s arrest and subsequent sentence of seven years’ transportation.

The men’s sentencing, on March 19th 1834, provoked a huge outcry from working class organisations in support of the Martyrs. A massive demonstration marched through London and an 800,000-strong petition was delivered to Parliament protesting about their sentence.

The convict ships taking them to Van Diemen’s Land were still in transit when the plan for a ‘national holiday’ (general strike) in support was broached; cautious voices in the union movement reduced this to a one-day demonstration.

The campaign climaxed in a huge demonstration from Islington’s Copenhagen Fields to Parliament.The march was organised by the London Metropolitan Trades, an alliance of trade unionists, many of them influenced by co-operative ideas (who had also been behind the founding of the National Union of the Working Classes).

Copenhagen Fields was chosen as the meeting point because it was private land, and could be booked; thus the authorities would be not be able to ban the rally. Earlier landlord Robert Orchard had been a radical; it is possible that the 1834 tenant also was sympathetic to the unionists’ cause; but the place also had radical resonances – the Times called it  ‘the old rendezvous of disturbance’, because it had a history of use as a radical meeting point, most notably for the monster rally by the London Corresponding Society in 1795.

Socialist Robert Owen booked the Fields; the police announced they would not block the march (though the government took the precaution of bringing in several battalions of troops just in case heads had to be cracked)…

The plan was to march to parliament and hand in the petition for the six men’s release to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.

“At 7am, a light wagon festooned with blue and red calico was carried on to Copenhagen Fields by twelve bearers. On top of the wagon was an iron frame carrying the petition for remission of sentence. The petition itself was on a wooden roller, was two feet broad and three feet in length, and bore between two hundred and three hundred thousand signatures. By 8am, the approaches to the Fields were packed with members of the various lodges marching from their earlier assembly points. There were tailors, ‘distinguished by the jauntiness of their appearance’, smiths and metal-workers ‘a little dingy’, coalheavers ‘in their frocks and fantails’, and the silk weavers whose appearance ‘told a tale of squalid misery which every man must regret to know exists.’…”

Numbers attending were reckoned depending on which side you were on; from twenty  thousand, (according to its opponents’ calculations), to two hundred thousand (trumpeted by enthusiastic supporters). The Times claimed to have analysed the procession and came up with a figure of about thirty-five thousand. However even if this is accurate, there could have been more in the Fields who did not follow the march, and great numbers certainly watched but did not take part.

“According to The Times there were thirty-three banners, according to the True Sun [a radical paper] ‘nineteen facing London and twenty facing Hampstead.’… fluttering in the wind, shining in the sun – and it was fins spring day. By 9am the vast area of the Fields was filled with a mass of people thick and tight as grass on a well –maintained lawn. The Times sais the scene was most imposing..” … About 9.30am a rocket was fired as the signal for the procession to start. In the front were the horsemen… next came the Central Committee of the Metropolitan Trades Unions; then the twelve bearers carrying the festooned waggon with the monster petition, with the members of the delegation who were to present it…”

The march wended a long route, watched by thousands of spectators the whole way, through Kings Cross, Bloomsbury, Soho to Charing Cross and Whitehall; where Lord Melbourne decided he would not meet them to receive the petition.

However this march was just the beginning of the campaign: within two years the pressure had grown so great that the government was forced to backtrack and pardon the six men, and by 1839 all were free and back in England.

Read more on the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the campaign to bring them home

A mural in modern Copenhagen Street commemorates the demonstration

This is the Real Brixton Challenge

Brixton from the late 1980s…

Below we’ve tried to set out some of the changes we’ve seen in Brixton, South London, since the heady days of the early 1980s. In the 1970s and ‘80s the mainly West Indian street culture, the blues clubs of the frontline, and the huge teeming alternative scene, largely hosted in squatted houses and venues, combined to produce what seemed almost an alternative counter-culture, or maybe more accurately, several parallel counter-cultures which overlapped in places. Over the last 30 years much of this has gradually ebbed away – though considerable remnants can still be found here and there.

This post doesn’t claim to be a coherent and comprehensive chronicle of that change; it’s more of a number of experiences and struggles stitched together. There’s lots of other people out there with different perspectives, and sociological stat-gargling is not our game. We’ve set things out as we saw them.
Some of this post overlaps with an older post on gentrification and resistance in Brixton.


The riots in Brixton and other cities in 1981 had many consequences. One was a determination by various authorities – national, local – to not allow such scenes to be repeated. An organised uprising that beats the police off the streets, based in cultures that are increasingly out of the ken of the state and systems of control, was a provocation of serious proportions.
A myriad of schemes were dreamed up aimed at dismantling the autonomy of groups that had challenged the status quo in 1981, and various legislative and social measures combined to remove the threat of further uprisings. Not all of them were linked by a grand conspiratorial cabal; some had other aims. Some were launched from almost contradictory standpoints.

The main changes that impacted on Brixton’s alternative culture were

  • changes in housing policy, both local and national,
  • changes in the system of benefits and welfare payments
  • urban regeneration programmes
  • gentrification
  • class and social evolutions

Housing, and particularly squatting, had been central to a lot of the factors that allowed Brixton to evolve as it did in the 1970s and ‘80s. The council compulsory purchasing of hundreds of houses in the late 1960s and early 70s, many for regeneration and development schemes that never took place, combined with a huge housing shortage, led to mass squatting in the area. Due to the counter-cultural ethos of the time, squats also housed lots of radical, left-thinking or politically confrontational projects, as well as an alternative economy. Because Lambeth was home to thousands of young black people living in poor quality overcrowded homes, many young black you also began to squat.

Like many another inner city council, Lambeth’s own housing stock was often old, in poor repair or un-lettable. Rate-capping and ventral government cuts meant the council had little money to do up flats and houses, or build more. Some of the newer council estates built to address this were so alienating and badly designed that they ended up also being partially taken over by squatters. When the Greater London Council was abolished in the mid-1980s, Lambeth was handed more ageing housing stock it could barely manage.
National housing policy was about to take a hand. The Thatcher government had since 1980 been pushing the Right to Buy scheme, where council tenants were offered incentives and discounts to buy their council homes (as well as encouraging cheaper and easier mortgages to lure people into buying.) This was partly financial – rid the state whether local or national of the responsibility for maintaining crumbling housing – and partly ideological: both to attack urban local authorities (often Labour-controlled) and also to carjack many working class people into a new consciousness, of home-owning individualism. What social solidarity experienced by council estate residents could do to bring people together, the tories wanted to atomise, but also Thatcher and her ilk had a clear vision, that encouraging individualism at home could lead to more individualism at work and in the wider community, and both break down possibilities of solidarity as well as hostage people to get them working harder.

The vast success of this policy has altered the housing landscape in the UK, and had the neat side-effect for finance capital of creating a (seemingly ever-expanding) resource for speculation in the form of mortgages, rising house prices, etc…

For councils this meant increasing numbers of homes taken out of their control, and ever-expanding housing waiting lists. To guarantee the success of Right to Buy, central government also hammered councils with various penalties and handicaps, such as preventing them from using any money raised from council house sales for actually doing up existing stock (a law that existed right up until Blair’s government).

[Nationally this was a disaster, in London it was a total catastrophe. The huge housing shortage it helped fuel had led to farcical scenes that have only benefitted the landlord class. A report published in January 2013 showed that 36% of homes sold under Right to Buy in London (52,000 homes) were being rented by councils from private landlords, for Temporary Accommodation; it has helped to fuel the increase in the housing benefit bill, heaped more pressure on local authority waiting lists and led to more Londoners being forced into the under-regulated private rented sector. Another survey in 2013 showed around one third of Right to Buy houses were now owned by private landlords, while the son of the late Ian Gow (Thatcher’s housing minister) owned some 40 ex-council houses. A 2017 BBC survey of council areas where waiting lists were rising showed the councils had bought back houses they had been forced to sell, sometimes at many times the original price. Housing charities criticised the lack of investment in affordable housing.]

Throughout the 80s, homelessness rose in London as a whole and Lambeth in particular. Both councils and Housing Associations were forced to concentrate resources on ‘priority need’ homeless, single people could mainly whistle. Many homeless people were redefined so Councils weren’t obliged to house them, eg there was a harsher use of the “Intentionally homeless” clause. People who applied to the Homeless Persons Unit could be deemed intentionally homeless if they’d left a secure home of their own accord. They could then be denied housing; obviously many left places because the rent went up, or due to violent or defunct relationships; no housing for them. When evicting squatters, councils could often evade their responsibilities to rehouse families etc by giving them one offer, and declaring them Intentionally Homeless if they turned it down – the places on offer often being shite or unsuitable. Housing Associations that had previously houses more single people were forced to also concentrate on priority need cases.

Under Labour control in the mid-1970s-early 80s, Lambeth Council had careered between making deals with squatters and allowing them to form housing co-ops to manage their squats, to mass eviction and demolition. The leftwing administration of ‘Red’ Ted Knight had been all shouty about policing and postured a lot, leading to a confrontation with Thatcher over rate-capping; however, the practical upshot by the late ’80s was a council in financial disarray.

A succession of labour administrations tried to balance the books. Every financial year saw a further round of cuts to services (leading to strikes among council workers). The housing problem remained one of Lambeth’s major headaches. Squatting was seen as a cause (rather than, realistically, a symptom) of the housing shortage, and a concerted effort was made to de-squat the borough.

Already there had been a wave of evictions; in 1986 many squatters were forced out of Brixton altogether (many went to West Norwood: the whole of Rothschild Street and other places in Gipsy Hill were occupied by Brixton exiles). Within a short time, many places were resquatted in Brixton though, as the council just didn’t move as fast as squatters.

One notable squatted area targetted at this time was the Brailsford/Arlingford Road area, on the edge of Brockwell Park. There had been a small squatters community in Arlingford and Brailsford roads since 1973; by late 84 there were 16 squats, including  ‘The Bunker’, a community café. Council and cops had a beef with the squatters there, as they were organised and stroppy. 50 squatters chased off bailiffs out of these streets in 1984.

Brailsford Road was home to the Squatters Creche, started by local mothers from the Brockwell Park one o clock club, desperate for childcare, in the face of a 1-3 year waiting list for local nurseries, many of which were being shut due to ratecapping. They were offered a shop (virtually empty for 5 years) at 24 Brailsford Road by local squatters; but thought they’d try to get a licence off the council, (even supported by workers at Effra Parade Housing office!)… 4 days later 8 bailiffs and 4 vans of cops turned up and evicted the crèche, chucking the kids toys out in the snow and boarding it up. No court orders, nowt.

It was resquatted 2 days later, Amsterdam style, in broad daylight by 30 squatters… The creche went through 4 places in 4 years, facing repeated evictions… They managed to keep a playgroup open a couple of days a week… looking after several kids and toddlers a day… 3 to 4 adults looking after them all day, with older kids often helping out… One of the buildings was stormed by riot cops and bailiffs in 1986. In response, 25 mothers and supporters invaded a Lambeth Housing meeting. … The creche ended up at 77 Brailsford Road… Which was in its turn evicted.

Brailsford and Arlingford’s squatting community continued to be a major target for the Lambeth/police machine; not happy with raiding 5 houses after the ‘85 riot and repeatedly trashing the Creche, April ‘86 saw another mass attack and eviction of several houses.

Ironically, around the corner from the Squat Creche lay the nursery for council workers in Morval Road, which had never actually even opened, due to ‘recruitment problems and Council disputes with the Inland Revenue’m, and had lain empty for three years. Hilariously Lambeth had paid a security firm £60,000 to keep it from being squatted. However, it was occupied by the Black Cultural Awareness Programme, in January 1987, who opened it as a daily nursery, homeless hostel & ran education classes, and a HQ for their Anti-Apartheid campaign – they regularly picketed banks and supermarkets who collaborated with the Pretoria regime. They were evicted several months later, (In 1999 after it again remained empty for some years a group of folk squatted it again to live in for a while. )

Despite these and other evictions, in the late 80s, the Council estimated 900 of its properties were squatted (not counting the ones they had forgotten about!); add on to this Housing Association squats, and squatted private houses. The Advisory Service for Squatters at this time reckoned there were 3250 squatters in Lambeth, Brixton squatters’ mag Crowbar claimed 6000 (this may have been typical Crowbar-bravado, to some extent!).

But 400 squats were evicted between January and March 1988, and 225 new tenancies created (yes, that does leave 175 empties!) Big campaigns to clear estates were partially successful: there were mass evictions on St. Martins Estate in Tulse Hill, and on the Loughborough Estate.

There were many tactics…. Protected Intending Occupiers or PIOs, (under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act, 1977) meant that the Council could evict squatters in a flat or house, without going through the usual (expensive and time-consuming) court procedures, if someone had signed a tenancy agreement before it was squatted. Lambeth used PIOs freely, not always legally, in the late 80s: obviously if you got someone to sign the tenancy you could backdate it, or you could make up names: one mate beat a PIO when he noticed that the name of the prospective tenant was the name of the block his flat was in, only slightly re-arranged). Later PIOs came to be legal even if the tenant had signed AFTER the squatters moved in.

Other tactics were used: ferocious desquatting teams cleared some of the estates.

The 1990 Local Government/ Housing Act jacked up the pressure on councils: it ring-fenced housing money, penalising Councils for having voids, which included empty places and squats, so forcing them to get more efficient at re-tenanting places. In fact, it led to mass sales of empties, or offloading en masse to Housing Associations. Lambeth’s waiting list was famously shut for years on end, even priority need homeless only ever got put in temporary accommodation or hostels, if dealt with at all. (The Act also handed more power to private landlords to increase rents and evict people – especially for new tenants).

There was a rise in squatting in housing association property, as councils tried to offload street properties (mainly) to them… often Housing Associations were less competent than Councils at using voids, they usually had a higher percentage empty, and were less able to get places back into use due to more uncertain funding etc. The most run down places were often given to Housing Associations (35% of all Lambeth stock was classed as ‘hard to let’). Some of these they sublet to Shortlife co-ops, effectively self-managed: relations were often strained though, as there was often little security, money and repairs were thin on the ground.

In the late 80s, some Associations made deals/gave licences to squatters, at a time when the Council had mostly stopped such deals. But others opposed dealing with either squatters or shortlife groups: one argument was that allowing people to house themselves “breached equal opportunities” or that people were “jumping the queue”. Equal opps didn’t of course apply to single people, who could mostly fuck off.

Council deals with larger co-ops or Housing Associations took a nasty turn in Lambeth in the mid- to late 80s; sweetheart deals were done with black-run Associations like Black Roof and Al-Shahada (which largely housed Muslims). Lambeth gave away houses to these groups, often ones that were already squatted; in some cases they made a big play that squatters were “racist” for not just moving out, in others they simply told the Associations that they could have the houses if they kicked the squatters out. As early as 1983, Black Roof were seeking eviction of a squat in Brailsford Road, that they’d been promised by the council; Lambeth Federation of Housing Co-ops put a stop to it. This happened with several houses around Brixton, the presence of the Mosque at 2 Gresham Road derives from one of these murky arrangements: Al-Shaharda goons broke in when the squatters unwisely left it empty one day. The Council clearly aimed at pitting ‘squatters’ and ‘black people’ against each other, despite the fact that these were not mutually exclusive ‘identities’.

As well as boosting private landlords and hitting council funds, the 1990 Housing Act also paved the way for the selling off of council estates. The Act introduced Housing Action Trusts (HATs), boards of state appointees, who would take over estates, usually in run down ones, do them up and then sell them off after 3 years. Rents would rise to market levels, and eventually the estate would go private in effect. After some campaigning, as a concession,

Anti-HATs demo

tenants on the earmarked estates were allowed to vote on whether to let this happen – a bad move, for the government at the time, as many estate residents didn’t like the idea, and voted no, most notably Loughborough Estate in Brixton in 1989. Other South London Tenants Associations (on the ‘notorious’ North Peckham and Gloucester Estates in Peckham) threatened rioting if a HAT was imposed. Lefty Labour councils like Lambeth opposed HATs, as they would’ve undermined their ability to rehouse people, and weakened their power generally. At the time, with the threat of revolt over the impending imposition of the Poll Tax growing, usually in the same areas as the estates they wanted to pilot the scheme, the government didn’t push it. HATs proved a non-start – then.

Later of course the HAT idea formed the basis of many changes that did go through – since the mid-1990s, social housing has been increasingly unraveled, with estates being palmed off on Housing Associations, or new Trusts. Opposition to sell offs has been organised, sometimes very strongly from tenants, but in many cases people have been bought off, lied to about future conditions, denied votes, abstentions counting as pro-votes. Pressure has been put on directly by Councils, who  are now keen to offload estates that cost them too much in money, time and effort, and indirectly by having blocks run down to a state where tenants believe leaving Council control CAN’T be worse. This has been national policy of both Tory and Labore governments, and financial and idealogical changes have had councils dancing to the tune.

Spatial Deconcentration?

Was the break up of council housing, the sell off of estates, the crackdown on squatting, more than just an anticipation of the crippling rises in property prices in London, were there more than immediate economic motives?  The Tory ideal of a land of happy respectable owner-occupiers who minded their own business, kept out of trouble, bought shares and washed the car on Sundays, which many bought into in the 80s, is impossible to achieve for all in even the most prosperous society. There will always be those with nothing who threaten the social order.

The rightwing thinktanks that so powerfully influenced Thatcher and her gang in the 1980s, must have addressed the causes of the 81 and later riots and come to some conclusions. To prevent people from getting together and overturning the misery of their lives, you can impose a number of options.

One approach, developed in the 1970s in the US, was labelled ‘Spatial Deconcentration’. In the wake of massive urban riots and political unrest in the US cities in the late 60s, the Federal government developed a scheme for breaking up the large communities of blacks and other troublesome minorities, and relocating them, in suburbs, further from the centres of power and influence, and broken up into smaller, more isolated groups which could less easily organise and rebel. On the one hand government subsidies encouraged the inner city poor to move out; on the other they let inner cities decline, pushed local authorities into shutting down cheap housing etc, then allowed development by property companies to rebuild inner city districts for the middle classes.

This wasn’t a conspiracy theory dreamed up by paranoid lefties, it was traced through documentary evidence to the highest levels of government, aided and abetted by the FBI/CIA, Big Business…

Whether or not gentrification in London was similarly engineered to lessen resistance, the effect has been largely the same in many neighbourhoods. What were beginning to become no-go areas with a permanently alienated autonomous culture have been largely broken up, and the petty-bourgeoisie have been planted in their place. Differences in housing patterns in London, though, mean that rather than being forced from one ghetto to another, middle class and working class, poor and well-heeled, live cheek by jowl. This has in fact been characteristic of the city for centuries, and tends to ebb and flow. The clearing of the Frontline, and similar ‘troublesome areas’, echoes the existence in past centuries of the London Rookeries, crowded poor areas filled with rebels, crims, outcasts and where the law did not fully run. Scattered through the City and Westminster, they had to be destroyed; but they would often spring up again elsewhere.

“For a ghetto can be a source of strength, if it is not a place that keeps you IN but one that keeps your enemy OUT.” (Midnight Notes)

You Need Councilling, mate

By the early 1990s, the landscape was changing. Not only in Brixton, of course; all over London yuppification, ‘regeneration’, privatisation, crackdowns in benefits and subtler trends in policing among other developments, were altering our social & cultural environment.

Lambeth Council often seemed hapless, lurching from crisis to crisis. One moment its left (though not as far left as a few years before) leadership was holding meetings against the poll tax, the next they were setting the second highest local rate in the UK and prosecuting people who couldn’t pay. Since most of Lambeth either couldn’t afford to pay or refused to on principle this was a big deal, and led to rioting in March 1990 outside the Town hall and ructions inside it. At one point in 1990 it seemed activists were disrupting council meetings every month.

The annual round of cuts in services bit and bit – every year more local spaces and projects closed. Dick Sheppard Youth Centre, closed despite protests/marches May 1991; neighbouring Dick Sheppard School in Tulse Hill was closed and knocked down for housing in 1994, despite a valiant campaigns to save it, by teachers, pupils. There were strikes in Lambeth Colleges, in 1992 by NATFHE against Education Authority budget cuts, with mass meetings of 200, daily pickets of the colleges. They won: the Education Authority backed down, on compulsory redundancies, cuts. Later in the decade libraries, community centres, playgrounds faced cuts. There were any number of such campaigns, some won; most lost.

Behind the scenes there was all sorts of skulduggery; in the basement the Town Hall Social Club was a notorious stronghold of the old Ted Knight faction, combining left rhetoric with local corruption and backhanders, and – according to a mate who worked behind the bar – some involvement in filming porn films in a disused basement room… Low rent loony lefty Lambeth luvvies leer… (You can only imagine the dialogue: “Hi, I’m Ted, I have come to collect your Poll Tax.” “But I thought this was a Poll tax Free Zone.” “No, that’s a Nuclear Free Zone.” “You’d better come in and inspect my trade union credentials… Oh dear, it’s so hot in here…”) Meanwhile workers in the council payroll department discovered that of all things, in equal opps Lambeth, black workers were paid less than white for the same job, and went on strike in 1992.

In Lambeth, auction signs were up outside council property all over the place (by 1993, many private houses that had been bought on precarious mortgages were also for sale as newly skint folk defaulted on their mortgages). A combination of national policy and council skullduggery led to virtually all Lambeth’s street properties (ie houses not on estates) being sold off – much of it to property developers, to be done up for the middle classes, who were swarming in on Brixton. This was closing down many of the housing co-ops/ shortlife groups, created from the Council’s response to the squatting wave. Meanwhile, estates were being handed over to housing associations, to be run as social housing, but with a lot less security for tenants, and with few guarantees of a cheap rent future, as many associations were increasingly being run as orthodox property companies. After 20 years the Council had finally got the upper hand over squatters.

As a result 1000s of people had been forced out of Brixton – quite simply couldn’t afford to live there or couldn’t find a place. Private and council rents were rocketing. A clear change in the class composition of Brixton was happening before our eyes, at a frightening speed.

Any advance on One Dead Yuppie?

Brixton Squatters attempted to disrupt the street property selloffs, since many of their houses were being disposed of over their heads. Auctions at the Connaught Roomsj in Covent Garden leafleted, shouted down the auctioneer and informed potential buyers (including at least one Lambeth Tory councillor!)  that buying  houses with squatters in would be not worth their while… At one point a food fight started – bidders started throwing stuff at the squatters!

On top of the attempted decimation of squatting Lambeth also went after shortlife properties – council owned flats and houses that had been licensed or leased out (in some cases for 20 years) to housing associations, or co-ops, usually because the council didn’t have the money to do them up… Many residents had been living in these often run-down places for years, the subject of plan after plan by the Council, devised mainly to avoid recognising them as council tenants; only to be forced out when the Council decided to sell the houses off for a short-term profit. Both Liberal/Tory and Labour administrations pressed ahead with this policy, although when in opposition each tried to woo shortlife residents by denouncing the idea. Labour councillor Tom Franklin (later leader of the council) wrote to over a hundred shortlife tenanats while out of power to ‘alert’ them to Lib/Tory pland and propose an alliance, then, post- the Labour election victory, on becoming Housing Chair, Franklin…continued the sell-off plan.

Should we be surprised?

In places like Rushcroft Road and Clifton mansions in central Brixton, the council repossessed flats in the late 90s and early 2000s, most let to London & Quadrant Housing Association for 2 decades, in order to flog them off for £200,000 a pop… However due to incompetence and bureaucracy, evicted flats lay empty and got re-squatted for another few years.

Such disposal of ‘street properties’ especially run-down, ex-squats and co-op houses, was happening all over London, hand in hand with the removal of estates from council control.

To deal with their estates,  councils often handed over responsibility for estates to housing associations, Trusts, Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) or more recently Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs). Usually where tenants are given a choice they are persuaded or browbeaten into voting for this change… In many places their housing is deliberately run down beforehand and flash promises made to make the deal more attractive… But for many gain is shortlived, as Housing Association rents rise rapidly, more and more as they become mere profit-making landlords. TMOs seem like a democratisation of housing, but in reality they break up the solidarity of tenants in different areas, while the housing is run day to day by paid professionals… For the thousands of us in financial difficulties, TMOs and smaller units of housing have proved more efficient than incompetent council housing depts at evicting for small amounts of arrears or catching out unauthorised sub-letting…

More than ever in London, cheap housing, and more especially housing run for need not profit, is a vanished dream. In theory solidarity of tenants against different landlords is possible (in World War One and in the 1930s, 1000s of private tenants went on huge rent strikes against several landlords at one and prevented rent rises and evictions)… but this depends on their combativity and confidence: not at a notably high level in the capital these days. Still there are promising signs…

Intellectually Challenged

In 1993 Lambeth received and spent (squandered) the millions of pounds given to them by the City Challenge for the regeneration of the area.

Attempts by the Council to get huge government wodge to regenerate Brixton didn’t end with the failure of the Brixton Plan… In the 70s the Inner Area Programme, later the Urban Programme, was designed to do up inner city areas with high unemployment, high crime, poor housing and crap shopping facilities (?)… sadly by 1976, the global economic recession and the imposition of International Monetary Fund restraints in the UK meant govt spending had to be cut back, drastically, and this hit hard at funding for such schemes… Under the new Tory govt in the early 80s this led to a ‘partnership’ approach, a mosaic of council/govt/church and voluntary groups… After the 81 riots, a whole shelf of projects were set up, aimed at tarting up deprived neighbourhoods, buying them off and building up networks of control, or attempting to bring back work, prosperity and a sense of local pride – depending on your viewpoint.

The trouble with the Urban Programme was that the special state money was a 3 year deal, after that the funds for any projects had to be found from existing (usually local government) budgets; so things would just get started and they’d peter out. During the rate-capping days of the 80s, many schemes were cut back. The pretence of trying to do things for the ghettoes where riots had occurred was wearing thin.

The ’80s Enterprise Zones regeneration programmes did nothing for Brixton, which lacked the necessary ex-industrial base and eager commercial interest willing to move in (or space to start businesses).

The Tory mantra was that business should be the engine of renewal for depressed areas… This led to the creation in the 1990s of the City Challenge Programme. Local councils were encouraged to make links with business, and other agencies, and bid for money for regeneration. Lambeth dithered for a while whether Brixton or Vauxhall should be the focus of its bid, but in the end put in a bid up for Brixton Town Centre. City Challenge money was quite specific – tightly drawn boundaries as to where the cash could be spent, in doing up small town centre areas. Brixton got its money in April 1993, on a five year programme, to be run by a company set up separately from the Council. The Brixton Challenge Board included councillors, local businessmen, representatives from the police, community groups, the Health Authority and tenants associations.

The aim was clearly to turn Brixton centre into a tourist attraction, for folk to come down and spend money from the West End… A hotel was planned on the site of the old Dole office/Voice newspaper office. Though at the time, this didn’t in fact happen – perhaps the prospect of hapless Japanese tourists coming face to face with crackheads or wandering into the Angel pub made them think again.

Brixton Challenge produced a lot of hype, lots of money, but few concrete results. The Ritzy cinema, the Challenge flagship project, reopened with a couple of glossy bars attached (more of us ended up working behind the bar than drinking there.) Huge sums floated about, much of which was wasted. Frantic manouevering was necessary to rescue from collapse plans to redevelop the area above and around the tube station in 1997 (happily we now have a soulless pile of shite and pointless shops above the station). Even a former Brixton Challenge Director, Mike Harry, knew the score: “Despite the investment, local people have not benefited, because the local communities and existing small businesses – the people who live and work in Brixton – have never been at the heart of the regeneration process.”

Huge sums had been spent on shops, bars, consultation groups, glossy leaflets; many smart operators, some of them people we’d known, friends of friends, people we’d co-operated with or come across in political campaigns or social scenes, scammed money too, for various dodgy schemes, or got on board the gravy train and made niche for themselves. The Brixton Town Centre regeneration scheme was run by one Jo Negrini, an individual we’d known from the Brixton lesbian scene… from this base she went on to rise and rise, and was only recently forced to resign as Chief Executive of Croydon Council, having helped steer that borough into near financial collapse…

Many locals ended up somewhat pissed off, having not really benefitted from all this cash. “Most of the things they’ve built up were of no use to the community. They could have built up houses with the money spent on the Ritzy. Change is happening in Brixton but unfortunately Brixtonians don’t benefit. White affluent people are coming into Brixton now, while people are getting rid of jobs in meetings in private.”

And while millions were being poured into someone’s pockets, council amenities were STILL being closed: in 1995 community centre, old people’s homes, and libraries were closed to save £20 million, while City Challenge cash earmarked for other projects enriched the canny local bourgeoisie. The council could still be relied on to be scared of trouble on the Frontline though, even if it wasn’t the same rowdy place it had been in the past. When Dexter Square kids playground on Railton Road (built to replace the Adventure Playground demolished in 1982) was threatened with closure, workers and kids lobbied a council meeting noisily; it was pointed out that if the playground was closed, the kids would be forced onto the street, did the Borough Cancellers really want that on Railton Road, look at how many burnt out shops there are? This was kind of clever double talk, meaning either, “Let us keep the kids under control” or “If you close us they’ll riot”. Threat or social control, whatever, this useful and popular space was reprieved. Only to close down a few years later.

The Times They Aren’t a-Changing

While Brixton was supposedly being reborn, traditional police-community relations in Lambeth were not entirely transformed.

Local police’s powerful hatred for squatters broke out again in 1993, a year which saw at least 5 local squatted houses raided by police, on trumped up charges. The most serious event was a raid on May 18th on a party at no 1 Arlingford road. Mainly the partygoers were French, Italian and German exiles in blighty. After aggressive cops tried to force their way in, the door was shut on them; so a large number of riot cops barged in, beating the crap out of several people, pushing people down the stairs and nicking 14, of which several were remanded in custody. Others were bailed on heavy conditions: nightly curfew, £1000 bail, daily signing at Brixton Copshop, banned from SW2, passports and their ID withheld… Charges included violent disorder, among others. Police fed press large number of lies, about how they had attacked the cops, tried to drag cops inside the house, blah blah. The South London Press joyfully bit as usual. Several of the prisoners took a few weeks to get released.

But of course if there’s anyone cops hate more than squatters its Black people… After a hiatus in deaths in custody, the mid-1990s saw some high profile police killings in Lambeth.

On Tuesday 2nd May 1995, Brian Douglas was stopped in St Luke’s Avenue Clapham (with a mate), searched and nicked by Kennington PCs Paul

Brian Douglas in hospital

Harrison and Mark Tuffey. At some point during the arrest or in Kennington Copshop he received several blows to the back of the head with one of the US-style long batons, then recently introduced into the UK.

Despite vomiting in his cell, Brian was not taken to hospital until more than 14 hours after he was injured.  It later emerged he had a fractured skull and damage to his brain stem. These put him on a life support machine. He died from haemorrhages and a fractured skull five days later.

His family and friends formed an angry and vocal campaign for a public enquiry, the withdrawing of the batons, and some measure of justice for his death. A week after his death a demo of several hundreds outside Kennington Rd Murder HQ (police station) had cops cowering inside, until the crowd marched to the Oval, whereupon cops blocked the roads in force, sparking some pushing and skirmishing.

The then Police Complaints Authority (since renamed a couple of times but still a whitewash show), conducted an investigation and an inquest followed in which several eye witnesses testified that PC Tuffey had hit Brian on the top of his head, which was contrary to the correct use of these batons as prescribed by the Metropolitan police high command. At the inquest ‘Mad Mark’ Tuffey said his baton had accidentally slipped when he hit Douglas on the shoulder.  Err…. However evidence suggested the force of the blow was equivalent to being dropped from 11 times his own height onto his head. Some slip! The jury returned a bizarre verdict of misadventure, later challenged unsuccessfully by the family at the High Court.

Boringly predictable as usual, the Crown Prosecution Service claimed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Tuffey and Harrison, and then Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, wouldn’t release statements taken by investigating officers.  No disciplinary action was taken against the officers. In 1999 the Butler Inquiry expressed concern regarding the Director of Public Prosecution’s decision not to prosecute the officers involved in Brian’s death.

Only a few months later, on December 5th 1995, Wayne Douglas, 25, died in Brixton police station, after being picked up for suspected burglary.

Douglas, a resident of a homeless hostel, was found unconscious in his cell at Brixton police station at about 3:30 a.m. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The Metropolitan police claimed he died of a heart attack.

Wayne Douglas

But witnesses described a different story. One eyewitness told the Caribbean Times how Douglas threw down a knife he was carrying when confronted by the cops. “As soon as he did it, they all jumped on him,” said the unnamed bystander. “They dragged him to the park and beat the s– out of him. They murdered him. I could hear the guy screaming…. They were jumping on him, kicking him, hitting him with their batons.”

Another said that “you could hear the sound of their batons on his bones.” Two witnesses gave statements to a local lawyer detailing the police assault.

In November, the inquest into the death of Wayne Douglas was told by eye-witnesses that a police officer knelt on his head while he was handcuffed and held face down on the ground by at least four other officers. The jury found that his death was “accidentally” caused by stress, exhaustion and positional asphyxia. (Doesn’t this last mean that he couldn’t breathe due to the position he was in – ie being sat on? Who put him in that position?)

In response to Wayne Douglas’ death a demo was called for the following week at Brixton Police Station for December 13th, 1995. This demo was to end in another riot, with several hours of skirmishing with the police, occasional standoffs, a few cars set on fire, looting and some (mostly) targetted attacks on property.

“The places that were burned down were targeted. These places wouldn’t give black people a Saturday job. There are shops in Brixton where there’s black people but they only want to take black people’s money.”

Although there were not that many people involved, the rioters were highly mobile, moving around to avid getting penned in. The agro attracted people looking to grab some free goods: the 7-11 outside Brixton tube was done over; as was Morleys dept store, he secondhand car showroom on Effra Road. I remember seeing a tiny teenage girl carrying off a huge etched mirror from a shop up Brixton Hill… In a sharp comment on the value of talking shops, the Lambeth Police-Community Consultation Group building was petrol bombed.

The highest profile premises attacked that night was the newly opened Dogstar Bar on the corner of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane.

Gone to the Dogs

The Dogstar these days is seen as an accepted part of Brixton nightlife; but in ’95 it represented the spearhead of the rapid gentrification of the area. The old Atlantic pub, which had stood on that spot for years, was part of the mythology of Brixton, famous all over the world, a space from the ’80s controlled by black people, it was just integral to the street culture, yeah you could get drugs there (though if they didn’t know you, you’d likely get sold some tea or stockcube masked up as hash). The cops hated it, of course, in the 20-year battle over control of the streets, the Atlantic to them was like a fortress of the enemy. They managed to close it after many raids (in the final raid in 1994, police arrived in several removal vans then swarmed into the pub). Getting rid of the Atlantic and replacing it with a trendy bar, run by white arty types, was like the turning point in the Police/Council campaign to turn Brixton into a bright happy land of middle class professionals. Ironically it was Brixton’s edgy atmosphere, vibrant street culture and (then!) cheap housing that attracted many arty “alternative” and media types here, (the scene that gave birth to the Dogstar and beyond that to much of the trendy Brixton that exists now). But it was a sanitised safe version they wanted, not the often threatening place Brixton could be – especially for trendy whiteys. Like then Eton-educated Dogstar owner Laurence Merritt.

“It seems to me that some people only want a part of Brixton if it’s “hip and edgy” at some distance or filtered through their own upmarket tastes. And in truth, aren’t words like “hip”, “edgy” and “vibrant” often the words estate agents or magazines use when they fear to talk plainly about blacker areas of town?
The tastes of some of the newer residents of Brixton are bland and suffocating of real culture. Their attitudes are a form of control and oppression… If the well-off flaunt both their money and their ignorance, and the local authority back them up to the detriment of others, this causes resentments.” (Paul Bakelite)

The unholy alliance that created the Dogshite was as blatant an attempt to socially re-engineer the area as we’ve seen. The Council and the cops backed the new occupants to the hilt; knowing how much many locals would resent the usurpers of the Atlantic they basically promised them backing whatever happened. (According to rumour it went even further: word on the street was that Merritt had a high-ranking Brixton cop as a sleeping partner, although it’s fair to say this has never been proved, and the changes taking place in Brixton had solid enough economic & social foundations anyway without the need for secret hands). The cops and the owners collaborated on the security arrangements, including the placing of no less than 16 internal CCTV cameras. The door policy in the early days was aimed at excluding many local black people and those who didn’t fit the type they were aiming at. The hilarity of the idea of a “drug-free” new era: the bar must have caused serious supply problems for the Colombian Cartels, the amount of coke going up media nostrils. But a blind eye was mostly turned, at least for a few years. I guess it all depends what kind of cocaine you go for: powder (mainly white folk in bars) always got (and still gets) less attention from the bobbies than crack (mainly, black, and on the streets). As usual with the War on Drugs though it’s all about class, colour and control. Police resources aim at the poor and their fixes. Which isn’t to deny the undoubted aggression, self-destruction and anti-social behaviour that crack has helped to increase, contributing to worsening human (and race) relations in the streets and estates. [Ironically within two years one local Councillor was denouncing the Dogstar as a den of dealers in its own right, prompting Merritt to sue him for slander and a top cop (hmmm?!) to deny it.]

The Dogstar opened in early December ’95; the week before local Police Superintendant John Godsave let slip his hand: “We are committed to the regeneration of this part of Brixton and this is a complete cultural change adding “The people taking over fully understand what has gone before but the future looks bright.” Which must have seemed hilarious two weeks later when the place was torched and looted.

We’re Not Going Down the Pub

Sadly it’s not so funny now, as Superunintelligent Dogsave’s words seem eerily prophetic: trendy bar culture in Brixton has gone from strength to strength, despite the 95 riot. Many decent pubs have gone the way of the dogdo. The Coach and Horses, in Coldharbour Lane, another hugely significant place in Black British history, the first pub run by West Indians in modern England, the pub the West Indies cricket team, manager and all, would always come to, when they played England – closed in 1999, to become a branch of the vile Living Room mini-chain. (No more wandering into the Coach & Horses from my flat over the road, near its end, when there was no beer on tap, only bottles, and lots of spirits, you’d be getting up to go home, when the old Jamaican lady who had taken it over would shout’ “Oi where you going?” and pour a huge free measure of whatever was your poison… ) The Old White Horse in Brixton road, became “Bar Lorca” (in another gentrification campaign, the original Bar Lorca in Stoke Newington opened to replace the old punky Samuel Beckett pub, fave of local squatters and anarchos, hated by the Stokey police), and now Jamm, which at least these seems a half decent venue. The Warrior, down at Loughborough Junction, of old an Irish pub, in the early 70s a haunt of supporters of the Provisional IRA, who after the 69 split with the Official IRA (the ‘Stickies”) used to have barneys in the street with Stickie sympathisers from the Green Man over the road – the Warrior became the Junction, a sort of alternative rave-bar that lasted a couple of years then died for lack of interest. And the Green Man just itself across Coldharbour Lane, became for a while a heavy late-night Black citadel in the old Brixton stylee, later closed down and stayed closed.

Loughborough Junction, which in recent years had become the new Frontline, as much as one existed, was harder territory for the urban re-designers to up-marketise, with Loughborough Estate round the corner and the tube a fair old walk.

The Canterbury Arms got taken over by an ex-copper! The Queen, in Bellefields road, Irish pub, 1990s squatters hangout and home to our favourite music/singing sessions, has been demolished entirely… No more staggering out the back at 3 in the morning with Guinness up to the eyeballs and the fiddle still seesawing inside.

The Queen

Other pubs closed and never reopened, turned into flats for the new influx of wide-eyed luvvies pouring in to hang out and chill with a Sol and a pill. The Duke of Wellington in Acre Lane, the Branksome in Sudbourne Road, and the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road closed (a 70s gay squatters hangout, later where we used to hold 121 Collective meetings sometimes in the Winter when the electric meter had run out and it was freezing). The Springfield, off Acre Lane, an anarcho-punk hangout in the ‘90s, was knocked down and turned into flats.

Still others have converted to chain pubs, gradually losing some of their better individual elements (although this isn’t a totally downward process, in places like the Hootenanny, ex-the Hobgoblin, previously the George Canning, the clientele continued to maintain the place’s rowdy local atmosphere).

The Bradykillers

“It was Thursday night at Brady’s Pub
In the Winter of 98
It was raw and it was angry
It was loud and it was crazy”
(Jon Langford/Chip Taylor)

At one time it must have seemed like the Dogstar owners were aiming to buy up the whole area, as they opened or took over bar after club after bar, Bug Bar, MASS, blah bar blah. Being favourite sons of the Council has its uses. They did over-reach themselves at one point though. They were lined up to take over Bradys, of old the Railway Tavern, on Atlantic Road, another local fixture for years, internationally famous (Jimi Hendrix was rumoured to have jammed there in the 60s, and scenes from the Clash’s ‘Rude Boy’ movie were filmed there): haunt of Black and Irish, late night home for most of us after all the other pubs had chucked out. The place was a legend, 3 bars, weirdly segregated a lot of the time into old Black geezers in the front bar, Irish in the middle and young/scruffy/squatters, often at some gig or other, or playing pissed pool in the back… these divisions quite often broke down as people got drunker!  The Railway had its rowdy moments (it remains the only pub where I’ve been barred for NOT getting involved in a fight!) Its closure in the late ’90s was a tragedy, a real blow to the old Brixton. Merritt and the Dogstar mafia were lined up to add it to their Monopoly style portfolio, there was a plan for a kind of sham auction with them the only bidder. However, Mr Meritless was then “visited” by community-spirited members of the local Irish community, who expressed their “opinion” that the place should remain an Irish pub and he might want to “reconsider” his bid. Several addresses were subsequently visited by the cops who in turn suggested that no-one should interfere with the Unfree Market forces and to stop offering Merritt unpaid property advice. Their good little doggy thought again though and pulled out of the auction. The building stayed empty, though it was gloriously squatted in 2000 for gigs and a bar, attracting back many of its former drinkers for some riproaring times. Sadly since it was evicted in August 2002, it was used as a Site Office for the poncification of the tube station and surrounding shops, but at least we were never subjected to whatever appalling shiny crap the DogSquad had in mind. A long and sustained effort by local campaigners to reopen the pub as a community resource failed, and Lambeth decided to flog off the building to the highest bidder a year later, which led to the upstairs being converted into private flats and Wahaca moving into the former bar area. But Wahaca had now closed this branch as a result of the Covid pandemic… empty again.

If 16 cameras in the Dogstar sounds bad, it got worse. In 1999, during the campaign against the eviction of the 121 Centre, a carpenter mate who had worked in the fitting out of a brand new pub in the high street, the Flourmill & Firkin, told us he’d seen plans which showed the toilets being wired up with microphones…  He questioned it and was told to keep quiet. This bizarre info was confirmed totally independently by a schoolfriend of another squatter, a bloke who worked in Firkin head office. It’s still not clear what the fuck was going on here. Whether they were linked to the cops or what. We never heard of them being used to directly bust anyone, but this doesn’t mean they might not have been used for intelligence gathering. When a few of us went into the pub one evening and leafleted the place letting people know about it, the manageress went apeshit, assaulted a leafletter and called the cops as the bar staff pushed us out. A Firkin boreocrat later rang 121 and threatened us with legal action, saying we had no solid evidence (only the word of people we trust) and were “unprofessional”. Such a compliment, and she didn’t even know us! The Firkin & Fonetap later became the Goose, as to whether the listening in continued we don’t know. Doesn’t seem to have caught on, but maybe pub chains were a bit lairy about the idea.

Hand in hand with attempting to drive people into overpriced and over policed pubs, the Council introduced a Bylaw ban on drinking in the street in Brixton. Groups of mainly blokes hanging about getting off their heads has been a feature of local life for donkeys… Mostly, by 1999, when the Boroughcrats brought this one in (it had been implemented in many town centres) this Tennants Super Culture was declining, from the 100s that used to be on the streets 20 years ago. But the in(S)ane drive towards a tourist-centred SW2 demanded extreme measures. In fact even Brixton Police thought the drinking ban unworkable, it has, like most social control measures, been used when bored bobbies have their eyes on someone and want to hassle them… We had some fun protesting against it on the day it came into force, handing out leaflets with brown paper bags to hide your cans in.

In the way gentrification generally goes, the Dogstar is now owned by a chain. Independent trendy individualist regeneration is usually slowly replaced by converted bland chain-normalisation. Bigger money buys out little money.

There’s Always Someone Lookin’ at Yer

In the late 90s CCTV cameras started to appear everywhere. “You Should Only Worry, If you’re a Villain” trumpeted the South London Press. Many of the early cameras were paid for by businesses; eg the ones up Clapham High St were paid for by brewing chain Bass, which owned four pubs there. CCTV mainly served to drive crime away from the areas Council, cops and business sought to build up as trendy shopping or entertainment spots, into streets further away… “into estates, back streets, working class areas, where there are no cameras and the police do bugger all.” (Contraflow 1995)

These arguments, used at the time against CCTV driving crime away from certain areas can often be turned round to arguments in favour of extending it to everywhere, which now is increasingly happening. Locally this started in Loughborough Estate in ’95, cameras and fences were introduced to “keep crime off the estate”. This divided residents: some felt it was a good thing, keep the dealers and muggers away etc; others campaigned against it, as a further intrusion into people’s lives. CCTV had the advantage for the Council of helping to prevent empties getting squatted (Loughborough was still one of the heaviest squatted estates), but cameras rarely stop people breaking into their neighbours, a favourite pastime. At a time when services, benefits, healthcare etc are being cut or run down, it represented a gearing up to protect property and wealth by both catching us when we cross the line AND keeping us in fear so we don’t. Like most such measures it has to be dressed up in the language of preventing anti-social behaviour.

” …it’s not only that cameras can record and transmit direct to the cop-shop ‘our’ crimes (shoplifting, fare-dodging, street-selling, fighting the cops etc) and maybe curtailing our successful self-survival and liberation. What runs along side all of this is the increasing multi-faceted uses that technology can installed to manage society can be put to. There’s the constant raising of the ‘normality factor’ that a population under constant surveillance has. Everything we do becomes subject to intervention from some law and order official, private version or State module imposing the correct way for us to behave.”

CCTV now of course it is increasingly everywhere. We have got used to being watched at almost every turn. Although as we found out when a bloke was stabbed at the bottom of Rushcroft Road in 1999 right in front of a camera, they don’t all actually have film in.

regeneration vs gentrification

The line between gentrifying and regenerating is a fine one, and people often disagree where to draw it. The crucial question is one identified above by ex-Brixton Challenge director Mike Harry: have local communities been at the heart of the regeneration process?

In the case of “Brixton Town Centre” much of the money was wasted.

Some of the Challenge money did get spent on doing up the estates, and some residents approved. Eg in the Barrier Block:

“a huge £5 million plan was approved to split the block into three (to stop burglars/druggies running the length of the block) and to replace the piss-stained, decrepit and unreliable lifts. ??Opting for a style reminiscent of Eastern European checkpoints, two new sections were added to either end of the building, housing new lifts and concierge space. Each flat was equipped with video entryphones with cameras that could monitor people entering and leaving the block. This had an immediate effect on crime and the block became a far safer place, with junkies migrating the short distance outside and using the row of trees by the underground car park to continue their nefarious activities. ?? ??After hosts of complaints, the council cut down most of the trees, resulting in the tragically comic sight of heroin addicts all huddling behind the one remaining small tree to shoot up. ??Like most of Brixton, there is still a considerable smack/crack problem around the block, but thankfully the new security keeps most of them outside. ??Inside the Barrier Block it’s a very different story, with most residents enjoying spacious balconies and large windows at the rear of the building. The view from the top floor is very impressive. ??Since the extra security was installed there’s a far more friendly vibe and whereas a few years back it was hard to get anyone to live here, now it’s become a very desirable address: right in the heart of Brixton and very secure!”

This highlights some of the problems around ‘regeneration’. Clearly it’s preferable not to get mugged or burgled, not to live in rotting houses and be hassled by heavies. But to ‘gate the community’ in the Barrier Block, as elsewhere, only pushes the ‘problem’ a street, or a couple of blocks, away; and of course does not address the reasons why people become dealers, or addicts… it’s fine for the above resident to feel safe in his fortress (although I have known many people burgled by their neighbours in their own blocks)… It would be interesting to know how many Barrier Block flats are now sold off, especially on the top floor with their “impressive” view. Highrise blocks now being trendy with the middle classes.

Regeneration can improve people’s lives… usually the huge programs are only partially successful, being limited in their funding, aimed at pushing urban poor into (mostly crap) jobs; also they fall prey to the aspirational layer of upwardly mobile or dispossessed petty bourgeoisie who pack the committees and pocket the cash. Despite the best intentions of many of those involved, ‘regeneration’ schemes encourage individuality, entrepreneurial solutions, small businesses etc… Inevitable this can only benefit a few. Not only are Councils and businesses often unwilling to support genuine collective community regeneration but financial pressures mean such developments are constantly being started then cut.

Oh my God They’re Moving in Next Door

The influx of mainly middle class or upwardly mobile working class people buying up houses not only drives out those who can’t afford to live here anymore; it also breaks up the social solidarity that Brixton did at one time have.

It has led to ridiculous situations, as with the Harmony Pub on Railton Road (formerly Mingles, end of the line in drinking sprees for many of us in the 90s, as it was open later than everywhere else… You could still see veteran ska trombonist Rico doing a regular spot there every month then…). In 2005 new residents opposite tried to get the Council to shut the pub down on the grounds of noise nuisance… The pub has been there for yonks and was there when they presumably paid their overpriced deposits. The dork claims to be “intimidated” by the (mostly Black) clientele… Why not fuck off to the Isle of Wight then?

… But I know What I Like

The spearhead of gentrification in many parts of London has been art. Or more exactly the relationship between artists, space and the local state. A glance through the history of any working class area subsequently gentrified finds an art gallery standing over the body with a smoking brush…

Artists looking for cheap spaces obviously move into run-down areas. There follows a proliferation of small galleries, studios and arty cafes. A place like Brixton, with an edgy atmosphere, plus a broad cultural life, plus cheap housing is very attractive to the bohemian middle class, who start frequenting the neighbourhood; then altering it to fit their demands. This process started much earlier in Notting Hill, symbolised for local commentators by “…the … figures of the artist and estate agent, walking hand in hand and… speaking each others language…”

The squatting scene from the early ‘70s included a large crop of artists, or in broader terms people working in the creative margins. Squatting was a cheap way of setting up art spaces, as well as surviving. But this scene had a way of blending in to, and softening up, neighbourhoods for cultural colonisation. Artists attracted to neighbourhoods immediately started to attempt to alter them to their own needs: “a malled, multi-media, multi-ethnic art ghetto, somewhat like Covent garden, but far more avant-garde…sanitised ghetto living…”

It always was noticeable how arty squatters often got licences to remain from owners where other squatters did not. Was the Council concerned to be seen as cultured and conneisseuring, or did they see artists as part of the process that would hurry along their plans to pacify and gentrify? In several cases I can think of, larger squats would be occupied, evicted within weeks, then resquatted by arty groups, which would almost instantly be licenced. One of the most distasteful examples being that of the old Stockwell Hospital, behind Jeffreys Road, squatted in 1986 to house over large numbers of people and rapidly evicted. Some artists then moved in, and hey Picasso! A Licence! As part of the deal, studios only were permitted, no-one was allowed to live there. This was rigidly enforced – a Russian artist who temporarily started sleeping there while homeless was kicked out of the building by the ‘collective’. The artists shared their back garden with a long-standing squat; relations were perennially sour, with the culture crew sneering and kicking off about all sorts of petty issues. Both the Hospital and the squatted house were involved in prolonged negotiations with the Council; in the case of the house all deals fell through, and many years later they were taken to court. They had some kind of case for adverse possession after more than 12 years in residence, until one of the Hospital’s Vicious van Gobshites turned up to give evidence for the Council, scuppering their case. End of a decade and a half for the house.

All artist squatters of course are not the same. But if art is a spearhead of gentrification, there’s a case for arty squats as the even pointier end of the wedge.

Was squatting itself the first wave of gentrification? Maybe more accurate to say it was a precursor, in some areas, when other factors were present. For instance there was mass squatting down the Old Kent Road and in Peckham for twenty years and more but it had long gone before any signs of regeneration even began in those areas (in the case of OKR its only really now rear its shiny head…)


This process is traceable in the history of one of the 90s most famed Brixton squats, the Old Dole House, the former DHSS building in Coldharbour Lane. (Oh, the memory of so many hours stood in line, waiting to sign on, fights, arguments with SS workers… the rebel ghosts – of Shadow Wignall, who got 4 years for starting a fire there, one afternoon in May ‘82, allegedly causing 10 Grands worth of damage, after a long delay on getting his dole money; of the anonymous graffiti artist who, watched by cheering Barrier Block residents, jumped the dole office railings in 1983, and in broad daylight sprayed ‘SMASH THE STATL” on the wall, having to leg it before he fully finished the final E, chased by a cop – he escaped into the Barrier Block, despite several police turning up and sealing off the street!)

In early 1992, new shinier dole offices were opened in Brixton Road and Josephine Avenue, and the old dole office closed down; left empty, the large building was inevitably and hastily squatted.

A large group of squatters, with many different interests, living around the area at that time all came down, eager to get involved. A squatted centre of its kind was something sorely needed at the time and many people had great expectations for many possibilities for a squat caff, a gig space and so on.

The place hadn’t been squatted but a couple of hours, when the same night another group of squatters broke in and occupied some space downstairs, barricading themselves in downstairs, refusing to leave or recognise the earlier squatters. There was a stand-off, the use of guns was threatened.

The second mob had a more lucrative agenda than the anarcho-punks – charging shoppers coming to Brixton to use the car park at the rear!

After some initial hostilities and confrontation, it was decided to divide the building in two, though relations between the 2 groups continued to be strained. Many people were interested in the squat, and there were frequent visitors, people wanting to get involved and help out. (There was also a steady stream of people still turning up, trying to sign on!)

They weren’t the only others interested, around the same time, a group of ravers visited, wanting to “buy” the squat for £1000! Of course, this generous offer was politely declined.

Flier for a gig at the earlier punk squat incarnation of the Brixton Dole house

Most of the people involved in the place were more interested in creating a social centre, with cheap events and political activities, not for profit, and in benefit of worthy causes.

A weekly cafe and bar was started up almost immediately with cheap and tasty food being on offer, and a rowdy bar going on till all hours. The cafe proved very popular with a huge attendance every week, with lots of money being made for hunt saboteurs, poll tax prisoners, and squatters groups, among other things. (how we frolicked among the piles of abandoned giro envelopes)

Videos and discussion nights were also occasionally held, and many more plans made, though with such a diverse group it was sometimes difficult to reach a consensus.

There were also a number of gigs, and hip hop night organised, which also proved very popular, though, again, not without incidents of trouble and visits from the old bill. This was at a time when the police were regularly coming to close down squat events heavy handedly, resulting in many arrests and injuries. Fortunately this did not happen at the Dole Office, though the threat was constantly over our heads.

The council, who owned the building, and had been concerned about this high profile, central Brixton squat, since the beginning, was showing more and more interest, and eventually the court papers arrived. There was some talk of resisting the eviction, but after about 6 months of daily involvement in the place, and some internal divisions, some people felt disillusioned and just couldn’t be bothered anymore. So in the end the place went with a fizzle and not a bang.

Inter-squatter agro like the divided Dole House was depressingly common. Squatters running keys for cash scams, renting flats out to naive young folk who thought they had tenancies; heavies chucking people out of squats then using them to deal/scam/party in (they didn’t always succeed due to some stout solidarity)… the list goes on. Ironically and perhaps not surprisingly such petty gangsterism mirrors the larger and more successful mafiosery of the numerous councillors and council officers in Lambeth and elsewhere who got relatives housed, sold keys, “lost” flats then rented them out (not to even talk about mates and such who acquired contracts with the Council). [A Lambeth Housing Officer admitted to me taking part in several such scams while PIOing me out of a house.]

The anarcho-punks got evicted from the dole house, within a few months. Shortly before their eviction, a local Green activist associated with the Cooltan Arts squatters the occupying the empty Cooltan factory on Effra Road, visited the upstairs squat. Cooltan was facing eviction, he seemed interested in the group maybe using the Dole House space.

A week later the Dole House was evicted. The day it was evicted, seemingly seamlessly, the Cooltan squatters moved in and almost immediately got a licence to stay. The anarchos suspected foul play on behalf of the Green activist, some kind of sweetheart deal with the Council – a couple of them did approach him and had some words on the subject. Maybe it’s all co-incidental and above board, maybe some behind the scenes skullduggery went on. Far be it from us to point any fingers. Cooltan went on to occupy the building as it was sold to the black newspaper, the Voice (whose offices were next door), still under a licence. The dodgy geezers remained or re-occupied the car park and happily made money.

The Cooltan incarnation of the Dole House did in fact go on to became in many ways the most “representative” and “successful” squat centre Brixton ever had – it crossed all the borders, included many of the contradictory scenes that flourished in the area. Cafe; art and gallery space; cheap rehearsal space; office and meeting point for anti-Criminal Justice Act groups like the Freedom Network (who became notorious in some circles for a leaflet issued in their name after the 1994 Hyde Park Riot, “keep it Fluffy’, where a peacenik line was taken: there was a suggestion of marking ‘trouble makers’ with paint so they could be identified to the filth) Reclaim the Streets, Travellers groups, as well as the local Green Party; most famously Cooltan was a hugely successful rave venue, with massive parties going off almost every weekend… For four years or so it was a huge feature in the Brixton and London landscape, both for nights out and meetings, workshops etc.

Cooltan was evicted in Sept 1995, though it was resquatted a few times for parties in 97 and 98; lay derelict, roof off, hidden behind advertising boards for some years, used as a dosshouse and jacking-up palace, to be finally built on in 2012 after more than fifteen years derelict, for the obscene gated Brixton Square development, built by Barratt Homes (all private flats, after the company managed to wriggle out of their social housing obligations for the development).

For all its positive aspects, Cooltan was in some ways also a step towards the trendy Brixton we have now… A focus for the arts/bars crowd, it fed in indirectly to the founding of the Dogstar and the many-headed nightlife that this spawned. Its green guru spoke truer than he knew when he said “we have been part of the social changes and the cultural rumblings of the last few years.”

The place operated where radicals and activist scenes merged with more established networks and thence to actual authority. At one end its most influential activists cosied up to the council, playing the role (semi-imagined) of small-time alternative powermongers in the area, matey with ‘lefty’ cop Brian Paddick, always trying to negotiate with the cops when there was any agro, demo or on the 1998 RTS street party; later this gave birth to the annual Brixton Cannabis march/festival…
The Brixton scene was often like that, liberal green entrepreneurs and artists on the make were everywhere. Spaces like Cooltan are like Jekyll and Hide: anarcho-rioters and Dogstar-trendies all fondly nostalge over it.

Cooltan spawned various offshoots: Ecotrip, operating from a squat in Tulse Hill for a while, who traveled round festivals and had a centre for a while in 98-99 on Tulse Hill… Cooltan Arts still exists as a mental health support charity… the rented Synergy Centre in Camberwell, a hugely expensive ‘community space’ (rumoured to pay £4000 a month rent) set up by some ex-Cooltan bods.

Also squatted around this time: The Lambeth Trade Union and Unemployed Resource Centre (or Jan Rebane Centre) was closed down in March 1995, its funding cut, only to be occupied by various groups, including the Unemployed Action Group, Black History for Action, the Brian Douglas Campaign, Freedom Network, (and later some bizarre church groups). Several of the official Centre workers were livid, they had made a deal with the Council to not make a fuss so as to get a smaller office elsewhere! The Jan Rebane’s previous stilted TUC atmosphere gave way to a living alliance of community organisations. The occupation/squat of the Centre lasted for 3 years, to be evicted in 1998.
NB: Jan Rebane was a local trade unionist, involved in setting up the centre, who had died aged 33 in 1986.

Closed down by Lambeth Council in the early 1990s due to cost-saving measures, the Brixton Lido in Brockwell Park was occupied by squatters in the summer of 1993, who lived in the disused changing rooms and offices around the pool. They put on parties, and an Exploding Cinema night. The parties were fun – although some of us spent much of the time on E, trying to work out if we could nick one of the kayaks stashed there by the council and fit it in our flat for later excursions (maybe when they dig up the river Effra?)
Later, the squatters were evicted, and two ex-council leisure dept workers bid to run the place as a private concern, luckily being able to save money by getting the place refurbed on the very cheap by crims sentenced to community service – including your very own past tense editor, doing 100 hours for allegedly trying to strangle a copper on some demo or other. Being patronised by the new bosses (‘thanks for mucking out the filthy pool, we would have had to pay someone if we hadn’t had you to do it for nothing’) pissed me off so much I boycotted the place for years…

Other occupied spaces: the Old Library, West Norwood, a community space for 20 years after the library closed, then closed by the council, occupied by a local group as a drop in community space in October 1994, and evicted January 1997; the Landmark Centre, Tulse Hill, Squatted c, 2000, for housing and a bar; Barrington Road, 1998-9: An old people’s home squatted by a friendly collective of Reclaim the Streets folks, 20-odd people and kids, to be evicted in January 1999… They later moved to the really lovely Orchard Centre at the top of Brixton Hill, several classroom type prefabs in gardens and woodland, a weird paradise…

121 eviction

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the long-squatted anarchist 121 Centre. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in 1985 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day.

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings,  more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions. The streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate.

In January 1999, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – it seemed the right thing to do at the time, but it’s a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of their right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks less than 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognized their title to the building.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict it galvanised the energy around 121 and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way 100 people blocked the street till the cops persuaded us they’d called them off – we promptly invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

Late ’90s council leader Jim Dickson bares his soul. Still a Lambeth councillor today…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 1999 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

Sticker designs from the defend 121/anti-council agitation of 1999

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the bugged Firkin pub, holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft ceremony.

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced

Weirdly, a floor plan exists for the Button factory squat!

to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… The place was filled with millions of buttons…

Council leader Jim Dickson is still a council leader today! – Though currently under scrutiny for slightly dubious (possibly corrupt) procurement practices…



Lost in the Myths of Time

Brixton was always throwing up its own myths and counter-myths. On the one hand a lot of outsiders (many of who had never been near the area) would be lairy of it, ‘oh no too dodgy to go there’; rightwing elements would rail against the culture of mugging, drugs and violence they perceived (often fed by police and journalist tripe). On the other it attracted other outsiders  – people flocked there to buy cannabis from the many street-dealers (often to get ripped off, sold crap or robbed); when crack hit the streets there was a rash of people getting done over in the area by people needing ready cash to score: the general consensus was that these people were generally ‘incomers’ attracted by Brixton’s rep as a place to score.

Other were attracted by the area’s bohemian atmos – sometimes this brought in arseholes with no sense, but it also tool in lots of damaged folk from bad places and the varying communities gave them a home. Not only gay folk fleeing homophobic parents, victims of abuse of all kinds, deserters and draft-dodgers from any number of European states with national service… The pubs streets and squats teemed with a flowing cross-section of people. This produced its own counter-myth of an open and self-creating multi-cultural community, a Melting Pot. Interestingly both Brixton residents and outsiders evoked this in the ongoing ‘culture war’ about race and assimilation, though sometimes with different meanings.

The 1999 attempt by nazi David Copeland to kickstart a race war by planting bombs in what he saw as black or Asian areas and then a gay pub began with a nail bomb left on Brixton market. The explosion injured 48 people.

The local response invoked Brixton as a place where race hate had no meaning any more, and to some extent that unifying myth was important. However the unity engendered by the bomb, like any such attacks, plastered over real divisions – the racial harmony was seemingly classless, apart and disconnected from the changes that were taking place in the area. Council, police, all queued up to sing hymns about Brixton’s race-blind staunchness in the face of fascist aggression. Ironically of course, the cultural dominance of the West Indian community, the very ‘miscegenation’ Copeland was trying to exterminate, was itself being cleansed, more slowly and surely, from the area, by a combination of council regeneration, loss of cheap and social housing, house prices, social change and the inevitable rise of middle class nightlife.
Which has given rise to the third myth, a classless hipness of mostly white proportions, parasiting on the area’s ‘edgy’ (meaning rebellious) history and invoking it, dancing around in its what it thinks is its skin, while knifing it. Racial unity if it exists cannot be separated from the very real divisions of class, policing, housing need… which can’t be erased by murals or glitzy clubs.

Derek Bennett

Read more on gentrification in Brixton

2001: A P.A.C.E Odyssey

While some things changed – other stayed the same. Lip service to black/white unity never stopped filth being filth.
Witness another spate of local people killed by police or dying in custody.

On 16 July 2001 Derek Bennett was shot four times by two police marksmen; he was killed instantly. He had been spotted in the Loughborough Estate waving what looked like a gun, but turned out after the fact to be a cigarette lighter mocked up like one. The coppers claimed they thought the gun was real…. Maybe they did. They said he had ‘fired’ at them from behind a pillar. Though some bulletholes were in his back so he was probably running away (as some witnesses later claimed). Derek Bennett had apparently claimed it was “the real thing”: possibly unwisely, since the bloke he told called the cops  – and you know the rest.

On July 20th a march through Brixton in response to the shooting ended in scuffles…

Several officers chased and kicked a black youth, and other demonstrators who intervened were roughed up, one having his arm broken. 26 people were nicked in the ‘fracas’.

This was all captured on our wonderful CCTV cameras (and cynics say they’re good for nothing).

But it ‘turned out’ no officers could be identified from the film.

It also later ‘turned out’ that the Crown Prosecution Service refused to press any charges over the shooting – on the grounds that there was “insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of a conviction.” Since you can be shot by the police for no reason at all carrying a harmless piece of furniture (eg Harry Stanley in Hackney), or held down then shot at point blank range while under restraint (Jean Charles de Menezes), the CPS know what they are talking about. You can’t have cops being punished for shooting people. Where would we be? The armed police threat to mutiny if Harry Stanley’s killers were ever told off mildly shows what the Met and their masters already know – you can’t afford to alienate your sharpshooters, even if you feel a bit pressured by a slightly riled public. The cops in the Bennett inquest weren’t even identified, being allowed to give their evidence from behind screens.

There are those who might say: people who wave things around that resemble guns very closely should expect to get shot. While this is a fair point, even on a liberal wishy washy level it’s startling how few people ever get WOUNDED by a police marksman. SO19 are trained to aim for the head and shoot to kill. Many, though not all, who are shot while ‘going armed’ turn out to be not all there, or as in Derek Bennett’s case, not really armed at all.

It is true that guns scare the shit out of people… Which is why they are irresistible to gangsta macho dicks who use (or pretend to use) them, levering themselves up the ladder in the rival economy of drugs and gangs… AND to the macho cop dicks who think they’re the SAS. The aggro adrenaline I-rule-the-roost culture of both sides; it’s like holding up a mirror. In recent years this spread in gun use has laid waste tens of lives. If you’re young and black in some parts of London life sometimes seems like a crossfire, between the cops and the robbers you ain’t got a chance.

On 15 December 2004 an inquest decided that Derek had been lawfully killed, and the same decision was given after an appeal.

Ricky Bishop

On the afternoon of Thursday 22nd November 2001, Ricky Bishop was driving through Brixton with a friend. The police stopped them on Dalyell Road (as part of ‘Operation Clean Sweep’) Ricky and his friend were taken to Brixton Police station. They supposedly volunteered to go along, though they were then handcuffed. There Ricky was attacked – the filth claiming that he had escaped his cuffs(?) – and held down by cops, while he had a heart attack. He was still cuffed when he arrived in the Hospital.

It is alleged that while in detention, drugs were pushed into Ricky’s mouth and elaborate stories made up by the officers to justify the arrest and a violent assault of him.

Ricky’s mother was told by police that he was in King’s College Hospital, later that evening. She had to make her own way down to the hospital, and shortly afterwards she was told that her son had died.

None of the 8 cops present did anything to help, sending for a paramedic too late. None were suspended. At the Inquest the cops withheld evidence… the Jury was given  the choice of verdicts of “misadventure”, “narrative” or “open verdict”. They brought in misadventure.

Doreen Bishop, Ricky’s mother is still campaigning for a Public inquiry into his death many years later.

Paddick in the Streets of London

Brian Paddick was the top cop in Brixton until his removal in 2002. He had in been fact a PC in Brixton at time of the 81 riots. But he was not yer average plod.  He was armed with a first degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford and a Masters in Business Administration from Warwick. Wooh.

He became Chief Inspector in Brixton in… quickly establishing a liberal style:

“spending long evenings in draughty school halls engaging with communities… seen regularly on the borough’s High Streets, putting his case and listening thoughtfully. From within the service, tales emerged of a “top cop” who did his share of night shifts and who took it on himself to break bad news to often distraught families.”  Supposedly beat coppers also liked his approachableness…

He also became famous/notorious (depending on your DailyMailness) for introducing a trial policy of not arresting people stopped with small amounts of cannabis.

Reactions to Paddick varied widely – traditionalist journos and politicians frothed like they hadn’t since the days of Ted Knight; liberals, weed-obsessed greenies and brain-damaged hippies danced stoned in the streets. Finally Babylon was going to legalise the herb.

Paddick came a cropper when he started debating police policy and more on alternative Brixton based website Urban75’s bulletin boards, supposedly ‘trying to repair the damage done’ by disruptive posts from ‘Colin the Cop’, a rabid nazi Brixton cop who joined the boards in February 2002, heaping insults on the local people. Urban User “Brian: The Commander”, sought to publicly repudiate this character.

Paddick obviously defended the police and argued the case for policing and the law, but with community consent. In reply to a post from an anarchist, he said:

“The concept of anarchism has always appealed to me. The idea of the innate goodness of the individual………It is a theoretical argument but I am not sure everyone would behave well if there were no laws and no system. …Eradicate all injustice and discrimination – would that stop all people damaging and harming each other – I am not sure. If there were still people who would continue to exploit and harm others, how would you stop such injustice if you had no system, no society?”

Paddick also came out as being Gay… For the massed ranks of the Right his removal was now a priority. In the end it was his ex-boyfriend who did for him, going to the papers, saying he’d smoked hash in Paddick’s company, and our Brian had done nothing about it… In 2002 he was suspended from his post.

This sparked a big local campaign for his reinstatement, backed by many local ‘alternative’ types like Urban 75, green party gurus, community bleaders etc… Some bizarre supporters came on board. He later won damages from the Met. Amid claims that he had been stabbed in the back by the Met hierarchy…

All this in fact reflects a long-running power struggle in the Met. Paddick clearly represented a liberal, highly educated wing, determined to win support and consent and police with the backing of “the community”. On other hand there is clearly a more traditional authoritarian faction which opposes not only his liberal (anarchist?) views on politics, but has no time for his sexuality (and probably suspects his leftie University degree)… This dialectic was nicely illustrated in a recent TV documentary on the ‘81 riot, with former Brixton top cop Fairbairn defending Swamp 81 to the hilt and expressing no regrets, while Paddick ummed and aahhed about the police having crossed the line: “the police… got it wrong” in 81, getting “a nasty jolt” and realizing they need “policing by consent” of local people.

The soft on drugs trial though was a Met policy, ended before Paddick was put out to pasture (though many somewhat fuddled stoners still believe it’s legal to light up in Lambeth).

This good cop/bad cop axis is not always opposed though, both approaches win favour with different elements of those the Met is seeking to pacify. The liberal path was clearly more likely to find favour in Brixton – as it did, and especially with white middle class trendy lefties and the type of Black

A poster from the local campaign in support of Brian Paddick’s re-instatement

Community leader who has always done deals with Babylon. It is highly intelligent and recuperative, in drawing in many who traditionally criticised Brixton policing: it’s well known that a softly softly (pun intended) approach will work sometimes when batons and brutality fail. This is not to suggest Paddick did not believe whole-heartedly in his mission.

Paddick was re-instated to a high-ranking post in the Met, and later became a Liberal Democrat politician. But Senior Met figures were alter accused of trying to stitch him up over the release of contradictory statements to the Police Complaints Commission over the police murder of Jean de Menezes at Stockwell tube in 2005.

The upsurge of support for pAddict showed how successful he had been in convincing local liberals… But it’s social control none the less. Soft or hard, drug policy is always about control, a tolerant handle on cannabis was and is merely about practicality more than anything else. Only an idiot would rather live under Swamp 81 than Paddick, but they are TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN. The velvet glove is by its very nature a reminder that there is an iron fist, even if it remains out of sight. Riots and daily confrontation is less severe in Brixton and elsewhere than it was 25 years ago, for a number of reasons, and smart conciliatory coppery is one of them.

But the underlying social and economic forces remain. Private property and wage labour create rebellion. And the Police defend property. You can’t “eradicate all injustice and discrimination” by community policing, Brian

Jean Charles de Menezes

Meanwhile of course, in a total reversal, since ‘Operation No Deal’, came in in December 2005, Brixton police have been taking a hard line, arresting anyone found in possession of cannabis on the streets, however small the quantity. Business as Usual.

2005 was crowned in Lambeth by the assassination of Jean Charles De Menezes, shot dead by armed police on an underground at Stockwell tube station, after being followed from his flat in Tulse Hill via the bus, because they thought he was one of the islamic fundamentalists who’d bombed tubes and buses the day before. Having already been pinned down by officers, five bullets in his head were not exactly needed. The officer in charge who gave the go ahead for the shooting? One Cressida Dick. Once he was dead, police lied about his actions when pursued, then sent undercover cops to spy on his family campaign to achieve justice – a normal Met practice when faced with the victims of those it has murdered or whose deaths it has failed to bother investigating, usually because they were black, foreign or otherwise subhuman.

Old spasms continue to turn up the old Brixton… along with much of the country, there was trouble here in the 2011 wave of English riots. Police aggravation continues for the youth. With the criminalisation of squatting in 2012, along with most of London, squats were almost eradicated. Squatters who had long occupied or re-occupied flats in Rushcroft Road and Clifton Mansions were cleared in mass evictions in 2013 (the long-running squatted street St Agnes Place had been evicted by 100s of cops in 2005).

The clearing of the Guinness Trust estate in 2015 sparked fierce resistance by residents and ended in an occupation.

However as we write a political squatted space, House of Shango, is open in the area, if facing cop hassle…

Just some of local campaigns against gentrification/social cleansing currently going on in Lambeth:

Save Brixton Arches: Shops in railways arches facing rent rises or eviction.

Save Cressingham Gardens: Estate on Tulse Hill threatened with demolition

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Save Nour – Fight the Hondo Tower

Save Central Hill

Powerful Absences

“We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess. Adam Nicolson has written of the “powerful absence[s]’ that remembered landscapes exert upon us, but they exist as powerful presences too, with which we maintain deep and abiding attachments. These, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance. The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those –exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly – who can no longer physically reach the places that sustain them.”
(Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways)

Reading the above made us think. In some ways MacFarlane’s description of how a place calls to us from afar relates to the idea of homesickness, or the welsh word ‘hiraeth’ – a ‘deep longing for something, especially one’s home’ … even deeper is the nostalgia for the home that has gone – that has changed, been lost, is no longer what it was. That’s a dark, long strand; evoking. Its not only physical distance from the place that brings something out in you – its temporal distance, and also geo-dislocation: that place is irrevocably altered. And so are we.

It was not the intention in writing the above to produce a lament for a lost riotous and alternative past; in this post (and the others in our series on Brixton) we have put together the materials old and new for a reason. That being, that we still hold a continuing belief in a different way of life, linking our experiences of the past/how we actually lived through those times to ongoing attempts to resist the daily grind of work, social control and police violence.

As discussed in our post on ‘Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance’ – Brixton has changed vastly over the last thirty-forty years, reflecting huge social changes across the UK and the world. Some of those changes have resulted in a less day to day concentratedly fraught and aggravated existence in SW2 – but a lot of possibilities and beautiful creations have disappeared.

Having lived as part of some of those Brixton scenes – we miss some of them. But you can’t help being reminded of the old man in Donald Hinds memory of working on a bus in Brixton in the 1950s, missing the open fields of his youth… Brixton is ‘Changing, Always Changing’.

That’s London, really. The ground always shifts under you, and you have to adapt how you live, how you organise, all the time, but it’s not like the fundamentals alter.

We have written quite a bit about the process of Gentrification in Brixton, and taken part in struggles against it. It’s ongoing, mostly now taking the form of gradual removal of council and other social housing estates. Gentrification is a complex and much more multi-layered intersection of many processes, and one irony among many, is that struggles or campaigns against gentrification often feature one wave of ‘incomers’ resisting the wave coming on after them. We’ve seen in Brixton that leftists and others have often almost parachuted in to the area sometimes, seeing it as a fertile recruiting ground or a resource to exploit.

Although what does any contrasting idea of ‘indigenous Brixtonites’ mean, in an area which 170 years ago was a few hamlets and cottages, which has been formed by ebb and flow of classes, peoples, often forming a 50 year cycle. The most lasting afro-caribbean community of the area is really just 3 generations old.

It may be, that like Notting Hill, an area which has followed a very similar trajectory (though the class de-composition in W11 has for various reasons hit harder and faster in many ways), the most long-lasting incarnation of Brixton may be the one it has now entered, a bohemian trendiness set in a wider class-mix property boom. Because of the area’s history, it’ll be spiced with alternative arty and green projects, and there’ll be constant low-level sporadic friction with the dwindling estate and street culture, peppered with occasional bursts of short-lived serious agro.

Looking further back into history, discovering the old London Rookeries, the no-go areas of poverty, crime and rebellion, that existed all over the old city in the 17th-19th centuries, and other similar communities that have sprung up, you can draw some parallels. In similar ways to a section of the Brixton community in the ’70s and ’80s, many people in rookeries like St Giles (in Covent Garden) or Alsatia (off Fleet Street) had opted out or been forced out of the traditional economy, surviving by alternative and usually illegal methods, creating their own social structures (including in some places primitive criminal mutual welfare schemes), and also collectively resisting both the forces of law and order and attempts to re-impose mainstream economic and political control…
Rookeries could and often were physically smashed, demolished and obliterated, but their inhabitants turned up elsewhere, creating new havens, because the social conditions that gave birth to them remained. (Echoes, perhaps, of the theory of the ‘Impossible Class’ ?)

Just so with Brixton. You never know if we are living in a lull before a new upsurge of social struggles, or if capital, with all its attendant poverty, grinding work, alienation, boredom violence, hatred and war, will continue to reinvent itself and remain triumphant. Apart from continuing to fight where we can against the conditions we are forced to live under, it is important to both celebrate struggles and ideas of the past and try to learn what lessons we can from them. Much of the impetus in putting this book together was to remember that 1000s of people fought, loved, created, tried to build alternatives to a social system that rinsed and tried to crush them – refused to knuckle under… and that many continue to do so. Even if we failed to hold on to what we created, the ideas and experiences remain part of the process of change. And we might always fail until we succeed once and for all…

Not the End

O.G, 2021


The above was written between 1999 and 2006 (some cut and pasted from articles published in the South London Stress freesheet in 1999)…

… then left in a drawer for years while other things happened, and put into some kind of chrono-illogical format in 2021, to bookend our series of posts on the fortieth anniversary of the April 1981 Brixton uprising.

Lots of other perspectives on this period exist, and we have left out some things…


Part of past tense’s series of articles on
Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981:

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Brixton 1981: Riots, memory and distance

The recent fighting in Bristol, between police and protestors demanding the withdrawal of the new Police bill and angry at the murder of Sarah Everard in South London and police responses to violence against women, through up once again an interesting old question – how old do riots (and other political violence) have to be before it becomes acceptable in the mainstream? Many commentators – including MPs of all parties, mayors, journalists and such worthies – queued up to condemn the ‘rioting’ (a van set on fire and some police station windows smashed). Interestingly, many of the same MPs and journalists generally pay lip service to the bravery of historical political movements, like the suffragettes, whose militant wing carried out a sustained campaign of violence against property for several years.

We observed the same dynamic after the 2011 riots across England, when even people who generally laud self-defence against police attack could be heard denouncing the rioters as having no politics and being just anti-social… Calling for the army to be sent in etc… Time and distance allow for support of an action, even a violent one, for some whose kneejerk reaction is to call for repression when its closer to home.

In Brixton, where this week sees the 40th anniversary of the seminal April 1981 uprising, it seems 25 years is about enough time for riot to become respectable. These notes were written shortly after a commemorative meeting on the 1981 riot, held in Brixton library in 2006.

Holding Back the Years

On July 31st 2006, Brixton Library held a commemorative meeting, “Brixton Riots 25 years On.” The idea was to celebrate how much Brixton had changed since the riots of 1981.  A panel of the Great and the Good was enthroned – the new Lambeth Chief Executive Officer … Brixton’s then Police Chief Superintendent, Martin Bridger… Carol Litchmore, ‘Equality and Diversity’ Tsarina in the Borough… black activists including Devon Thomas (Chair of the Brixton Defence Committee in 1981, he later set up first black youth clubs and became a councillor), … and Brixton black novelist Alex Wheatle (jailed after the 81 riot)… I suppose there were about 300 there, mainly Black Brixtonites.

From the first the Chair Carol Litchmore tried to throw a veil of ‘unity’ over the meeting, appealing for “not the same rhetoric” (ie people wanting to make points about rqacism policing or council policy!) and spouting lots of Newdiversityspeak about public choice and action… Questions had already been submitted in advance and people who tried to ask unauthorized ones were discouraged.

Much was made of positive changes locally, especially the huge reduction in young black unemployment since the early 80s (although no figures for how craply the jobs are paid were put up – many people have been forced off the dole into low paid work). Also that Black community ‘representatives’ will now sit down and work things out with the Police – for which they would have had their heads taken off 25 years ago (see the attack on members of the Police Community Relations group in 1979: In the shadow of the SPG.

It was interesting in that two or three of those on the panel claimed unashamedly to have been rioters in 81, and had since moved into local council/social work, or in Alex Wheatle’s case, creative work… It is now considered totally acceptable to admit to having chucked bricks at police in 1981, this was almost universally accepted. Hilariously, though, ex-rioters on the panel denounced the youth of today as ‘having no respect for their elders’, too much bad language etc – give em some licks! As someone said “we were youth, now we’re elders…no-one has recognised that we are leaders.” How sad. How the patterns repeat; as long as the ‘Community’ lets ‘leaders’ speak for it then perfectly respectable rioters will one day Chair the Business Forum. In 1981, previously respected Black activists tried to discourage the riots and negotiate with the police, for instance Ivan Madray, who was given short shrift when he tried to persuade rioters to calm down. 7-8 years before Madray had been arrested himself while arguing with police outside squatted 121 Railton Road while Olive Morris was inside, besieged by the boys in blue.

Black social workers in the audience did manage did warn though of young Black people feeling they have no voice. Obviously youth black, white and whatever still face the crap prospects; the mindless tedium of work replaces the skint tedium of the dole. With even less chance of getting housed.

Top cop Bridger had obviously been through the new age Met courses, talking about “challenges for the future” and “empowering the community” and so on. Apparently the cops have created a ‘community consortium’ to push kids (by court order) convicted of gun crime into a program run by “the community”, cleverly co-opting the Black ‘leadership’ locally. A young Black woman did ask the necessary question: can you MAKE people behave by a court order…? To little response. Current police schemes included plainclothes cops roaming the markets and co-operation with multi-national scum McDonalds and some local bookies (also scum) against dealers…

Other questioners from the floor did raise points about current issues – the chaos created by the closing of local schools (an alarmingly large percentage of kids going to secondary schools outside the Borough!) and raising the problem of ‘ethnic and poverty-cleansing’ in parks and streets… Gentrification in other words. Also the total decimation of youth clubs and spaces for kids… [which has accelerated in the years since this was written] And what happened to all that government money for the inner city, Brixton Challenge etc – fairly universally it was reckoned Brixton people saw little of it, though I wouldn’t mind betting that a few ‘community leaders’ present ran their hand over some of it in one committee or forum or other.

Holding back the Tears (of laughter)

Then out of the blue, a ghost appeared, who should speak up but the Knightmare from Knorwood, former left wing Labour leader of the Council, TED KNIGHT! I’m sure most of those present thought he had quietly died in the meantime. Ted has not mellowed with the years. He went into a rant about capitalism and the terrible economic situation (ie now he’s not in power no-one wants to bribe him for council building contracts like in the old days…) He demanded that we “take Back the Power”, to some applause, bizarrely, as he once HAD the power and made a right mess of it. Some dissident voices did point out that the worst thing you could possibly do was give power back to Red Ted. Still seeing him was like stepping back 20 years. Not in a good way.

A dissenting contribution to the general air of fake unity came from some young kids at the back, who insisted on hazing Chief Superintelligent Bridger about continuing stop and search of young people by his plodniks; “we have not seen a change in fundamental attitudes of the police towards young people.”

The most interesting point made, though, was that 1981 is ‘ancient history’ to young people in today’s Brixton, and had little resonance today. Young kids are probably sick of dad ranting about how he drove Babylon out of Railton Road back in the day for the umpteenth time.  Which I guess makes it safe for 1981 to be officially recognised as a legitimate community response even (almost) by the top cop and Council Chief Exec, and filed away as ‘History’. Ie harmless.

(Funnily enough, this isn’t always the police response to mention of 81: when an exhibition in an Acre Lane gallery of paintings showing the riot went up in 2005, they received a visit from the constabulary accusing them of ‘incitement’. How you can incite something that happened two decades ago is beyond me. Perhaps the Old Bill are worried about us going ’Back to the Future’.


Further to those notes… (2021)

In hindsight, looking back on Brixton 1981 is a bit more complex than we wrote in 2006.

The paragraph about former rioters later conforming doesn’t take into account how people can be drawn into the excitement of riots, and might not necessarily be supportive of rioting, later, when reflecting…

Brixton 1981, after it went off, rapidly became an important event, which gained mythical status for young black (and lots of young white) people. Many who weren’t there were really glad the police got a battering, because so many people had faced the kind of vicious racist policing Brixton had seen. Brixton inspired the riots three months later all over the UK, and the whole assumed a long-standing status. It’s true that people 25 years later may still look back and see the rebellions of their youth as vital but, given changes in their own social position, may not think they’d do the same again today.

Lots of people also operate their own version of the whig view of history: what took place in the struggle to get us here was justified because things are now are fine, for the same reason trying to change how things are now is not ok.

One thing said a lot in 2006 was that Brixton had changed a lot, with the implication that while rising up in 81 was justifiable, rebellion, resistance, fighting the police now was not. It was interesting that the people saying that were now older, in their fifties, while the younger people did speak up and talk about police harassed them. Older people in 1981 were more divided, but there was also a generation then which felt you can’t fight the cops, and that youth were out of control. (Reading accounts of the defence campaign formed after the April Uprising, it’s also clear that older, more established Black activists attempted to keep control of this campaign, which caused friction with the younger street-fighters)

It’s partly a generational thing. The certainty of youth, prepared to smash shit up, seeing everything in all-or-nothing terms, is often coloured as you get older. We used to riot and not give a shit about those who didn’t like it – but there were always people who were terrified of it, and bad and anti-social things always got done. Riots are not in themselves pure and simple acts, they’re complex outbreaks containing lots of people with different motives. Some of those motives are collective and some are vicious and turned on everyone.

In 2011 some people said ‘these riots are different, not social like 81’. But anti-social things happened in 81, 85 too… Paul Gilroy has written on how the riots of ’81 and 2011 were portrayed and contrasted.

But it is not only a generational shift in individuals; it is a different time, and a different culture… Life in Brixton is very different that it was 40 years ago. It’s different to it was 15 years ago.

The confrontation and resistance arose from years of complex social and economic factors; dereliction… compulsory purchases… unemployment… the political and social renaissances of the 60s and 70s… a ferment of ideas among the black and white working class… the revival of libertarian currents… A situation that won’t arise again in the same way.

Since the riots in 81 to some extent, the culture that caused and enabled rebellion has changed. Both the black and the white alternative cultures were sustained by the dole… mass unemployment in the early 80s was a huge part of the social landscape. The underground black economy of crap jobs on the side, dope-dealing, robbing (whether with principles, ie shoplifting, or without, ie robbing those around you in the same situation); the rioters of all colours, the squatters were to a great extent doleys. OK so many of us scammed the dole, ran two claims, scammed money for holidays by ripping off Insurance companies; not paying rent or in a lot of cases any bills helped. Political activists black and white relied on the free time signing on gave them to get busy challenging the cops, or smashing the state, or whatever.

This culture began in the late 80s to get more difficult, changes in benefit rules, tougher regimes in the SS offices, more sham schemes were brought in to shovel us off the unemployed lists. This wasn’t just done to keep the numbers looking healthy, a popular chorus at the time. It was a vital part of regaining social discipline over a wide swathe, especially of young people, who it was perceived had largely escaped the state’s control, and to try and prevent this alienation and active rejection of commodity values from spreading.

We found new ways of new ways of getting round the dole schemes – eg going on the enterprise allowance scheme for a year. This meant having to have a thousand quid in the bank, to launch your own business – in our scene there was a phantom grand permanently circulating from account to account! – and pretending to try to get a little business going for a year – which then ‘sadly’ failed to survive the rigours of the free market. Many other such schemes allowed us freedom of movement for a while. But since then many of those dole claimers have ended up in work: tough class background (and colour) have had a massive impact on what kind of work. Many have been forced into either crap jobs, others have taken what chances that came to get trained up ins something that pays. Chance has led lots of us to working for local councils, the NHS, the voluntary sector, arts and cultural scammery… you name it.

The mantra the ‘realistic sections’ of the left repeat is that the official and wildcat workers movements have taken a heavy battering, and an increasingly authoritarian state is introducing measure after measure of social control; and largely they’re getting away with it. All true, but its also true that the gaps and crannies of crime, the black economy, ducking and diving, as well as outright refusal to play by the rules of capitalism, has also become very much squeezed. While much of the orthodox left despised such allegedly ‘lumpen’ quarters (until mass riots etc provided a chimaera of recruiting militant youth to their grandiose ‘parties’, there was always, in Brixton for sure, and elsewhere as well, a shady sliding scale, a merging at the edges of street culture, rebellious politics and action. On the Frontline of old, this merging produced varied political views, but as a whole, it could tentatively be said that an autonomous culture was in embryo. But it is clearly unsustainable to continue to build and expand any sort of nogo area, alternative structure etc without upping the challenge to the state locally, you have to keep expanding both physically as well as  transforming the politically and social relations of your daily lives.
Maybe this was just not going to happen at this time. Despite brief flowerings, a long-term no-go area was never really possible, even in the Frontline’s limited streets (compare, say the no-go areas that nationalists in Belfast and Derry maintained for several years from 1969 -72.)  And the ideological differences – eg between black nationalism, Rastafarianism, anarchism, leftism, non-political general rebelliousness – handicapped attempts to even defend arrested rioters and build alliances against police invasions even at the height of the area’s non-conformity. (see the discussions in ‘From Offence to Defence to…’) A co-operative approach to running a no-go area may well have foundered in the face of such divisions. Perhaps the authoritarian structures of the IRA made the N. Irish attempts easier to hold – awkward questions about the nature of their control over people aside.

Brixton is not wholly changed. It is however very different. The most obvious changes are in the street culture, the pubs, and the housing. The Frontline street crowds are gone, although as everywhere smaller groups gather, on estates, corners etc. The alternative economy that drove Railton Road’s ‘Frontline’ still exists… dealers abound as ever, if less overtly.

What has been destroyed is the sense of autonomous culture – the sound systems, the blues parties, as well as the white rebel scene. These scenes drove much of what made the place tick. The interesting diverse spaces, pubs clubs, even some shops, are fewer and further between. it’s still there, of course you can’t destroy people’s spirit and desire to gather. But the growing space not controlled by capital and its authority, has been rolled back. If we meet it is back on their terms and in commodified spaces.

For the most part these conditions have been rolled back or recuperated. The mass individualisation of our daily culture, the rampant commercial colonisation of public space, a highly ideologically motivated assault on ‘social’ housing and the alternative/voluntary/social sectors have altered the landscape irrevocably.

On the other hand it has to be said that the kind of daily confrontations with the cops hat eventually sparked the riots just don’t occur in the way they used to. Partly this is down to social change, partly to a change in the nature of policing. Smart and sophisticated policing and surveillance techniques have made the Met less of a blunt instrument and in some ways more effective.

 Policing is cleverer and PR-friendly. I would guess that more people in 1981 had experienced first hand direct violence from police. SPG operations in Brixton in the mid-70s to 1981 were random and indiscriminate; they have learned to be a little more cunning.

Whereas in the early 80s the response to any minor street argy bargy would have been a huge invasion of SPG, the modern Met has acquired more subtle responses. Cops are now trained to try and defuse situations, isolate, pacify much more. With CCTV and police cameramen it is alot easier to nick people afterwards, keep tabs on ‘troublemakers’. Some clever recruitment has also lessened the sense of a totally white occupying force (although many of the same attitudes persist if you dig below the glossy image). But the Met, in common with many of the institutions of british Capitalism, has learned subtle and insidious methods of control. Gone are the days when rabid NF cops were blatantly allowed to alienate middle class opinion by trashing youth clubs.

Police co–operation with schools, shops, businesses, councils, ‘community leaders’ etc now works on utterly different levels. In the 80s, relations with the Council, and with all but the most grovelly Black local bourgeoisie, had totally broken down… Now many former rioters of 81 stripe are firmly entrenched within the public and voluntary sectors, and integrated into the networks of control.

None of this is to say the role or the power of the police has fundamentally changed. In parallel with the PR changes, laws have been brought in (partly as a result on the 1981 riots, and the 84-85 miners’ strike) which have greatly increased the police’s public order powers: including the 1986 Public Order Act, and the 1994 Criminal Justice Act (today if course we face yet more..) The carrot has been made sweeter but the stick also sharper.

But to some extent the fierce onslaught on working class communities, especially the rebellious, disaffected and powerfully organised elements, needed a hardened paramilitary force. If policing adopted a softer face for a while (not for everyone) – in 2021, we are seeing a harder cop force out and kicking. It’ll be interesting to see ow that pans out.

Nowadays Lambeth Council, although Labour, is far from the left posturing of Red Ted and his 1980s comrades. (In reality, lefty rhetoric aside, cops and politicians always co-operated anyway, even at the height of ‘Loony left Lambeth’, when it came to repressing black or white class struggle and closing down genuinely self-organised spaces). For decades, the Council has been hand in glove with developers, happy to sell off social housing en masse, clear estates to enable their replacement by a better class of people…

More on which:


Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015


Impossible Classlessness?

Some responses to, and problems we have with, The Impossible Class.

‘The Impossible Class ‘was published by some anarchists in 1981 as an analysis and thereoretical response to the urban riots if 1981, notably Brixton. I’d suggest reading that before reading this text…

This reply was largely written in 2013, left in a drawer then update slightly in 2021. (Yes, 40 years is a long time to wait to write a reply)… this is a first draft, so any comments, snorts of derision are of course welcome.

When I first read ‘The Impossible Class’ many years back, I had some gripes with its analyses of the causes of the riots of ’81 in Brixton (and elsewhere), and their implications for us living under modern capitalism. Re-reading it thirty-odd years later (and having lived in Brixton, and been involved in its underground life and rebellious politics, for most of the intervening period), I have more reservations; but further to that, social change, economic upheavals, and the movements of classes in inner-city London, have called into question some of the writers’ conclusions (as I’m sure they themselves would not have found totally unexpected..). However, there are some interesting ideas here too. For anyone interested in Brixton, its contested past, its strange current existence, and where it might evolve, this text is worth examining – of course there are wider implications too.

Much of ‘The Impossible Class’ is rooted in the anarchist theory of the era… an ideology I also found my home in, for a while, and which (for me) still provides some useful elements to an ongoing struggle to understand the world around us, and change it; though I have come to question many ‘anarchist’ orthodoxies. Below, I have briefly set out some of the points that came up for me when reading the Impossible Class. It is worth saying, I am not being critical for the sake of it, or to belittle the ideas or vision of those who wrote it; in many ways I would have put forward similar analyses in my past. We all share a vision of another way of life entirely to the gradgrind of modern wage labour… Changes in class relations just didn’t work out the way the writers thought they might. It’s too easy to dismiss observations and social predictions after the fact; that’s not what we want to do here, because what is most interesting is how they thought class relations and antagonisms might develop, and the factors that influenced how it has – so far – turned out differently to that vision. As well as what we can do about it. But also – the battle is still undecided, as it were. Discussion, debate, working ideas and social relations out in practice are still all vital.  I am not especially theoretically coherent or rigid, so forgive me if what follows seems obvious or confused.

The writers projected their conclusions about life in Brixton out onto the world, and with the exception of particular areas with strong similarities to Brixton, like say St Pauls, in Bristol, or parts of Hackney, (just as examples), this projection didn’t always click. I have lived all my adult life in London, and while you can read about places, visit them, talk to those that live there, my response is very much conditioned by that… Wildly varying conditions exist, even in the UK, so some of what I say won’t apply, or even have any meaning, elsewhere. Hopefully though what follows is useful. Naturally any responses, critiques, loud laughter and argument are always welcome.

My first feeling about the Impossible Class text is that it romanticises, or at least waxes optimistic, about the ‘black’ or underground economy, suggesting that many, if not most working class people were consciously rejecting the mainstream economy, choosing to survive through a mix of signing on the dole, and cash-in-hand/dealing/self-organised underground projects, etc. More than this, it suggests that the police attacks on Brixton were partly motivated by a desire from the powers-that-be to crush this embryonic challenge to the orthodox structures of wage labour (and in particular, that part them that manifested openly in the street, posing a direct challenge to the forces of law ‘n’ order).

As with much of ‘The Impossible Class’, there is an element of truth to this. In Brixton, many local kids deliberately rejected a system they saw as rejecting them/attacking them… For young west indian men, the Rastafarian ideology/theology gave this a shape; they were the oppressed, living in Babylon, which had transported them from their home, Africa, (all true), to which they would one day return. An interesting additional feed-in to the UK rasta consciousness could also be the widespread idea that many of the first generation of west Indian migrants to move here shared, that they would work here for a while then return to the Caribbean. Though this didn’t work out for many, most ended up bringing families here, making a more permanent home; maybe, though, it coloured many people’s view that oppression here was temporary, that they could physically escape it, either actually, or spiritually, or in the vision of a return to Africa.  Otherwise, for young whites and blacks, its also true that pretty much the entire wider drop-out culture of the 70s/80s was subsidised by the dole! Which was great – it gave us space to do stuff we wanted to do. Part-time, cash in hand or casual jobs were mingled with giro cheques, shoplifting, often squatting, signing on in more than name, covering for mates when they went on holiday or were working etc.; mixed in later on with finding loopholes and ways of exploiting training schemes, pseudo-self-employment, for our own benefit, or with alternating claiming with temporary and more official jobs as things got harder on the dole. All useful pieces of the jigsaw of survival.

But the writers were to a great extent theorising from above, really, despite their anarchist credentials… Most people involved in the underground economy were doing it from practical need, not thinking clearly that they were rejecting the whole of society etc… When economic times changed they were mainly reabsorbed into work culture, or found themselves in ‘proper’ jobs. Tis true that some of us – anarchos, musos, artists, dealers, etc – did stay on the dole deliberately, or ideologically; benefits plus work on side – gives you space for activism, creating etc… plus why not get dole and wages, if you can. ‘Twas easy then.   1980s anarchist ideology often identified methods of survival (especially if they were illegal, or unlawful) as methods of struggle, or even as weapons for the destruction of capital – eg shoplifting, looting, squatting, skipping food, etc. All good stuff, I did it all, to survive, and would again if need be. All gave people a measure of autonomy in their own lives, and helped people get by. But often it was not really as much in rejection of society, as just what was needed to break even, or get a bit more than a pittance.

The authors of The Impossible Class rightly identify that whole subcultures had grown up which thrived at the fringe of the GDP-economy. Now the modern state of any colour hates that kind of unregulated, untaxed, unofficial economic goings-on – when practiced by the working class, of course; contrariwise, for the neo-liberal wing of capital a certain kind of cowboy entrepreneurism is pedestalised when carried out by business/corporations. So as much of that fringe economy has since been reined in as possible – a complete revolution in forms and structures of work, technological change, especially computerisation, regulation, bureaucratic rationalisation, and more, have made working on the side while signing on much more difficult, although large loopholes will always remain (Witness the pathetic attempt a few years back to demonise paying builders etc cash in hand). But also survival on the dole long term, which used to be a matter of turning up once a fortnight, is now a full time job in itself.  Autonomy, and counter-cultural forms, are not the same as a conscious revolutionary opposition to capital. Unless you buy the idea that there can be an Unconscious revolutionary opposition (which is debatable). Squatting, for instance, gave people cheap places to live in times of housing crisis; if for a substantial minority it was a conscious political rebellion against property, against housing as a commodity, against the landlords who profit from it, or the social landlords (so-called) and policy theorists who sought to control working people through cheap and accessible council housing… (This last point – that social housing has always been partly intended to keep us from rebelling – doesn’t mean we wouldn’t mind the relatively easy access to it available in the 1960s! As a minimum step back from the market-driven housing chaos we now face.) But for many more, squatting gave people space to create alternatives, either personal ones or collective ones. Some of these were intended to form part of a diverse radical challenge to the existing order. Many were taking advantage of the possibilities but had no intention of challenging this society – many were able to further their own careers and niches within class society through those alternative nooks and crannies, rising to form new strata and levels of (often creative) entrepreneurship, and even managerial or bureaucratic power, or positions of parasitical ‘consultant’ status. Many more made lot of money ripping others off using squats, squat-raves, dealing or whatever, (with some dosing out threats and violence against anyone who mildly dissented along the way). That’s not to diss people who don’t share the anarchist ideal of ‘smashing the state’, but to question and qualify the idea that the twilight economy was IN ITSELF revolutionary. Many people in the squatting/DIY/drop-out/anarchist/hippy left scene did fetishise not buying ‘sweatshop goods’, making your own, self-publishing, adding these up to rejecting ‘capitalism’, we’re not breadheads maan… etc… many also rapidly compromised those principles and ended up in the orthodox market. Others of course did stick by them, but its questionable how much they built an ‘oppositional community’… A fair few of them spent far too much time sneering at the ‘normal working class people’ for being ‘slaves’ (ie going to work), or making distinctions between each other’s brands of drop-outery as not being radical enough. Little enough of this scene had any class-consciousness, as to impossible-class-consciousness, it’s hard to say.

Partly in reaction to the frustrations of this scene, probably the most dominant strand of UK anarchist ideas of the 1980s and into the 1990s evolved; based on the idea, broadly speaking, that the working class, or at least the section of the working class, typically depicted as living in inner-cities, on council estates, was in the process of rejecting capitalist forms and exchanges, and was up for it and ripe for an uprising… Class War, and many local anarchist papers and groups, operated, or at least talked, as if this uprising was imminent. Outbreaks like Brixton, Broadwater Farm, the miners strike, Wapping, and then the anti-poll tax movement seemed to us to support these views. Immersed in this movement it was easy to miss the fact that these outbreaks were more exceptions than tips of the iceberg. Although the ’80s were a decade of constant overt class antagonism, we lost most of those battles (the poll tax being an exception, and qualified now by the gradual ratcheting up of council taxes) and ended the era  with a fragmented sense of class opposition, traditional notions of class even being questioned.  Ironically the vast majority of the ‘class struggle anarchists’ adopting this view didn’t originate in this social ‘strata’, (of course some did), although they may have wanted to, or come from areas like Brixton. Whether or not this invalidated their ideas, or their ‘right’ to be involved in that politics, could be debated… Class identity, and class composition, are much more fluid than ’80s anarchists at the time would have liked to admit; Class War’s attempt, for instance to build around the idea of class pride, class identity, was stoutly ignoring the rapid changes in class composition taking place in that time. Ironically this divergence was eventually to partly lead to the disintegration of CW as a group in 1997-8 (though a small minority continued to operate under the name); the majority of its members by this point had both acquired more permananent jobs, usually in skilled sector/local authorities, mortgages, and had come to question some of the CW’s core ideology. [The wildly varying wanderings of some of the ex-Class War crew could not be told here, though some interesting speculations could be made from the current organisational incarnations of the former factions/leading individuals – from attempting to raise the dead a third time as farce as the Class War Party, standing in elections and waving arms about like the last 35 years never happened; or as Plan C, falling headlong into academic autonomism and from thence for many to the dead end of acid Corbynism and the Labour party… Not to mention those who now teach t’ai chi to cabinet ministers or have large property portfolios… But that’s another article. Coming, maybe, soon…]

A real challenge to the whole capitalist caboodle has to involve more than both dropping out of the economy, or a narrow definition of who the ‘real working class’ is.  Some of the response to UK 2011 riots shows that divisions have increased, between people with little to lose, or for who all out combat against the police and destruction of property is a valid tactic, and many who might otherwise believe in a broadly more egalitarian society. Now this was true in 1981 too, though perhaps a larger proportion of people felt rioting to be justified then than now. It’s fair enough to argue with the idea that riots in the past were community uprisings while today’s rioters are just hooligan elements – which tendency includes some former rioters of the ’80s themselves (see the report on the 2006 Brixton riot commemoration), and bizarrely some old anarchist comrades.

But we should also be looking to the differences between then and now, the changes that really have taken place, and where that leaves the possibilities for us. This is a wider discussion than just about rioting.   These days we are thinking less about expanding an underground economy as part of a radical challenge to orthodox economic relations, as we are desperately fighting to preserve such ‘social-democratic’ protections as we have left, on working conditions, the welfare state, etc, in the face of a new onslaught on them by a re-energised neo-liberal elite.

It’s all very well idealising it, but the black economy is also very dodgy.  As the writers themselves admit “…aspects of that mass illegality are no less exploitative than that of the capitalist economy as a whole…” The most destructive and exploitative aspects of this economy were the ones that have survived and thrived, growing into hugely profitable gangster alt-capitalism on the one hand and territorial civil war against each other on the other. Happily for the state this has taken the most root in the communities that it saw as offering the most potential threat in terms of collective resistance to police control and work discipline: crime, gang warfare and penal response are a much more comfortable outcome for them, shite as it pans out for people on the ground.

On the other hand The Impossible Class failed to take into account how the culture they talk about suited disenfranchised youth, in an economy that had passed them by, but as the economy was radically restructured, and at the same time the ‘frontline’ shrank, horizons for ducking and diving shortened, and people also grew up, had kids, greater and different needs and so on arose. The most successful response to the ’81 riots was from the state, who managed to force much of the ‘impossibles’ back into its clutches; but age, maturing, raising families and so on would likely have done much of that job in time for many anyway. It’s not just about giving in to the spectacle etc (though I have anarchist friends who still despise me for getting a proper job. Hey ho) Lack of rights, working with no long term security etc is ok, when you’re single and fancy free, but crap when you have a bit more to lose –  you crave holiday pay… Having worked on the side while signing on, claimed multiple benefits dubiously, worked on the buildings under various forms of self-employment, through agencies, dodging tax when I could, but being now on the cards, to be honest each suited me at the time. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid work as much as possible, but when I needed cash I’d find a way to steal/work delete as you wish… Now I have a young child, in a proper family situation… All the benefits and flexibility modern capitalism can give an (allegedly) skilled worker come in handy. Obviously I am also lucky I’m white, not a recent migrant, that I decided to learn a trade, and was reasonably competent/able to stick at it. But the fight now is on more basic levels.

I would also question the implication that all rioters were immersed in the black economy… (though the writers may not have meant that). That it’s contradicted by reality is suggested by their own text, eg the report from the Wood Green riot (“We’ve all got jobs… We want a riot!”). But historically it is also true that from the respectable left, (often echoing the authorities), there’s always the chorus that rioters are lumpens, rowdies, not proper workers. Where analysis has been carried out, from Chartist riots, to the anti-poll tax shindig in Trafalgar Square 1990, this is not born out by evidence: as many artisans, workers in respectable trades, etc, are reported in Chartist arrest lists and so on. NB: Also see reports from the local Trades Councils in the General Strike, which saw fighting between police and strikers/supporters every day, all over the country… The union line was almost invariably that any trouble was started by non-unionists or the unemployed – but it’s just not born out by arrests or by grassroots accounts.) ‘Hardworking workers’ are just as alienated and likely to crack and kick things over; because work itself is often shit and mind-numbing, abasing ourselves to someone with unreasonable power over us day after day.

When ‘The impossible Class’ was published, the changes in capitalist economy that we are even now suffering were then well underway – broadly labelled Thatcherism in this country (though some of those changes began in the early 1970s), also widely lumped together as neo-liberalism; developments in financial markets, globalisation and internal expansion in service industries and so on. Of course it’s daft to expect the authors of one text to nostradamically prognosticate how the system would regenerate itself. To them and many other left commentators, it seemed clear that the crisis of the late 70s and early 80s, and the decline in the industrial economies of the developed west would continue, and sharpen, shit would get worse, breakdown, and that space was opening up for this kind of diffuse challenge to the established order. Which would have left room for dual power, counter-structures or working class power. For an interesting take on how people thought it might happen, from the 1980s, it’s worth reading The Free, an excellent fictional account of a revolution in Ireland, written by a well-known Brixton anarchist, in which squatting, co-ops, industrial decline lead to a mass rebellion through dual power, creating a libertarian classless society… (though possible difficulties with rightwing and leftwing authoritarian groups are pretty much brushed over). Many anarchos (and not just in Britain – friends in Germany, Holland too that I know of also) did think that things were developing that way around ’81 .

It didn’t happen.
But it may happen still (now we’re in another phase of crisis, belt-tightening and embryonic resistance); though does a wider section of population think that way any more, as they did in that era? Or even think in those terms. Many of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s learned from a widespread belief in some sort of socialism, some sort of more egalitarian collectivism, or the idea that such things were possible, if much of the examples were either outdated, or based on rosy glows of soviet or Cuban models, or on municipal Labourism & trade union bureaucracies. It’s worth debating whether this gave us much of the impetus for long-term involvement in activist scenes, movements and campaigns. How much does the radically different experience of young people now, (who to a much greater extent didn’t grow up with that diffuse belief in ‘a better world’) influence the chances of resistance to capital’s current attacks on us, or of a powerful movement for an alternative way to live? Maybe Occupy etc are the kids of our generation, to some extent… Some people think that the relative collapse of the left, trade union influence and membership, the lack of the false alternative of Soviet ‘communism’, clears the way for the real movements to arise. Others bemoan the destruction of the old-style labour movement and would rebuild it as it was, whether or not the model fits now. It’s also true that a wider, general feeling of rebelliousness, rejecting orthodoxies and hierarchies, of youth kicking up the dust, avoiding work, etc, has for many years seemed like a distant dream; this gave many of us a positive experience in the 70s and 80s (earlier and later for others maybe); today I talk to 22 year-olds and you think, you have a mortgage, you should be out taking DRUGS, for fuck’s sake! Maybe this is now beginning to change, under the combined influence of the 2008 crash, Covid-19 and whatever fallout Brexit might have on the British economy.

OK, you can’t impose one generation’s outlook on another, and while me and my mates were dossing, squatting and getting off our heads (as well as rioting and ‘organising’), probably the majority of people my age were ‘knuckling down to hard work’. It’s just the minority seemed bigger and more based in every town, you know?  In the light of that, maybe the most positive aspect of involvement in Brixton riots etc was the empowerment that those participants underwent – the changes in their own consciousness, their feelings of collectivity etc – rather than any mass effect on future ‘oppositional communities’… In the long run it’s always difficult to know what lasting effect you have when you take part in any kind of rebellion, activism, etc – I’m no hippy, but sometimes the only changes you can be sure of are the ones that you and the people around you undergo, that you can see and feel. What inspiration or effects on social policy, policing, ‘the coming revolution’ your activities have is often either questionable, reversible by those in authority, double-edged in its real implications. Brixton ’81 seems clearer than most events as a positive inspiring outpouring of righteous anger, it’s true.  However, this kind of head-scratching is as much also a product of my advancing age, thinking too much, seeing the shades of grey in events, rather than as black and white as I did when I was 19. It’s possible that people should pay no attention to these dusty ramblings. There’s a strong argument that you SHOULD be like that when you’re young, fuck listening to the people who tell you its difficult and there’s a point on both sides, or it’s all negative, nothing works, “we tried it and look what happened…” the empowerment of taking part in riots, not compromising, all-out radical projects, etc, is a positive thing – often it’s the long term boredom of work and orthodox career path, or even of long-term political activism, that fucks the hope out of people.

In terms of policing, in the long term the police have not exactly taken the route to that predicted in ‘The Impossible Class’. Although paramilitary policing did dominate the 1980s, in the last twenty years, a more graduate culture has been built, with a bent to strategic thinking, technology, and a powerful interest in public relations, co-opting minorities and spreading tentacles into ‘communities’. The Met has in fact, in direct contradiction to the writers’ predictions, made a real effort to present itself as opening up to be more representative, more accountable; and, especially after the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the MacPherson Inquiry, have admitted that they are saturated with racism but are dealing with the problem, huge changes have taken place etc… PR is a major part of 21st century policing, and the Met has become very adept. The kind of tactics that the Special Patrol Group favoured, including mass invasions and occupations of a whole area, have more been replaced by cleverer targetting, with more subtle accompanying propaganda. Its true that whole areas are not identified with dissent, crime, ‘criminal minorities’, or not as blanketedly as Brixton used to be, at least in London; so targetting is necessary, but there’s also some smarter minds treading carefully.
But the cosmetics, and sleight of hand, isn’t the whole story. There genuinely are factions in the police, and to some extent a battle has taken place within the Met, especially in London, and particularly in Brixton, liberal experimenting has become de rigeur for the force.  It’s interesting to read in the ‘Impossible Class’ the tale of David Webb, liberal cop turned would be Liberal politician – prefiguring the career of Brixton favourite, veteran PC of 1981, later Commander in Lambeth, Brian Paddick, who followed a similar trajectory 25 odd years later… Though in much changed times for the Met, his battles with a hierarchy that both promoted him and undermined him reflect the old liberal vs authoritarian debate in the police…  It’s not always easy to tell which is which – PR or genuine liberalism. When Lambeth’s top cop virtually tows the line that the 81 riot was a necessary community uprising, (see report of the 2006 ‘commemoration 25 years on’, later on), is it good PR or a deeper change? It’s funny how policing seemed to parallel the political changes – Paddick and Macpherson and all fitted perfectly with Blairite New labour era-spin, and concerned classless vague-centre-leftism. Now aggressive upper class war is back on the agenda, changes in policing may be starting to reflect this, if the reaction to the Sarah Everard vigil in London and the Bristol anti-policing bill demos is anything to go by.

‘Cause liberal gloss or not, the true nature of policing hasn’t changed. For many young black people, the idea that the police have substantially changed since 1981 is a joke. 30 years after April 81, police stop and search of young people on spurious grounds is still endemic, and ratcheting up tensions.  Police shootings… killing people on demos… the list goes on A crucial sentence in the 1981 text is “everyone is potentially guilty” in Brixton – this turned out to be just not true. Or at least, the council and the police were more adept at splitting rioters, squatters, etc from more respectable, especially white respectable residents, and more adept even than that in ‘Secondary Control’ – defusing further rebellion with money, schemes and jobs for the right people; as the text does point out. The Economist’s analysis and projected solution to the riots, and the inner city crisis it suggested they represented, is interesting, because to some extent it very accurately forecast developments: aspects of it were adopted, in Brixton, and elsewhere, in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting for those of us who from 1993 noted what happened to the money that flooded into Brixton in the 1990s as part of Brixton Challenge (for example) on the grounds that it was designed as ‘secondary control’, in part at least, to read that, as we suspected, it wasn’t unconsciously divisive, or altruistic, but had a theoretical basis from (at least one faction) of our rulers: to divide, to keep us down, to keep us from rebelling.  But long before Brixton Challenge, the Urban programme, other inner-city aid schemes, were finely tuned to achieve this (Black radical magazine Race Today criticised what they called the ‘black bourgeoisie’ in Brixton, the buying off of ambitious activists and ‘leaders’ by integrating them into the local state or ‘voluntary’ sectors. This needs a wide discussion though, as there’s a real debate to be had about the value that state funding, rented premises, paid workers were gave to many projects, community groups, women’s, black, gay organisations, (just as a few examples). It wasn’t just black community leaders they needed to buy off, to some extent it was an underground culture that needed co-opting, wooing, integrating, in order to both defuse and contain rebellious possibilities, and also to create more avenues for profit and exploitation (how much money is there in hip hop, graffiti and their spin-offs these days? In ’81 they were almost entirely outside of mainstream capitalism).

Another important change ‘The Impossible Class’ did not reflect is the massive restructuring of work. “Only a small, declining section of the working class has been able to sustain its job security and living standards (and even those workers only through increased overtime), while the rest get relegated to menial, insecure and part-time jobs. The restructuring in industry is fast removing the material basis for an identity in paid work, especially the link between effort and reward – reward both in terms of job enjoyment and wages. Unlike the 1930s, not only are few unemployed people willing to blame themselves, but their passive exclusion from wage-labour is gradually turning into an active rejection of such work, or at least of officially paid work.”  Well yes, the restructuring of work that had already begun did result in some of these effects – and a half. The problem is their projection of a growing mass resistance to work itself as a result of this… 30 years later the precarious nature of everyone’s work, compared to say the 60s or 70s, is the defining feature of many of our lives. In a wider sense much of what defined ‘work’, say in the 1960s, has been almost turned on its head, or turned inside out. Traditionally middle class careers have been relatively ‘proletarianised’; job security has become a sick joke for millions; industries where unionisation was almost compulsory, in some cases where workers (at least through union structures) had sizable power over their conditions of labour have been decimated, and “savage management practices” have become almost universal. (To name but a few of the changes)

Agency, contract, ‘gig’ economy workers now make up a massive proportion of the workforce, making the line in The Impossible Class about reversing “the bourgeois relation of future/present by replacing deferred gratification (of National Insurance or pension payments) with immediate gratification in wages” a dark irony – many now exist on instant ‘gratification’ only, being unable to access the benefits of being on the cards. The gratification of being a paycheck from destitution.
And in a savage reversal of the lionisation of the cash in hand or black economy in the Impossible Class, million now subsist on terribly paid part time work on precarious or no contracts, only surviving by receiving state top-ups of ‘in-work’ benefits to scrape by.

Other sectors of the workforce bought wholesale into right to buy and mortgaging themselves to the hilt, encouraged by the state one the one hand as social housing was dismantled on the other. The profits now tied up in mortgages and private sector renting would make reversing this trend so catastrophic for UK capitalism that only a full-scale and sustained uprising would be powerful enough to rebuild cheap and universal social housing in the face of it… And people are hostages to fortune, too scared or tired to ‘rebel against work’.

But resistance to work, as a conscious political decision, has all but vanished in the UK. If only… People’s identification with their work, the sense that it is part of who they are fundamentally may have declined, cynicism and disaffection with the daily grind is rife… (But that was there before!) People have to diversify more and more, acquiring wide-ranging skills to enable them to balance on the edge of the precipice, one re-organisation or takeover away from redundancy, disaster… New migrant workforces, new rightwing grassroots anti-immigrant campaigns, have given the recent financial crisis a dark and (to those who lived through the 70s) familiar edge. That in many places (at least in London) what little remains of council housing is fast becoming a ghetto for migrants is another factor in this mix.

Structural changes in capitalism have gone hand in hand, with both gentrification and the reduction of social hsouing in inner city areas like Brixton, and a ruthless imposition of dole schemes that have militarized signing on, forced the unwaged into crap jobs or educational nowhere schemes. In the end the idea that a massive oppositional community based on conscious avoidance of the mainstream economy just didn’t pan out, though millions flitted between the dole, occasional work, some acquiring enough skills to gain a foothold, but footholds on a shaly slipface.  There is of course an underground parallel world of dealing, cash in hand work… but our desires aside, it’s not resistance to wage labour – though we can take some small satisfaction in the flexibility it can allow, when we have better things to do, and the small joy of paying no tax at all when we can get away with it.  On top of this, first the lack of work in the ’80s led some people into education as the only choice, then the boom times in the economy, and the injections of cash into education (especially under New Labour) did expand opportunity and possibility for many working class people. Trouble now is, that the current crisis has re-ordered the needs and priorities of global capital – hence we now have a surplus of graduates all learned up with nowhere to go. Much of the recent restlessness and increased political activism among graduates, actually an increasing phenomenon, allegedly a factor in such diverse events as the Arab Spring, Occupy and UKuncut and the ‘pay your tax’ campaigns, and most recently unrest in Brazil and Turkey… Although some of this has probably been over-emphasised.

Lots more could be written about the vast inflation of the sectors that administrate education, benefits, IT and consultancies etc – a huge subject that we can’t really cover here…

No go areas, dual power, spaces where community power might edge out the state and begin to run an area themselves, were discussed in the Impossible Class, as a realistic possibility. “Peaceful co-existence is impossible because one side or the other must win”. – well yes, the state can’t abandon an area and say openly it ain’t gonna police it. But the main reason why Brixton’s old frontline is now transformed into a largely peaceful, squat-free, nicey middle class street, somewhat empty of people (by 1981, or even 1991, standards), is that the state didn’t stop pushing – on many fronts – and we, to be frank, didn’t push hard enough back. Whether or not the majority of rioters, rebel youth, squatters etc consciously saw themselves as creating a new class, a new culture – which is debateable – its certain that such a project (or even just as contested space between state and urban disaffected) could survive only by keeping expanding , both in physical space (beyond the limited streets around Railton Road), and in social and economic terms, by the breaking down of boundaries, prejudices, class differences, more radical experimenting in communal living, shared survival techniques, racial and gender politics, and so on… A minority may have envisioned this and wanted/attempted to carry it out, but across the board it didn’t happen, or only for a fraction of time. But the mainstream of capitalist existence did keep expanding; in fact it continued to permeate the alternative ways of life and reign them in, bringing all sorts of cultural, political ideals back to the commodity economy. The middle class background of many of the 70s idealists who created many of these alternative lifestyles, the networks and social links they had, had a powerful influence here too; but this can be over-emphasised. In fact, whether for middle class activists, outside agitators, or leaders thrown up by the community, the gravitational pull of co-operation with state forces, in their myriad and sometimes disguised forms, proves very strong. When the movement for autonomy and insurgency falls back, fails to keep expanding and exceeding its own ambition, the ideas, interests, influence of this level of leadership and spokespeople enters into the vacuum.

You can’t create socialism in one country, the left used to repeat when the Soviet Union’s ultimate failure to give birth to communism was discussed. True. Nor in one London postcode neither. Brixton, Notting Hill, Stoke Newington, Peckham, St Pauls, parts of Nottingham or Manchester, many more, may have seemed to some at one time like they were embryos of a new society, but around them new social relations were in fact being created – from above, against us, by a clearer thinking, class-conscious cadre who knew how to transform the world in their interest, and take millions of working class people with them. The consequences of which we are still dealing with.

“Perhaps the impossible class can’t be found – until the next uprising.” To some extent, this is the most interesting point in the whole text – that such a class grouping might not be permanent, or always identical, a shifting  community, flowing, mixing, evolving… and disappearing and re-appearing according to people’s needs. Needs being operative – the 81 riot came out of people’s immediate need – to fuck the police off and make them wary about tactics like Swamp ’81. The process of coming together may, yes, have created – temporarily – such an oppositional community, though it fell back into its constituent parts as the immediate uprising faltered.

It faltered because the only possibility for an uprising to survive is to push outward; but this could only have happened if there was (a) real potential for corresponding upheaval in other areas, and (b) a transformation of the social relations between people to go beyond fighting unity against the police.

There wasn’t (in April 81, though to some extent there may have been in July), a general spread of rebellion; and people may well just not have known how – or wanted – to take things forward. Uprisings are hard to sustain, but especially when they are taking place in relative isolation. The most glaring sentences in “We Want to Riot Not to Work’ are those reflecting how people immersed in the riot ventured out into the wider area and were shocked to find things hadn’t changed out there.

Brilliant as the riot may have been to those taking part, and as inspiration to many in other areas, and as effective it may have (debatably) been in reining in the cops in some, the jump from one upsurge to a more generalised social revolution, or even an attempt at one, needs a wholly different set of economic factors, relationships… This kind of ‘revolutionary upsurge’ may never happen in the way that anarchists, communists etc have traditionally pictured it – in the old nineteenth/twentieth century ‘first lets seize the telephone exchange’ pattern.

But to return to the idea of a disappearing and re-appearing class, which only exists, or at least only shows its existence, in moments of crisis for ‘capital’ and rebellion or rejection of the normal bounds for us, from below. To go beyond this impossible class only coming together in riots, we have to go beyond riots. To some extent, without being defeatist, the only ‘communism’, or liberated society, however you want to think of it, we may see, could be the moments, days, we grab and hold, snatching in defiance of the daily desperation. As much as we long for it, a Paris Commune or 1917-style mass uprising that actually ushers in a lovely new age for humanity is probably a long way off; if it ever comes about. Stretching things a bit, rather than there being an impossible class, could it be more like we sometimes create an impossible classlessness, an existence that can’t exist under the current conditions, yet it sometimes DOES spring to life when we make it. For a short while we break from relations defined by work, alienation, etc, to be able to connect with each other on a truly human level. Then we are forced by circ-yuk-stances back into the ‘reality’ and normality.

Just a theory…? but I have experienced it, in riots, dancing, sex, working with others on co-operative projects for ourselves, brill games played with kids and adults, most especially when I should have been working but threw it over for a bit.

I haven’t had time yet to think much about the issues raised in ‘The Impossible Class’ about street space as a battleground and issue, or long-term effects on social policy. Also I would be interesting to relate all of the above to the potential for collapse of a modern economy – see Argentina, for example, or to Occupy, etc. We’d be interested know what you think.

Omasius Gorgut


past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015


The Impossible Class

Theoretical/analytical responses to Brixton and the other urban riots of 1981 – Part 1.
The Impossible Class
was published in Anarchy magazine, and as part of the pamphlet, We Want to RIOT, not to WORK: The 1981 Brixton Uprisings, London, 1982.

The Impossible Class

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of an ‘impossible’ class, a newly emerging social subject whose very existence defies attempts by orthodox class theory to analyse it and attempts by the state to institutionalise it. Although for many years this class has been erupting in continental cities, its sudden eruption in riots last year in England has led to banal conjecture over their possible ‘causes’, particularly over unemployment levels. Those who thus attribute rioting simply to ‘unemployment’ thereby evade the historically new class relations facing us, no less so than the reactionaries who blame ‘permissive’ teachers & parents or lead pollution. And the common purpose of such analysts, each in their own way, is to identify the ‘cause’ of the rioting in order to eliminate it, so that the problem can be solved through ‘real politics’ rather than through street confrontations. In particular the left-wing version broadly aims to uplift marginalised sectors into full citizenship of ‘the working class’, into the full legitimacy of exchanging their labour for wages —that is, of existing as a part of capital. Our purpose, of course, is just the opposite. We want to articulate the hitherto implicit politics of the uprising itself, to grasp its implications for re-defining ‘the working class’ and ‘revolutionary organisation’. For we are interested less in how the working class suffers unemployment than in how the class becomes recomposed in ways which undermine the discipline of the entire labour market which tries to label us as ‘the miserable unemployed’ in the first place.

What Working Class?

In the past, orthodox class analysis has been able to trace mass social/political behaviours back to particular relations of production. For example, we could understand the historical succession of trade union organisations and Communist Internationals partly in terms of successive recompositions of the working class-from artisans, to craft workers, to ‘the mass worker’ expending abstract labour power (e.g. on an assembly line) deprived of any intrinsic meaningful content. Or we could examine the history of that ‘other working class’ (e.g. ‘outcast London’), always antagonistic to the established institutions of its time and remembered mostly for its more violent confrontations with capital and the state. But it as well existed in some fairly well definable relation to the official labour market (as a ‘sub-proletariat’, ‘lumpen-proletariat’, or —in liberal rhetoric— ‘the poor’, defined juridically in relation to the Poor Laws and more recently to the social security system). What is new, then, about today’s ‘impossible’ class? In the uprisings we saw antagonistic behaviours based not on any particular relation to the capitalist labour market but rather on its interface with a subterranean unofficial economy which (after all) had been the target of the state’s attack on the insurgent districts in the first place. In this illegal labour market, in which earnings often supplement Supplementary Benefit payments from the DHSS, labour acts not as a creature of capital but largely outside it. Because payments for labour ignore statutory deductions, it is less the producer or consumer than the state who gets ‘cheated’. Furthermore, unlike official wage-labour, which entails selling one’s whole life in order to buy it back with commodities, this unofficial economy offers the state little space in which to mediate it. Indeed, there is hardly a political language available to communicate with the aspirations which develop within it. Although aspects of that mass illegality are no less exploitative than that of the capitalist economy as a whole, its very existence undermines the discipline of the official labour market. Culturally, it opens up greater space for re-defining ‘useful’ production directly in relation to consumers by detaching use values from exchange value (e.g. self-publishing punk rock bands, to take a well-known example). And more generally ‘black work’ although depriving workers of statutory protections and guarantees-nevertheless trains people in illegality, in thinking and behaving beyond the limits deemed legitimate by the state. It reverses the bourgeois relation of future/present by replacing deferred gratification (of National Insurance or pension payments) with immediate gratification in wages or even in fulfilling work. It reverses the bourgeois relation of work/leisure, so that working time becomes determined by non-working time rather than allowing a purely recuperative ‘leisure’ to be determined by normal working hours.

In the 1981 uprising, then, it was this ‘invisible assembly line’ of that subterranean economy which broke through the surface, spreading widely on the basis of a shared oppositional culture and state oppression, and then disappearing with virtually no organisational trace —precisely because the insurgents cannot be traced back to any particular common site in the official labour market. To label them ‘unemployed’ is at best misleading and at worst patronising —as if they were simply passive ‘victims’ ‘provoked’ by the police. Although many of them might be officially labelled ‘unemployed’, our point is that their daily behaviour defies the system’s expectations that they should feel apologetic or miserable for being so —for example, by trying to make themselves at least appear more ‘employable’. That task seems to be taken up only by the Workers Revolutionary Party, with its youth retraining schemes in South London thereby doing the ‘Right To Work’ Campaign one better! By contrast, the insurgents’ uprising created a larger space in which their ‘unemployability’ could be given a more positive enjoyable meaning. The largely selfish, individualist character of everyday mass illegality could be superseded by a more social appropriation of goods-indeed, by a collective re-appropriation of the entire neighbourhood and its resources as a contested territory. The ‘no-go areas’ not only excluded the police but began to include wider layers of the local and surrounding population, while disorganising the collaborationist ‘community leaders’. The buildings burned down included not only capitalist and racist symbols but also derelict property earmarked for state-controlled ‘rehabilitation’ schemes. In these various ways, the highly selective destruction was a positive affirmation of territory.

Crisis of Policing

For understanding the uprising’s internal dynamic, our main point here is that the police came to bear the full burden of containing an ‘impossible class’ which could be neither integrated nor repressed by more subtle means. Although variations on such an impossible class have been emerging throughout Western Europe —Paris, Lyons, Zurich, Nijmegen – it remains the riddle as to why mass anti-police violence erupted so widely and suddenly in England. Indeed, as England finally experiences the intensity of rioting already commonplace in other European countries, the British state becomes threatened in a far more profound way than elsewhere because here it is the state itself which is directly under attack. Until 1981, mass violence against the police had generally arisen from mobilisations around specific demands, usually mediated by political organisations; weapons were limited to whatever was readily at hand (bricks, bottles, sticks, stones). In 1977, for example, when the police tried to protect a National Front march through Lewisham in southeast London, police attacks on the anti-fascist protestors led to a riot in which the police used riot shields for the very first time in Britain. In April 1981, however, those riot shields caught fire as Brixton rioters used ‘molotovs’ for the very first time as a street weapon in Britain. That riot, and the national wave of rioting which ensued 3

months later, erupted out of a long-standing conflict over the police presence as such, not out of demands on negotiable ‘political’ issues Previously, the police had certainly come under attack when they were seen as political enemies of organised campaigns or festivals (such as the 1976 Notting Hill carnival). However, this new choice of anti-police weaponry signified a tactical decision by people to organise themselves specifically against the police, and specifically to undermine the sort of massive police concentrations protected by riot shields since Lewisham. Instead of the police isolating the opposition, a mobile and diffused use of petrol bombs isolated the police and even police stations. In Britain not only haven’t rioters demanded the jobs which the left always assumes they want, but they haven’t even demanded an extension of the welfare state, such as the housing or youth centres at issue in continental cities. There the municipal councils could pacify the rebels by conceding (or even just negotiating on) well-articulated demands, even if the councils have feared jeopardising their authority by doing so. But in the English metropoles, the rioters had no formal demands to negotiate and no representatives to do the negotiating. Rather, the battle was to defeat the police, to free those arrested and to go ‘shopping without money’. While in other European countries the police intervention has come in order to break up demonstrations or occupations over specific social demands, in Britain it is policing itself which has shaped the 1981 confrontations. Over and over again last year, the British police have blatantly provoked riots —either through their routine harassment of individuals on the street, or through massive intervention into otherwise ‘normal’ public gatherings. These provocations have led on to virtual police riots – riots as much by the police as against them. Although some critics have described these police actions as ‘military’, that hardly describes a situation where the police themselves go out of control, where they lack the discipline to implement a truly military strategy. The background to this violent escalation lies in intensified police aggression over the last few years, especially against black youth. In the mid-1970s, sections of the police and media organised a propaganda campaign against the threat of ‘street’ muggings committed by black people. This provided the justification for massive police terrorism in predominantly black neighbourhoods. Furthermore, through a long series of racist attacks on black people and their homes, the police response was to ignore them, deny any racial motive, and/or harass the victims themselves. After the infamous ‘New Cross massacre’, it was friends of the dead children who suffered the most from the police investigation, and police attempted (unsuccessfully) to obstruct the March 2nd protest march through central London. These police responses have emboldened young fascists to continue their attacks, especially on Asian neighbourhoods, with little fear or police reprisals. For example, when on July 3 hundreds of fascist skinheads invaded Southall, the eventual police intervention served to protect them from the Asian youths trying to chase them out of the neighbourhood. The next night there began the concentrated 10-day national wave of anti-police rioting, in large measure taking revenge for years of police harassment. Unlike the rest of Europe, then, the British crisis has become a crisis of policing as such as more diffuse forms of social control have been disintegrating. Since it’s the bourgeois order under threat, it is worth examining how the more sophisticated bourgeoisie has analysed the causes.

‘Secondary Control’

The Economist (18 July 1981), a ruling class journal, has developed the concept of a breakdown in ‘secondary control’, a control which normally makes low-key policing sufficient and which comes from an ‘unofficial network of vigilance: local figures of authority, the publican, the shopkeeper, the teacher, parents, housewives chatting on the doorstep, recognised people “occupying” the street.’ These are ‘the true policemen of any close community’, an ‘unofficial authority’. In the national wave of rioting The Economist pointed to the utter collapse of such authority, the collapse of a sense of ‘close identity between individuals and their immediate environment’. The Economist noted that this breakdown didn’t occur in many immigrant areas -e.g. East London, many in the Midlands (predominantly Asian neighbourhoods) —which were conspicuously absent from the rioting. Instead it occurred especially in neighbourhoods with a strong presence of second-generation West Indian youths, even though the festivities attracted many other people as well; there what shocked the bourgeoisie was ‘the novel acquiescence of parents and other local adults in the rioting’. Of course, far less tangible than the decomposition of the traditional proprietary ‘community’ is the recomposition of a new oppositional ‘community’. This organisationally expresses its lack of any stake in the existing order, in ways which are both nihilistic and creative at the same time. How to disorganise that tendency, and reconstitute a proprietary community, is the real bourgeois project underlying the current public debate. Socialist ideologues tend to attribute the entire problem ultimately to unemployment, and so prescribe all sorts of job-creation programmes, but the people directly faced with managing the crisis know that the reasons are rooted more fundamentally in the texture of daily life. The Economist went as far as to suggest that the riots signify the utter failure of the entire post-War social-democratic project, which it euphemistically labels ‘the Anglo-Saxon tradition of town planning’. In other words, it is the project of ‘social engineering’ which has destroyed people’s sense of having a stake in a community. In particular, the journal argued, the riots occurred precisely in those areas where governments have spent enormous sums of money on ‘redevelopment projects’, whose clearances have replaced traditional neighbourhood housing with a more anonymous high-rise housing and have eliminated small indigenous property-owners. ‘Local councils have used central government funds to buy up, often compulsorily, anyone with any financial stake in the community – home owners, shop keepers, landlords, small businesses. . .’ Therefore it is this ‘communal vandalism’ by public councils which is to blame. In order to reconstitute a popular proprietary stake, the journal argues, the government should rely less on creating yet more artificial jobs than on fostering ‘communal reconstruction’. This means supplying material resources and political legitimacy to indigenous projects which can restore ‘secondary control’ over deviants. For example, it could institutionalise squatting by re-establishing ‘classic squatters rights on public property freed from any controls’.

A Self-Policing Community?

What is crucial for state control, though, is not that the police keep out entirely, but that they be seen to intervene only within a local informal authority. This requires reforming at least the widespread racist image —if not the practice— of the police. However, there seems little prospect of implementing even cosmetic measures such as hiring more black police to patrol black neighbourhoods, of only because this would require acknowledging that the police are not impartial. According to the official ideology, the police by definition cannot be racially discriminatory; rather, they are necessarily ‘colour-blind’ because so is the law, which it is their duty to enforce. It is that rigid conception of maintaining ‘law and order’, somehow above politics, which officially legitimises the police in operating above the law, while receiving little condemnation from politicians. What, after all, is happening to would-be reformers of the police? The one-man vanguard of the new urban counter-insurgency known as ‘community policing’ —Captain David Webb of Handsworth, Birmingham— has been preparing to leave the police force (to become a Liberal Party politician); his decision comes less from any decisive failure to win over a collaborationist black petty-bourgeoisie than from outright reactionary resistance to his reforms from within the police force itself (see the Observer colour supplement, 10 Jan.1982). And what is perhaps most remarkable about the Scarman Report is that —having clearly absolved the police force of any institutional racism— the Report has come under far more attack from the right than from the left, simply for having dared to criticise the police at all. Its main result has been to legitimise the increased armament of the police force. Yet, even if we know that Scarman’s proposed reforms would only serve the state anyway, it is nevertheless important for us to understand the real institutional obstacles to their implementation. The major obstacle to reform has been the growing institutionalised racism of the police in which their changing role (and thus recruitment) has selected for racist individuals and reinforced their racism. Far from employing more enlightened, educated people (as recommended by the Kerner Commission Report after the USA riots), the British police have been moving in the opposite direction. The Home Office has had to request substantial salary increases in order to find new recruits capable of passing the literacy tests! After mass mobilisations of police against black strikers and antifascist demonstrators in 1976-78, there were many defections by those police who simply wanted to remain a local ‘bobby-on-the-beat’. The only such policeman based in the Railton Road, Constable Brown, found himself totally isolated in condemning the ‘Swamp 81’ police invasion there. It is the police themselves who have sabotaged the possibility of a self-policed community. For example, when police in Brixton made an arrest which was to spark the July 1981 riot there, a local Rastafarian shopkeeper tried to intervene — only to find himself beaten up and arrested for ‘obstructing’ the police, even though he was a member of the police-community liaison committee. Here is the contradiction for a self-policing strategy: Aspiring local leaders now find themselves hardly capable of mediating, as their longstanding attempts to moderate police behaviour come to nothing, and as their appeals for moderation among rioters go unheeded. But if the police continue to resist demands for ‘accountability’ to the community, it is not simply because they are malicious or reactionary. It is also because there is increasing confusion as to who is this community. If the rebels have no permanent organisation or delegates, then to whom might the police be accountable?

Police Create ‘Criminals’

Until and unless a new proprietary community is reconstituted, the major political parties have little option but to give full support to the police force, who soon received a carte blanche offer from the Tory government for any and all of the hardware which the security forces have tried out in Northern Ireland over the last decade. Heeding warnings that heavy technology can isolate or burden them, the police have so far taken up primarily the one technique which has proven the most successful in Northern Ireland: driving Land-Rovers at high speed directly into crowds so as to undermine their ‘psychological ascendancy’ over the street and then pick out the boldest rioters with snatch squads. The political context for this approach was set by representing the police as protecting ‘the public’ from criminal elements, that is, protecting society from social disorder. However, it wasn’t long before the police themselves undermined such a strategy. In order to regain the ‘psychological ascendancy’ lost by ordinary foot-patrols during the rioting, they invaded people’s homes and drove their armoured vehicles at high speed all over the neighbourhood (in one case killing a disabled man on his way home). Whatever ambivalence local people had felt about the riots, these ‘search & destroy missions’ demonstrated that the police presence had nothing to do with protecting them. In fact, these occupations led to yet more local people fighting the police. The so-called ‘criminals’ have become potentially everyone who lives in these rebellious districts. Everyone is potentially guilty of refusing to keep off the streets. Here, again, lies the threat to the existing society, and perhaps the possibility of a new ‘community’, as the counter-attacks on the police have been uniting people across barriers of race, sex and age. It has drawn on and emboldened far more people than the small core of mostly male youths who have been suffering police harassment on the streets.

Work Discipline

Given that for many years Labour Party politicians (among others) had already been warning about ‘riots in the streets’ if unemployment were to exceed 1/2 million (!), why didn’t anything like the 1981 uprising happen sooner? The Labour government, despite all its budget cuts, expanded the Manpower Services Commission to manage unemployment more effectively. In particular, the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) offered to pay school leavers £21 per week if they would accept the ‘work discipline’ of 40 hours mock-employment. Meanwhile the Labour government tried to keep alive the vain hope that prosperity was just around the corner. After the May 1979 general election, however, not only did unemployment increase (officially) to 1.5 million, but the new Tory government gave up all pretence of hope for better times. Many school leavers, initially grateful for YOP placements, have ended up leaving the programme before the end of their 6 months because they find the jobs so degrading and meaningless (a preparation for real jobs!). In reality official unemployment is still far below that of the 1930s Great Depression, but the nature of employment itself has been changing. Only a small, declining section of the working class has been able to sustain its job security and living standards (and even those workers only through increased overtime), while the rest get relegated to menial, insecure and part-time jobs. The restructuring in industry is fast removing the material basis for an identity in paid work, especially the link between effort and reward – reward both in terms of job enjoyment and wages. Unlike the 1930s, not only are few unemployed people willing to blame themselves, but their passive exclusion from wage-labour is gradually turning into an active rejection of such work, or at least of officially paid work. A community worker in Toxteth (Liverpool) told journalists that, after a few weeks or months eagerly searching for a job, many school leavers become so resentful that they entirely lose interest and base their lives instead on ‘hanging out’ with friends. It is this threat which has been the target of the schools, the DHSS and Department of Employment-and ultimately the police. More generally, such behaviours indicate a long-term crisis for the entire Keynesian strategy of containing the class struggle through welfare measures whose recipients now increasingly devise ways of subverting them to create their own independent space. Instead of serving to reinforce the link between reward and effort, the intended targets of these measures have learned how to use them for getting the most reward for the least effort, as had already happened in the 1970s with the social security system. So the Tory government remains reluctant to implement the Labour Party’s proposed solutions (e.g. massive public works projects), not simply because of dogmatic

Thatcherism, but also because such social-democratic proposals seem unlikely to succeed in restoring the discipline of the capitalist labour market.

‘Criminal’ Cultures

The limitations inherent in any Keynesian-type solution lie in the deviant behaviours which have been developing over many years, and which have emerged as more publicly obvious and better organised during the rioting. As one Tory politician admitted after the first Brixton riot in April 1981, heavy policing is necessary there, not simply because the crime rate is high, but also because the people living there ‘have no respect for authority’. Brixton stands as one extreme case of people developing their own ways of getting money outside the official economy and their own ways of enjoying themselves outside of the official marketplace. It is the self-organisation of non-work, or of unofficial work, which makes the entire culture extra-legal and labelled ‘criminal’ by the state. In black neighbourhoods where half the youths are unemployed, so-called ‘deviance’ becomes the norm, symbolised for the police by sound systems and marijuana. It is this affirmative culture which the state has set out to disorganise —be it with social workers, the YOP, ‘community police’ or the Special Patrol Group. Although the police choice of target is obviously racist, it is not merely so, for it is the public, affirmative character of black people’s response which is their target. Their oppositional street culture becomes a public assertion of self-worth, no longer needing a job for one’s identity. And it is this refusal to suffer individually which the police label as ‘criminal’ in practice. As was said in the film Blacks Brittanica, the police systematically harass black youth during the day because they are supposed to be either at school or at work or looking for jobs. Although that police practice has along history, the police have come to extend it to all working class youth, so that it is no accident that the ‘multi-racial’ 1981 uprisings revolved around battles for ‘street space’. After the first Brixton riots in April, the local police tried to maintain a low profile, but became afraid that Brixton was becoming a ‘no-go’ area for them; so they soon resumed their usual bullying approach and provoked the later wave of riots there. Peaceful co-existence is impossible because one side or the other must win. When a Liverpool Labour Councillor declared that conditions are so bad in Toxteth that people would be apathetic if they didn’t riot, she was pointing to a process of public self-affirmation in the rioting itself. And here is the supreme threat posed by the revolt: that its offensive character, its sense of fun in defying the authorities, can speak positively to the misery of most people’s lives and lead them to question the daily sacrifice which they normally make, be they in or out of jobs. This process became clearer with the riots in Wood Green (North London), not a particularly depressed district, where a group of white rioters replied to a journalist’s question about unemployment: “We’ve all got jobs. We want a riot!” Another group in Wood Green said “We were trying to prove that it’s not all the blacks who cause trouble. We’ve got friends who are blacks. It’s everybody who causes trouble.”

Marginalisation Strategies

From the state and party system, there have been various strategies for marginalising the revolt which has so far erupted. After the first Brixton riot in April 1981, the more sophisticated media attributed the event to exceptionally racist police provocation, bad housing and high unemployment —as if the same potential ‘causes’ didn’t already exist in most metropoles in England. Three months later, when there came the national wave of rioting, many right-wing commentators pointed to the ‘multi-racial’ composition of the rioters, as evidence that racial provocation obviously couldn’t be the cause (also that many rioters were too youth to hold jobs). Implicitly this meant that the allegedly exceptional causes of the Brixton riot were now missing as a potentially political legitimation: these were mere ‘copycat riots’. Therefore, they argued, the rioting was not political but merely “criminal”. Although the left needed a political explanation in order to blame the Thatcher government, they also needed to marginalise the rioting, or to instrumentalise it for a narrow definition of politics as with the patronising slogan ‘Riots or Revolution?’ In the public debate over the ‘causes’, the project is to reform away what are seen as the provocations for the rioting —be it police bullying, unemployment, and so on. These are treated as factors for why youths feel excluded from society, which must let them back in —for example, through a massive project of public works. But now that they have the shared experience of defeating the police, of ‘shopping without money’, and of decisively asserting ‘street space’, there is no going back to capitalist normality, even to the conventional aspirations of British socialism. In the neighbourhoods which revolted, it’s not simply that the rioters are an oppressed minority excluded from society; as the police well realise, it’s also that their daily lives express an active rejection by creating a new social space which threatens not to attack the community but to become a new community. Thus we can begin to understand the recent riots as less about unemployment as such than about the changing nature of employment. However, the growing refusal of work doesn’t simply mean choosing leisure over work, because the new ‘deviant’ behaviours lie outside the duality of legitimate work/commodified leisure. The threat to capital lies most fundamentally in breaking the normal connection between work and leisure – that is, leisure as individualised commodity consumption, centrally mediated through the market, and geared to reproducing one’s capacity for submitting to wage-labour. Instead, there are developing directly social forms of enjoyment which resist that submission and undermine capitalist reproduction. These behaviours do not serve to valorise capital by gearing labour power to produce surplus value; rather, they serve to undermine the value relation and to realise (or valorise) people, to define needs outside the cash nexus. Italian communists (presently being criminalised) have called this tendency ‘self-valorisation’, or self-realisation through use values appropriated outside commodity exchange.

The Right Not To Work

Despite these new structural challenges to bourgeois society, the left like to represent the recent upheavals as a passing phenomenon of recession, or even to attribute them to the Tory government’s policies, which must be replaced with ‘socialist’ ones. But in reality the subcultures of resistance challenge the traditional ‘productivist’ perspective of socialism. Defining a space largely outside the world of official wage-labour, these cultures undermine all the other institutions (family, school) which normally prepare people and sustain them for the labor/-capital relation. In other words, refusing identification with capitalist production these youth subcultures challenge the reproduction of capitalist relation relations geared to that production. At the most fundamental level, this is the significance of their attacks on the authority of the state, as organiser of capitalist reproduction. And that is why the police won’t leave alone those who attempt to implement in practice ‘the right not to work’. This right not to work means refusing the discipline of wage-labour and refusing the paternalism of asking what should be done for the rebels. What is most significant about the riots is simply that the local people did it themselves, with their own rudimentary organisation. That achievement must be the starting point for asking how to build a new, stronger oppositional community of creative activity which can defend itself from being disorganised by the state and political parties. Although it’s hardly yet clear how to go about building on the more creative moments of the recent revolts, it is becoming very clear that the demand for ‘the right not to work’ is not negotiable. After all, in this case everything is upside-down, as it is the state which is making programmatic demands upon the people by trying to organise the impossible class into the official labour market or at least into official categories of ‘unemployment’. Unfortunately for the state, the impossible class won’t negotiate. Indeed, perhaps the class can’t even be found . . . until the next uprising. For the battle is not over negotiable demands but over the legitimacy of the entire wage-labour system.


Read Impossible Classlessness, a partial reply/response to the above text, written in 2013 and updated in 2021


past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

You can’t fool the youths: Paul Gilroy on race & class formation in 1981

You can’t fool the youths …

Race and Class Formation in the 1980s

Paul Gilroy

Theoretical/analytical responses to Brixton and the other urban riots of 1981 – Part 1. An article written in 1981, originally published in Race & Class, Winter 1981/2.


You teach the youths to learn in school
that the dish ran away with spoon
You teach the youths to learn in school
that the cow jumped over moon
So you can’t blame the youths of today
you can’t fool the youths
(Pete Tosh)

There is nothing more to organise. you can organise workers as workers. You can create a special organisation of revolutionary workers. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organisation as we have known it is at an end.
(C.L.R. James)

Where marxist science has stooped to provide accounts of racial conflicts, it has been at best race blind, and at worst eurocentric. Socialist politics driven to the edge of popular nationalism by the crisis are incapable of solving the complex problems posed by the articulation of race and class. yet the-economic, ideological and political struggles over the meaning and relevance of .race, have effects on the formation and reproduction of classes.

Racism is not a transhistorical essence, and not least because the biology of racial characteristics has no relation to ‘races’ in political struggle; there can be no general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’. The 128 racial classifications of the French Imperial code noir, the structured racism of today’s South Africa and the popular racism which forms the backdrop to the latest legislation on British citizenship do not make for theory. Different racisms are found in different social formations and historical circumstances. To paper over the specifics of each historical conjuncture with a general theory of ‘race’ or ‘race relations situations’ is misguided; to acknowledge simultaneously that the biology of racial characteristics has nothing to do with races as constituted in politics is dishonest. In each case, racial differences, whether wholly imaginary or anchored in the raw material of biology, are magnified, systematised and rationalised into vehicles of political dominance. And it is this ‘malleability of the concept of ‘race’ which qualifies its use as a scientific category of social analysis. Its very meaninglessness, on the other hand, should continually refer us to the precise but changing conditions in which racial groups become possible in politics, ideology and economic life. And it is to this unique dialectic of race and class at the centre of contemporary British politics that this article addresses itself
– not so much for what it reveals of how real structural phenomena are misrecognised and distorted by racial prisms, but for what it enables us to perceive about our historical period. It is precisely because race binds the processes by which ethico-political hegemony is presently reproduced that focusing analysis around it offers a privileged view of unfolding state authoritarianism, the stage of capital accumulation and the balance of forces in political struggle.

Unlike the sociologists, the British left has remained reluctant to concede any depth to racial divisions in the working class, let alone approach that Pandora’s box. With few exceptions, it has been cheerfully unaffected by sixty years of black critical dialogue with marxism, presented, most notably, by Garvey, Padmore, James and Wright. The theoretical and political contributions of these authors, particularly their early critique of Stalinism and their dogged anti-reductionism fashioned in the awareness that black liberation required more than economic transformation, make recent European discovery of non-economistic socialism less than startling. Yet their insights have been bypassed, and the left has adopted a peculiar national perspective which obscures the role of black struggles in the development of the British working class, all the way from abolitionism to the factory gates of Imperial Typewriters. It has remained stubbornly blind to the fact that, even though rendered invisible, black labour power has conditioned the most intimate structures of British daily life. ‘It is the sugar you stir, it is in the sinews of the infamous British sweet tooth, it is the tea leaves at the bottom of the British cuppa.’1

Having waved away the political analyses of autonomous black groups with a few fashionable insults such as ‘economistic’, ‘reductionist’ or ‘abstentionist,2 the left’s recent writings on the subject of racial politics remain paralysed by an inability to conceive race and class as related. Race is either shorn of all determinacy and allowed to ascend to the rarified heights of ideological autonomy, from where it ‘only subsequently’ intervenes at the level of the economy, or it is subsumed entirely to class. The experience of racial domination is so distorted that its class character evaporates. Variations on the latter theme present the struggle for black liberation as a ‘democratic’ issue to be secured by the simple assertion of a ‘pluralist national identity3 or more predictably, as a divisive danger to the achievement of true class consciousness parallel to the threat posed by fascist organisation.4

On the contrary,

The class relations which inscribe the black fractions of the working class function as race relations. The two are inseparable. Race is the modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced.5

That is not to say that ‘race’ can be miraculously hitched on like an extra railway carriage to the locomotive of non-reductionist marxism.The extent to which blacks have become part of the working class demands more than that the left should simply note their presence and register the resultant ‘multi-cultural tones of metropolitan class struggle. Though even this may have polemical value, it woefully underestimates the transformation of political culture brought about
by post-war black settlement.

Marx’s famous remark that ‘the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ acquired new poignancy as the great-grandchildren of martyred slaves and indentured labourers set up home in the land of those who had tormented their progenitors. The mass of black people, who arrived here as fugitives from colonial underdevelopment, brought with them legacies of their political, ideological and economic struggles in Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub continent, as well as the scars of imperialist violence. Far from being fixed or unchanging, the accumulated histories of their far-flung resistance have brought a distinct quality to class struggles in their new metropolitan home. For, as Cabral points out: ‘If imperialist domination has the vital need to practise cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.6

Developing this theme, Sivanandan has argued that a disorganic articulation of capitalist relations of production with vestigial political and ideological forms tends to generate a contradiction between the political regime and the people, with culture as the expression of their resistance. And it is cultural resistance which … takes on new forms … in order fully to contest foreign domination.’7 It is in the embers of that furnace that the now-transplanted political consciousness of post-war black settlers was forged. It is with that tradition that they and their British-born children have preserved organic links, in their kitchens and temples – in their communities. Though their new struggles at the centre are diffused throughout a different structure in dominance, the lingering bile of slavery, indenture and colonialism remains, not in the supposedly pathological forms in which black households are organised, but in the forms of struggle, political philosophies and revolutionary perspectives of non-European radical traditions, and the ‘good sense of their practical ideologies. The contradiction is, of course, between the people and the power bloc8 – but because in this case it is bounded by racial division, culture assumes a central importance. Hence, in opposition to those theorists who would reduce ‘race’ to custom or “ethnicity’, we must locate racist and anti-racist ideology as well as the struggle for black liberation in a perspective of culture as a terrain of class conflicts – in the same way that Richard Johnson does for the working class as a whole:

‘working-class’ culture is the form in which labour is reproduced … This process of reproduction, then, is always a contested transformation. Working-class culture is formed in the struggle between capital’s demand for particular forms of labour power and the search for a secure location within this relationship of dependency. The outcomes of such necessary struggles depend on what ideological and political forces are in play.’ 9

Except that – and it bears repetition – the struggles of ‘black’ people appear in an intensely cultural form because the social formation in which their distinct political traditions are now manifest has constructed the arena of politics on ground overshadowed by centuries of metropolitan capitalist development, thereby denying them recognition as legitimate politics.

To put it another way, the politics of black liberation is cultural in special sense: Coons, Pakis, Nig-nogs, Sambos and Wogs are cultural constructions in ideological struggle. Cultures of resistance develop to contest them and the power they inform, as one aspect of the struggle against capitalist domination which blacks experience as racial oppression. This is a class struggle in and through race. Black struggles to refuse and transform subjugation are no ready answer to class segmentation, but because they are ‘against capitalism, against racism’, they do attempt to constitute the class in politics where ‘race’ is no longer relevant; whereas the racist ideas and practices of the white working class become ways in which the class as a whole is disorganised.

The division of humanity into social classes explains its history infinitely better than its division into races or peoples. Yet the racial fragmentation of the British working class is a powerful warning against any view of classes as continuous or homogeneous subjects which, once formed, develop in a linear manner as political actors on the historical stage. The marxist concept of class refers primarily, but not exclusively, to the location of groups in production relations. The effect of capitalism’s tendency to generate surplus labour power which is excluded from employment by revolutions in the productive process and changes in accumulation should emphasise this.10 At the social formation level, this labour power is actual men and women expelled from production – ‘black’, ‘unskilled’, ‘old’, ‘young’. But there are intense political struggles over the composition of this surplus population. It is never determined mechanistically by the objective conditions (development of productive forces, phase of accumulation, etc.),
which only delineate the range of possible outcomes. Even the commonly understood definition of unemployment itself reflects this. For example, at present it refers disproportionately to males, while the possibility of waged work for women is suppressed by ideologies of domesticity. Patriarchal capitalism can accept the ‘unemployment of women marooned at home, but as the crisis bites, black youth on street-corners become a ‘visible political problem’ which prompts new forms of state intervention and social control. The way in which this surplus population becomes organised politically has implications for the segmentation of the working class, and is clearly relevant to racial politics. It serves to remind us that the privileged place of economic classes in the marxist theory of history is not the same as a simple assertion of their political primacy in every historical moment.

“We cannot conceive of the class struggle as if classes were simply and homogeneously constituted at the level of the economic and only then fractured at the level of the political. The political level is dependent – determinate – because its raw materials are given by the mode of production as a whole.”11

Marx makes it clear that there are periods in which the proletariat is unable to constitute itself as a class in politics, even though “the domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests’.12 Recognising the problems in the effective entry of classes into politics is the first step to understanding that: ‘Classes must be viewed as the effects of struggles structured by objective conditions, that are simultaneously economic, political and ideological.13

These objective conditions change, and the unity between the ‘economic movement and the political action of the working class not the same in 1981 as it was in 1871. The working class is different. This is a place where we can restore some of the determinacy which class struggle has lost in much recent marxist writing. We must re-draw the boundaries of the concept “class struggle’ so that it includes the relentless processes by which classes are constituted – organised and disorganised – in politics, as well as the struggles between them, once formed. In this way, to synchronise the movement of different class fractions with discontinuous but related histories becomes an object of struggle itself. This unity is now less than ever pre-ordained in economic positions. A complex view of class formation which gives due weight to the struggle to organise classes in politics takes us far beyond the simplistic ‘class in itself/class for itself’ dichotomy. It poses the question of forms of struggle and political organisation. This has become important not simply because blacks have introduced new political traditions into the British social formation, but also because in many instances in the 1970s the immigrant workers have not only participated in labour’s struggle: they have led it. They have not only participated in existing forms of struggle, they have invented new ones.14

Working-class black communities

Following in the well-trodden footsteps of Castles and Kosack,15 recent avowedly marxist approaches to analysis of the black working class have centred myopically on the shop-floor. Phizacklea and Miles16 have shown a dogged determination to impose their own restricted conceptualisations of political organisation on the blacks whose political consciousness they have quantified on the basis of questionnaire material. In doing so, they ignore the fact that the specific character of the black struggles they describe has often resided in the support such struggles have drawn from the surrounding black community.

Localised struggles over education, racist violence and police practices continually reveal how black people have made use of notions of community to provide the axis along which to organise themselves. The concept of community is central to the view of class struggle presented here. For it links distinct cultural and political traditions – which have a territorial dimension to collective action and consciousness, and operates within the relations of ‘economic patterns, political authority and uses of space’.17 The idea of a racially demarcated collectivity of this type underlines the fact that community cannot be viewed as either static or as determined by the essential characteristics of the class or class fractions which have come to constitute it.

The cultural institutions which specify community have not been a continual feature of working-class life. The history of working-class communities, into which we should insert the particular experiences of post-war immigrants and their children, is entwined with the processes of industrialisation and social discipline18 which established the city as a site of unique political conflicts. The form and relevance of community have therefore fluctuated with the changing social character of capitalist production. Even while the British proletariat was still being formed, attempts to assess the political relevance of community required that attention be paid to the dynamics of class formation and political organisation . The history of the Minters, the Costermongers, the Scuttlers and their Molls19 all show the strengths of the working class organised on the basis of community in urban struggles long before blacks became a replacement population in areas which, despite the demand for labour power … failed to attract sufficient white population.20

In an influential discussion which anticipates the direction of the argument here, Gareth Stedman-Jones has pointed to a growing separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere as an important determinant of both the cultural and political life of urban workers in late nineteenth-century London.21 His example of the disruption of community in fact illustrates the concept’s value in connecting the spheres of waged and domestic labour. To make this connection pays dividends not only where leisure practices are found to impinge on the labour process,22 but also where political organisation forged outside the immediate processes of production (for blacks with police, racists or profiteering ghetto landlords) has effects on the struggle at work and vice versa.

The making of classes at work is complemented by the making of classes where people live; in both places adaptive and rebellious responses to the class situation are inevitably closely intertwined.23

The notion of community is also important for the way it can be used to re-establish the unity of black people in answer to the divisions which state policy, race relations sociology and common-sense racism have visited on their experience of domination. All of these fragment the cohesion of black people, united in their opposition to the power bloc by cultures and languages of resistance. In its place, they have created the image of the respectable and hard-working first generation of black immigrants locked in struggle with their children, whose ‘identity crises’ and precarious position between two cultures’ impel them into deviant behaviour. Rejecting the parental culture while reproducing its pathological characteristics, these young people, whether of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin, are presented as divorced from their parents’ concerns. This powerful stereotype unites self-proclaimed radical and openly racist theories of black life. It must be met with a concept of community which reveals the ties between the struggles of blacks outside the workplace and those who remain within the wage relation. Unemployment is increasingly affecting all black people, regardless of age, and where community has broadened the base from which they successfully fought the unholy alliance of employers and racist trades unions, there is every reason to suppose that it may now provide the means to take on the state itself in defence of local services and amenities. Where generational conflict is visible, it expresses deep debates over political strategy rather than aberrant familial practices.
Such conflicts are always premised on the fundamental unity of the community in question and conducted within the repertoire of its political traditions, which make the common ground on which discussion is possible. Tension between Asian youth movements and the Indian Workers’ Association organisations is a clear example of this process. It reveals the struggle between corporate and autonomous modes of struggle in a complex fashion, informed and affected by the peasant political traditions in which both aspects of the movement have been formed.

The interrelation between production and the political space in which community develops is not satisfactorily understood at the level of production’s immediate processes. The need to periodise class struggle and relate it to phases of accumulation requires detailed consideration of the organisation of surplus labour power. This is inextricably fused with the formation of workers into a class. It should be obvious that the move from full employment to structural unemployment heralds fundamental changes in the way surplus labour power appears as surplus population. In the context of organic crisis, the importance of community in these processes is highlighted by the use of new mechanisms of social control and surveillance which, recognising the strength of communities, attempt to penetrate them in new strategies for containment24 – ‘control is shifted from the criminal act to the crime-inducing situation, from the pathological case to the pathogenic surroundings, in such a way that each citizen becomes, as it were, an a priori suspect or a potential criminal’.25

The political traditions of black people expressed in the solidarity and resistance of their communities have determined such a territorialisation of social control. This is visible in the use of ‘Sus’ laws to confine black youths to particular areas,26 and in the particularly brutal police operations which have become commonplace in black neighbourhoods. In the past, community relations apparatuses fused political representation with state intervention to channel black grievances into ‘quasi-colonial institutional structures which would deal with the issue of race outside traditional political arenas’.27 Now, ‘community policing’ initiatives reveal new dimensions to the urban struggle in their attempt to redefine community so that it is counter-posed to ‘crime’ rather than to the police.

Corporatism vs autonomy

All this means that forms of struggle cannot be taken for granted. Mass unemployment generated by crisis and the microprocessor revolution demands reassessment of the institutions of political representation. These must be understood as historical phenomena. Posing the problem of political organisation in direct form invites the separation of corporatist modes of struggle from the diverse attempts to repoliticise the process of class formation. All this is taking place in the face of a new imposition of authority, new ideologies of the crisis and the mobilisation of the law in political struggle. Corporatism is defined as:

“political structure within advanced capitalism which integrates organised socio-economic producer groups through a system of representation and cooperative mutual interaction at the leadership level and mobilisation and social control at the mass level. Corporatism is understood here as an actual political structure, not merely an ideology (emphasis added).” 28

Black political traditions fall outside the ‘contradictory unity’ of corporatism/parliamentarism. There is also overwhelming evidence to support the view that the political institutions of the white working class have consistently failed to represent the interests of black workers, both abroad29 and at home, where black rank-and-file organisation has challenged union racism at every level since the day the Empire Windrush docked. Nor are blacks alone in the marginalisation they suffer. The experiences of female, young, unemployed or even unskilled workers present similar examples. The growth of rank-and-file militancy and conflict between the shop floor and union bureaucracy only hints at the struggle in these institutions. Indeed, they do not represent the class as a class at all. Their failures must be set beside the rapid growth of new movements with an autonomy from capitalist command as well as from the disabling political perspectives of the labour movement. The movement of the black communities is but one place among many where a patient listener may discern:

The dialogue between a young social movement, still searching for its identity, and the movement which preceded it but which is now growing old, dying, or being converted into its own antithesis by becoming an agent of the authorities.30

Such a claim requires that we demonstrate that black struggles are not merely political in a broad sense, but approach the task of social transformation not from a transplanted disorganic politics alone, but in forms and with ideas which relate directly to the immediate historical conjuncture in which they have developed. Rastafari, which appears where blacks are supposedly least class conscious, provides useful but by no means unique evidence of this.31 It is an example which must be treated with care if it is not to reinforce the peculiarly powerful racist image of intransigent black youth, whose previous incarnation, ‘the mugger’, has been brought up-to-date in a new folk-devil, ‘the criminal Rasta’. Sociologists who identify the movement exclusively with young men have done nothing except reinforce this view. Their definition of the movement is crude and empiricist – offering a shopping list of dogmatic tenets to which the true ‘cultist’ is subsequently found to subscribe. Instead, we should locate the symbols of dread-head wraps, long skirts, Ethiopian colours and dreadlocks – by which researchers have identified ‘cult affiliates’ — at one end of a continuum of belief which encompasses both age and gender difference. Avowed Rastas maintain that all black people are Rasta whether they realise it or not. This points to a broader idea of the movement than sociological orthodoxy allows. To see it as a distinct expression of the contradiction between black people and the power bloc lays bare its real structure as a movement organised around a political and philosophical critique of oppressive social relations – identified by the Rastas as a cohesive human creation – ‘Babylon system’. That this critique appears partially in religious form should not lead us to underestimate the degree of political transformation it represents. Though religion has always supplied weapons in the struggles of the colonised, downtrodden and enslaved, the ‘religious’ elements in Rasta discourse comprise a sophisticated criticism of a people’s paralysing encounter with religion. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than by the Wailers:
Preacher man don’t tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don’t know
what life is really worth …
Most people think great god will come from the sky
take away everything make everybody feel high
but if you know what life is worth
you will look for yours on earth
now you see the light you stand up for your rights.

The Rastas’ insistence that heaven is on earth and nowhere else, and the denial of god which comes with their belief that ‘God is I and I and has always been’ are the kindling of the process in which: ‘The criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.32

The sharing of linguistic devices and political concepts marks the limits of a community bonded by a particular conceptualisation of the people’. The confrontation in style which has developed where open signification of dreadness transforms the unacceptable attribute of blackness into a source of collective strength and inspiration acts as a focal point for dread and baldhead alike. The immense scope of the movement is obscured by continual preoccupation with the stylised and flamboyant defiance of its younger adherents. Once dread style has been abandoned as the essential qualification for ‘cult’ membership, it becomes clear that many older people share the movement’s pan-Africanist sentiments and take pride in its rejection of racial domination. For older West Indians have encountered the discourse of Rasta before.

Black culture, white youth and class struggle

The ‘youth culture’ dimension to Rasta mobilisation has created an important space for dialogue between youth from different racial backgrounds. Asian youth movements have been as inspired by the combativity of Afro-Caribbean young people as the Afro-Caribbeans have been by the Asians’ tenacious defence of their communities, however much this has been concealed by a persistent stereotype of their passivity. At a demonstration against racist violence in Coventry in May 1981, which was under-reported for this very reason, young Asians chanted ‘Brixton, Brixton’ as they charged the ranks of police who protected the racists. And in Southall in 1979, Afro-Caribbean youth came out with the Asians against the Nazis (and the police who protected them) in the defence of their common community.

The effects of West Indian culture in general, and, through reggae, Rastafari in particular, on white youth are seldom considered. It seems that this may have had a profound impact on the racism of young Britons who were not, like their parents, weaned on an unadulterated diet of Empire. There are new limits to the adequacy of racial explanations for the ravages of the crisis. The arrival of black settlers proved to be both catalyst and inspiration to the grandchildren of jingoism who were quick to ape, absorb and adapt the styles and cultural practices which were black relics of a distant colonial engagement with their foreparents. Dick Hebdige has established the connection between white youth cultures and the presence of black citizenry: ‘We can watch played out on the loaded surfaces of the British working-class youth cultures a phantom history of race relations since the war.33

By extending this argument, we can begin to see the fundamental class character of black cultural struggles in a different dimension, and the articulation of ‘race’ around the contradiction between capital and labour in ways obscured by the dominance of corporatist political representation. Since the incorporation of reggae into the sub-cultural repertoire in the late 1960s, political themes began to displace moral and generational conflict as the raw material for the cultural expressions of young whites. The progression from The Who’s ‘My Generation to the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK’ and, more recently, the self-conscious anti-racist politics of the ‘Two Tone’ movement ex-emplifies this process. It has been fuelled at each stage by youth’s own perceptions of economic crisis and the consequent crisis of social relations. The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, which was the number one record during the unprecedented week of rioting in British cities in July 1981, provides a chilling image of national decline observed from inside the oppositional culture of urban youth.
This town is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving youth on the shelf
This town is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more, people getting angry
This town is coming like a ghost town.

The mass mobilisations of white youth thrown up in this process, though always both cultural and political, have not always been anti-racist, like the important but short-lived Rock Against Racism alliance. Though it contains no guarantees of a progressive outcome, the fact that neo-fascist and nationalist attempts to win young whites have been forced to recognise the political power of black culture as an obstacle to their success indicates the relatively precarious nature of the youngsters’ commitment to race and nation. 34

Regardless of the ultimate direction of the popular struggle of white youth, we should recognise that its forms have been prefigured in the resistances of black communities – in much the same way that the movement of black Americans in the 1960s determined the patterns of autonomous protest which followed it:

Without Black Brotherhood, there would have been no Sisterhood; without Black Power and Black Pride there would have been no Gay Power and Gay Pride. The movement against the abuse of powers of the state … derived much of its strength and purpose from the exposure of the FBI’s surveillance and harassment of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims … only the Environmental Movement did not have the Black Movement as a central organisational fact or as a defining political metaphor and inspiration.35

The mass politicisation of youth cultures, which has followed from their encounter with black cultural forms and leisure practices, bears witness to the survival of African traditions which do not recognise the separation of politics from other spheres of life. Armand Mattelart has reminded us that: “Acquiring and developing class consciousness does not mean obligatory boredom. It is a question of transforming what used to be used exclusively for pleasure and leisure into a means of instruction.”36 Non-European traditions have never recognised this separation in quite the same way, and consequently do not have to be readjusted.

Rastafari is a sophisticated expression of the critical consciousness which informs black struggles, commentating on society and the state and extending into analysis of the post-colonial scene as a whole:

Africans a bear the most pressure, because you find that the people that are controlling them are the white people them. They try to be superior over black people. Not all of them, but certain of them ones as is gods and seat up in high places: All those system, you just see them big notches who a control. Certain of them captains and them big pirates from long time is them family. Some of them people really have the world in their hands, so them keep up various kinds of isms now. Them stop slaving the Africans alone, but them slaving everyone else still. Is the people them to come and unite now, that’s the only way. 37

The consciousness of exploitation provoked in the experience of racial oppression, both inside and outside production, is not some preliminary phase in the development of a mythically complete class consciousness sometime in the future. Though for the social analyst ‘race’ and class are necessarily abstractions at different levels, black consciousness of race and class cannot be empirically separated. The class character of black struggles is not a result of the fact that blacks are predominantly proletarian, though this is true. It is established in the fact that their struggles for civil rights, for freedom from state harassment or as waged workers are instances of the process by which the working class is constituted politically, is organised in politics. Classes are not static or continuous subjects of history, they are made and remade in a continual struggle. It is only the ancient heresy of economistic marxism which stipulates that the relations of commodity production alone determine class relations. The struggle for hegemony
cannot be reduced to economic determinations or vulgarised to refer to solely cultural phenomena, and class analysis cannot be restricted to those positioned in the immediate processes of production.


The resistance and oppositional symbols provided by Afro-Caribbean political culture are central reference points for the struggles of other young people. Like feminist organisation, the anti-state movements which have been at the heart of urban communities’ opposition to increasingly authoritarian forms of social control demand critical self-scrutiny from the left. In both cases, distinct political practices force the ‘heretical realisation that the movement for human liberation and social transformation must itself be viewed as an historical phenomenon.

The young people who set British cities alight are no more a ‘reserve army of labour’ or a “lumpenproletariat’ than they are the criminal hooligans’ that the state has branded them. Their situation exists where are of many of Marx’s concepts – which were themselves historical limited use. Their actions must be examined on their political merits, as far as possible outside the moralistic categories which so much contemporary socialist thinking shares with common-sense ideologies. Racial segmentation places this problem at centre stage: too often the working class is divided into reputable and disreputable strata, personified, on the one hand, by the honest trades union stalwart and, on the other, by black youth whose alienation is manifest in their criminal inclinations. This is dangerous because it dovetails with the state’s own strategy of criminalisation as a response to these new political challenges. The urban ‘race rioters’ strike out at oppressive power materialised in the particular institutions and structures in which it bears down upon them, ‘[in] its capillary form of existence, at the point where power returns
into the very grain of individuals, touches their gestures and attitudes, their discourses and daily lives.’38

The simple point here is that power is not confined to the labour process. Understanding new political movements new class struggles requires analytic concepts historically appropriate to the new forms they take. These spontaneous struggles may sometimes become violent, but this does not render them irreconcilable with a strategic long-term ‘war of position’. The workers’ movement has always struggled with laws and law officers pitted against its own interests.

Bearing in mind the way that C.L.R. James has demonstrated the interrelation of spontaneity and organisation,39 we must also realise that forms of political action and organisation developed in previous struggles offer no guarantees of efficacy in new circumstances and relations of force. The ahistorical fetishisation of organisational forms which have outlived their adequacy in the dogmatic prescriptions of omniscient bureaucrats and party officers is both a fetter on progress and a set of blinkers preventing useful analysis of the present. From this perspective the struggle for black liberation and the related struggles of black and white youth may assume a place parallel to popular feminism and, at a greater distance, political ecology and anti-militarist initiatives. They are not the same, but their critiques of the movement which preceded them are similar. The marginalisation which they suffer at its ageing hands may even be the basis of new alliances and collective actions. Each group’s powerlessness is potentially resonant for the others. All these group’s discourse of movements extend the boundaries of politics beyond the social democratic focus on policy. They represent themselves in politics and denied by corporatist political institutions and patterns of state intervention. The ‘cultural character they share signifies the way each reaches into the future, as a dynamic complex unity of political, ideological and economic concerns, from which heterogeneous struggles form a new working class inside and outside the workplace.


This article is based on ‘Steppin’ out of Babylon’, chapter 7 of The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain (in press) CCCS/Hutchinson 1982. I would like to thank
Kathy Bor, John Solomos and Vron Ware for their comments and criticisms.
1 – Stuart Hall, ‘Race and moral panics in post-war Britain’, in Commission for Racial Equality, Five Views of Multi-Racial Britain (London, 1978).
2 – J.G. Gabriel and G.S. Ben-Tovim, ‘Marxism and the concept of racism’, Economy and Society (Vol. 7, no. 2, 1978).
3 – Martin Rabstein, ‘Why Britain needs national liberation’, in G. Bridges and R. Brunt (eds), Silver Linings (London, 1981).
4 – Annie Phizacklea and Robert Miles, Labour and Racism (London, 1980).
5 – Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis (London, 1978), p. 394.
6 – Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (London, 1973), p. 43.
7 – A. Sivanandan, ‘Imperialist and disorganic development in the silicon age’, Race & Class (Vol. XXI, no. 2, 1979).
8 – Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London, 1977).
9 – Richard Johnson, “Three problematics: elements of a theory of working-class culture’, in J. Clarke et al (eds.), Working-Class Culture (London, 1979).
10 – Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (London, 1969), Vol. I, ch. 4.
11 – Stuart Hall, ‘The political and the economic in Marx’s theory of classes’, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London, 1977).
12 – Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow, 1975), p. 159.
13 – Adam Prezworski, “Proletariat into a class: the process of class formation from Karl Kautsky’s the class struggle to recent controversies’, Politics & Society (Vol. 7, no. 4, 1977)
14 – Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Authority and foreign labour: some notes on a late capitalist form of capital accumulation and state intervention’, Studies in Political Economy (No. 2, 1979), p. 50.
15 – S. Castles and G. Kosack, Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe (London, 1973).
16 – Phizacklea and Miles, op. cit.
17 – Ira Katznelson, ‘Community capitalist development and the emergence of class’, Politics & Society (Vol. 9, no. 2, 1979).
18 – A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp. 296-8.
19 – R. Roberts, The Classic Slum (Manchester, 1971); E.P. Thompson, Whigs and
Hunters, (London, 1975); Henry Mayhew, London Labour and London Poor, Vol. 1 (New York, 1968).
20 – Ceri Peach, West Indian Migration to Britain (London, 1968), p. 62.
21 – Gareth Stedman-Jones, “Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900′, Journal of Social History (Vol. VII, no. 4, 1974).
22 – Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, 1977).
23 – Katznelson, op. cit., p. 232.
24 – J.C. Alderson, Policing Freedom (Plymouth, 1979); see also G. Howes and J.
Brown (eds), The Police and The Community (Saxon House, 1975).
25 – Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism (London, 1978), p. 186.
26 – Institute of Race Relations, Police Against Black People (London, 1979) and Clare Demuth, ‘Sus’ (London, 1978), pp. 37-8.
27 – Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities (London, 1973), p. 178.
28 – Leo Panitch, ‘Trades unions and the state’, New Left Review (No. 125, 1981); see
also ‘The development of corporatism in liberal democracies’, Comparative Political Studies (Vol. X, 1, 1977).
29 – D. Thompson and R. Larson, Where were you brother? an account of trades union imperialism (London, 1978), and P.S. Gupta, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, 1914-64 (London, 1975).
30 – Alaine Touraine, ‘Political ecology – the demand to live differently now’, New Society (8 November 1979).
31 – See Horace Campbell, ‘Rastafari: culture of resistance’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII,
no. 1, 1980), and Colin Prescod, ‘The “people’s cause” in the Caribbean’, Race & Class (Vol. XVII, no. 1, 1975).
32 – Karl Marx, ‘Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right’ in Early Writings (London, 1979).
33 – Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style (London, 1979).
34 – See Bulldog (paper of the young National Front), issues 7, 10, 16, 17, and 18.
35 – David Edgar, ‘Reagan’s hidden agenda’, Race & Class (Vol. XXII, no. 3, 1981).
36 – Armand Mattelart Mass Media, Ideologies and the Revolutionary Movement (Hassocks, 1980), p. 54.
37 – Hugh Mundell, interviewed in Black Echoes (8 November 1980).
38 – Michel Foucault, interviewed in Radical Philosophy (No. 16, 1977).
39 – C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (London, 1980), p. 115.


past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015








The April 1981 Brixton Riot (2): The Aftermath, and Defence Campaigns

After years of street crimes and brutality, and despite the infiltration from outside of thousands of paid provocateurs. the Brixton police have finally been taught a short, sharp lesson by the local community. It has been a constant source of amazement to observers just how long the local population have allowed these professional scare-mongers to roam the streets unchecked, harassing and heating up the youth and terrorising the residents.

Over the last three years, there has been a marked increase in the street crime and violence carried out by these so-called ‘protectors’. The local population has stood by helplessly while their children been snatched off the streets by these over by racist and sexist gangs of thugs – kidnapped under the sinister ‘sus’ law which they operate.

At least one recognised public execution * has already been carried out by these murderous thugs’ paramilitary wing, the Special Patrol Group, whilst dozens of unsolved murders, which have happened behind the closed doors of police stations and prisons, are readily attributable to these state-styled stormtroopers and their cronies.

Relative calm returned to the streets on Sunday only after they adopted their by now unfamiliar ploy of following an afternoon of unbridled mayhem with a swift withdrawal at twilight. (Lewisham residents are all too aware of this tactic). But the remarks of one of the thugs ‘guarding’  Stockwell station sums up the measure of their defeat; in a dejected tone he muttered to his mates. ‘The whole world will be laughing at us..’ But he was wrong. The world is not amused at having these gangs of thugs strutting around its street under the guise of law ‘n’order. The world will want to know:


But above all, the question remains:




In the immediate aftermath of the April 11th 1981 Brixton Uprising, while the media teemed with racist nonsense, and Lord Scarman was hired by the government to launch an Inquiry into the events, the most pressing question in the area was supporting the 285 people arrested on the day (though a fair number were nicked and released without charge, mainly as there was no cell space to hold them all. More people were arrested later: between April and July there were some 70 raids on local homes). Interestingly, given the police and press hoohaa about the riot being planned and carried out by outsiders coming into the area, 90% of the arrested proved to be from Brixton; 65 % were Black. Other bare statistics: 50% were under 25. In the end some 18 % were jailed for ‘offences’ arising from the uprising, 17% acquitted.

The Brixton Defence Campaign was formed to organise a political defence of the arrested. It was formed mainly by the Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Black People Against State Harassment (BASH). BASH had been launched in 1978, partly as a result of the repeated Special Patrol group invasions of Brixton (see In the Shadow of the SPG).

In its own press statement, the Brixton Defence Campaign stated that it formed to ‘co-ordinate the defence of those arrested during the Brixton Uprising and to support those who continue to be victimised’. The campaign group worked alongside the Brixton Legal Defence Group.

 “The fact that we initiated the Brixton Defence Campaign, took on alot of the leadership, and, as a group, put in most of the work, shows how strong politically Black women had become and how much support there was in the community for the group. Many of the ‘committees’ set up by the brothers in the aftermath of the uprisings had failed. In some cases, the first meetings had ended in chaos. There were all kinds of conflicting interests… We recognised that the police would step up their operations. We also knew that we had to work quickly to counteract the media’s coverage of ‘Black Mobs on the Rampage’ and ‘Black Masses Rioting’, so that people could understand what had really happened.

Anyway, after the failure of the initial public meetings, the women’s group came together to discuss the brief of the campaign. The first meeting was held at the Black Women’s Centre, and after that it became the base of the campaign. We acted very quickly, using the skills we had to start distributing leaflets, organising more public meetings and producing a regular bulletin. We had two objectives really. The first was the practical matter of getting competent legal representation for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested. And the other was to publicise the police tactics which had led to the uprisings and to alert the community to particular incidents of brutality. We did this by holding street meetings on Railton Road, bringing the issues to the attention of the people. And we co-ordinated with other campaigns and defence committees in other parts of the country so that we could monitor the police operations in our communities outside London.” (from The Heart of the Race, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe)

The Defence Campaign held regular meetings, help the arrested collected evidence for their defence, contacted lawyers, helped defendants and witnesses get connected, collected images to help people.

Viewing Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the cause of the April Riot as a whitewash, aimed at legitimising characterisations of the riots as ‘blameless forces of law and order [battling] mainly black criminals’, the Brixton Defence Campaign called for a boycott of the proceedings. Their position was that any support for or even taking part in the inquiry would alienate the ‘sections of the community we are interested in mobilising’, and thus it ‘must be totally discredited’.

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

The Brixton Defence Campaign calls for a total boycott of the state’s inquiry into the Brixton Uprising of 10-13 April 1981 set up under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman with terms of reference: To inquire urgently into the serious disorders in Brixton on 10-12 April and to report, with the power to make recommendations.
There is no escaping the fact that the Scarman Inquiry, but particularly Phase 1, very seriously prejudices the legal position and therefore endangers the liberty of all defendants yet to be tried.
Lord Scarman has seen fit to divide his inquiry into two phases: Phase I – Examining the ‘immediate causes’ of what happened in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981; Phase II – Assessing the ‘underlying reasons, looking specially at the problems of policing multi-racial areas’.
Why do we say that Phase I is but a deadly weapon aimed at our hearts?
First: Because Lord Scarman himself had positively to agree, that Phase I will ‘prejudice the rights of fair trial to those who have yet to come before the courts’. His promise to take evidence in such a way that individuals will not be named or identified cannot be carried out.
Second: What, it must be asked, are these ‘immediate causes’ into which Scarman is going to investigate so urgently in Phase I. It was the MP for Norwood (John Fraser) who said, quite correctly, that the immediate causes of what happened in Brixton are well understood’.
Third: Instead of looking at the real ‘immediate cause of the Brixton Uprising, Scarman will be seeking to give subtle legitimacy to the totally racist views so dramatically put by Margaret Thatcher – that the Brixton Uprising was simply a confrontation between, on the one hand, fundamentally blameless forces of law and order, and, on the other, mainly black criminals!
The Brixton Defence Campaign is satisfied that Lord Scarman is disposed to be used by the state to provide it with a basis for re-writing the Riot Act and to provide justification for dramatically increasing repressiveness in policing methods which are already massively racist, lawless and brutal as well as substantially uncontrolled. In the past five years there have been repeated requests to the Home Secretary for a public inquiry into police brutality and malpractice. To none of these calls was there a positive response by the state.
There are no benefits to the black community to be derived from Phase II of Lord Scarman’s inquiry. First, it is not aware that Lord Scarman has any expertise in the field of social policy and is not satisfied that even were he to have both the necessary expertise and sympathy that these would be sufficient given the other factors which apply. Second, there are no good reasons to hold that ignorance on the part of the state is a major cause/force determining the present direction of its policies in the field of housing, employment, education, etc. Third, the Campaign is satisfied particularly that where the black communities’ grievances over the racist, brutal, lawless and uncontrolled policing methods used against them are concerned the state has no basis for even claiming to be ignorant. A mountain of evidence has been ‘submitted and ignored.”

The Campaign wrote to organisations and individuals intending to provide evidence to Scarman’s inquiry, warning them against doing so and criticising them for betraying the community. However, some notable Brixton activists, and many community organisations, did co-operate with the enquiry.

There were proposals for an inquiry that could take a more alternative approach.
A joint statement from local organisations – the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Organisation, the Melting Pot Foundation, and Brixton Domino Working Men’s Social Club – claimed that an alternative inquiry that included ‘one or more… Privy Councillors from the Black Commonwealth’ would have ‘allayed the scepticism of many members of the Black Community’.

There was also the fear that anything said in evidence given to Scarman’s inquiry might help incriminate defendants when it came to court cases.

“On the fifteenth day of the Inquiry hearings, 3 July, the Brixton Legal Defence Group notified the Inquiry that application was being made to the High Court for an order to prohibit Lord Scarman from hearing any further evidence or submissions in public or from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 until the various criminal proceedings pending against the applicants arising from the disorders had been tried. Application was also made to prohibit the Home Secretary from making public any findings in relation to Phase 1 pending conclusion of the criminal
proceedings. On 10 July Mr Justice Webster dismissed the application saying that ‘it has not been established either that the continuance of the Inquiry in public or that the publication of the report which follows is in either case an act calculated to obstruct or interfere with the due course of justice’.”

However, the Brixton Defence Campaign was not without its own contradictions, as the following article recounts (This was published in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, by a group of Brixton anarchists, 1982)



Recognising the centrality of black resistance to racism in the uprisings, we describe how such resistance became a larger entry point for our own refusal of mere survival as waged or unwaged workers, as women, etc. Although we have experienced exploitation, harassment and coercion in somewhat different ways than black and Asian people, we came to fight the same battles in the streets against the same enemy – the police. At the same time, we are all too aware that tensions between blacks and whites, men and women, persist after the uprisings.

This section approaches the problem in view of the aftermath of the uprisings. Although a riot can’t continue indefinitely without a general revolutionary upheaval, it can nevertheless contribute to bringing about such a situation. However, so far we have seen our riots followed mostly by repression, isolation and division among those who, for a while, joined together as an insurgent community. How do we get beyond this dead-end cycle?

Just after the July 81 riots, for example, the crowd in a Wolverhampton courtroom almost succeeded in freeing their mates from the dock. However, during the winter, hundreds of people faced prison sentences in the same kind of isolation which prevailed beforehand. Capitalism will continue to defeat us if rebellion remains confined to the warmest months, to special anniversaries or to counter-attacks against only the most blatant police provocations – ultimately leaving the initiative with the state.

With these problems in mind, the article looks at the inability of the Brixton defence groups to sustain the ‘creative moments’ of the revolts, instead expressing a disorganisation and powerlessness which limited the July uprising as much as did the advance in police tactics then. The article makes tentative suggestions for possible new organisational forms for defending the targets of state repression and for generalising the rebellion of the oppositional community. Whenever we do reach a point of confrontation leading to the next uprising, the groundwork could already be laid for taking it beyond defence of ghetto territory, towards transforming the whole of daily life, destroying the rule of capital and the state.

Looking back, it is now apparent that what was absent from last year’s struggles was the development of organisational forms which fully corresponded with the new practices made explicit at the height of the fighting. Certainly there were organizations – the defence committees – but subsequent events have revealed that none of these encouraged the development of the new relations already created. Of course they solidly did the work of obtaining speedy legal assistance for those arrested, issuing information and acting as rallying points, etc. However, by and large they applied stale orthodox models of resistance to the fresh tasks confronting metropolitan proletarians when such models had, to a certain extent, become already superseded by the very events upon which the organisations based themselves.

For what had started out in April as an attack on racist policing developed into an attack on policing as such, on commodity exchange as such and, by implication, on the whole process of production and consumption in capitalist society. Also, the mode of the attack was itself a living critique of the usual mediations by which political parties and trade unions contain and regulate class struggle. Further, it enabled us to break through the usual roles and half-rotted ideologies and, for a brief but ecstatic moment, to transform social relations. Such transformations which remain at the heart of the communist project and which, within the limits of time and space of Brixton, that weekend, became a form of mass practice needed a broad-based and flexible form of organisation in which to bloom. (For example, in times of social upheaval this form has very often been that of general assemblies or councils, soviets. But the organisational forms which arose in Brixton did so on the basis of only partial critiques, only limited visions, seeking to defend those arrested without having to delegitimise the state which was criminalising them in the first place.

Undoubtedly the defence committees’ criticisms of the racist state were expressed more forcefully than previously, but this was largely a difference of degree and did not mark a qualitative shift in oppositional critique or practice. (For example, they might have identified the ways in which the uprising went beyond an attack on racist policing methods, so as to incorporate the knowledge gained into their defence strategies.) Their limitations suggest that, of all the proletarian layers which participated in the fighting, none had a thoroughgoing awareness of the significant changes which had taken place in the composition of the proletarian groupings themselves. So when those of us who took to the streets concretised the latent and embryonic aspects of ourselves shaped by this recomposition of social relations, we were unable to grasp and develop that process collectively. Overtaken by the enormity and rapidity of events, we nevertheless were inspired by the forces unleashed to create practices of struggle in which we found ourselves confronting the now-realised aspects of ourselves. Yet, as in a dream, we did not fully recognise ourselves. Therefore, we fell back upon analyses and their corresponding forms of organization which our very own actions had rendered obsolete. This is understandable insofar as consciousness often lags behind events, especially events of such qualitative rupture.

But what were these ‘new aspects’? In short, the practical unity of black and white proletarians forged in action against both the state and the reign of commodities. There were no cries of ‘black and white unite and fight’ as we were too busy doing exactly that to bother with such sloganising. Moreover, we were not just ‘fighting the state’ but were transforming social relations, making real the communistic project by realising the communistic potential of ourselves, albeit briefly. At that point in the process, the struggle went beyond a physical confrontation with racist policing by (mainly) black youth, even if that had been the detonator and main component of the struggle. However, that step beyond was not reflected in the committees which reproduced fragmented and partial analyses. The temporarily visible, concrete relations receded from consciousness, back into invisibility. After one step forward on the streets, two steps backwards were taken in the committee rooms.

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things. in creating something which has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.’ -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).

it was at the point when the decisive actions on the streets had broken down many (though not all) of the ideological barriers that keep black and white proletarians in close but different orbits that the whole spectrum of political activists stepped in with their ‘traditional’ analyses. In the heat, speed and confusion of the moment, the regressive aspects of their intervention went un-noticed and prevailed by default.

The first ‘spirit’ that was ‘conjured up’ was the division on colour lines. The quickly-formed Brixton Defence Campaign (BDC) was open only to blacks. While that restriction could be seen as an attempt to curtail the influence of the (predominantly white) party-builders and to exclude possible police agents, its immediate social effect was to divide the streetfighters. Furthermore, the BDC itself immediately divided on class lines between the street youth and the older professionals & politicians on the platform. These differences resulted in one faction of the ‘leadership’ cancelling the public rally called for the following weekend – fearing, no doubt, to lose control of the situation to the streetfighters eagerly anticipating the rally. Falling on an Easter weekend, the rally would have ensured broader participation by local people and also supporters from elsewhere, thereby providing an opportunity to extend the struggle and overcome Brixton’s isolation. As it happened, that weekend – just a few days after the uprising – passed in silence. (The BDC opened itself up to white participants shortly afterwards, but only temporarily.)

These initial divisions by colour and geography from within the proletariat had a ‘domino effect’ as they strengthened – not weakened – the left groups, who now had a fragmented and confused mass to pick over and recruit. Soon there were no less than five defence group s/committees: The BDC included most black people. The Brixton Legal Defence Committee (BLDC), although formed essentially to cover court cases, reflected the involvement of leftist professionals/politicians, mainly Labourites. The Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton came from the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party. South London Workers Against Racism (SOLWAR) was the local branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in another form. Lastly, People Against Police Occupation (PAPO), by far the smallest group, consisted of socialist-feminists, radical gays and libertarians.

The BDC saw the uprising only as a black issue. While it is clearly undeniable that it was police racism which sparked the uprising, and that this was but one more example of the manifold attacks made on black people – economic, legal, social, physical, etc. – it should also be clear that the surge of (mainly black) proletarian anger in response went far beyond the initial objective of attacking racist police. The BDC’s attempt to contain the struggle within a solely ‘black people vs. the racist state’ framework turned out to complement the state’s own strategy of delegitimising any protest outside the scope of a narrowly defined ‘racial discrimination’. It is precisely within such terms that the state, especially its would-be reformers, have attempted to contain the struggle.

Another problem with the BDC’s approach was that it did not take account of differences within ‘the’ black community. As soon as the BDC was formed, the class differences surfaced and persisted as the campaign developed. An explicit proletarian standpoint from the start (which would have included the vast majority of black people anyway) could have avoided the confusion surrounding such issues as the collaboration with Lord Scarman by certain petty-bourgeois black groups and the collaboration with the police by such ‘community leaders’ as Courtnay Laws and Ivan Madray. Also, in order to advance the struggle on the ground, perhaps more faith could have been put in mobilising black proletarians in Brixton than in lobbying Caribbean diplomats.

Of course the BDC, as the biggest of the defence groups, helped the most defendants, and its limitations in no way detract from that achievement. Also, these criticisms should not been seen as a criticism of black autonomy. The ‘multi-racial’ developments of the uprising did not challenge the basis of black autonomy; on the contrary, they reaffirmed the need for autonomous organising by everyone. However, we need to re-think the ambiguity between autonomy and separatism, so that autonomous organisation strengthens everyone’s autonomy from the state rather than facilitating the state’s containment strategies. Perhaps future developments will bring some practical clarification to this delicate area.

What of the other defence groups?

The Brixton Legal Defence Committee made interventions only on the legal level. The most notable was the attempt to halt the Scarman Inquiry on the grounds that the proceedings endangered defendants in certain court cases. As there was no chance that the legal establishment would stop Scarman from performing his liberal exhibitionism, the Committee’s attempt failed.

The Militant Tendency, wearing the ‘costume’ of the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton. used the ‘borrowed language’ familiar to most of us by now. According to them, the uprising was due to the policies of Thatcherism and ‘uncontrolled’ policing; therefore, more public expenditure on social welfare programmes, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) and police ‘accountability’ would somehow keep the lid on. This committee, too, assisted defendants financially. Also, it was the only committee willing to sink ideological differences by offering at least some assistance to the arrested anarchist Patrizia Giambi – so far the sole explicitly ‘political’ case to result in conviction from the uprising.

SOLWAR applied to the situation a class analysis containing a critique of racism (both in the state and in the labour movement). They called for resistance to the Police raids which happened after the fighting, with the resistance to be carried out by ‘militia’ similar to their anti-fascist squads in Fast London, but that proposal was not implemented. SOLWAR also helped defendants financially and – with the slogan ‘Police in the Dock’ – assisted some black families to prosecute police for assault.

Like the proposal to resist police raids, this was another attempt to take the struggle onto the offensive against the police.

PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. Like SOLWAR, they too sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people.

Even this brief look at the approaches of the defence committees & groups gives us a glimpse of the potential which a general assembly could have had, especially one which recognised the historically new aspects of the uprising. But what we had instead was a proliferation of groups which precluded open political debate about the nature of the uprising and the formation of a collective ‘ strategy. These divisions reflected not only the divergences on the local political scene but also an (unconscious) acceptance of the state’s divide-and-rule tactics.

In the uprising the state’s tactics were made explicit in the ravings of Commissioner McNee (and in July in those of Kenneth Oxford and James Anderton), who attributed the uprising to ‘black hooligans’ (common criminals) and to ‘white anarchist agitators’ (political criminals). That political line was followed through into the courtroom and can be seen in the more or less straightforward criminalisation of black youth and the more overtly political criminalisation of, for example, the anarchists Patrizia Giambi in Brixton and Simon Los in Nottingham (For the charge of ‘threatening behaviour’, Patricia Giambi was sent to prison for a month and almost deported. In her appeal against the court’s recommendation for deportation, it became even more obvious that the police wanted to see her deported because she was an anarchist, whose deportation would provide prima facie ‘evidence’ for their conspiracy theory of the riots. In Nottingham, Simon Los was sent to prison for 3 years for ‘inciting to riot’, i.e. putting anarchist leaflets into people’s mailboxes.) Of course, the state is trying to have it both ways with the Bradford 12 conspiracy charges *, which themselves reflect the state’s growing fear of organised black proletarians.

The most negative effects of the insurgents’ fragmentation were the competition between defence groups and the attempts by some of them to appropriate the struggle as their own. An example: When the Scarman Inquiry opened at Lambeth Town Hall, the BDC called for a picket. This call was supported by all the other defence groups. However, SOLWAR brought along their own banner and, when asked by BDC stewards to take it down, refused. This refusal was heavily criticised by the other pickets and was seen as RCP vanguardism. But it can be seen another way as the BDC attempting to limit the struggle and subordinate other initiatives, such confusion was due to the lack of prior debate. The lack of open political debate meant that, whatever differences in political approach did exist (and such differences are always bound to exist), they got expressed in terms of crude competition. Thus it appeared that such competitive divisions were consciously desired, or at least self-perpetuating, rather than resulting from everyone’s earlier failure to come together for mutual clarification and collective decision-making. In effect, then, the BDC, which was seen as the ‘authoritative’ defence group, became the superior arbiter and sole source of legitimacy for initiatives. (Hence the absence of the BDC as the BDC from the PAPO picket of the police station.)

A second example: It became impossible to discern the pattern of, much less to resist collectively, the police raids which continued for months after April, largely because there was no common reference point for information about them. The information which was gathered was not made freely available. During the raids in June, people seemed gripped by a sense of powerlessness which in turn heightened the feeling of fragmentation and isolation. So, when there was street fighting again in July, it was not simply the fact of the police being better armed (than in April) which enabled them to clear the streets so easily. The events in July were an example of one way in which the proliferation of defence groups had compounded the decline of the April solidarity.

It is worth dwelling further on the differences between the July fighting and that in April. The main difference was that in April the police were taken by surprise. That gave streetfighters the time and space in which to gather for large-scale confrontations, which became the material basis for the unity. By contrast, in July there were uprisings taking place throughout the country but the police everywhere were better prepared – with riot helmets, short & light shields for extra mobility, the possible backing of water cannon and CS gas (used in Liverpool) and the political instruction to ‘go on the offensive’. In Brixton their chief tactic was mobile squads racing around attacking any semblance of group formations. That tactic kept those of us on the street running around in circles and prevented any large-scale gathering. Hit-and-run tactics were the only feasible form of resistance. (As used in St. Paul’s and Toxteth in early 1982.) There was little scope for united collective action like that of April. And now that police riot squads have been formed in all the large Metropolitan Police divisions with the back-up of gas and water cannon, the tactics of ‘isolate and disperse’ will again undoubtedly be the order of the day should there be any more streetfighting. Should this prove to be the case and should they succeed, then it may be even more difficult to recover the ground lost since April.

But, to return to the proliferation of defence groups – how did this come about?

Of all the social changes of the 1970s, one of the most significant was the growth of black people as an organised force. Black groups organised themselves around opposing the many attacks from the state and racist groups. A combination of the two – the Nationality Bill and the New Cross Massacre – meant that, at the time that the police implemented their ‘Operation Swamp ’81’, black people were on a combative footing and in no mood to tolerate yet more provocations. But this process goes back to the period immediately after World War 2  and is connected with other relevant historical developments.

The changing needs for new types of labour power by post-war capital gave rise to two trends. Black people were invited over here as a source of cheap unorganised labour at a time of a shortage. Also, with the decline of traditional industries (coal, steel, ship-building and so on) and the growth of service and light industries, women – another source of cheap, unorganised labour – became a larger part of the labour force and structurally more integrated into it. (For a concise account of this, see lrene Bruegel, ‘Women as a Reserve Army of Labour’, in Feminist Review no.3.    Also, A. Sivanandan, ‘From Resistance to Rebellion’, in Race and Class, Autumn/Winter 1981 and his ‘Race, Class and the State: The Black Experience in Britain’, Race and Class pamphlet no. 1. See also the series in Race Today by Darcus Howe, ‘Bobby to Babylon’.)

Both groups also received a large impetus from the liberation movements of the late 1960s – the Black Power Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Linked with appositional developments of the late 1960s was the growth of a whole range of revolutionary groupings, from Trotskyists through to anarchists. Also, since the mid-1970s there has been a growing reserve army of young people, black and white, excluded from the labour process. Unlike the reserve army of the 1930s, however, there is a tendency to turn its exclusion into a rejection of normal ‘success’ models. Many of these people feel themselves to have little stake in reforming capitalism and have proven themselves willing to defend physically any encroachment upon their ‘non-work oriented’ subcultures.

All this reflects changes in the composition and self-perception of the working class. Such changes are inevitable given that classes are not fixed groups but social processes. For example, the large expansion of office jobs has ‘bourgeoisified’ traditionally working class people and has ‘proletarianised’ traditionally middle class people. The expansion of higher education has given some of the working class a passport into the middle class. Black people (especially first-generation immigrants) have been doing menial jobs while a certain portion of the white working class becomes upwardly mobile. The welfare state – designed to individualise class conflict and isolate people – has been nevertheless used by refusers of wage-labour to gain time and space in which to move outside the wage-slave cycle and develop their opposition through new practices. And so on.

What all the above-mentioned groups have in common is that they organise and express themselves outside of the usual channels of political parties and trade unions (even if the organised left tends to channel people back in again). To a greater or lesser extent they are all marginalised politically, socially or economically – and, in the case of most women and blacks, in all three spheres. This is due mainly to objective conditions, some of which – for example, the structured individualisation of officially ‘unemployed’ people – were challenged by last year’s uprisings.

But the forces at work are not only objective. In such a world, people who are antagonistic to the norms are only too pleased to find like-minded people. Such groups become the reference points for identity, safety and support. Gradually, people come to accept their marginalisation, and this ‘self-ghettoisation’ cuts off people from other oppositional groups, and not merely on ‘Ideological’ grounds. That is, there is a certain degree of (unconscious) complicity with the tactics of divide-and-rule. Friction occurs among groups as each either explicitly or implicitly claims to hold the key to real social transformation, to be the subject of history. (Isolation and vanguardism are often mutually inclusive.)

So, despite changes in social relations that had taken place in the streetfighting, when the task of organising presented itself there was an in-built tendency for people to revert ‘automatically’ to the roles they knew best, thus reproducing the old divisions. However,

‘Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest and pursue the struggle for any other section. The formal organisational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.’ (Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’, Falling Wall Press/Race Today, 1975.)

Since those words were written almost a decade ago, this problem has become even more pressing. Yet one major attempt elsewhere at its resolution – the ‘Beyond the Fragments’ conferences – is doomed to failure. ‘Beyond the Fragments’ failed not just because it attempted to create unity only on an ideological level, but also because it sought to ‘breathe life into some Frankenstein monster constructed of the decaying remains of the political movements of the last two decades’. (Beyond the Fragments Or Beyond the Left, in Authority, 1980)

That is, it failed to recognise what is new in the general proletarian refusals of this society and especially the role of the left in domesticating such refusals. What is needed most is an attempt at unity on a practical and continuous basis, a basis which recognises the new and breaks through old ideological barriers. (Last year’s uprisings could well provide the beginnings of such a basis.)

But these are not the sole reasons for the proliferation of defence groups and partial analyses. The spontaneous nature and the scope of the actions took most people by surprise. Before events and their potential could be fully grasped, the moment had passed, the state had regained control of the streets, and the resulting ‘vacuum’ favoured the people with worked-out analyses and organisational models – almost any analyses and models. As the focal point of the struggle shifted from the streets to the committee rooms, it became blurred and less intense through that process. And here is a perennial problem of periods of social rupture – the division between ‘fighters’ and ‘organisers’- which can be seen as the ‘division of revolutionary labour’. We must constantly identify and challenge such division. However, it is not enough to challenge it formally, because it persists by default, from our failure to articulate the historically new needs expressed in insurrectionary practice yet still lacking the new language required to counterpose those needs to the old ‘socialist’ models.

For all those reasons, the earlier suggestion of ‘general assemblies’ is not without problems. The main difficulties to be surmounted would be: the different histories of the various members, the different levels of commitment, the different goals desired, the fear and mistrust among member groups, and now the more dispersed ‘guerilla’ tactics required to counter a better-equipped police force. Yet we need to tackle these problems – now if we are to cease reaffirming our ‘marginalised’ misery and instead advance ourselves as a class, to advance from defence yet again to offence.

– M. Brique, March I982


Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work


To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

We want to bring to your attention the case of Patricia Giambi, which arises out of the events which took place in Brixton on April 1lth. Her story began, like many others, on Saturday April 1lth, when she was caught up in a police charge near her Brixton home and charged with having an offensive weapon and of using threatening behaviour and words. Here again her situation was similar to hundreds of others, police accusations resting on contradictory elements of identification in what was a crowd situation in a narrow unlit street.

It did not take police long to single her out for special treatment, however, when they discovered that she was living in the same house as someone on whom they had a political file and who was also arrested that evening. From that moment on, there has been a deliberate and unconcealed attempt to single out these two women and frame them in the role of outside agitators in an event which has been widely recognised as a popular uprising against survival conditions and police provocation. The role attributed to Patricia, prompted by her Italian nationality, is that of the imperative ‘foreign link’ – an Italian one to boot – where police, through the organs of the daily press, have made repeated references and innuendos to the Red Brigades, international terror links and so on.

As an EEC citizen, she left her local government post for a year, using her full rights of mobility as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, to find employment here and to study the English language. Language difficulties and ever-increasing unemployment made it difficult for her to find work, but she was eventually engaged as a cleaner in a local hospital, where she worked six mornings a week. She has also gained an intermediate English certificate at Westminster College, which she has attended since January.

Over the past few months, since her arrest in April, she has appeared in court on numerous occasions and while on bail was granted her passport to go to Italy to visit her sick father. She returned early in September to face trial and now finds herself serving a sentence of 28 days in Holloway Prison and on completion faces deportation. This is as a result of being found guilty of threatening behaviour under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Upon conviction police presented the magistrate with an album of enlarged colour prints of the study of the flat where Patricia was living. The photos had been taken during a raid following her arrest and showed bookshelves containing, among others, books dealing with anarchist theory and history which are freely available in libraries and bookshops. These, plus a photograph of a poster in the same room with the slogan (in Italian) Bread, love and struggle, were taken as being conclusive evidence that she was a national security risk, so justifying the deportation order. Patricia made no attempt to conceal her interest in anarchism which, as far as she knew, was not illegal in this country.

When the deportation order was contested by her barrister, lan McDonald, police overtly reinterpreted EEC law by saying that she was not a bona fide worker (an expression which does not appear in the act) or student, and therefore could benefit from no rights. She has been working for over four months and studying at Westminster College in the evenings. She was also at one time part of a libertarian book collective and worked voluntarily one afternoon per week. This was distorted by police and presented as further evidence as to why she should be deported.

She is appealing against her sentence and in the meantime we feel her case should be brought to the widest public attention, as it sets an ominous precedent.

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

After she went back into prison upon being sentenced on September 17, Friends of Patricia Giambi distributed the above leaflet (among others) to organise a support campaign for her appeal against the Magistrate Court’s recommendation, that the Home Office deport her. Finally on October 15 she won her appeal at the Inner London Crown Court. Thus her case did not go to the next step, where the Home Office would have decided to accept the Magistrate Court’s original recommendation that she be deported.

Despite that victory, we should not forget the precedents set by this case for criminalisation of revolutionaries, in particular: 1) Of all the EEC nationals who were arrested on similar charges in the Brixton uprisings, Patricia Giambi was the only one who received a recommendation for deportation in addition to a prison sentence. Obviously, then, that overtly political treatment was due not to the criminal charge as such but to her choice of housemate. It’s not what you’ve done but who you are, how you live. 2) The courts’ refusal to grant bail meant that there was little point in pursuing an appeal against the prison sentence, as Patricia completed the 28 days before the date of her appeal anyway. The prosecution arguments against bail were that she might abscond and that ‘there is evidence to show she is an anarchist’. 3) Even though she completed the 28 days before her appeal date, she wasn’t permitted to leave the prison until she won the appeal – apparently on grounds that she might evade an eventual deportation order. Since it is common practice for the British state to imprison potential deportees only after they have received a deportation order, the judicial system was treating Patricia as if the Home Office had already decided to deport her – indeed, almost as if her appeal could not succeed. Thus her additional imprisonment served in effect to confirm the police theory that she was a politically dangerous person.

4) When the magistrate at the appeal hearing incredulously challenged the respondant’ (the prosecution) to prove their suggestion that Patricia was part of a dangerous anarchist conspiracy, the police declined to make their accusation any more specific but instead went as far as to argue that she should be deported as an ‘undesirable’ because of her association with other people who are themselves ‘undesirable’. (Unfortunately for the police, most of her London friends hold British citizenship and so cannot themselves be deported.)

Although the courts ultimately did not accept the wilder police innuendo about Patricia having organised the riots, this was partly because of the support which had to counter not only the police but also the mass media, (See for example the Daily Mail 17 October 1981, in which a journalist enthusiastically promotes the police arguments – quoted in full – as to why she should have been deported.) Furthermore, the police succeeded in setting the terms of reference: on the key issues of bail and deportation, they forced the defence case to refute grave criminal accusations (e.g. organising riots), yet without the police having to mount a normal prosecution case on such charges. So the entire affair, especially Patricia’s imprisonment while awaiting the appeal hearing, served to lend credence to the conspiracy theory of the uprising, even in the absence of any concrete evidence. Instead the police pressed forward their case entirely on the basis of Patricia’s life, particularly her ‘associations’. Perhaps the British police are following the lead of developments in Italy, where the state (especially the Italian Communist Party) is putting away thousands of revolutionaries into prison on charges of ‘subversive association’ – for which they can be kept imprisoned for up to 12 years without trial. Upon a later visit back to Britland she got a xmas tree of alarms at Customs courtesy of Special Branch and stooges.


past tense’s series of articles on
Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981:

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: You Can’t Fool the Youths: Paul Gilroy’s on the causes of the ’81 riots
12: The Impossible Class: An anarchist analysis of the causes of the riots
13: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
14: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
15: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
16: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
17: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
18: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
19: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
20: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton 1980s-present
21: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
22: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
23: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
24: Brixton, Riots, Memory and Distance 2006/2021
25: Gentrification in Brixton 2015