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
- 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,
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
“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…
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.
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.
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
Housing Activists in Lambeth
Save Nour – Fight the Hondo Tower
Save Central Hill
“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
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