Couriers Stunt Dalston’s Gentrification. The Police and Council Want Them Gone

Yuppies in, riders out.

by Rivkah Brown

17 May 2022

A line of police officers block the entrance to Ashwin Street in Dalston, north London
A line of police officers block the entrance to Ashwin Street in Dalston, north London, 14 May 2022. Photo: Samir Jeraj

Almost exactly one year after the so-called Battle of Kenmure Street – in which the Home Office was forced to de-arrest two men after a 200-strong crowd blockaded their van for eight hours – hundreds of people in Dalston have defended their neighbours from the Met.

Around 500 gathered in Dalston, north London on Saturday night to resist a pre-planned police operation. On Monday night, police announced that eight had been charged with offences including threatening behaviour, obstructing police and assaulting a police officer. One was charged with a racially aggravated public order offence.

The raid is the latest attempt to force couriers out of the most central, increasingly gentrified part of Dalston – a long-term project spearheaded by Hackney council and enforced by Hackney police.

The baton brigade.

The police – and Hackney mayor Philip Glanville – claim the operation was intended to “target e-scooters and moped-enabled crime”. Local politicians, national journalists, union organisers, protesters and workers have a different assessment.

The police operation targeted Ashwin Street, a well-known spot around the back of Kingsland Road where delivery app riders rest and socialise between orders. At around 6.15pm, officers began arriving in the area, checking riders’ motor insurance.

Riders alerted local activist networks that an operation seemed imminent and soon a crowd began to form, attracting passers-by. Then an attempted arrest sparked a confrontation.

The police demanded one courier’s mobile phone in order to check whether it had delivery apps installed. When those present informed the courier that he didn’t have to comply, the officer attempted to grab the phone from the courier’s hand.

Then, as is typical of the hostile environment, the police used an unrelated operation as the pretext for border work: according to Hackney police, later in the operation they discovered the same courier whose phone they’d attempted to seize was wanted for immigration offences. When officers attempted to arrest the man, the crowd resisted. The crowd pulled back the courier and he escaped. A protester was arrested in the scuffle and taken away in a police van.

To Zoe Garbett, a Green councillor for Dalston ward, “that could’ve been a moment for the police to leave”. Instead, officers stayed – purely, it seemed to New Statesman journalist Samir Jeraj, to inflame the situation. “I saw no attempt whatsoever [by the police] to de-escalate the situation at any point,” says Jeraj, who was present throughout most of the incident. When the police eventually cleared the area over an hour later, the crowd dispersed within minutes.

After the man’s arrest, the remaining officers called for backup. Some 50 arrived, armed with batons. In the police violence that followed, a number of protesters sustained serious injuries.

Felix*, the 30-year-old tall, dark-haired man in the video below, stumbled across the police operation having come to Dalston to meet a friend. When he ventured across the road to see what was going on, he found himself facing down a baton-wielding police charge.

Officers knocked Felix to the ground; he managed to get up only for an officer to grab him by his rucksack, beat him with a baton and begin to arrest him. When Felix – who believed he hadn’t done anything wrong – resisted handcuffs, an officer punched him twice in the sternum, winding him. It transpired that Felix was right: he was released without charge. He left with a fractured elbow that has left him unable to work.

Another protester can be seen in the below video being dragged from underneath a police van and then repeatedly punched in the head by an officer. He was later arrested for assaulting an emergency worker; after spending a night in a cell, he asked officers to take him to A&E for a suspected concussion. The police have referred the incident to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

A protester and a courier who spoke to Novara Media on condition of anonymity both said that they saw one courier trapped with the wheel of his bicycle under a police car. Despite notifying the officers inside that someone was under their car, they accelerated. Surprisingly, no one was hurt.

“It is our legal right to protest and to show solidarity with the most marginalised members of society when they are targeted,” said a spokesperson for IWGB, the union representing the couriers, in a statement to Novara Media. “The violent response from the police [was] shocking and disproportionate.”

Hackney police say that nine of their officers were assaulted in the operation, but that none required hospital treatment.

‘Anti-social behaviour’.

Though the courier sting attracted unusual attention from passers-by and the media, it is far from the first of its kind. Rather, it is part of a years-long effort to force the drivers off Ashwin Street. This itself is part of a broader campaign – although nobody would ever describe it as such – to push ethnic minorities out of the area altogether.

Multiple couriers who spoke to Novara Media, including Eddie*, a 29-year-old courier who has worked from Ashwin Street for six years, say that operations like Saturday’s “happen constantly”. John Kirk, a Deliveroo rider and IWGB staff organiser, cites a near-permanent police presence, with cops asking to see drivers’ order numbers or insurance details.

Often police work in collaboration with parking attendants. According to FOI data obtained by Garbett, between October 2020 and June 2021, they handed out 2,530 parking fines – equivalent to around £164,450 – on Ashwin Street alone. Kirk says wardens often hand out fines as soon as couriers leave their vehicles unattended, despite a 20-minute loading time in the bays. In March, IWGB won an extended observation period, meaning that wardens now have to observe vehicles unattended for a full 20 minutes before issuing a fine.

The riders say that doing their jobs shouldn’t have to be this hard. “Nobody here is a criminal,” says Richard, a 34-year-old rider from Brazil, noting that when the riders complain about actual crime – stolen bikes, for example – the police never come. Yet the crackdown makes sense within the broader picture of local gentrification. The riders may not be criminals, but they are undesirables, and the police and council want them out.

Dalston police have three top priorities: the Ashwin Street couriers, alcohol-fuelled violence on Gillett Square, and drug dealing on Ridley Road. Garbett notes a theme: “They seem very targeted at low-paid workers and people from ethnic minorities […] Black and brown communities.”

Kirk and Garbett separately suggest that the authorities’ attempt to move the riders off Ashwin Street has little to do with their “antisocial behaviour” (itself a tricksy category). Instead, they claim that the council plans to transform the street for the benefit of wealthier white locals, such as those who frequent the Arcola Theatre or alternative music venue Café Oto. The riders are an obstacle to this regeneration.

Last year, the council was awarded £770,000 by Sadiq Khan’s Good Growth Fund to improve Ridley Road market and Ashwin Street, which it match-funded to create a £1.5m regeneration pot. Yet when in June 2021 the council announced its proposals for spending the money, none mentioned the couriers; IWGB was not consulted on the proposals. The only mention the council made of the couriers was to say that “informal motorcycle parking for food delivery is a nuisance to neighbouring businesses”.

The gentrifier’s paradox.

Couriers are at once a symptom of Dalston’s gentrification and its bane. Their proliferation in the area has tracked an influx of cash-rich, time-poor young white professionals. Yet the couriers are also supposedly immiserating their clientele. According to Kirk, these new arrivals are cited by the police and council as complainants about pollution, noise and antisocial behaviour. These complaints are then used to justify the erasure of ethnic minority spaces.

This dynamic played out earlier this year when the All Island Grill, a Caribbean restaurant and local institution on Bradbury Street, was forced to close indefinitely due to smoke complaints. The police and council have similarly cited “antisocial behaviour” as the reason to move delivery riders from Ashwin Street. They have never disclosed the exact number of complaints they have received about the couriers.

Policing is essential in drawing the couriers out of the picture. In a statement to Novara Media, Mayor Glanville insisted that “the council had no prior knowledge of the police operation that took place”. Kirk doubts this.

He says the council “collaborates very closely with the police”, adding that Hackney’s enforcement officer Bianca Rembrandt makes “very frequent” visits to Ashwin Street with police and civil enforcement officers (Rembrandt hadn’t responded to Novara Media’s request for comment at the time of publication; since then, Hackney council contacted Novara Media to reiterate that neither Rembrandt nor any council officer was forewarned of the police operation).

Richard shares Kirk’s scepticism: “The first problem is with the council. They need us to move from here. I think they’re working [with the police].”

According to Kirk, the council wants riders to move from Ashwin Street to the nearby car park on Bentley Road. However, both the delivery apps and the council have refused to make the changes necessary – such as scrapping parking fees or introducing geofencing – to enable riders to work from there.

Neither JustEat, Deliveroo nor Uber Eats responded to Novara Media’s request for comment. Nor did GMB, the union which recently struck a sweetheart deal with Deliveroo.

Even with the requested changes, the car park isn’t ideal: the extra few hundred metres from the restaurants would limit riders’ order volumes and with it, their already low incomes. Unsurprisingly, then, they have long resisted the council’s attempt to move them on to Bentley Road, most recently staging a protest in January outside Hackney town hall.

The RooVolt begins.

Displays of police power such as Saturday’s immigration raid appear to follow those of rider power. On 29 April, riders undertook a boycott of the local restaurant Wingstop for refusing to allow riders to use its toilets and forcing them to wait outside in the cold. Another raid earlier this year took place just six days after the town hall protest, leading some to connect the two.

The fear, it seems, is that the riders might be attracting increasing public support despite attempts to drive a wedge between the two groups. “Our feeling,” says Kirk, “is that, as you can see on Saturday, the vast majority of the community supports what we’re doing, but it’s a vocal and powerful minority that has these complaints that the council takes advantage of because it supports what they want to do.”

He adds that 200 people emailed Wingstop in support of the courier boycott and that when the union put a motion to Hackney North constituency Labour party demanding the council support the Ashwin Street riders, it passed 48-0.

I find Waleed*, a delivery rider, on Ashwin Street. Kingsland Road is as busy as ever in the sunshine, but back here it’s quiet – maybe because it’s a Monday afternoon, though the riders I speak to suggest it’s even more dead than usual. Waleed has been a rider for 18 months; he started at the height of the pandemic. He says the way police “try to make trouble with us […] it’s not fair enough,” and the people know it. He understands why they showed out for him and his co-workers on Saturday night: “We deliver for them.”

“We […] come in the middle of the night, we do a good job for the community. We deliver for sick people, we hold our community […] we are family.”

*Names have been changed.

Update, 18 May: The piece was updated to reflect Hackney Council’s reiteration of its claim that none of its officers, including enforcement officer Bianca Rembrandt, had any prior knowledge of the police operation.

Correction, 27 June: The original version of this piece incorrectly stated that Scottish police arrested two men on Kenmure Street for immigration offences. In fact, it was the Home Office.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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