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10 June 2020

From the NS archive: Brixton at breaking point

5 November 1982: Police violence in an attempt to break Brixton.

By New Statesman

This powerful article was written in the wake of violence that followed Lambeth Council’s decision to send in a large force of police to evict squatters occupying houses on Railton Road in Brixton that had been damaged in the previous year’s riots. Following Lord Scarman’s post-riots report there was an understanding that “law enforcement and the improvement of social conditions must walk in step”; this, said the leader writer, was jettisoned at Railton Road. Youth unemployment among the area’s young black population was high and trust between the police and local residents was low. Tensions had been simmering for a long time before they flared into violence.

***

Senior policemen and local conservative politicians are predictably crowing over the outcome of south London’s Second Battle of Railton Road. It is being claimed as a justification for the new policing tactics developed since Brixton burned for the first time in the summer of 1981. The local Chief Superintendent is now putting about the irresponsible assertion that the troubles were the fault of three white “anarchists”. It is a disgraceful statement for a policeman to make in public. If he has evidence, he should do something about it. If he has not – which seems far more likely in the circumstances – he has no right to make such deliberately tendentious statements.

The reality of what happened in Railton Road between dawn and late evening on Monday was quite different. The reality is that the kind of “community policing” which Lord Scarman strongly advocated in his report after last year’s Brixton riots – and in which much time and energy had been spent with considerable success in recent months in Brixton – is wholly incompatible with the deployment of large numbers of anonymous storm troopers, wearing fireproof overalls without identifying numbers, and helmets with visors, on the available evidence drawn mostly from outside the borough.

This week’s Brixton incident, however, raises far wider questions about police accountability. The most important centres on responsibility for deciding to provoke the Railton Road incident in that form and at that time. The facts of Railton Road have been known for months.

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It is a fact that tension has been high all summer, while the schools were closed and half the black youth population of the area is unemployed. It is a fact that young people have been hanging about in the streets with nothing better to do for a year. Except in the bad weather, up to a hundred mainly black, mainly young people have been hanging around a group of dilapidated houses in what has come to be known as the “Front Line”. The houses are at the end of the stretch of Railton Road that was destroyed in last year’s riots. It is a fact that on and around these premises “problem activities” – prostitution, unlicensed drinking, gambling and the sale of marijuana – have been taking place. It is a fact that the police have been extremely nervous since last year of making arrests even in the face of strong prima facie evidence of lawbreaking, for fear of provoking outbreaks of violence which would inevitably be laced with racial overtones. It is a fact that reported muggings and burglary put Brixton to the top of the British league table of crime statistics.

But all of this has been common knowledge for months. What it adds up to is the fact that Brixton, for a variety of historical and social reasons, has an intense economic and social problem. (That incidentally is what you would expect in an area where any [black] young person leaving school knows that there is in effect no hope of employment, because black youth unemployment in the area has already almost doubled in the past 18 months.)

Post-Scarman it seemed that a collective decision had been in some way taken that this explosive social problem would be handled not by saturation policing alone but by a more gradualist approach, based on re-establishing some kind of trust between the police, the local authority and the local residents. This effort centred on a unique institution for a unique problem – a police-community liaison group for Lambeth – with its 45 members drawn from local councillors, MPs, police, tenants associations, the local Chamber of Commerce, the churches and black organisations.

It was under the umbrella of this organisation that steady progress was being made to tackle an extremely intractable problem. The problems are not ones which are likely to disappear overnight. During this year, the group has been considering a report on policing problems in Lambeth, prepared by Commander Fairbairn, head of the Metropolitan Police’s “L” Division, which covers Brixton. Its conclusion was that the central problem was to deal with a hardcore of organised crime, without impinging on the rights and freedoms of the law-abiding majority and while retaining the general support of the community.

Now someone somewhere suddenly took a decision that gradualism was no longer enough for Railton Road. The evidence is conflicting, but the weight of it at the moment is that the initiative came from the police at a high level. A different council in Lambeth might have resisted far more strongly the heavy police pressure to repossess the Railton Road houses violently from squatters and then to demolish them. But the clear impression is that the initiative came from the police and not from the new Tory council.

To evict and repossess may be legal, but it clearly invites a reaction. The strong impression that at a high level the police were looking for someone to test the training of the new instant response unit. The decision to enforce orders and to bulldoze could have been taken at any time for many months.

Its timing was, therefore, deliberate. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that it was far more concerned with restoration of police authority on the streets of Lambeth than Brixton. This impression was reinforced by the refusal of the police even to give the police community liaison group details of the number of police deployed in the operation.

After Lord Scarman’s report last year there was for a brief moment a more general understanding that law enforcement and the improvement of social conditions must walk in step, if there is to be any chance of improving the situation in areas like Brixton. Since then, on the positive side, precisely nothing had been done. Unemployment and social prospects are both worse now than they were a year ago. If the Home Secretary ordered this week’s action in Brixton, he should stand up and claim responsibility. If he did not, it is a scandal that the police on their own authority and without admitting political responsibility to any elected body, decided to bring organised violence back onto the streets of Brixton. Dawn raids and bulldozing may catch headlines and earn promotion. As the only ingredient in a policy for Brixton they are crass. Railton Road is one more conclusive argument that the police must be made directly accountable to a democratically based police authority.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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