Today in London rebel history: 1000s join anti-gentrification protest, Brixton, 2015

Written by a former longtime Brixton resident, now living in exile. (Its grim up North London!)

It’s a long post, no apologies, these are things I’ve been thinking about a long time… Responses welcome, re-post, but please credit past tense if you do.

Two years ago, today, on April 25th 2015, Brixton, South London, saw what was possibly the largest protest specifically against gentrification in the capital to date. Certainly the largest so far in Brixton. Over 2000 (other numbers are available) people gathered, many drawn from local communities, though reinforced by people from other areas also facing social cleansing.

Over the last couple of decades, Brixton has been changing, sometimes gradually and almost imperceptibly, sometimes juggernautically fast. What was for most of the 20th century largely a cheap area to live, housing mostly working class people, many of them from migrant communities, has been transformed, for a complex mix of reasons, into a much more trendy and up-market suburb, with a nightlife aimed at the moneyed, and a high street filled with glossy chainstores, while the market and railways arch shops that made it cheap and full of cultural variety are being patiently forced out by rising rents and council policies. A neighbourhood 30 years ago dominated by West Indian migrant culture, in its streetlife, food, music, now displays what planners and jargon-merchants euphemistically label a ‘social mix’ – ie more middle class people, mostly white.

An area which always teemed with alternatives to mainstream life – from squatting, through rebel parties, a maelstrom of radical politics – is now being aggressively Stepfordised. And a few minutes walk out from the centre of Brixton, whole council estates are being planned out of existence, to be replaced with private housing aimed at a higher class of people.

Luckily for us, the day of the protest was one of those April days when it feels like Summer (just before the temperature drops for another two months!), encouraging a wide spectrum out to fill Brixton’s Windrush Square (itself a heavily cleaned up echo of the informal social space we knew it as 25 years ago).

There was live music, what seemed like hundreds of handmade placards and banners, cardboard sculptural costumes… The green space and concrete turned into a mini-festival for a few hours, reminiscent of many others I can recall in the same space – riots against racist policing, squatting actions, anti-poll tax demos, cuts protests (Lambeth Town Hall being just over the road), the Reclaim the Streets party of 1998, and the 2013 nearly spontaneous party to celebrate Maggie Thatcher’s death to name but a few. We marched around Brixton a couple of times, though the markets to hoot at some of the trendy bars and their clientele,

And like many of those others, anger broke out; while most of those attending were not involved, a sizable minority took part in some direct action against some clearly relevant targets – part of Lambeth Town Hall, home to the council backing much of the social change with gusto, was invaded, leading to a small tussle with the cops around the doorway; the local branch of Foxton’s estate agents had their large and tempting glass window redeveloped into small pieces; and Brixton police station was besieged – the old bill had to defend their HQ with teargas.

In many ways an inspiring day; gathering people from a variety of situations, lots of whom are facing being moved from their homes, can help to beat feelings of isolation and pessimism that you are struggling on your own against huge and powerful forces which you can’t seem to reverse…

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 threatened with demolition

Guinness Trust buildings: Another estate being ‘cleansed’.

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Sorry if we missed you out…

 

Some ponderings on gentrification & anti-gentrification in Brixton

In some ways, looking back on April 25th two years ago, it is also depressing, not least because despite that day, those forces we sere opposing are overwhelmingly pushing forward at the moment.

Way back in 1983, a grumpy correspondent in the Brixton squatters paper Crowbar complained about how Brixton was changing:
“Right this is serious. Over the last year and a half Brixton and the surrounding area has gone through sons very visible changes. The unemployment and poverty is here, you can ace that in the DHSS waiting rooms or by standing in the streets. But new people are saying we’re going to be the new Camden, believing that it has already started with the hordes of young trendies (mainly professional) who are attracted to the area – buying up cheap property. It is also trendy to live here, well we’ve had riots and there’s the Ritzy etc.
The trendification has already started. Look around at the hairstyles. or the hurrying smart art people carrying smart little plastic briefcases. And then there is the left wingers who bring their bookshelves and don’t have net curtains so as to show off their botanical living rooms.
Next thing will be a social worker and a BBC current affairs producer called Terence and Julle moving in next door. Brixton has something no other part of London has with the Ritzy, Fridge, I21 Books, Ace, Frontline and the theatre, its blues clubs – and now the Art Gallery.
Soon we would be living in a swamp of quaint “health” shops, boutiques and galleries selling £200 paintings. The business people also have an eye on this area, because if something is hip it will be money. We have to be careful that all these cultural, sporting. artistic and musical events and venues do not take us over.
We have our own special and varied culture in Brixton which we can develop and do ourselves. We can show videos and films in our own houses, have parties regularly like the blueses with sound systems. Squats can be opened up for a couple of nights/weeks/years for our own gigs (free too) and to show our own art work.
There are ways if we organise and act to do things we want and cheaply which is not dependant on council handouts or just the tedium of always going to a place the same as it was when you went the week before and he week before that. So get scheming and I’ll see you there. Or maybe David Bowie will move back here!”

Yes well, you should see it today, pal. Many of this Anarchostrodamus’ dire warnings have come to pass, and much worse. Mind you Bowie never moved back, though there is that now-famous mural…

In Brixton, Lambeth on a wider scale, and London as a whole, a broad alliance of local councils, property developers, backed by the mayor of London are engaged in a bewildering number of plans to redevelop many areas, break up what remains of the city’s dwindling social housing stock, rebuild local shopping areas as corporate spaces, and encourage the break-up of existing communities. Despite protests by people being persuaded, bullied and literally forced to move.

The social, political and economic forces driving what is lumped together as gentrification are complex, though it may feel simple and black and white when you’re on the receiving end.

From the 1960s on, the kind of thinktanks, committees and foundations that dream up social policy looked at inner city areas mainly occupied by working class, migrant, poor communities and have seen them as a ‘problem’. Not just because poverty, and thus overcrowding, homelessness, crime, drug and alcohol become concentrated in these areas, but because resistance also breeds there – people begin to see their problems not as their own fault, but as symptoms of a system based on inherent wealth inequality, inbuilt hierarchies of race and power. From there it can a short step to start thinking of collective solutions. Some of which challenge fundamental structures of the way we live.

This is obviously a threat to those whose current power, wealth and status is based on these fundamental divisions. But their responses are not always identical. Attempts to simply brutally repress any collective protest only tended to spark fiercer resistance; hence inner-city riots, uprisings, the rise of strong locality based movements of solidarity. More subtle tactics for defusing and deflecting rebellion were needed.

In the USA, one response was a national strategy known now as Spacial De-concentration. Briefly this meant deliberately running down already poor areas, letting crime and violence increase, but using policing repressively, and then moving people out of the area, pouring money in to regenerate the neighbourhood, but with the aim of moving in a ‘better’ class of people. The dispersal of the existing residents would break up local solidarity and frustrate attempts at getting together, and even if part of the existing population remained, the aim was to make connections harder, as newer residents, hopefully more middle class & respectable, from different ethnic groups, would dilute immediate local unities. The dispersed may end up being moved/moving some way off, some will end up homeless; atomisation & alienation is a hoped-for consequence.

Neglect, coercion, dispersal were crucial to this widely-used strategy. But Spacial De-concentration was also mirrored in a liberal state approach too – regeneration, in the name of improving the lives of the existing community. Sometimes it genuinely was, sometimes it was cynically aimed at preventing rebellion, sometimes it was both. And change from below and change from above could mingle, merge, cross-fertilise…

Activist ‘leaders’ could be bought off or neutralised by negotiation, jobs with regeneration programs and police-community relations boards. Desire for collective self-empowerment can be easily subtly diverted into aspirations for individual and personal advancement, and for some the two can become the same thing.

What is important to stress that coercion and removal, and recuperation, diversity/empowerment, can and have gone hand in hand, sometimes one, sometimes both, are used, often (but not always) consciously as a twin strategy, to facilitate defeat for collective community and sowing confusion among movements. It’s hard to identify the forces of oppression, sometimes, amidst the seemingly contradictory forces, impulses and factions…

While in the UK, no specifically deliberate Spacial De-concentration program was launched, national regional and local government has often acted in a way that echoes, and often improves, on it. Most notably, social cleansing in parts of London has been heavily racial – it’s black communities that bear the brunt of it. To return to the specific example of Brixton (though it is far from unique) – the rise of angry rebellious movements eg the British Black Panthers, and parallel community movements, of the 1970s, and most particularly, the 1981 riots, against overtly racist police violence & harassment, necessitated an intense concentration of forces onto the area. Another worry was Brixton’s alternative ways of life, centred on west Indian street culture – hanging out in the streets, en masse, talking, dealing small amounts of hashish, as well as illegal blues parties, but also squatting (both black and white), sometimes occupying whole streets, plus the white alternative scene, based around leftist, anarchist, feminist, lesbian/gay projects, and much more… The area had two distinct cultures (sometimes overlapping, sometimes hostile, often co-operating in the face of the cops), which either questioned or rejected mainstream conformism.

The most obvious immediate manifestations of state response included a cleverer use of policing, and some bug chunks of public money to give bored angry youth somewhere to go etc; but also demolition of the most heavily squatted streets, where black and white squatters built alternative culture; alterations to physical space to make it harder for crowds to gather and move around. This was to be followed over the years with a plethora of programs, many of them in fact coming from national policy, which tried to tackle some of the underlying conditions which had allowed Brixton to become as it was.

Money from such schemes as the Urban Programme, the City Challenge, has been liberally distributed, both to genuinely improve the area (as some saw it) or pacify anger and frustration (as others would say). Grants and funding can be snaffled by those who know how to talk the talk. Layers of representatives from innercity communities developed, some of them former street/community activists… Community leaders, entrepreneurs, a rising caste of commentators and official spokespeople… some people rose to positions of authority, maybe determined to do good, but inevitably being to some extent mediated by co-operation by the state. An old process, and more complicated than ‘selling out’… So community activists involved in struggles in the early 70s are denounced by 1981 rioters as collaborators trying to get them to go home and go through the proper channels. And some rioters from 81 follow the pattern themselves… Former radical feminists come to run the council, and then to become tsars in the ‘diversity’ industry, teaching the police and the army how to look more inclusive…

Famed as a ‘loony left’ council in the early 80s, Labour in Lambeth gradually fell into line with he rest of the Labour party in the 90s, after leftwing labour councillors were either barred from office for refusing to set a legal rate, or purged by national Labour leadershop bent on ejecting the left. Lambeth became more New Labourish… more willing to sabotage social housing, work with developers, and keen to import more people like them into the borough…

But gentrification has not always been about defusing threats of disorder. More brutally, inner-city areas occupied by poor communities were also reservoirs of potential profit, expansion, social capital, too attractive to be ignored by big money interests and the parts of the state apparatus that are willing to facilitate these interests.

Wider dynamics were also at work, however, reflecting social changes that have emerged in recent decades:

1) Massive changes in both social mobility and also actual mobility. The decline of older manufacturing industries paralleled the massive rise in working class access to education, esp university… Both impacted on people’s expectations of what the would do in life, but also how far people had to move to get work. The return of the middle classes (especially young creative elements) to live in areas of the ‘inner city’ the affluent mostly left over the last 50 to 100 years; has played a part in the breaking up of former cohesive ‘working class areas’, but so has white flight, older or less adapting working class leaving inner cities ‘cos of all the furriners’ etc… as has aspiration, education, the broadening of horizons. Not least also for second & third generations of migrant communities…

(2) The dismantling of social housing since the 70s and the culture of council house sales and offfloading of stock to housing associations and other nominally social or just actually private organisations. To a greater or lesser extent huge chinks of the working class have bought into home ownership and the pressures this brings – the need to pay the mortgage, feelings of having a stake in something more than a council flat – play a big part in breaking down whatever unity or feelings of solidarity people had in being in the same boat.

(3) A growing consolidation of monopolies, in that chainstores and chain pubs increasingly take over from the smaller more traditional venues…

(4) However in partial conflict to (4) the influx of middle classes and their money as well as the ability of the canny to tap into the money swilling around as a result of (3) fertilises a varying crop of entrepreneurial projects – clubs, bars, art schemes, and the like – which help to transform the nature of the place. In Brixton as in other places, some of the self-made entrepreneurs are local as well as outcomers; and here as elsewhere many are themselves displaced and their dreams shattered as the processes of change roll on.

(5) This last is linked to a wider cultural change itself, in that our social and socialising habits have changed over the decades; the pub is not the centre of social life that it was, for many… So pubs both go to the wall for lack of business (some being turned into housing as house prices continue to rocket), and others being more desperately revamped repeatedly to try and capture a niche in the market. It’s worth pointing out that for many the old trad pub was no great shakes anyway, and many welcome changes that seem to increase variety…

(6) The increased specialisation in media and culture, concerted attempts to divide us up into niche markets and labels, sub-cultures etc, to make it easier to to sell us things and lifestyles (and subtly encouraged politically to make us easier to control?)

Elements of the influx mentioned in (1) became drivers in squatting & other social movements, got involved in feminist, socialist, anarchist politics etc, and some gravitated to the new left, young left labour party in the early 70s, from which some rose to positions of power…

And squatting and the alternative ‘white’ culture – massive in Brixton in the 70s and 80s – complicates the picture. Squatting was never homogenous – for some a necessity as housing crap or out of their reach, for some a cheap way to drop out for a while, for others a political statement and rejection of property and capitalism… Free space for creating alternative projects – squatted cafes, gig venues, bookshops, art galleries; much of 1970s-90s creativity, publishing, advice and self-help, health, was organized through squats, as much as political movements like feminism, gay liberation, anarchism, socialism… the list goes on.

Squatters, or at least some of us, long opposed gentrification.

As squatters we saw that gentrification was a threat to our own continued existence, and fought it, trying to make links with others we saw as also obvious targets – with limited results, in my own experience.

The stark fact that much opposition to gentrification is itself problematical. Some resistance does fly in the face of some genuine desire for improvements in people’s lives, when some oppose all change and almost yearn for deeper misery… On top of this opposition in some areas arises from people who themselves have moved into the area and helped the process of transformation. Leading to the spectacle of the first wave of gentrifiers attempting to halt the second wave. Or more complicatedly, some of the alternative types, anarchists, squatters and so on, many from middle class backgrounds, who organise against ‘yuppies’. Partly the latter is a genuine move to preserve the area as it is in their own interests… however sometimes it takes little account of other local communities, may with longer and more permanent ties, who may see things differently. This is not to denounce all anti-gentrification activity, having been involved in it ourselves; we do however see the contradictions. In some of the actions and publicity produced in Brixton in 1999 we had both positive and negative reaction, much of what we said chiming with some folk, who were saying the same themselves, and others validly pointing out that many squatters, almost exclusively young, often from abroad or transient, politically unrepresentative of much local opinion, would also probably not be around one way or the other in a few years… From the idealist squatters of the Railton People’s Planning Association in the 1970s, through the left of many eras, including dodgy Maoists who would go on to end up in court for kidnap and abuse, to some of the 90s anarcho-punks, you can see a thread of an ideology of coming into the area to organise and improve people’s lives… Of course this sort of vision is nothing new, from the 19th Century and the Settlement Movement, to 20th Century planners and student lefties, such parachuting to the rescue has been prevalent… This is neither to slag off the ideals or dreams of many of those activists, or claim that all were from the petty-bourgeosie, or to deny that transience and flow-through of populations have been a massive part of London life for hundreds of years.

But these dynamics exist and shouldn’t be ignored, if only because any true transformation of society must come from self-organised activity from below. And as a 1970s Railton Road activist ended up comcluding, if you aspire to change things FOR other people, from above, you may end up changing things only for yourself.

But for all of this, and the many squatting actions against gentrification, squatting as a process was both used as a pawn in the battle to regenerate Brixton, and for some squatters the gentrification was enthusiastically embraced. Like community activism, arty squatting contained seeds of gentrification… ‘Artwashing’ is a relatively new term., but the reality goes back decades. Squatted spaces with an art-creative bent were given easier rides by council policies (that would evict the rest of us much quicker), often proving launch-pads for people rising to run spaces lauded by council and police – some of which were nothing less than fronts for council and police project of defusing and dispersing black anger.

An example: the old Atlantic pub, on the corner of Atlantic Road & Coldharbour Lane. One of the old black pubs, a Brixton institution, part of the mythology the place, famous all over the world, a space controlled by black people, it was just integral to the street culture, yeah you could get drugs there (if they didn’t know you you’d likely get burned!) 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 (I’ll never forget the sight of 100s of cops swarming out of removal vans in that last raid). It stayed empty, until it was handed to a white entrepreneur who had flirted with the arty end of Brixton’s squat-scene, and re-opened as the Dogstar. 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. Lucky for them, as two weeks after it opened it was swiftly trashed in the December 1995 Brixton riot, rightly targeted for what it was, a wedge for gentrification. Of course it re-opened, and proved an inspiration for changes that would sweep the areas pubs. These days the Dogstar is kind of accepted now in these degenerate times, but that’s its history. (there’s lots more to this story but we don’t have the space here…)

Some of us used to think rioting as much as possible could help keep the gentrifier away. How wrong we were. There were six or seven large scale riots between 1981 and 1995, plus numerous smaller confrontations; this couldn’t derail Brixton’s evolution! Nor could every day violence: street crime, poverty, stabbings and shootings… It was all too ‘edgy’, drawing people excited by the thought of it all, but when they got there, actually wanting it not to scare them.

One wave of gentrification also resists the next… An incomer derided as a yuppie from 20 years ago now complains they are the true Brixtonite and these recent arrivals are the death of the Brixton they love… Tempting as it is to reduce the issue to individuals, shout at hipsters (yes I do), unpicking the social forces at work is like unravelling spaghetti.

For 20 years Brixton has been schizophrenic, an increasingly trendy white. 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 still exists… dealers abound as ever in Coldharbour Lane.

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.

Gentrification has had its supporters in brixton, because no area has one community. There are any number of communities, divided by race, class, also language, age, gender.

Its also worth remembering that Brixton, to some extent, and wider Lambeth, even more so, always also had another white scene, middle class or aspirational, sometimes racist, which co-existed into the ‘80s even (even giving us bizarre examples like the George Pub, on Railton Road, in the heart of the black frontline, notoriously racist, which led to its being burned down in 1981). There was always this rump that hated black people, at least those who they saw as rejecting getting a job; they hate the squatters, they hated the streetlife, and supported the police. Don’t forget that Borough wide, control of the council could even swing from Trotskyist-dominated Labour to a Tory/SDP coalition in 1982. Social change and utter frustration with Labour corruption or incompetence has produced tory-lib-dem administrations to run the council since then. Coercion and top-down regeneration won support from factions already here… and also from the more ‘respectable’ elements of the black community too at times. Black business could also have an interest in money coming in and producing opportunities… Even though the bigger money often ended in forcing out the small black entrepreneurs, especially bar owners and shopkeepers.

More recently, with the changes to streetlife in central Brixton, the clubs, pubs, and the disappearance of the majority of street properties into the hands of the affluent, Brixton’s estates were left as anomalies, increasingly out of step with the class of the people living around them; with the area being so trendy, greedy eyes were bound to be cast on the land estates sit on. Dismantling estates was always going to be much more difficult, street properties more fragmented and estates just have a more coherent potential unity (although rarely realized). And it has taken a lot longer. This is the battleground now, and it has taken on something of the air of a last stand in some areas (not just in Brixton).

Previous attempts to break up council estates – Housing Action Trusts (defeated in the early 1990s, partly after Brixton’s Loughborough Estate voted not to co-operate), parceling out estates to housing associations, to Tenant management Organisations, then to the ALMO, were all largely motivated by other considerations, among them the increasingly unviable financial burden of running them, the national policy (introduced by the Thatcher government) of preventing money from council sales being used to do up housing stock, attempts to reduce the role of local authorities as providers of services as much as possible… to name but a few.

But destruction of estates and wholesale removal of tenants is now rampant, and its moving working class people out moving the affluent in that’s at the heart of it. To be frank the level of opposition for previous dispersal of council stock, the ambivalence of people about remaining as council tenants, has resulted as much from the terminal state of people’s housing and the despair at the daily struggle over repairs, environment, under the council, as it has from the increased individualism and worship of owning our own home often blamed.

If and how things might be turned around is unclear. There is a current crop of struggles against ‘social cleansing’ in London, based mostly in estates, blocks under threat… This makes sense, as their living conditions make getting together practical and what unites them is obvious. Gentrification is affecting us all though, those of use now living more alienated lives as well. It’s a question of what London is to be. At the moment a rampant capital, aided enthusiastically by virtually all those with any power, is remaking a city for those with money, and telling those without to fuck off. To oppose this with any chance of reversing it, would need massive upheaval, revolt? Uprising? But sustained, linked up area by area, confrontational but also aware of contradictions and our differences… And connected to rebellion against the way we work, and challenges to the relate to each other, ‘indigenous’, incomer, migrant, ‘foreigner’, local… maybe even around class?!? Is it possible?

We don’t know if we are living in a lull before a new upsurge of social struggles, or if capital, with all it’s 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, as well as to recognise when conditions are different.

I tried here to set out a lot of complex thoughts and observations in this post, and some of it is about things I saw myself, some of it about larger social forces. Hopefully it is not too confusing… Its been impossible to cover everything that links into this subject.

One day a longer piece will appear, in print, or somewhere, with more on Brixton, squatting, its politics, alternative culture, the riots, etc… which past tense have been working on since we lived it, but are generally too busy with other things to finish writing…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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