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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mural in modern Copenhagen Street commemorates the demonstration

This is the Real Brixton Challenge

Brixton from the late 1980s…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-HATs demo

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

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

Spatial Deconcentration?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Need Councilling, mate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any advance on One Dead Yuppie?

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

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

Should we be surprised?

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

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

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

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

Intellectually Challenged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Times They Aren’t a-Changing

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

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

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

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

Brian Douglas in hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone to the Dogs

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

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

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

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

We’re Not Going Down the Pub

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


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

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

The Queen

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

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

The Bradykillers

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Always Someone Lookin’ at Yer

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

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

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

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

regeneration vs gentrification

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my God They’re Moving in Next Door

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

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

… But I know What I Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooltan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

121 eviction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Lost in the Myths of Time

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

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

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

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

Derek Bennett

Read more on gentrification in Brixton

2001: A P.A.C.E Odyssey

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ricky Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

Paddick in the Streets of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Charles de Menezes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save Cressingham Gardens: Estate on Tulse Hill threatened with demolition

Reclaim Brixton

Housing Activists in Lambeth 

Save Nour – Fight the Hondo Tower

Save Central Hill

Powerful Absences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the End

O.G, 2021

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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…

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

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

Brixton 1981: Riots, memory and distance

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

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

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

Holding Back the Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding back the Tears (of laughter)

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

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

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

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

……………

Further to those notes… (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on which:

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

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

 

Impossible Classlessness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omasius Gorgut

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

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

 

The Impossible Class

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

The Impossible Class

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

What Working Class?

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

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

Crisis of Policing

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


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

‘Secondary Control’

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

A Self-Policing Community?

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

Police Create ‘Criminals’

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

Work Discipline

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

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

‘Criminal’ Cultures

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

Marginalisation Strategies

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

The Right Not To Work

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t fool the youths …

Race and Class Formation in the 1980s

Paul Gilroy

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

…………………………………………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working-class black communities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporatism vs autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black culture, white youth and class struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

¥ WHO ARE THE SINISTER BRAINS BEHIND THE BRIXTON RIOTS WHO PLANNED AND EXECUTED MASSIVE ACTION AGAINST THE COMMUNITY?

But above all, the question remains:

¥ JUST HOW ARE WE PREPARED TO PUT UP WITH THESE ARROGANT, MARAUDING THUGS WHO ANSWER TO NO-ONE BUT THEMSELVES??”

FROM THE FRONTLINE BRIXTON BULLETIN Monday 13 April 1981

…………………………………………………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Brixton Defence Campaign says Boycott the Scarman Inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

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

FROM OFFENCE TO DEFENCE TO….?

Where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What of the other defence groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– M. Brique, March I982

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Also published in We Want to Riot, Not to Work

THE CASE OF PATRICIA GIAMBI

To be deported for possession of anarchist literature

(text of leaflet circulated September 1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Friends of Patricia Giambi

September 1981

Postscript to the leaflet (1982):

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

Brixton before the Riots, part 3: The Brixton Plan & Squatting

Three main elements contributed to the eruption of rioting in Brixton in 1981. In parallel with the development of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, the racism it faced from the police, and the resistance this provoked, the other crucial factor was the heavily squatted nature of housing in the area, which had the effect of producing the third factor – the proliferation of radical and liberation projects.
Mass squatting in the Brixton area was a product of a combination of a failed planning project, a spike in homelessness and the emergence of the modern squatters’ movement in 1969.

The Brixton Plan

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath. While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Ted Hollamby launching a development. Behind him, 3rd from the right, then Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone. Whatever happened to him?

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this subsequently never built motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!

Artists impression of Brixton town centre as it was to become

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was Compulsory Purchased.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised (much of the Ringways project was defeated by local opposition), and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.


By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population. Admittedly he attempted to mix conservations with the massive developments, though its the bulldozing that dominated. He’s remembered fondly in Brixton for his part in the design of estates like Cressingham Gardens…

Oh My God they’ve Moving in Next Door

Squatting came to Lambeth in March 1969, when a group occupied an empty five-storey office block in Brixton Road in protest at housing shortage.

A Lambeth Family Squatters Group quickly developed, housing mainly families stuck in overcrowded or badly repaired homes or waiting for council housing.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with its local Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognising they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurise people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organised resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too  – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

Lambeth Self-Help, like many ‘70s housing co-ops, slowly evolved from a DIY activist group towards a larger more bureaucratic set-up. By 1977 they had a paid workforce of ten; by the 1990s they were managing hundreds of homes, often Council street properties that had been in poor nick. They housed many people over the years, but like many such groups, some of the people who ran the group were either power-mad or corrupt on a small scale. Abraham Korten, who evolved to become LSH’s supremo, became a notorious power-monger; just one example being how he attempted to persuade the Council to hand over Rushcroft Road and other shortlife properties to LSH in 1999, without even consulting the Rushcroft Road residents themselves. At other times, leading co-op activists secured large properties for themselves ahead of other needy members…

As noted by an observer elsewhere: “The squatting movement of the 1970s contained a number of middle class activists… it tended to be these people who became most active in organising short-life groups and co-ops to negotiate deals with local councils… Large shortlife organizations… gradually developed a bureaucratic structure run mainly by (these) middle class professionals, who were quick to recognise a new job market for their class… Housing activists who were willing to function as an extension of the local state housing bureaucracy were soon to be seen doing the council’s dirty work.”
(anonymous leaflet, circulated within Shortlife Community Housing, (a Camden Housing Co-op) reprinted in No Reservations, 1988.)

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton; St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St all in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell… and  many more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions, Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions… and many more. Many of these squat nexi became housing co-ops and some survive in that form today. And 100s of other squats existed, on their own or in ones and twos, with 1000s of flats on estates also being squatted.

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up…  Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In may cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Many buildings were occupied for social centres, housing a dizzying spectacle of alternative projects and community spaces. There was a social centre/ squatters advice at 119 Railton Road next door around 1973-4, part of a large Frontline squatting (a Railton Road squatters group was still going in 1975). The radical People’s News Service operated from no 119.

The shopfronts (since demolished) at no 78-80 Railton Rd, in front of the St George’s Residences, included a squatted Claimants Union office, the South London Gay Centre and a women’s space, around 1974-6…

Communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were set up…

Young, Gifted and Homeless

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ was in Vining Street (and was attacked by racists in August 1983).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Black magazine Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Some of the black Squatters’ actions had longer term effects than anyone could have foreseen. In January 1973, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, two black women squatting in a flat above a disused laundry at 121 Railton Road, were illegally evicted by agents of the private landlords. They broke back in, only to be dragged out by 5 cops; Olive however escaped the filth, climbed back in and spent several hours on the roof, supported by a crowd of people outside. There was some scuffling between cops and this group, and black youth worker, Ivan Madray, was nicked; (in the way recuperation gets ya, he was later one of the “community leaders’ discredited during the riots in April 1981, accused of collusion with the police.)

The council and cops failed to get her down with offers of accommodation, and they eventually left. She re-occupied the flat, staying there for ages. Later Sabaar Collective took over the building for a black bookshop; when they left in 1980, anarchists who had used Sabaar as a postal address squatted the building, founding the 121 Bookshop, which squatted there for 19 years, getting evicted in 1999.

Olive Morris had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager; women were vocal and active in the Movement. As a result tensions had arisen, and women activists had begun to meet and discuss the problems; as a result a sense of the need to organise separately developed. As part of this process Olive was later a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Brixton Black Women’s Centre and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; she was a fearless fighter against the powers that be. She died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Lambeth in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department (recently demolished).

Villa Victory

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups –  one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help.  Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect.  The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor Terrace, Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…There was a plan for a demo when the Queen came to visit on 30 June 1977: what happened? Hope she had a torrid jubilee visit…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers.

Fighting off the wreckers in St Agnes Place, January 1977. The child in her mother’s arms would go on to fight Lambeth taking the street till 2005…!

In St Agnes Place, squatters had first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses, although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. These houses remained squatted for decades, to be finally evicted and demolished in 2005.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with Trotskyist Ted Knight, a and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Brixton Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

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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

 

In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist Policing, Resistance & Black Power in 1970s Brixton

Part 2 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

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“It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of young blacks have grown up in British society having little contact with any other section of British society but the police and courts. They have developed in the shadow of the SPG, the Vice Squad, the Flying Squad, the Starskys and Hutches of the panda car brigade, the Old Bailey, Inner London Sessions etc.” (Race Today, 1982)

In the early 1960s, Brixton experienced a swelling of the West Indian population, mainly in the form of the children of the first generation, who had begun to settle in the area from the late 1940s. Numbers of the original migrants had left young kids in the Caribbean, with relatives, partly thinking they would soon be returning from the UK. For most, forced into low paid jobs, any thought of saving up and moving back were largely scuppered. The ’50s had been a time of sparse isolation and discrimination for many, and the expense of sending money back home for support was biting. Gradually many came round to the idea of bringing their offspring over; an added urgency was given by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The Act aimed to restrict non-white migration into Britain by setting quotas for workers with particular skills or lack of them; basically it was aimed at West Indians and Asians. As economic boom times began to come to an end, fears were being whipped up about competition for jobs.

Many young Afro-Caribbeans then arrived here around this time, often just coming into teenage years or a bit older. Many couldn’t get school places, or went into very different schools when they arrived; older ones found it hard to get work. The experiences they had, in education, on the dole, with the police, were to create a generation that began to go beyond mere existence, survival, endurance, and fight back…

The Coach and Horses pub, Coldharbour Lane, the earliest Black-owned pub in Brixton, & its owner George Berry, after a racist firebomb attack.

Racial harassment was a daily occurrence for Brixton’s black community in the fifties. “In those days, there was a lot of racism was the teddy boys. I used to work in Effra Road, and one day I was going to work and it was very foggy. I knew these chaps behind me were white. The one of the came up alongside me and felt my hair. My hair was straightened at the time, and he said, ‘This one’s hair feels white, so leave her alone.’ Then one of them shouted, ‘There’s a nigger over there.’ Whoever it was, she really got some kicks – you could hear her screaming. But things like this helped us to band together. We were all West Indians! When the teddy boys beat up a Black person from another island, some people would wait until a white person came into our area, pick up the milk bottles and beat them up. It was vicious but they were desperate times.”

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation, hitting West Indian families in the large crumbling Victorian homes in areas like Brixton.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm. Others stuck their heads above the parapet. In March 1958, the West Indian Gazette was founded in Brixton. Their office was above Theo Campbell’s record shop at 250 Brixton rd, and later at 13 Station Avenue (now Station Road). It was founded by Claudia Jones, a communist deported from the US, and Amy Ashwood, widow of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Gazette was produced monthly, with very limited resources, though supported by international Black communist superstar Paul Robeson and other black radicals. The paper covered race relations, discrimination, police harassment, campaigning all the time for equality for the new migrants, but in the context of a wider sense of social change and justice… It was Claudia Jones, who did most of the work, as manager, editor, main writer and fundraiser.

Claudia had been born in Trinidad in 1915, moving with her family to Harlem in 1926. Claudia grew up in poverty, facing racism and inequality, which led her into a life of campaigning and journalism. In 1936 she joined the US Young Communist League, a hugely brave step when even the CP was heavily chauvinistic. Claudia became Negro Affairs Editor on the US edition of the CP paper the Daily Worker, and became involved in campaigning on wage freezes, voting rights, lynching, poll tax, women’s conscription… she was imprisoned on several occasions. As a result of her sterling work in the land of the free she was deported in 1955, and chose to come to Britain. On arrival she joined the Communist Party here, (though she had a fractious relationship with the party, being sidelined and virtually ignored – the CPGB was even more racially backward than its US counterpart) and set to work campaigning here for the same causes… As well as setting up the Gazette, she became active in the Coloured People’s Progressive Association, and also helped to set up first Notting Hill Carnival in 1959. Claudia sadly died too young in 1964 aged 49. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

SUS and SPG

As early as the 1960s, police attitudes towards local black people were openly hostile, and this expressed itself in violent persecution. Police openly labelled their operations against black people in Brixton ‘nigger hunting’.

“If things go on like it is going on now, twenty years time, or forty years time, our children may be marching from Liverpool and Birmingham coming to London singing ‘We Shall Overcome’…” Nameless Jamaican, during a 1964 conversation in Brixton about prejudice and the US civil rights struggle. Quoted in Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion‘).

It took less than 20 years, and they weren’t singing we shall overcome…

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids.  The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname  – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…” Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.” In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

In Brixton, to this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

National Front paperseller in Brixton

At least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Loughborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road  – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewisham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

State Paid Gangsters

“War…War… All we doin’ is defendin’…”
Linton Kwesi Johnson

On top of the day-to-day community policing of the type just described, Lambeth and Brixton in particular was regularly graced by large-scale invasions of the Special Patrol Group (later re-branded the Territorial Support Group or TSG, after its operations had aroused massive outrage); basically the paramilitary unit responsible for large operations and responding to/policing public order situations.

“Between 1975 and 1979 there were six attacks by the SPG on the people of Lambeth.  Every time the same general pattern was followed – roadblocks, early morning raids and random street checks. In 1978 over half the total strength of the SPG, 120 officers, supplemented by 30 extra officers from Scotland yard were drafted into the Lambeth police area because of its alleged ‘high crime rate’. Over 1000 people were stopped on the streets and 430 people arrested; 40% of those arrested were black, more than double the estimated black population of the local community. The SPG operation was concentrated around four housing estates, all with high black populations.”

On top of this several CID, Serious Crimes Squad, Flying Squad and Fraud Squad officers would be drafted in to take part in operations. SPG activities were heavily influenced by policing tactics in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Occasionally SPG could be seen walking the streets, eyeing up black people and hanging around outside squats and blues clubs; more often they cruised the streets in their transits, up and down the Frontline, stopping cars and searching, setting up roadblocks, swooping onto estates, hauling in groups of kids under ‘sus’, raiding, intimidating. One SPG operation centred around an alleged Bomb Squad car that had been stolen and supposedly pursued to Railton road. The area was sealed off. More than 30 police, including the Bomb and Anti-Terrorist Squads, were involved. Although the official story was that there were detonators in the car for controlled explosions, is was widely suspected at the time that this was in fact a dry run for a counter-insurgency operation. Many SPG ops at the time consisted in no small part of low-level intelligence gathering, ie collection of names, addresses, details, of people who for one reason or another the police believed to be suspicious.

Grandiose claims were made for the SPG’s affect in reducing street crime, the main excuse given for their presence. Figures were bandied about, Reports issued, but little real hard evidence could ever by brought to bear. The anger the squad’s heavy-handed tactics created built up throughout the decade. Across the country, the SPG were increasingly being used to police (attack) strikes & demonstrations; they had evolved from an anti-crime unit into a paramilitary force. Police methods in Brixton more and more seemed to be the actions of an occupying army against the local people. And this wasn’t just a Conspiracy theory  – that’s how the cops themselves saw things.

Commander Adams hit the nail on the head when asked (on TV) about an SPG operation in Brixton: “No good general ever declares his forces in a prelude to any kind of attack.”

As an ex-police officer revealed: “You are told that you are the Law, you control the streets, you don’t give way to others. You make them give way. You’ve got to demonstrate your authority.” The police believed for many years in Brixton that they were involved in a war for control of the streets – a view mirrored on the other side. A statement from a social worker claimed (around 1979-80) that “When talking to these young people one gets the impression of guerrilla – young people believe they are winning the war.”

Raids got worse when the SPG came to town: “During November 1978, when the SPG were in Brixton, the activities of the Youth Project were severely affected. Our chief club night, on Thursdays, was reduced to a handful of attending members. Through January and February, it recovered to the usual 100 mark.”

SPG operations in 1973-5 led to the creation of Lambeth Campaign Against Police Repression; in 1978, All-Lambeth Anti Racist Movement, the Black Parents Against SUS, the Trades Council, the Anti-Nazi League and other groups campaigned against the SPG presence, culminating in a demo through Brixton In November ’78.

If there was a war going on for the control of the streets, clearly Brixton Police/the SPG saw community spaces and youth centres as an extension of the battleground. The effect of continuing attacks on clubs drove more young people ONTO the street, where confrontations were increasing.

… And the Resistance

“those days of the truncheon and those nights,
of melancholy locked in a cell…
were well numbered,
and are now at an end…

All we doin’ is defendin’…”

Linton Kwesi Johnson

“The revolt of Brixton’s young blacks against the police did not begin when the media and the rest of British society discovered it on the weekend of April 10th to April 13th [1981]. In the last ten years, young blacks in Brixton engaged the local police in minor skirmishes, organised protests, violent street confrontations and hand-to-hand fighting in youth clubs and other social haunts. Add to these the string of one to one incidents, characterised by the hostility and violent outbursts of the participants. Much of this history has taken place behind the backs of the rest of British society, often unrecorded.”
(Race Today, 1982)

From the late 1960s on, this constant war between black youth and the police was fought not just physically, but politically. In November 1969, black people protested in the market, after a Nigerian diplomat was attacked and arrested by Brixton Police (who accused him of nicking his own car, an old old tactic familiar to any black person who dared to own a vehicle); predictably, the rozzers steamed into this demo: “three brothers and a sister were again beaten, one of them (Bro Tex) received a broken arm.” Olive Morris (later a Black Panther) had been arrested during the diplomat’s own arrest.

Many first generation West Indians who moved into Brixton, responded to racism, police attacks, discrimination, by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) “Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.”  (Race Today, 1982)

Many young blacks opted not to enter into crap low paid jobs,  even if they could beat the constant low-level racism of employers; but drifted into permanent unemployment, and the street life that was increasingly taking over central Brixton.

This rebellious generation produced community organisations that gathered the anger in the area together and forged it into a weapon.

Earlier organisations had taken on institutional racism – the League of Coloured People, etc… In the mid-1960s, a number of groups had federated to form the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), but the alliance of older black organisations, newer and more radical groups, had foundered on political differences, soon splintering.

“What the Black panther movement did initially was to give people, mostly the children of working immigrants, a place to belong, an identity and a feeling that we are a force; we are somebody, we are a dimension in the world, we’re not just somebody’s servants.”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Younger black activists were increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, CARD and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967 by Nigerian playwright and poet Obi Egbuna in Stoke Newington, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. The UCPA politicised black young people through meetings and study groups. Ogi Egbuna had been a speaker at Speakers Corner: “he was also giving these kind of militant speeches at Hyde Park Corner. We were quite impressed, we thought, ‘At last somebody is standing up and, you know, not just taking it, not just taking the crap.’ “ (Farrukh Dhondy).

Egbuna had travelled in the US and met some of the Black Panthers there. Heavily influenced by Marxism, he stressed the importance of an international struggle against capitalism, as a part of the global struggle against racial oppression. In a speech from 1967 at Trafalgar Square, London, Egbuna stated: “Black Power means simply that the black of this world are to liquidate capitalist oppression of black people wherever it exists by any means necessary”.

The UCPA’s early activity focused around support for the struggles in Rhodesia, Vietnam, liberation struggles in Africa, and the Chinese Cultural revolution… At home it became increasingly active around police racism and harassment. In 1969 the Association held a black poser rally against ‘organised police brutality’ in Brixton, as well as joining in protests against paki-bashing in the East End. While not directly advocating violence except in self-defence against racist attacks, UCPA speakers did urge direct action to paralyse the economy. Roy Sawah, in a speech 1968 at Speaker’s Corner, urged “coloured nurses to give wrong injections to patients, coloured bus crews not to take the fare of black people and Indian restaurant owners to ‘put something in the curry’.”

Speakers denounced ‘white devils’, ‘anglo-saxon swine’ and the like, and were prosecuted… Egbuna himself later that year ended up in prison accused of threatening to kill police and certain politicians – charges that were dismissed when it came to court. They had been prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act – ironically at a time of increased racist attacks and violent incitement against black people. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. He wasn’t prosecuted (though he was sacked from the tory government).

The UCPA only lasted from 1967 to 1971. It foundered on the lack of a unifying idea of its purpose. “Within that single organisation, there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country… in short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” (Egbuna).

Egbuna resigned from the UCPA, together with others dissatisfied with the disunity of the group he formed the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the  British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the dissolving UCPA.

The Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

Education, self-education, was at the heart of the movement. “The Black Panther movement wanted first to educate black people, you know, let them know where they’re from. In those days people like my parents, you know, that generation didn’t believe that they came from Africa… deep down they believed but they just cut that off… in schools, like in my school, Tulse Hill here… we had history from 1066 and the Normans and the Stuarts… but there was no history about Africa, how we as black people left Africa and end up in the Caribbean and America into slavery… So the Black Panther movment wanted to educate people about where they from and their culture, and they also wanted to tell us about capitalism, and communism, and socialism… why we work as slaves, why slavery was abolished…”

Increasing educational opportunities for local black children was one of their most practical activities:

“We had a Saturday school. During that Saturday school, the parents had a chance to do other things. They were very happy to have us. We were so idealistic. We’d go and collect the children and take them off their parents’ hands all day. We would feed them. I still see some of the parents of those children. They were very grateful for that. I don’t know how supportive they were of us but they certainly tolerated us. I think they understood what we were trying to do. I think those were the first supplementary schools. After that they became increasingly institutionalised.”  (Beverley Bryan)

Beverley Bryan, a teacher at Santley Street primary School in Brixton’s Acre Lane, and Linton Kwesi Johnson, to become a pre-eminent dub poet, were two of the early panthers particularly involved in the supplementary education classes, often held at 38 Shakespeare Road – picking up Black kids from their homes, holding classes in english, maths, black history, drama, and more…

Groups of black activists formed Black Studies groups, sometimes in schools: “We went to the Head and asked her to let us set up a Black Studies debating society. She was really shocked and upset by it all. She kept saying, ‘But why, we’re all one here.’ So we went off to join the Black Studies programme at Tulse Hill School, until she gave in. That’s we began to come into our own. We started with the black berets and carried it through, right down to black socks and shoes! That’s also when I went to my first Black meeting. I heard a Black woman there, and I was really impressed with her. Seeing a Black woman up there on the platform made me feel even more enthusiastic.”

Such groups fed into the Panthers; while the debating society at Tulse Hill School drew pupils Linton Kwesi Johnson into the Party youth section, after Panther leader and lawyer Althea Jones-Lecointe came to speak to a debate.

The Black People’s Information Centre

“Well in those days black people wouldn’t be allowed to meet in public places like the Town Hall in Brixton, and other public places, so the only way they could meet is if they were to meet in their own homes. So the Panthers decode to buy the building…”

Barred from meeting in most public spaces or buildings, the party moved into 38 Shakespeare Road, a 3-story building they had managed to buy, with help from donations; some of it money given by sympathetic left figures: “leftwing intellectuals, you know, like Vanessa Redgrave was a donor”. The party also had a HQ in North London, a building in Barnsbury Road, which was replaced later by a house in Seven Sisters, 37 Tollington Park, bought with money given by author John Berger.

The Panthers also regularly met and organised social events at Oval House, the arts centre in Kennington Oval.

To understand who I am

“I had the idea, right at the beginning, that culture was the only way out of this mission to complain. The mission to complain was, you know, ‘we are poor, sad blacks, beaten down, you discriminate against us, racism, racism, racism, complaint, complaint, complaint”, and that wouldn’t end until one said ‘Look, forget about the sadness, here’s what I can do.’ We could have an intellectual culture, and I’ve always thought that was the way forward…”
(Farrukh Dhondy).

Militant as it was, Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups… The cultural element helped to draw people in, but also participation in the movement opened people’s eyes to their own cultural heritage, as Linton Kwesi Johnson relates:

“My real interest in poetry began when I joined the Black Panthers. Joining the Black Panthers was a life-changer for me because for the first time I discovered black literature, because going to school here I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that black people wrote books.

In the Black Panthers they had a library and all of a sudden I discovered all these wonderful books written by black people. One book in particular was a book called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ written by an African American scholar by the name of W.E.B DuBois. And this book was not a book of poems, it was prose, but it was a very poetic prose and the language was very moving, And that book just stimulated my interest in poetry, and made me went to discover more poetry, and made me want to try and articulate in verse how I felt, and how the black youth of my generation felt about our experiences growing in this racially hostile environment.

I learnt a lot about my culture and I was able to locate myself in the world, and to understand myself more fully. Who I am, where I am coming from, and why I am where I am now.”

Here to stay, here to fight

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists  – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into the Black Panthers.

A notable campaign was launched in November 1970, in support of Joshua Francis, a middle aged West Indian, whose house in Brixton was invaded by four white men, one an off-duty cop, who beat him up so he needed 30 stitches; upon which the police arrived and nicked Francis for assault (for which he was later sentenced to nine months inside).

Danny Dacosta and Neil Kenlock, who were taking on the role of movement photographers, in fact had to sneak into the hospital past the police, to take pictures of Francis’ injuries.

In contrast to most previous cases of police violence, the mould of silence was broken: Joshua Francis’ case was taken up, and made into a high profile Joshua Francis Defence Committee, later renamed the Black People’s Defence Committee, which met at the Brixton Neighbourhood Centre, at 1 Mayall Road, bringing together black community activists from the more moderate flank as well as strong presence from the Black Panthers, the Black Unity & Freedom Party and others. The Committee organised demonstrations in central Brixton, as well as fundraising for Francis and his family, and later similar cases of police violence.

And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants’ and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In 1970 four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by Sgt. Ridgewell,  at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested.

Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment

However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Apart from state repression and everyday police hassle of this kind, the Panthers also experienced its unofficial reflection – the racist attack. In 1973 the group squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, Freedom News and so on.

“So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building… So [we] put in toilets and showers and we made it decent.” (Farrukh Dhondy). Dhondy and two others were living in the building as well as the bookshop. “On 15th March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking…. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick…” Dhondy managed to jump out of the building in his underwear: “by that time some neighbours had had gone and called the people at Shakespeare road… and they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he put a coat around me… The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass.”

Five other similar targets had been fire-bombed that night, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another. “the police never did anything about it.” Shock. “the place was a shell, it was burnt out.”

Inevitably the constant repression had its effects: membership of the Panthers dwindled.

“it was like a meteor. It just rose and then by 1973 it had just fallen apart. Some people went to prison. At those demonstrations some people were picked out by the police and there were trials. We had big trials, publicity trials, which we attended. There were also smaller cases where people would get nine months. So people were getting records out of that period and people were beginning to ask questions.” (Beverley Bryan)

The Panthers evolved into the Black Workers’ Movement, around 1973; part of the impetus for this was a change in some people’s analysis of how class and race fitted together, and a developing Marxist consciousness: “The Black Workers Movement were organised around issues to do with racism within the workplace: equal opportunities, equal promotion, equal pay and so on…” Not only fighting the employers, but also in many cases, fighting to get recognition from established trade unions here, many of whose members saw black workers as a threat to pay, and conditions, thinking they would drive them down through competition. “So we had to fight, for example, to get ourselves into the trade union movement, and to be involved… and to build solidarity with white working class people…” (LKJ)

Though the BWM later fizzled out around 1975, in hindsight, some saw the Panthers and BWM as a movement that had served its purpose, that its decline allowed people to move on to other projects and stages of the battle. But others do point out that some of the groups taking a direction towards co-operation with white working class or left organisations didn’t carry a big section of the early activists with them; people who had come in to a black power movement, and saw white working class support for Enoch Powell, the National Front, or how trade unions etc had excluded black people, weren’t always convinced of this new turn, that this was where black people’s interests lay.

The Race Today office

Among the other Black organisations and spaces that arose in the 1970s, there was the Collective around the magazine Race Today. Originally linked to the Institute of Race Relations, Race Today moved to Brixton, and was taken over by a group of mainly former Panthers, who had started to drop out of the party. Operating from 165 Railton Road, (above Brixton Advice Centre), became a strong voice in the 1970s and ’80s, a fighting magazine reporting on black community struggles and burning issues of the day, and helping to build black organisations, eg the British Black Panthers, and other organisations like the Northern Collectives up in Bradford and Leeds. The journal was involved in several important campaigns that helped to transform both the political and cultural lives of black people in Britain. Many former Panthers became involved in Race Today, including editor Darcus Howe, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and Farrukh Dhondy, later commissioner/editor of Channel Four’s cultural programs.

Living above Race Today from 1981 till his death in 1989 was a man who had a most powerful influence in its politics: CLR James, (Darcus Howe’s uncle), Trinidadian Marxist, writer, and cricket correspondent! Politically he had moved through anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism to Trotskyism. During the 1930s he wrote the classic ‘The Black Jacobins’, about the 1790s Caribbean revolutionaries who fought off the Brits, the French and the Spanish.  James broke with Trotskyism when he rejected Trotsky’s ludicrous theory of the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerated workers state’. Gradually he had come to reject the idea of a vanguardist party, and was more enthusiastic over autonomous struggles developing among oppressed minorities and encouraged support for black nationalism.

James exercised a practical influence on some of the Panthers: “We used to write all this stuff [in Freedom News], theoretical stuff, in the magazine, about… what black people or immigrants in Britain need and so on, and one day Darcus brought his uncle, CLR James, to the meeting and James said, ‘Who is it, writes all this newspaper…. Why are you writing all this theoretical stuff, nobody cares for that. Why don’t you write about what you do?’ Then he asked somebody in the room, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m a bus conductor.’… ‘What goes on at the garage? …What disputes are there? What fights are there? What day-to day stuff goes on?… Write about that, it’ll instruct people.’ …” (Farrukh Dhondy)

Like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity and Freedom Party emerged from the earlier Universal Coloured People’s Association (after the Panthers had splintered off, the core of the surviving UCPA forming the BUFP). Although stronger in the early ’70s in other parts of London – notably Peckham – and in Manchester, the BUFP also had a presence in Brixton, and unlike the Panthers, survived the period,  continuing their activity into the 1990s at least. Founded in 1970, (45 Fairmount Road in Brixton Hill was an early contact address) the BUFP adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology – unlike the UK Panthers, they “sought more actively to work with white radical groups than most black groups did, not because they were white but because these groups shared or had similar ideological orientations as the group, that is to say, they placed the emphasis on class, not colour/race or gender.” Whereas the Black Panther Movement ‘placed the emphasis on cultural awareness and the unity of all blacks, and were therefore regarded  –  using the American term popular at the time  –  as ‘cultural nationalists’.  This meant that African history, culture, dress, hairstyle and so forth were of predominant importance to them.  So too were events in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World.

Looking back, ex-members could see how this manifested in a more rigid format:

We were much more Marxist and we had a different ideology. Our discussions would be about the Russian Revolution and about things which were completely alien really to who we were… We chose Russia and then China as the way. Whereas the Panthers didn’t have that much of a Maoist ideology.” (Leila Howe).

Perhaps the difference in emphasis partly explains why the Panthers had largely fragmented by the mid-70s, and the BUFP lasted a couple of decades longer; a question Harry Goulbourne considers in Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain. ‘Cultural nationalism’ perhaps had a stronger appeal at the time, but its susceptability to being co-opted, funded, and institutionalised by the leftwing element of the local state was maybe much greater than the more uncompromising class positions of the BUFP. Did the latter survive by refusing to be gradually assimilated into the local authority-GLC supported hinterland? But on the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes the most exciting and forward thinking projects do rise up and collapse quickly; there’s a role for refusing to concrete yourself into a long, rigid existence, but instead moving on to other battles and pushing new boundaries.

The BUFP were still going in Brixton in the 1990s, still involved in community organising, for instance in the Orville Blackwood Community Campaign around 1993-4, protesting the killing of local man in a mental health prison and supporting similar cases.

The onslaught of government funds

Hand in hand with the stick of state repression, came the carrot of state funding:  “The government had unveiled their Urban Aid program in 1968, at first, without much impact. Slowly, they filtered small sums of money into the black community, aimed, they said, at ameliorating the problems of young blacks. The programme was conceived in the home office Children’s Department, and its major thrust was the social control of young blacks in revolt. The funds cascaded, eventually, under the Inner City Partnership and the Community Relations Self-Help programme. Millions of pounds have been poured into the black communities. By 1973, these radical Black Power organisations, now considerably weakened by state repression, crumbled before this onslaught of government funds. Young cadres, once headed for the Panthers, now gathered around government financed projects. Organisations, which were once autonomous and politically vibrant, were now transformed into welfare agencies which extended the crippling welfare state into every area of the black existence.”
(Race Today)

A plethora of black organisations emerged in Brixton, some operating in complete rebellion against what they saw as racist white society, some attempting to make their way within the existing structures, and numerous shades of opinion in between. Many eventually gained recognition, and official funding from either Lambeth Council, the GLC, or other bodies. This caused its own problems and dilemmas: there’s no doubt many worthwhile projects survived longer and expanded, doing much useful local work, through these grants. There’s also no doubt that it caused fierce divisions (as Race Today‘s comments, below, illustrate); council funding did tend to handicap activity that challenged the council, eg on its policies regarding black people, re housing, jobs etc., as well as the thorny questions of who gets the money, and who doesn’t – not in itself unconnected to class relations and ambitions within the black community. But another abyss remained, that autonomous projects that started with nothing, became used to operating with state handouts, and was in many cases unable to carry on or return to a hand to mouth existence when the moneybelts tightened. This applied across the board, with black, women’s, gay projects, and much more. It is also however true that the funding often ceased in the 80s or 90s, when wider change had overtaken many of these schemes – their struggle to survive was as much about a radically altering social landscape, with a gradual decline in the hope and grassroots autonomy that the 60s and especially the 70s has seen spring up.

Just some of the local alternative/radical black groups that emerged in Brixton specifically included Melting Pot, whose squatted HQ in Vining Street helped hundreds of black youth to squat locally among other projects; the black radical bookshop, Sabaar Books, which initially ran as a squat at 121 Railton Road in the late 1970s, then in 1981 moving to 378 Coldharbour Lane, having gained council funding.

There was also the Abeng Community Centre, in Gresham Road, which is still there. In the late seventies, the Abeng hosted an important national conference of black women. It was the first such event of its kind, which hundreds attended.

Later, in the 80s, there was Meridian Bookshop, at 58 Railton Road, another Black bookshop, and the Ujamaa Centre at 14 Brixton Road…

“Three paces behind the men”

Women were vocal and active in this movement; from the first the Panthers, the Fasimbas and others had included a strong and confident caucus of black women. The UCPA had established a Black Women’s Liberation Movement. But this was the late 60s and early 70s – not only was a new black consciousness emerging, but a new women’s’ movement was also questing gender relations, and especially the roles of men and women in political organisations. Women in the Black Panthers began to meet and discuss male-female relations, later feeling the need to organise separately.

“The attitude of the ‘brothers’… often undermined our participation. We could not fully realise our full organisational potential in a situation where we were constantly regarded as sexual prey…”

“every new woman was regarded as easy prey. Some of the brothers were called ‘flesh heads’ because people knew what they were about… The men certainly didn’t understand anything about women’ oppression… Nearly every one of them was a die-hard sexist… things were dominated by the men. We had very little say in anything, to begin with… There was this romantic image of African womanhood around at the time, although a lot of us were beginning to take on the idea that black women were strong and had a role to play, many of us hadn’t reached the stage where we could challenge the idea that we should walk three places behind the men. That’s why Angela Davis was such an inspiration to Black women at the time. She seemed to have liberated herself mentally and fought in her own development…”

Black women’s caucuses began to be formed in black organisations in the early 70s, working on women’s issues, but also enabling women to come together as women, and address common experiences of both racial and sexual oppression. To some extent white feminism was a influence, but some in the black women’s movement attributed far more influence to people like Angela Davis, to the role of women in developing world liberation movements like Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and so on…

Black women pioneers included the legendary Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. Fro it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of the Nigerian the police were harassing (mentioned above), was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton; she was one of two original squatters of 121 Railton Road, in the building which later became famous as Sabaar Books, and then 121 anarchist bookshop.

Olive Morris climbing into the back of 121 Railton Road, from the cover of the Squatters Handbook

Liz Obi: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out. The building was then re-squatted by others and was used as a black bookshop…’ 121 was to be squatted more or less continuously until 1999, when the anarchist centre was finally evicted by armed police. (But that’s another story.)

Initially the Panther leadership was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…”

After the Panthers fragmented, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, (based at 121, then 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to Stockwell Green).

“We formed the Black Women’s group in 1973… We came mainly out of Black organisations. Some had left and some were still there, but on the whole the organisations we came from were in the process of disintegrating… Straight away we got accused of ‘splitting the movement’, of weakening organisations which were already on the way out… But for most of us setting up an autonomous group for Black women was really necessary at that time… there were issues that related to us as Black women, like women’s work, our economic dependence on men and childcare… it was a chance to put them at the top of the agenda for a change… We didn’t want to become part of the white women’ movement. We felt they had different priorities to us…

We help to set up and maintain the first Black bookshop in Brixton, and joined the Railton 4 Campaign over police harassment. We also mobilised the community in Brixton against the practice of setting up disruptive units, and helped in the campaign for parental rights.  As the first autonomous Black women’ group of its kind, certainly in London, there were no models for us to follow… We just had to work it out as we went along. We were very wary of charges that we might be ‘splitting the Black struggle’ or mobilising in a vacuum, or imitating white women. These were the kinds of criticism Black men were making all the time. We couldn’t be… anti-men… but it felt good to be in a group which wasn’t hostile and didn’t fight all the time… We would not have called ourselves feminists by any means – we didn’t go that far for many years. It took us a very long time before we worked out a Black women’s perspective, which took account of race, class, sex and sexuality.”

The links the Brixton Black Women’s Group made with other developing groups, led on to the founding, in 1978, of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, a national grouping which brought together large numbers of black and Asian women.

Later on Olive went to study in Manchester, where she also became heavily involved in community organising and student politics, and visited China – like many of the early Black power activists (and white leftists too!) she was heavily influenced by admiration for the Chinese revolution (as well as ‘national liberation’ movements in the developing world).

Olive died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Hundreds of people came to her memorial ceremony a few weeks later, testimony to the impact she had on people’s lives.

Lambeth Council in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department. An insult to her memory? A radical remembered by a Bureaucratic Hellhole, where many of us have withered many weary days trying to get them to sort out our HB claims… Ironically, however, this was one of Olive’s battlegrounds: “The first time Olive made a real impression on me was during my early days in the Movement. It was on a demonstration of residents from the the tenants concerning housing conditions – there had been a lot of fires Ferndale Road flats. Beverley Bryan and Olive had been working with in the flats caused by the use of paraffin heaters and the tenants were demanding that the Council install some form of heating. A demonstration of about 30 tenants made up mainly of women and children, together with members of the Movement, set off one weekday morning from the
flats in Ferndale Road to the Housing Office on Brixton Hill. It was the first demonstration I’d been on. When we reached the Housing Office the tenants demanded to see the Head of Housing to discuss the issues and were told by the housing office staff that this would not be possible and we were to leave the premises or they would call the police. The tenants were unsure about what to do next until Olive spoke to the women and told them that, yes, we
would leave the premises but that they should leave the children behind, saying that if the Council would not meet with them then the Council had better look after their children because it was not safe to take them back home. The women were naturally nervous about this course of
action as they feared the Council would take their children into care but after further persuasion from Olive they agreed to do so and all the adults left the building leaving the children in the care of the Housing office staff. We were not outside the offices for more than ten minutes
before the head of the housing office agreed to come and meet with the demonstrators and the outcome was that the issue of heating provision would be looked into as a priority.” (Liz Obi)

(This building was actually demolished in 2020) The small park in Myatts Fields estate also named after Olive was a slightly less ‘orrible memorial, though it has now been destroyed by the building of a new health centre.)

Dem a Black Petty Booshwah?

dem wi´ side wid oppressah
w´en di goin´ get ruff
side wid aggressah
w´en di goin´ get tuff

dem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flawdem a black petty-booshwah
dem full of flaw……..

dem a seek posishan
aaf di backs of blacks
seek promoshan
aaf di backs af blacks…

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, Di Black Petty Booshwah)

A whole subculture of state funded black organisations sprang up, according to some observers forming a buffer layer, attempting to impose quiet solutions on the rebellious youth. In Brixton as elsewhere, elderly conservative self-appointed ‘community leaders’ took the queen’s shilling to ‘keep the peace’, ie channel anger and reaction into complaints to MPs, cases to corrupt solicitors, to dissolve rebellion. Race Today condemned them roundly:

“Failed business men and women of the older generation, they have sought social elevation by way of government grants; ruthless in their fraudulent acquisition of government funds for personal use; official society needs them and is willing to use them.  And then, there are the born again blacks who are distinguishable from the mass of blacks by educational attainment. Plunged into the fiercely competitive world of the meritocracy, they cry racial discrimination at the slightest opportunity in order to cover up their individual inadequacies, “they sound radical enough, but on close inspection their hostility to the white working class disguises an even greater hostility to its black counterpart._ Instead of campaigning against police repression, they sat on Police Liaison Committees, but ” It is the most vulgar whitewash. The police representatives are not representing the police and black representatives are not representing the black community. It is merely a cloak to cover up the continuing escalation of the struggle”.

But it’s also fair to say that one decade’s radical can easily be the next outbreak’s respected community leader, co-opted by the police or the Council to help pacify rebellious youth (the next generation…) Early 70s Brixton activists turned up as effective mouthpieces for the police in 1981.

Though repression had been a factor in the demise of Brixton’s Black Panthers, internal divisions had also played its part. Apart from the tensions between men and women (see above), some former Panthers pointed out that class divisions had always been present in the organisation. A number of the founders had been children of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, some of whom had come here a it older, to study; some of these did have a tendency to see themselves as an intellectual leadership, heading up a larger mainly working class membership. “It was started by these middle class children from the Commonwealth and they only came here to get a degree so that they could go back to get very god jobs in their country… So the Black Panther Movement wanted a revolution, but of course, we couldn’t do a revolution in this country… once we were educated and get to a level to understand the system, people wanted to go further, and those middle class children didn’t want to go any further, because they had their jobs to go back to, you know, they had their life cut out for them unlike us who were left here being a plumber, bricklayer, whatever… So they just said look, we don’t want this anymore, and they just went back to their posh position, in Jamaica, in Soto, in India… and that is why it dissolved.”

Tensions had grown up between leadership and membership, sometimes over what seems like disapproval and ‘morality’, attempts to control the behaviour of some of the members, over issues like sex: “you have to be very careful you do not become what you’re fighting against… They [the central committee] would summon people from the organisation who were kissing in the back of Shakespeare Road, and have them before the central committee and suspend them… The youth group, within the panthers, were always very hostile to the central committee…” Some of the core leaders left, partly in opposition to  ‘kangaroo courts’ of members for what seems like either sleeping with the wrong people, or of being too interested in sex.

According to another ex-member: “you know the idea of young people who are doing all the kind of grassroots work but you also had the leadership, they start to fight amongst themselves…”

Another factor was the pressure to increasing militancy. The glamour of the US Panthers, who had made a great play of going armed, wearing uniforms, posing with guns, in military formation and giving themselves grandiose titles, exercised a strong pull; understandable, perhaps, when back people were facing attacks and police repression (though the fate of the US Panthers,  large numbers of who were shot and killed, and hundreds jailed, would show that it is difficult to take on a highly organised and militarised state on its own terms in this way… not to speak of the elitist, macho and authoritarian dead end you can end up). “Some of the young people in the movement wanted to turn militant like the IRA… some of them wanted to wear berets and uniforms… they wanted to arm themselves with guns and raid places… A guy called Wesley… he got hold of two other guys who were on the fringes of the movement, they got hold of guns and they held up a Knightsbridge Spaghetti House on a Friday afternoon (wages day)…” After a six-day siege, with the three armed men (calling themselves the Black Liberation Army) inside, holding several hostages, they were forced to surrender and received long sentences (17, 18 and 21 years each). Allegedly the money they hoped to seize was intended for the setting up of a black school (at least one of the men had been involved in the panthers supplementary schools program.) The fallout from this event also helped to disillusion Panther Party members about the work they were doing.

With the collapse of the BPP, some ex-members allege both of the buildings owned by the party fell into the hands of leading members, in whose name it had been registered legally, who took personal control of it… “Two of the central committee people… we didn’t even know they’d bought houses where we had parties and changed it to their own names and they took it. They’re still renting one, the one in Shakespeare they sold.”

Many of the Race Today collective also went on to do very well for themselves – eg Farrukh Dhondy, even LKJ and Darcus Howe, became very successful cultural figures and/or pundits in themselves. Farrukh Dhondy also sees a consistent trajectory in the early 70s activism and later work inside the cultural establishment. Which is obviously debatable! Was there a difference between the path they took and that taken by some of the less prominent organisations around Brixton that grew up in the 70s? There’s a measure of truth in the accusation that black groups ‘took the man’s money’ and sold out – but another way of looking at it is that they survived into a harsher economic era, became stable, and used some of those state/GLC/local authority grants in ways that did enable lots of grassroots and radical projects to make more space and autonomy for people. If some grants did buy off radicalism and temper anti-council actions; others used that cash to carry on the struggles they were involved in., for as long as the money lasted.

A more pertinent question might also be; who got the money, who controlled the purse-strings? Class, self-confidence, the ability to work the system, knowing your way around the knotty corridors of funding applications, played a part in how certain groups and individuals ‘rose’ in those years. As did a certain amount of lefty back-scratching; witness the connections at grassroots between Labour activists, community activists, some black radicals and feminists, even squatters (or more accurately, a section of all these), in the early ’70s. Grassroots links in the early ’70s evolved into networks of power in 1980s/90s inside councils, the Labour Party, the charitable and NGO sectors…

Activists shared not only demos and meetings, but also a language, and often a perception of the world and how things worked. If moderation as you get older, or a more realpolitik approach, is somewhat inevitable, those connections can also help the right people find comfortable niches in the structures that they began by fighting… To some extent people see this as achieving something of the change they demanded (and in small ways this may even be true); but change sometimes means only change for YOURSELF. For those without the connections, much of daily life remains the same.

The moderation of aging, being convinced that compromise sometimes can allow you to do some good, the urge to get on, ambition for a cushier number, simply being tired of constant aggro or unpaid social work – the offers of what seem like useful positions on police consultative committees – many factors draw people from one side of a barricade to another. It happens gradually in most cases, people are often not aware of the shift in their own dynamic; though Race Today weren’t wrong to point out that some people are always out to rise on the backs of others.

Living on the frontline

The Black Panthers may have succumbed to police repression and internal tensions; but their militant and organised opposition to the police reflected, and itself, influenced, the culture that had grown up, a culture based in the street and the blues clubs of the Frontline; a culture of opposition to the repressive machinery of the state and largely of disregard to the traditions of employment and respect for the Law, work and ‘getting on’ in life.

As the economic recession hardened, young people of all colours increasingly saw less and less hope in ‘the system’_; for black people especially even the promise of dead end jobs vapourised. The strong street culture that the first West Indian migrants had recreated in the 50s grew and grew, until it became the dominant hallmark of the area – a constant to and fro of young blacks, hanging out, dealing, talking, playing heavy dub, smoking spliffs and drinking.

Increasing numbers of people hanging out on the streets increased the number of confrontations with the filth, who could be relied on not to be major fans of this type of streetlife. Each skirmish wound the tension up a notch.

There was the case of the Railton 4, arrested in Railton Road in June 1971, and brutally assaulted by the police; this provoked large pickets and street meetings in response.

On June 19th 1973, after the Brockwell Park Fair, a running fight broke out between 300 youths and the police. Cops had aggressively steamed through the fair “looking for a black youth who had stabbed someone in a Dulwich road chip shop”. An angry crowd gathered and it kicked off. In response, cops swarmed in from all over South London. Robin Sterling, Lloyd James and Horace Parkinson, were nicked at random, beaten in the copshop, charged with affray, Assault on Police, Possession of offensive weapons. They were found guilty in March 1974, and got three-year sentences. There was an  outcry; especially about Robin Sterling, who was only fifteen. While community leaders like Rudy Narayan and Courtney Laws launched appeals and mitigating pleas, a mass meeting of 70 schoolkids, very militant, aged 9-15, called by the Tulse Hill Students Collective (based around pupils at Tulse Hill School), organised a 1000-strong kids demo from Kennington Park past Camberwell Magistrates Court, through Brixton, past Tulse Hill School to Brockwell Park, and sparked a strike in several South London schools. The Tulse Hill Collective was influenced by the local Black Panthers; including the school’s most notable radical ex-pupil, local Dub poet, former Black Panther, member of the Race Today Collective  – Linton Kwesi Johnson… Other former Tulse Hill pupils include ’80s reggae legend, the Cockney Translator, Smiley Culture, deceased in 2011 in dubious circumstances while being arrested at his home in Surrey, and former Lambeth Councillor, GLC supremo and London mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Robin Sterling of the Brockwell 3 was later freed on appeal.

Throughout 1974 there was battle after battle: hand to fighting at the Railton Youth Club, as the cops raided it; in September, at the Swan in Stockwell, cops stoned windows, then invaded the Swan Disco Club, resulting in a running battle. Seven young black people were nicked, charged with affray, assault on police, possession of offensive weapons. three were found guilty, four got off. A month later there was yet another bundle at Stockwell Tube: a group of black teens coming back from a disco at Caxton Hall were forced off the train by cops who then nicked youths at random, which led to a fight. They were charged with affray, possession of offensive weapons; nine were acquitted, one found guilty of possession of an offensive weapon.

During the 1975 SPG campaign in Lambeth, a pitched battle broke out, after cops beat up a fourteen-year old boy, leading to several arrests.  Police harassment of individuals regularly provoked reprisal. On Tuesday June 1st 1976: Mr Johnson, a 61-year old West Indian, was stopped by police after shopping at Railton Road Cash & Carry. They accused him of nicking the shopping. As he reached for his receipt they pushed him and jostled him; several passers-by intervened and were also assaulted and abused. This led to a confrontation as a crowd of a hundred black youth protested and police reinforcements poured into the area.

During August Bank Holiday 1978, a number of black youth setting off to Notting Hill Carnival were  assaulted and frisked by plainclothes cops, who neglected to introduce themselves before wading in.

In November 1978, the SPG nicked 10 kids on trumped up charges at Stockwell Manor School.

In response to all these events, a politically very moderate Council for Community Relations in Lambeth was set up, to try and bridge the gap between police and the black community. This attempt to shore up normality ended in farce, when in February 1979, the police even raided this Community Council’s office, and fitted up three members of its staff for the stabbing of two cops and a barman in a bar brawl several days before, on the basis that the three men wore sheepskin coats, as did a suspect in the incident. Case solved! As a result the embryonic Police-Liaison Committee collapsed, sparking a Lambeth Council Report into police-community relations. These were the days of the first Ted Knight administration: a leftwing Labour Party group, dominated by young energetic councillors who had emerged from the activist scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, had taken seized control of the Council. As a result, the Council was taking on a left aspect, funding and supporting black organisations, and being critical of the police forays into paramilitary head-cracking.

“Thirteen Dead, Nothing Said!”

On the 18th of January 1981, 13 young black people aged 15 to 20 were killed in a fire at a birthday party at 439 New Cross Road, in New Cross, Southeast London. The police initially stated that they believed the fire was caused by a firebomb, though they later backed away from this, instead targeting black kids present at the party. The fire was widely thought to be a racist attack, and that police were covering up evidence and dragging their feet in the investigation. Family members of the dead received abusive racist letters afterwards.

Black people were enraged at the lack of official action, or even  attention or recognition of the tragedy; politicians and worthies ignored the dead and the relatives. As the banners said: “Thirteen dead: Nothing Said”.

The following Sunday a mass meeting of 1000 people at the Pagnell Street Community Centre (formerly the Moonshot), a black youth centre in New Cross (often raided by police itself, in similar fashion to the SPG antics in Brixton) led to a demo to no 439, which blocked the A2, the main road out of Southeast London, for several hours. From weekly meetings of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, came the Black People’s Assembly, which organised the Black People’s Day of Action on Monday 2nd March 1981; 20,000 black people and supporters marched from nearby Fordham Park through Peckham, Elephant & Castle, across Blackfriars bridge and up through the West End to Hyde Park. There was some minor skirmishing; nothing especially unruly, but the press went ape, splashing headlines about ‘Blacks on the rampage’. The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

After the Day of Action, police operations in Brixton (as elsewhere in the capital) were stepped up. The police presence throughout March and early April ’81 was unusual. Even ‘respectable’ residents commented on it. In the first week of April, the police launched Operation Swamp ’81, timed for completion at the weekend. This was intended to foreshadow Operation Star, a London-wide production. Brixton had been chosen for the experimental run. Uniformed police officers were pulled out and sent in again in plain clothes. 943 people were stopped and questioned in the four days immediately prior to the riot, 118 nicked, 75 charged. The police claim that Brixton was chosen because it has high figures for street crime. But to young blacks in the area, the operation was a show of police strength – a boast (partly a response to the New Cross march) that no one but the Met would rule the streets.

It was obviously calculated that the people of Brixton would accept it. The boys in blue were winding things up to an unbearable pitch. At one youth club, the general view was put into words: “Retaliation MUST come soon, this is too much.”

The inevitable result was the April 1981 Brixton Riot.


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More Reading

This is an admittedly inadequate article, conceived as a chapter in past tense’s so far unfinished project on the past and present of rebellious and underground Brixton. It’s a work in progress, which was put aside in 2007, and is yet to be finished. A longer, more researched version is hopefully to appear in the near future, though we haven’t yet completely worked out in what form.

For now, people interested in reading more about police-community relations in this period, would benefit from looking up:

  • The Final Report of the Working Party Into Community/Police Relations in Lambeth, London Borough of Lambeth, January 1981. (A ‘Final Report’… produced 3 months before the April ’81 Riot…the irony!).

Periodicals

  • Race Today magazine, numerous issues.
  • The Leveller magazine.

Newspapers

  • South London Press.
  • Brixton’s Own Boss, a radical community newspaper in the 1970s.

Books

  • Do You Remember Olive Morris? produced by the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, 2010.
  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, Trevor & Mike Phillips
  • Heart of the race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain, Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, 1985.
  • The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement: An oral history and photography Project, published by Organised Youth. Produced for a exhibition in Brixton 2013 – some audio and photos from this project are online here
  • A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance, A. Sivanandan.

Articles

  • Africa and the Caribbean in Caribbean consciousness and action in Britain, The David Nicholls Memorial Lectures, No.2, 2000, Harry Goulbourne.
  • Writing our own History: Talking Personal, Talking Political (on history of the Brixton black Women’s Group), in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife no 19, 1990.

Changing, Always Changing: Brixton before the Riots, part 1

“I think the old man told me he was eighty years old, and that when he was a boy, the green hedges ran from the pastures of Kent, Sussex and Surrey through Brixton to the abattoirs in Smithfield. He remembered the drovers driving their sheep down the heavily verdured Brixton Hill. He was sitting on the rear nearside three-seat of a 109 bus and I was wedged between the stairs and the entrance to the lower saloon. He sat with his legs wide apart, his hands resting one above the other on the curved handle of his stick. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, the type which encourages conversation! He looked away from me and muttered, ‘Changing, changing, always changing!’” (Donald Hinds)

As an introduction to our series of posts on riots, radical politics and underground culture in South London’s most disorderly suburb, here’s a kind of introduction to Brixton’s early history (pre-the 1960s). It’s only a sketch, its vastly inadequate, and could do with being fleshed out a lot. We’ll add to it when we can…

Although Brixton has been used as a name for the northernmost Hundred (the administrative district as the Saxons organised them) for a thousand years, there was no real village or even hamlet in Central Brixton until the 1800s. The area now covered by Brixton was divided for centuries into lands belonging to various Manors, and estates owned by gentry such as the Angell family, the Archbishops of Canterbury, the Dukes of Bedford etc. A network of roads ran through the estates, with a smattering of coaching inns along what are now Clapham Road and Brixton Road, respectively the major roads to the South West of England and the South Coast. Until the 18th Century there were small groups of houses at Stockwell Green and Coldharbour (now Loughborough Junction). The whole area was farmland, commons and woods. Brixton ‘Town Centre’ as it is now known was waste land, part of Rush Common (which was then much larger).

Even in its rural days, Brixton was already a site of disorder: in February 1459, during a decade of social unrest, a yeoman ‘led a hundred people in Brixton, and they were accused of plotting against the King’. 

From the mid-eighteenth century, well-to-do people started to move out from London, to the comparative peace and quiet of what was then North Surrey. They built houses along the main roads. Houses spread south from Stockwell, as landowners enclosed waste and Common land and divided it into plots for building, or sold off their lands altogether. In 1800, a long terrace called Brixton Place was built along what is now Brixton Road, between Beehive Place and Coldharbour Lane. A well-to-do suburb sprang up; many of the houses had rooms in the basement or attic for live-in servants.

This rash of building swallowed up many fields and also open spaces, some of which had a history as gathering points, places to meet. One such space was Stockwell Green, an open space which lay around half way between Brixton and Stockwell tube station. By the nineteenth century fairly small, the green space was used for local recreation – some of which apparently got quite rowdy. Possibly the disorderly nature of the Green was linked to Stockwell’s position: the village was known as a smugglers’ stronghold, located as it was on the smuggling routes from the south coast via Croydon…?

As the area got built up, the increasing more up market local residents started to object to the ‘nuisance’ caused by plebs hanging out on the green. In the 1850s, a local gentleman named Mr Barret, bought up the land, built railings around it & planted it over. Other locals who objected to this enclosure broke down the fence to resume their partying. In 1855 a committee of worthies erected a new fence, excluding the public. Eventually a case went to court in 1874, but the Green was built over and lost. Other local green spaces faced pressures for enclosure and taming: like the famous Kennington Common were not lost, but were landscaped, in the 1850s, fenced in and the crowds that had met there for radical demonstrations or enjoyed unruly games there were excluded (There were complaints in following years that the rowdy crowds had moved to Clapham Common). The notorious fair at Camberwell Green was shut down and the space similarly landscaped in the same decade.

A few decades later Brockwell Park, once the grounds of a private house, was saved from creeping development and builders by a public campaign, begun in 1889 to buy the land for a park.

The river Effra, which flows through Brixton to Kennington and the Thames, was also covered over as a sewer in the nineteenth century, though it had once been navigable by boat allegedly as far as Brixton…

The arrival of the railways in Brixton in the 1860s, as in other London suburbs, changed the social nature of the area. Partly for profit and partly to get parliamentary approval, railway companies had to provide cheap workman’s fares, which meant workers no longer had to live in crowded lodgings in the centre of London, they could now travel in to work. Wages for skilled workers were also rising in the late nineteenth century. As a result, around Brixton station, new streets of terraced housing for clerks, artisans and skilled workmen started to spring up, more closely packed together.

But in the late 19th Century, Brixton was still seen as reasonably up-market, and with the development of the shopping area around Brixton Road, which became “the Oxford Street of South London” with pioneering stores like Bon Marche, Britain’s first department store, it was the place to be. Electric Avenue famously was the first shopping street lit by electric lamps in 1888. But the process of social change accelerated as trams and horse- and then motorised buses spread; more and more houses were built. Around 1900 many of the earlier leases on the big suburban villas lapsed, and most were pulled down and replaced by flats or smaller houses.


Several cinemas were built, of which only the Ritzy is still going as a cinema, although the
Academy was built in 1929 as a spanking new posh picture theatre. Its rival, the Empress Theatre, in Brighton Terrace, behind Red Records, had previously been a Music Hall. In 1906 a strike of music hall performers against big employer Fred Karno, led to a demo outside the Empress which then marched to Karno’s office in Camberwell. They won a 5 shilling a week pay rise. The Empress eventually became a Bingo Hall, then closed (to be squatted in a mass squat by 40 odd people in Summer 1989, for about 4 hours before the cops stormed in and kicked everyone out. It was later knocked to build flats.) Variety artists were still fighting their corner here 50-odd years later:  Dale Martin, boss of Joint Promotions, of Brixton, was one of several wrestling promoters opposed by Variety Artists Federation in a 1962 dispute, over terms of wrestling employment… The VAF were supported by Trades Councils, who called upon boroughs to refuse to let halls (such as Camberwell and Dulwich Baths) to Joint Promotions. (A larger VAF strike followed a few months later).

The street market began in Atlantic Road in the 1870s: originally, like many street markets, it began unofficially, and Lambeth Vestry (the precursor to the Borough Council) tried to ban it in 1881 because of the crowds it attracted. The market was originally held in a wide open space between Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane, but  it was moved into Station Road (1921) and Electric Avenue (1949): the open space was built over by a widening of the road in 1935 (though the space in front of the Ritzy/ the new Windrush Square alterations have revived an open space here). Market and cinemas gave the centre of Brixton an increasingly working class character, although the area continued to be considered South London’s top shopping spot into the 1930s. (These days, the long West Indian character of the market is being eroded, and the long-term direction is for the market to be gentrified out of all recognition.)

Radicalism and strike action

The increasing working class presence was reflected in the appearance of radical organisations… Although in the radical upsurge of the 1870s there doesn’t seem to have been a Radical Club in the area in those years.

There was a later Star Radical Club at 8 Mayall Road, by 1889, at which William Morris was advertised as speaking on ‘Socialism’, on the 24th November. The Sociali Democratic Federation had a branch in Clapham.

By 1907 the revolutionary communists of the Communist Propaganda Groups had a Brixton branch. The Groups were set up originally by the Clerkenwell-born anarchist-communist Guy Aldred; this was the first time the word ‘communist’ had been used in the name of a British organisation.

Brixton was not, like say Deptford or Battersea, a major centre of working class activity: during the May 1926 General Strike the area was said to be very quiet. There was a recruiting centre here for special constables (the mainly middle class volunteers used to break the Strike), many were sent to other areas where there was more trouble, such as Camberwell. Brixton and Streatham were said by the South London Press (setting a fine example by running a scab edition) to have a full bus service running by Tuesday 11th May, in contrast to more organised areas: Lambeth Trades Council were a bit belatedly organising a Joint Transport Committee meeting on the 11th to try and put a stop to this. The Trades Council did hold a “very successful demo” on May 9th in Brockwell Park, attended by 20,000 people. Strikers also played several games of cricket in the Park – though not with the police; no Plymouth-style football-with-the-enemy here.

Although Brixton was quiet, there was fighting in Clapham High Street on the evening of Friday 7th May, when a number of lorries occupied by strikers and sympathisers tried to block the traffic… foot and mounted police charged crowds and cleared the street. There was also fighting in the Vauxhall on  the 8th of May. Local people built barricades on south side of the Bridge… police fought strikers in the streets, chasing them through back streets near Embankment, where women rained down bottles on the cops heads! Groups of strikers gathered outside pubs… Graham Greene was a special on Vauxhall Bridge, was a student then. Later in life he thought better of it and said he should have been on the other side.

In the era of defeat and depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local unemployed were active in trying to force concessions from the local Board of Guardians, who grudgingly gave out ‘relief’ (ie dole). In 1932 the Public Assistance Committee, based in Rushcroft Road (beside the library) was besieged by a crowed of the unemployed. Rushcroft had already developed into a Speakers corner for local socialists.

From the First World War, the standard of private housing for rent began to decline; not only was the Government forced to order a freeze on private rents (mainly due to pressure from huge wartime rent strikes in Glasgow, the East End and elsewhere), but few new houses were being built privately. Landlords squeezed more and more tenants in to maximise profits. In Brixton many houses had been split up to provide flats or boarding houses, especially for music hall/theatre performers and backstage workers, who could easily get back to Brixton late from work in the West End, and also workers in Brixton’s many shops. (The theatre veterans could still be found in the 1990s: my 87-year-old neighbour in St Matthews Estate in the mid-90s had been a stagehand, her flatmate was a minor music hall star.) By the 30s, the posher residents had mainly moved out into rural areas.

Local authority and London Country Council housing meanwhile grew, after the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1901. From the first LCC block in Briscoe’s Buildings (now Renton Close, in front of the prison), many blocks were built in Tulse Hill, Loughborough Park, Cowley Road in the 1930s.

Fascists in Brixton

Brixton’s already cosmopolitan community were not prepared to tolerate the incursion of race hate mongers. Fascist groups sprang up in the late 40s in many parts of London… They used to sell their literature and speak in the street… They achieved some success and support in Bethnal Green, Hackney and West London, but South London was always a thorn in their side… they continually failed to gather much support for their racist and anti-semitic crap darn sarf.

Brixton may have become a BUF target as there was a small but obvious Jewish community there. The fascists came on occasion to hold public meetings in the street; some places in the area they used to speak in were in Brockwell Park, on Clapham Common, in Brixton Station Road, and Rushcroft Road (The end of Rushcroft Road by the library operated as a speakers corner of sorts: in the 1930s, the National Unemployed Workers Movement held street meetings there, as did other leftwing groups).
In 1948, Oswald Mosley’s post-war far right outfit, the Union Movement, were holding 5 meetings a week in Brixton and Clapham; but they were usually bussed out under escort by the police, due to angry hostility from local people. The mainly Jewish 43 Group, which was breaking up fascist rallies and meetings, infiltrating their HQs and harassing their papersellers, formed a South London branch around this time.

One Union Movement meeting at this time ended badly for the would-be stormtroopers. They arrived in Station Road to find 43 group activists had nicked their pitch and were holding a lively anti-fascist meeting. The narked Nazis set up round the corner, but as Jeffrey Hamm, one of Mosley’s extreme-right-hand-men, was speaking, his giving a nazi salute enraged hostile local onlookers who rushed the platform. The Union Movement goons were defended by the police, who escorted them to Stockwell tube, but they were ambushed by 43 Group commandos at Victoria and battered.

After another stormy Union Movement meeting, several hundred locals spontaneously marched to the Labour Party rooms, to try and demand action against the fascists from local MP Marcus Lipton… (he was out).

The Mosleyites were still active in Brixton in May 1952, when 50 marched to Rushcroft Road to hold a rally.

After the Wars

Although Brixton didn’t suffer as much bomb damage as many other areas of London in World War 2, the post-War housing shortage had long-term affects all over London. Much of what was damaged was rebuilt as council housing. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, new estates, either GLC or Council-built, replaced whole neighbourhoods of terraces. Meanwhile many privately rented houses continued to decline, as leases ran out, few repairs were done, no private stock was being built, and rent freezes continued to piss off greedy landlords. Other houses were sold to owner occupiers or compulsory purchased by the Council for slum clearance. Many streets of private housing began to decay.

Brixton became an area where cheap housing could be found. The area was used to a transient population, even a slightly disreputable community, such as the music hall workers who had always found digs here. The area was even then home to a wide variety of races.

‘Dark Strangers’

Attitudes to renting rooms to those not easily tolerated elsewhere were looser.

This was vitally important in the 1950s to the future of Brixton, as Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants coming to London began to settle in the area. The first 1948 pioneers arriving on the Windrush were temporarily housed by the government in a Deep Shelter on Clapham Common; nearby Brixton was one of the first areas some of them found places to live. The ‘50s especially was an era where the “No Irish No Blacks No Dogs” policy was vigorously pursued by many private landlords.

Lambeth however positively welcomed the new arrivals, officially at least. Once fledgling communities were established, newer arrivals tended to gravitate there, where neighbours, friends, and people they felt at home with, already lived.

The area around Somerleyton Road and Geneva Road (now lost under the Moorlands Estate) became the heart of the early Caribbean settlement in Brixton, known as Little Jamaica. The housing rapidly became overcrowded, as people unable to find accommodation elsewhere accumulated; the Council was suspected of collaborating with this, turning a blind eye to overcrowding to avoid black people getting rehousing in council properties. In 1951, white residents were petitioning the Council to put a stop to the growth of the small black community, claiming it was having an adverse affect on the neighbourhood… By 1954, councillors had decided to pressure the Colonial Office to set up transit and reception centres nationwide, in an attempt to channel some of the Caribbean migrants elsewhere.

Discrimination in housing met with a community response from the outset… Afro-Caribbeans pooled savings in the ‘pardner’ or ‘sou-sou’ system, where a group (often hailing from the same island or town in the West Indies) would save collectively, and lend out a lump sum in turn to each individual to buy a house or flat… At inflated prices, and inflated interest rates, which led to more overcrowding and multi-occupation. Which later brought the Public Health Act down on their heads.

This overcrowding was perceived from the outside by racist whites, as “look at the way they live!”, the old self-fulfilling prophecy.

The new arrivals were for years pushed into the most menial jobs, nursing, transport, factory work, as bus conductors, like Donald Hinds:

“We had just passed Raleigh Gardens with its well shaded area where the houses stand well back from the street behind tall trees and a blush of greenery, as if hinting at a snobbish past… where Sir Walter Raleigh might have lived and entertained the great Queen Bess, I wondered about Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh, Gloriana, England, Africa, the West Indies and slavery. Was I angry with the ‘guardian’ spirit of colonialism, cynically bringing two or three of those illustrious people to view the prospects of Brixton on the banks of the River Effra, for a people who were to come after them; but whose antecedents they uncompromisingly shackled into slavery, all those centuries ago before the River Effra was forced underground?”

Tensions in pubs and clubs, with hostile whites, the impossibility for many black people to get licences, led to the growing up of a largely separate social culture from white society.

A sense of the experience of Caribbeans living in Brixton is evocatively summed up by Donald Hinds:

“We stood with our backs to the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane, and looked slightly to the left towards the grim tenements of Somerleyton and Geneva Roads. Those decaying edifices, the refuge of people from the Caribbean, stood with their backs to each other as if they had been engaged in a feud for generations, now with the bitterness weakened by a plague of dry rot and neglect, they wished to hide from each other the excrescences of time! West Indians did not create the ghetto. They were caught, as in the statutory scene in films, where if you are discovered standing over the corpse, you must be the murderer. Rice and peas and ‘scobeech’ (escoveitch) fish, or souse pork cooked on gas rings in passages and on top of landings, of course, did the walls very little good, but still, no-one has proven that Fish an’ Chips cooked under the same conditions would have improved the situation. The kernel of the fact was, that those old houses were goldmines to their owners in the final years before the council’s compulsory purchase order was enforced. When one’s white fellow workers were paying less than twenty shillings per week, the going rate for a single room [for Caribbeans] was fifty shillings. Quite often where two or more people shared a room, each occupant was required to pay thirty shillings or more. In these days of spacious if still unsalubrious accommodation, the rooms shared in the fifties are remembered as being quite small, with a double bed, always a double bed, a hope, it seemed, that a man and a woman would eventually share the room. There were wardrobes, a big one and a small one, a dressing table. The tenants provided their own radiogrammes. On top of the wardrobes were always stacked suitcases. We were a transitory people!”

As Hinds points out, West Indians came here seeking a better life…

 “Now the rapidly contracting world was offering the subsistence farmer and the yardboy the chance of breaking out of the economic swamp water they and their fathers before them had been trapped in.

Initially at the invite of British Government departments:

“Advertisements were being placed in Caribbean newspapers emphasizing Britain’s need for workers, and the South London Press could be bought at Hildalge’s Drug Store near West Parade in downtown Kingston, Jamaica…”

“When I was demobbed I came to Brixton because a friend who got out of the service before me had found a place to live in Vassall Road… He was able to find me lodgings in the house where he lived. At that time there were no more than three propoerties in Brixton which were owned by coloured people. One was in Mostyn Road, one in Geneva Road and the other in Somerleyton Road. I helped a buddy when was demobbed a few months later. He in turn got digs for another friend, and within a year eight of us boys were living in Brixton. From then on the thing must have just snowballed…” (Larry Wilson)

We were not ignored nor were we welcomed… What should be done with less than 100,000 blacks dressed in baggy cotton suits and dresses, straw hats and brightly coloured headkerchiefs? Officialdom glanced hypocritically at black immigration: ‘They are British citizens, free to come and go, as they please.’… The West Indies, which had been created for exploitation, have always looked elsewhere for its own economic salvation! Earlier in the century British Caribbean migrants had helped to build the Panama Canal, and had planted the bananas in the Central American Republics, and the sugar cane in Cuba. During the Second World War, West Indians were recruited to work on the farms in the USA. Others went northeastward to fight in Hitler’s war. Nothing here laid claim to privileges, but coming from a corner of the empire where the four senior colonies, Barbados, Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad were collectively linked to Britain by four hundred years of colonialism, it was crushing to be considered ‘dark strangers’!”

The migrants brought with them a street culture which they transplanted to the chilly streets of Brixton – a collective, outdoor toing, froing and talking that to this day is still seen as threatening by the more uptight respectable British…

“My guide to Brixton had warned me that, as soon as I had finished my business at the Labour Exchange, I should go immediately to my room in Geneva Road. It was a shared room, but at that time of the day the others would be at work. His cautious counselling was wise for at the time it was being pointed out that groups of ‘coloured’ men (coloured, was such a polite descriptive word then) numbering fifty to hundreds were sitting on walls, standing around, leaning against fences and generally making the place look depressingly untidy. But few looking on understood the crushing loneliness, which could prompt a man to cross a busy street to talk to another man for no other reason than the man was also black. A distinctive minority will forever be in exile. So they congregated outside the Labour Exchange to talk, to remember and to forget…

But we were an outdoor people! We hailed each other from a distance and stood around in groups chatting and waving our hands in the excitement of it all. We talked about jobs or the lack of them, of rooms with less than four occupants, or of someone who was about to buy a house and did not want more than two people sharing rooms – a major social advancement at the time… more young men were sending for their women and older men for their wives… the cinema and the Saturday night parties were balms to the aching souls…

 With a colour bar excluding them from many pubs and clubs, the Carribbeans built their own social life:

“The Saturday night party was the universal form of immigrant entertainment… These parties were indeed noisy, robust with a tantalising touch of eroticism as bodies touched in a slow grinding mento. In the beginning drinks were free. The parties were smaller then, and everybody was known to the host, and the following weekend he would be at one of his guest’s party. By the end of the fifties, it no longer made economic sense to adequately provide drinks for nearly a hundred people. Most of these ‘guests’ would prefer a more personal choice by buying their own drinks… Drinks were sold and the parties became illegal. Police raids were intensified as more and more neighbours complained about the noise next door. It seemed that if you were enjoying yourself after midnight, you were beating your wife, up to no good, indulging in illicit pleasure and generally beyond the law. The neighbour was always worried about the soul of the people next door…”

A.G. Bennett sarcastically commented that it was always someone else that was racist, never the person refusing you work or a flat:

“Since I come ‘ere I never met a single English person who ‘ad any colour prejudice. Once, I walked the whole length of a street lookin for a room, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. was the neighbour who was stupid. If we could only find the neighbour we could solve the entire problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble! Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country.” (Bennett, Because They Know Not)

“Living besides reluctant neighbours in the years between the birth of Rock ‘n ‘Roll and Punk has eroded many myths. The Banana Boat Man, the migrants who crowded the decks of the S. S. Empire Windrush, the S.S. Auriga and the S.S. Castel Verde, are middle aged or near retiring now… Was all this then, any more than a threat, at best, a pattern, woven on the fabric of British society? And now pushed into the mounds of time as bulldozers have wrecked the houses from Crawshay Road, Ackerman, Bramah, Villa and Geneva Roads?” (Hinds, op. cit)

The ‘race riots’ of 1958 in Notting Hill, and Nottingham, whipped up by Mosleyite fascists (back with a new boogeyman since their defeat in the late 40s), fear of the new migrants finding easy root in xenophobic communities afraid of competition for jobs and houses,  teddy boys looking for people to fight, and and resenting  “too many white women paying too little attention to the colour bar!” White mobs rampaged through Black-dominated streets and attacked people von the street, houses, clubs and shops.

Although there were not disturbances in Brixton in 1958, prominent Black radicals who lived in Brixton like Claudia Jones were involved in the aftermath, supporting Notting Hill West Indians arrested for trying to organize resistance, and eventually launching the Carnival as a way of building cross-community relations. But the 1958 riots also left a legacy, among the generation who lived through that time of fear, who in many cases continued to fear that a violent white backlash would come again. For some, the memory lead them to keep their heads down and try to work hard and fit in so as not to attract hostile attention.

Other communities enriched the irrepressible life of Brixton: of old there had been a sizable Jewish community (the old synagogue in Effra Road was only converted into the Eurolink Business Centre in the 90s, after years of dereliction); Irish, for many years, as in all of inner London’s working class communities; Portuguese in Stockwell Road; later squatting brought all sorts of people in from all over. Aussies, Kiwis, Spanish, South Americans, Dutch, Italians, later Yugoslavs, Poles, Yanks, South Africans.  In the 80s there were always a number of young squatters dodging military service, from all over Europe (France and Spain especially), but also from Israel, South Africa, etc. More recently it’s Nigerians, Somalis, Poles… The area was always full of transients, people on the way somewhere else, settling here for a while. London is a city of shifting sands anyway, for many.  But due to its international reputation and the libertarian/alternative scene there was a constant wash of young rebels, refugees from various crap regimes or mind-numbing suburbs/small towns. The chaotic pub life: sometimes bizarre, you never knew you’d get talking to next.

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm.

Meanwhile Black culture grew and developed, in many ways isolated from parallel white British society. Later this would produce the illegal clubs, the blues, that came to dominate the social life of black Brixton, and gave birth to the Frontline.

Bass Culture

The Blues, the toasting and verbal duelling of the MCs in the 1950s, mixed with the new sounds of ska and reggae coming in from Jamaica in the ‘60s, gradually evolved into a complex culture of sound systems, DJs and MCs.

Brixton, like a number of London areas, hosted a web of wildly interesting music scenes, which merged into each other, splintered off into new genres and cross-fertilised with new influences… In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Brixton ‘soul boys’ got down to some serious ska, at the Ramjam Club

Named for Geno Washington’s Ram Jam band, a regular headliner here – the club was at 390 Brixton Road, in a basement under a gas showroom… (Interestingly the original Fridge nightclub, now internationally famous, started in the same building in 1984, but on the first floor…)

 “Every Sunday between 3 and 6 o’clock we used to go to this club in Brixton, the ram Jam Club… and listen to [ska, reggae and rocksteady] and socialize…” (Linton Kwesi Johnson)

(In a postscript to this: a late ‘60s white nazi skin gave this account of conflict with the ‘soul boys’ to Roger Hewitt: “[Skinheads] formed a big massive movement. We had control of a place called the Locarno, it’s up Streatham. There were thousands of skinheads come from all over the place. And the Old Bill never touched us. And one night the nig-nogs came up. They were called “soul boys” then, the niggers them days, and they came, about five hundred of them, from a place called the Ram Jam. Do you know Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band? Well that was their scene—Brixton. And our area was Streatham—a white man’s area. And we run that place, doing the Skinhead Moonstomp and all that. And they came up and reckoned they wanted to take it over. Our place. So we said, “Fair enough.” The word got around London and thousands of skins drove down. By nine o’clock there was 1,000, 500 in. By ten o’clock there were 3,000 skins. The nig-nogs started then and we ran them all the way to Brixton and we walked through Brixton after that. We didn’t touch their area before but we ran through Brixton and you couldn’t see a nig-nog on the street. Any nig-nog walked on the street was dead. We could smash em to pieces. That’s the way it should be today.”

Did this really happen? Such skinhead rampages weren’t uncommon – in Brick Lane a few years later, for example.)

An alternative view exists of these tensions between Locarno and Ram Jam; according to ex-Black Panther Danny Dacosta: “Ram Jam was quote a ‘black club’ and Locarno was ‘ a white club’. So we shouldn’t really mix. I think that what happened is that guys were looking for girls, as they do at that age, and the Locarno had an abundance, and the guys were reasonably successful which caused resentment with the local guys. And of course the bouncers and the security people, now they sided with the local guys against us. So when we were eventually banned from going in, I suppose that was one of the first actual demonstrations, yes, unofficial, you know, there was nobody really behind it but we just felt so incensed that we were being denied entry that we were boycotting it, you know. So we went up there and dissuaded people, black guys going in… and I suppose maybe that’s where it started.”

The Locarno later became Caesars, which is still a huge and popular nightclub on Streatham Hill.

As unemployment grew in the 1970s, black people were among the first to get laid off, a generation grew up that had NEVER had work; the alternative economy of growing/dealing hash rocketed, and this fed into and was fed by a burgeoning self-created musical subculture.

Reggae and Rastafarian Culture, hitting London in the early 70s, formed a powerful unifying cultural force for some blacks, in the face of the police oppression, educational bias and racism they faced… The MCs created a social commentary in their toasting of their oewn lyrics over the instrumental dub b-sides of imported Jamaican singles, often dealing with the harshness and conflict of streetlife, relations with the boys in blue etc…

“Very, very important, the only thing that pull us together is our colour and the music; and the only thing that take us away from the day to day jobs of life was the music on a Saturday night… we form a band way back then, called the Black Volts, in Battersea. We used to rehearse in places like Brixton. In those days it was the Black Volts and another band from Battersea called Matumbe, and we used to play all the local clubs… We used to entertain black people and I mean it was strictly Reggae, trying to play the type of music that was coming out of Jamaica. So we did that for about ten, fifteen years. I remember the first Reggae promotion to be done in south London, with live band from this country, was done by us in conjunction with Matumbe. We hired a church hall in Lavender Hill and we decide to promote our first show, and we put on that show and we were playing things like “Liquidator”. And the whole community turned out because, in those days, once you have a get together, everybody turned up and, believe it or not, we didn’t make a penny. But it was one of our most enjoyable experience because we had about four or five hundred people in there, even though they knock the door down and they didn’t pay. But they had a great night and the experience was our first as far as playing live, and it stay with me until this very day. I suppose it will stay with me for ever. … You walk around in south London and everybody used to call to you, “I saw you on Saturday. Wicked! Wicked!” and we develop and we start to play and we just take off from there… there weren’t that many bands. They had people like ourself and Matumbe in south London. You had the Cimarons over in Harlesden… that was before people like Aswad and Maxi Priest and all these people come about. So we were the predecessor, we set the standard for these guys.” (Mike Nesbitt)

As migration from Commonwealth countries increased in the 1960s, there was pressure for legal controls on immigration. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted immigration from ex-colonies. While making clucking noises at racial violence on the streets, the State nationalised racism, determining that the proper authorities would be the ones to regulate any need and supply of cheap workers. There was a growth in discrimination at work against black people, as fear was whipped up… There is no doubt that the growing institutionalisation of racism led the police to feel freer to attack black communities, on more organised levels.

But Black and Asian political and campaign groups also began to organise against Immigration Acts, racist attacks, and inequality…

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Part 1 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