4 Thoughts on ‘Brixton Unite’ and the Policing of Gentrification

by Tom Abree

7 March 2014

Yesterday saw ‘Brixton Unite’  – a multi-agency police operation – take place in Brixton. While the claim by local government and the Metropolitan Police is that the operation was a response to ‘gang crime’, for many it is emblematic of the politics and management of gentrification: economic and social cleansing, racist policing, and the dispossession of urban space. Below Tom Abree offers four thoughts on yesterday’s events.

1. This wasn’t a re-run of ‘Operation SWAMP81’.

Despite the billing yesterday’s operation was not comparable to the Met’s Operation SWAMP in ‘81. For one, the number of officers involved was only a fraction of the hundreds of uniformed and plain-clothed officers who triggered the Brixton Uprising; and the vast majority of police and PCSOs in Brixton on Thursday spent the day involved in ‘community liaison’ activities around the market, Coldharbour Lane, and Windrush Square. This didn’t seem to mean much more than talking to children and having a laugh with stall-holders, but it’s a powerful indication of priorities during the operation.

Furthermore SWAMP didn’t have a council sponsored open-air festival attached to it, pacifying locals with free food cooked by catering students from nearby Lambeth College, CPR displays, fire engines and fresh-faced police cadets. That is not to say that  ‘Brixton Unite’ was any less coercive or racially targeted but rather it’s priority was to hide any of the contradictions that gave it purpose. That is important to remember.

2. Trying to make policing total – ‘operational integration’ remains more spin than reality. For now.

Though heavily reliant on the (limited) goodwill afforded local police by local residents, this was by no means a ‘local operation’. It featured a number of organisations and agencies, including the British Transport Police, the MET, Lambeth Council, Trading Standards, and Lambeth Borough Command. When asked by monitors, officers denied knowledge of any sort of larger operation (‘we’re just individuals, we came here on our own’). But when talking to more supportive members of the public, they could be overheard giving various reasons for their presence including: recent stabbings; a spate of violence; and even having been invited by the community (funnily enough the last time the MET met the community, on the 12th February at Brixton MOPAC, they were shouted out of Lambeth Town Hall as murderers and thugs).

Border Force (formerly UKBA) were a no-show. But overall this seems to have been a renewed attempt to give ‘total policing’ some content. What was projected looks to have been inter-agency cooperation to present (to the media, to the government, and to the community) a self-image of integration and coherence. What it actually came down to was a series of oddly dislocated and forced actions throughout the day that seemed desperate to symbolise a complete image of police power.

This is probably not the last operation of this type to be rolled out in London and its likely that we’ll see copycat events such as ‘Tottenham Unite,’ ‘Hackney Unite,’ or ‘Lewisham Unite,’ or ‘Carnival Unite’, before the end of summer. Those might be larger, better funded, and more coordinated operations and its that possibility which means that we should start thinking carefully  – now – about the reasons behind them, and how best to respond to them in future.

3. United in gentrification.

Brixton has been undergoing complex processes of gentrification since the days of SWAMP ’81. There was pretty broad consent on the ground that ‘Brixton Unite’ was another tactical innovation in the battle that’s raging down Coldharbour Lane, through the market, around the Rec and up the hill. It’s a battle over who can unite in Brixton, the forms unity is allowed to take, and what a ‘united Brixton’ will look like in the future.

The operation was managed by two plainclothes officers who looked to be from Scotland Yard and observed everything happening at the Underground Station from the entrance to Morley’s department store. Every hour or so they would take a stroll through the market and then liaise with uniformed officers outside the vegan cupcake shop at the covered market.

It’s not a coincidence that the tube was the centre of operations for most of the day. Any Londoner who pays rent and travels to work will know that this city is being carved up, one zone at a time, according to the imperatives of international capital. They just need to look at their bills and local house prices to know as much. In Peckham, improved transport links are contributing to a reconfiguration of Rye Lane according to a new and ascendant bourgeoisie. The vegan cupcake shop on the edge of Brixton market is a giveaway to how far this process has already gone in SW9. ‘Brixton Unite’ wasn’t just a mask for more antagonistic policing, it was also a statement of intent about the classes of people that local institutions intend to unite around, and against.

4. United in Anger.

What we know is (a) gentrification continues at a startling rate (b) this is only a prelude to more extensive and spiteful operations  and (c) local institutions – traditionally charged with mediating conflict – are happy to endorse this sort of police work. Given we know this, we need to begin to think seriously about how to fight back. There were signs on Thursday of how this counter-power might work.

Importantly, it has to be hyper-local, focusing on particular areas, even streets or blocks. This is because any intervention that isn’t by the community is doomed to be meaningless fronting. It’s also because police vehicles are faster than text call-outs. Police don’t usually publicise when and where they intend to operate. When raids and stops happen, we can’t and shouldn’t be reliant on a disparate network of activists to get to Brixton (or anywhere else) in time to intervene. This means prioritising organisation on your estate, at work, or in your community centre. Density of experience and confidence can make a massive difference in how much you can do during an intervention. When passers-by joined in and interrupted police stops, there was a snowball effect that effectively annulled police control over the situation. With a bit of imagination and work this might become a normal occurrence. An entire street coming to the help of a resident entirely transforms the dynamics of power that the MET relies on. Priorities should therefore be: legal rights training; regular stalls distributing information and encouraging involvement; educating people most vulnerable to attack by the police, in the places they live. Were this to happen on a sustained basis our ‘unity’ against racism, social cleansing and the dispossession of the city would gain greatly in strength and these kinds of policing might prove increasingly difficult to enforce.

Five years before the Brixton Uprising, in 1976 the Select Committee on Race Relation heard from Commander Peter Marshall, head of Scotland Yard’s Community Relations department. His statement serves well both as an epilogue to this article and a prologue to what can be achieved with community self-organisation: “Recently there has been a growth in the tendency for members of London’s West Indian communities to combine against police by interfering with police officers who are effecting the arrest of a black person … in the last 12 months, 40 such incidents have been recorded. Each carries a potential for large scale disorder.”

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