Unrest in Dalston: the death of Rashan Charles took place in a divided community

Cohesive local relationships have been replaced by envy. 

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The death of Rashan Charles, a 20-year-old black man who was restrained by police in the London borough of Hackney, has been shrouded in suspicion, disinformation and rumour. The protest that followed has been no different.

The police have been largely stoic and impassive in the face of acts of vandalism and brutality. Charles’s family has been dignified – their interest is in getting justice for their son. Behind all of these conflicts there is another: one of a community existentially and fatally riven.

Dalston has been growing ever more divided for some time. A marker of change was the announcement of the £160m Dalston Square scheme back in 2007, all luxury flats and shiny cafes. Then came the Olympics rush. In 2014, Hamptons reported a 31 per cent jump in house prices in one year. That was only a few years after Dalston saw widespread riots, one of many during a national night of shame.

Indeed, Dalston has become a bonanza for the rich. It is a short walk down the Kingsland Road to the opulent City of London. Over recent decades, the area has cultivated a hipster ambiance. It began in the 1990s with “Young British Artists” Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin et al who were based in Hoxton Square, south of Dalston and east of the City. Artists Gilbert and George still take their evening stroll down the road. Now the square is clustered with artisan boutiques which serve up a simulation of the high-art aesthetic at ten times the price.

The problem here is not as simple as saying “well, it’s gentrification, innit?” When done badly, gentrification excludes those without money from actively participating in the public space. At the same time, it encourages rentiers and speculators to do what they do best: shoehorning buildings at extortionate rents into crevices and alleyways, whatever the consequences.

Take Dalston Square. It is the single greatest architectural abomination to hit the area in the last decade; a perfect construction of social apartness. Its right angles and wood panels are garish enough, but it is constructed to encourage its residents never to have to play anything but the most cursory role in the lives of those around them or who came before them.

You can live there, walk to the attached train station, go to work in the City, shop at the Co-op, go to one of a number of identikit cafes and even play ping pong  – all without leaving the stone-clad ground that differentiates it from the earth around it. 

This story is repeated in triplicate across London. New space-age skyscrapers are planned – think Dubai hotels, dwarfing the ramshackle tenements about them.

The danger is we dismiss these complaints as some kind of aversion to progress – not a bit of it. This is not about nostalgia, but anger. The relationships that made this community special and cohesive have been eviscerated and replaced with envy.

Social media presents a stark picture. Some residents online referred disparagingly to the race of those involved in the protests about Rashan Charles. They used racial epithets at will. Others accused the police of “execution”. Others still vented their anger at the gentry in their “million-pound studio flats”. The viciousness of these opinions are a symptom of the crucible in which they foment. And the reality is that we expect that this unrest will not be the last.

Some work tirelessly to build links between the old residents and the new. Social enterprises like Bootstrap Company, which runs Dalston Roof Park, buck the trend. Others try, and are ripped up for their trouble.

Consider Passing Clouds, a social enterprise which put on club nights, gigs, permaculture and yoga classes. It occupied a building that was once daubed in beautiful murals.Then the building was acquired by a speculator. The social nights carried on – until police were called in. The building was locked. Huge notices were put up saying that dogs patrolled the premises. The murals were daubed over in grey.

This building has been empty, now all but derelict, for months. A community hub now looks like the watchtower of a prison camp. In this new world of barter and exchange, grey paint and police dogs are preferable to joy and connection and aesthetics.

We pretend there is a society here in Dalston. There isn’t. Rashan Charles is the focus of the protests for now. But the sand on which Dalston’s segregated build their lives and skyscrapers will not take much more of this.

Asheem Singh is the author of "The Moral Marketplace", a journalist, activist, broadcaster and founder of social entrepreneur platform Gotilo.org. He tweets @Robinasheem and is a resident of Dalston