Brian Paddick, the people's policeman, stood on the steps of his police station last Monday, said goodbye to the people of Brixton, and promised to return. He was being moved from his job as Lambeth borough commander until an inquiry by an outside force has looked into allegations, which include cannabis-smoking, made by his former gay partner.
Paddick turned on his heels, military style, and disappeared into the bowels of the station. I muttered a few words as I watched on television: "Thank you for being here, and walk good."
I left my home and zigzagged in a daze to my local, and then to a corner cafe, saying a few hellos along the way. All the talk in Brixton that day among the black population, young and old, was about Paddick. The chorus was that, whenever a member of the establishment gave black people a helping hand, the rest of the establishment would close ranks and get rid of him.
People had said exactly that as soon as Paddick had lifted his head above the parapet, making various controversial statements, such as supporting a more liberal line on cannabis. I argued to the contrary; it was more complex than that, I assured my friends. In the end, they were right and I was wrong.
The issue of jackboot policing has haunted black Brixton for years. Caribbean migrants brought ganja with them from the sunny isles. The scent of marijuana wafted across the borough. Once the local police realised what it was, they targeted the black community. Every black man, they decided, was a ganja smoker. Unemployed men walking the streets during working hours were sussed. Frame-ups and physical violence were the order of the day. All this took place while the rest of society clung to the view that the British bobby was the best in the world. Certain names echoed through the Metropolitan Police: there was one sergeant in the West End who chanted "Bongo, bongo, go back to the jungle", as he pounded his fists into some poor black man's head.
Commissioners came and went and nothing changed, until Stephen Lawrence was murdered. The Macpherson inquiry uncovered the mess that had lingered in the Met over the years. Then Assistant Commissioner Denis O'Connor was given the brief to clean up racism in the force. He once told me that he felt shattered when his son said that he would never think of joining the police service because it was so riddled with corruption and racism.
O'Connor, who was also in charge south of the Thames, put a group of Young Turks in the stations. They included Simon Foy in Lambeth. I remember, one Sunday evening, being on my way to a curry house in Kennington, up the road from Brixton. A Pakistani friend was driving me there. He saw a squad car in his rear mirror and said that we were sure to be stopped. We had done nothing to warrant this. After being stopped and searched, I told the officer that it was against Simon Foy's policy. He snapped: "Fuck Simon Foy." I reported the incident to Foy. He was absolutely furious. I knew then that he was serious and, at last, something was being done.
Paddick followed Foy. He inherited a good foundation. We speak more than 70 languages in Brixton, and there is a sizeable number of homosexuals. The black population is drawn from all over the Commonwealth. It includes refugees, some fundamentalist Muslims and anarchists, and a Caribbean population that drew Yardies into its ranks. There are also punks, barflies and the homeless. Paddick faced the seemingly impossible task of bringing some order to this disorderly throng. The worst anti-police violence is rooted here. It was a posting that other commanders sought to avoid.
Yet Paddick, who was shaped by his experience policing Brixton as a young man in the early 1980s, volunteered. His departure has set us back at least 25 years.
I once asked him: "What do you like about Brixton?" He replied: "The music." Those distant drums bouncing on the laughter of a melody. The drums have been silenced, but I hope only for a time.