Brixton, south London became a police officer’s playground yesterday, as the Met swamped the area in what was either an intimidating macho show of force, or a reassuring, good-natured piece of community outreach, depending on your opinion.
The one-day event was called “Brixton Unites” and was billed as a joint initiative between the Met’s gang crime unit – Trident – and the local council. According to the press release, it was a day for the cops to clamp down on local gang activity in the wake of two fatal stabbings last month and recent raids against the Guns and Shanks gang. However, given a flurry of recent signs that Brixton is being turned into a haven for yuppies – from soaring rents and squat evictions, to the opening of a shop called "Champagne & Fromage" in the market – many people reckon the day was more about gentrification than it was tackling gang crime.
Which would seem to be backed up by the list of activities the Met apparently had planned for Brixton Unites, which reads like the sort of birthday itinerary you might put together for a cop who really, really loves ruining people's days. Trident anti-gang raids would run from dawn till dusk. Sniffer dogs and drug enforcement teams would "swamp" Brixton, with British Transport Police looking to tackle drug users and fare-dodgers alike at the tube station. Parking laws would be strictly enforced, stop-checks for vehicle tax and insurance evasion would be numerous and council officers would be hitting shops with random health and safety checks. Rough sleepers would be moved on, street drinkers would be arrested, abandoned vehicles would be towed, truant children would be seized and suspected illegal immigrants would be targeted by border police.
Thankfully, anybody who wasn’t already talking to the police against their will could go and have a chat with them in one of the nice little gazebos erected in Windrush Square.
Not everyone was happy with the situation – for one, Lee Jasper, a race relations activist who used to be adviser to former Mayor Ken Livingstone, before he quit in a corruption row. In a blog post, Jasper sought to alert the local community to the day's tactics and drew comparisons with Operation SWAMP 81, the Met initiative that has been cited as a cause of the 1981 Brixton riots.
He also linked the day to gentrification, with established communities finding that they can no longer afford to live in their own neighbourhoods. He reckoned the cause of the day was “an influx of new well organised middle class residents, slumming it from Chelsea and demanding that police and Council take actions”. As far as he was concerned, the council's involvement was just a way of soft-selling the day to a community that has little love for the police at the best of times, never mind the recent controversies surrounding the deaths of Mark Duggan and Stephen Lawrence.
I called up a press officer from Lambeth Council in the morning, who said he was of the opinion that Jasper had got a bit carried away, downplayed any comparisons with 1981 and pointed out that people get arrested for doing illegal stuff all the time. I suppose that’s true, but it’s not every day that the cops descend on one locality en masse, so I went along to check it out.
Ambling down Coldharbour Lane just after dawn, I saw my first collaring of the day. A guy in handcuffs was being led out of this hotel by some officers. I didn’t get the chance to ask what they were arresting him for before they bundled him in a van and drove off. Whatever it was, I guess it wasn’t the wisest move to do it slap bang next to a cop shop.
In central Brixton, there were a lot more police hanging around than usual. Patrols wandered up and down the high street, with plain-clothes officers coordinating things. Marked and unmarked police cars zoomed past every few minutes with their sirens wailing, and a police helicopter buzzed overhead.
After the dawn raids, nothing much happened for a while. Police tailed trading standards officers as they checked that the Lycamobile stalls had their licences in order. Activists had gathered to follow the cops, ready to film and heckle them at the first sign of injustice and to inform anyone being accosted by the police of their legal rights.
But at this point they didn’t have much to get their teeth into. The most oppressive punishment meted out was a hastily served parking ticket. I mean, these Community Support Officers could have poured away a teenager’s illicit booze if they caught them, or maybe execute a citizen's arrest, but Kiev’s Berkut they are not.
However, before long, rumours began to circulate that plain-clothes police officers had amassed at Brixton station and that sniffer dogs would soon arrive to nab people carrying drugs as they ambled out of the station.
People stood around with banners, warning everyone and shouting, “Don’t go in there, sniffer dogs and searches.”
For good measure, they also accused the police of being murderers.
Though sometimes someone would stand in the wrong place and it would look like an activist was accusing their comrade of murder.
This guy was also keen to shame the cops for the past misdeeds of their colleagues, wearing a bullet-proof vest and screaming, “Mark Duggan would still be alive if he was wearing this.” He told me he’d been arrested 20 times but never charged.
I thought the police had stooped to a new low, searching a man’s crutch for drugs, but thankfully it turned out the guy had just asked the policeman to help him extend it and it had come apart in his hands.
In between getting heckled and trying to get the activists to move on, the police started stop-searching people and a few arrests were made. We spoke to a local, Christopher Restrepo, who had seen one in action.
“This guy was walking around and one police officer came up to him, saying he looked suspicious. Then these civilians came around saying ‘What is suspicious?’ It’s bullshit, it’s injustice, that’s not anything,” he said. “So later on he walked round the corner, some people helped him walk away and the next thing you know, a bully van comes around and he’s getting searched and taken away. It’s ridiculous. If they have a real reason to do something, I fully get that. When they’re stopping you for looking suspicious for petty little crimes and they have no proof of anything, they’re abusing their jurisdiction.”
From what I saw, it felt like most of those stopped and searched were not white. It doesn’t seem like I’m taking too much of a journalistic liberty to say that there was probably some racial profiling going on, given that you’re about 30 times more likely to get stopped and searched if you’re black than if you’re white.
With uncanny timing, a van pulled up and delivery workers started distributing copies of the Evening Standard. The ‘paper splashed with the revelation that the police had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack in 1993, during the Macpherson inquiry.
The inquiry looked into why Lawrence’s murder investigation had been so botched, and found that the force was “institutionally racist”.
So, just to recap: a racist police force spying on the parents of a teenager who was murdered by a racist. Quite a lot of fodder there for the anti-cop activists, who started thrusting ‘papers into bystander’s hands like they were getting paid and wanted to finish their shift early.
After a while, the furore died down and the activists left the police to it. The police hung about for another few hours, stopping and searching and checking that people had the right tube ticket. Y'know, just doing police stuff.
Obviously the day didn't turn into the orgy of burning cars and bleeding policeman that Lee Jasper had envisaged. But then this was never about that as much as it was the accusations of social cleansing. It’s hard to say whether the activists were a vocal minority, or giving voice to a wider disaffection. Perhaps the people walking past tutting at the fuss, saying things like, “Well, if you have drugs, of course you’re going to be arrested,” or the woman I overheard saying, “You should listen to the police, because one day you’re going to need them,” were more representative of the majority. But of course with rapid gentrification, the demographics that make up that public opinion are fast changing. For at least some of those present, this was just another day of feeling like their community is under seige.
What’s obvious is that by boorishly checking up on nearly everyone who looks even vaguely like they might commit a crime, you’re going to hassle a lot of innocent people and piss them off, even if you do catch a few more crims in the process (even if the crime is having a joint's worth of weed on you). Maybe the whole point was to throw a bit of weight about, I don’t know. When I visited Tottenham on the day that an inquest found the cop who shot Mark Duggan dead to have acted lawfully, a police officer was keen to point out that the Met had eased off on stop and searching recently, aware that this had rubbed people up the wrong way. In fact, it was pretty much his go-to press gambit.
After yesterday’s obnoxious public display of indiscriminate hassling, I guess it remains to be seen whether that decrease in stop and searches is a permanent thing or just a soothing tactic – and one that even the police seemed to get bored of pretty quickly.
See more of Tom Johnson's photography here.