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We Watched London Police Tear Gas Some Window-Smashing Yuppie-Haters This Weekend

A gathering to "reclaim Brixton" turned into the first riot of the summer.

by Ed Ive, Photos: Chris Bethell
27 April 2015, 1:25pm

Officers from the Met sprayed CS gas at protesters in Brixton on Saturday, after they'd smashed in the windows of Foxtons estate agents and stormed the town hall and police station. Thousands of people had congregated at "A Gathering to Reclaim Brixton" – an event aimed at bringing together the groups and individuals who feel their communities are threatened by displacement because of gentrification and the housing crisis.

Things kicked off in what used to be called the Granville Arcade, now Brixton Village, where radical non-white socialist group the London Black Revs were marching among the assorted cafes full of hungover people eating brunch.

Most sat silently, steaming plates in front of them, as the group chanted: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win / We must love and support each other, we have nothing to lose but our chains!"

It seemed like most of the diners didn't know how to react. To be fair, I don't know how I'd react if someone started screaming Assata Shakur quotes at me over a bacon sandwich.

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After leaving the diners, the crowd passed the railway arches. Over the years, the shops here – the Portuguese deli, the cavernous wig shop, the CD sellers who have carved out tiny booths for themselves – have both sustained and relied upon their customers. The rent on the units is about to be hiked to the extent that pretty much all of the current inhabitants will be priced out. Some have already left, in the process of being replaced by upscale restaurants.

The crowd made its way over to Windrush Square, a kind of plaza which hosted one of the "death parties" that greeted Margaret Thatcher's demise two years ago. Local residents and housing activist groups from across London were milling about, discussing different solutions to the housing crisis. One group was handing out thousands of leaflets calling for a coordinated rent strike.

Others, meanwhile, seemed to be looking to the heavens for some kind of divine intervention.

I talked to residents of the Central Hill estate in Lambeth. Risha (right) has lived on the estate for 14 years, and will have to move when her building is demolished for redevelopment. "I like my community, so to be uprooted and to think that it could be usurped by Lambeth council is unfair," she said. "Many of us do not know where we will have to move, and many of us will not be given the money that would get us into the housing that me and my family need."

There's an idea that while the young are suffering, the elderly are sitting pretty in the houses they bought in the 1970s, reaping the rewards of a property market gone berserk. Of course, this isn't always the case, and many older people are also clinging on. Frederick here is involved with a charity based in Brixton that provides support to elderly people in areas subject to government cuts.

"Because of the people with the money coming in now, people are getting moved out, and especially the people in the council houses, some getting moved apart as far as Birmingham," he said. "They go down there and they die; they don't have any friends down there, and when you're a pensioner you can't survive on the outskirts like that. They need their home."

After we had talked to Frederick, we saw a group split off from the main march, and head towards Lambeth town hall, opposite Windrush Square.

And that's when things started to get out of hand.

The crowd swarmed the building, the police struggling to hold them back. A group got in through a side door, eventually breaking it off its hinges. When they entered, it turned out that they'd broken in the reception hall of the council's registry office, where a civil marriage was taking place. The police swiftly secured the building, and those inside had nothing left to do but leave, moving on down the high street.

With the police to the back of them, the crowd rushed to the Foxtons branch – which, to a bunch of anti-gentrification protesters, looks essentially like a massive red flag in the shape of a liveried Mini Cooper.

Everyone stood around while someone spray painted the door with "yuppies out". The cops were still catching up when someone stepped forward and smashed the window, and there were cheers from the crowd, who by now were baying for yuppie blood.

The police rushed to defend the shop in case anyone stole some Perrier water, but the crowd had already moved on. The cops were left there as bait for ironic selfie-takers – surely the bitterest pill for any self-respecting copper to stomach.

The grievances being aired at the protest were broadening. A group of people headed towards the police station, chanting "black communities matter". As they reached the doors, the cops forced them back, closing the shutters and shooting out jets of CS spray, which hit people direct in the face.

People retreated and poured milk and lemon juice on their faces to soothe the burning.

Ten minutes later, it was as if the cops spraying mace in people's faces had barely even happened. There was a celebratory mood in front of the town hall – a sound-system was blaring and everyone was dancing and drinking.

Someone even climbed on the Ritzy cinema and altered the lettering.

However, the cops were still loitering ominously, and soon they were closing in, descending in their riot swag to the sound of Azealia Banks's "212". The sound-system got pushed down the high street and the crowd followed it. People were still trying to boggle along and maintain a state of blissful ignorance, but that's hard to do when you're being tailed by police vans and a hundred storm troopers.

As the procession continued, the window of a Barnado's got smashed in, and then everything kicked off – cops drew their batons and waded into the crowd.

A human tug-of-war was created, as friends fought to save their fellow protesters from arrest. The sound-system was seized and a police cordon formed, blocking the crowd from re-entering the high street.

Under greying skies, and with the music gone, the crowd dissolved. It seemed like the police, as much as the council and private developers, wanted to make sure that only the right people felt at home in Brixton.

With less that two weeks to go until the general election, the drama that played out across Brixton on Saturday is on the national political agenda, Labour announcing that, if elected, they will introduce a rent cap. You have to wonder whether a rent cap would be too little, too late for places like Brixton but the confrontations over housing that have been going on are clearly becoming tougher for Westminster to ignore.

That said, the Tories, are currently busy resurrecting a Thatcherite right-to-buy scheme, which would mean some of the little private housing stock that is left disappearing into private hands. What's clear is that, unless there is a radical increase in the availability of housing, what happened in Brixton might only be the start of a growing desperation for homes, communities and lives.

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More on the housing crisis from VICE:

Will the Tory Right-to-Buy Policy Lead to Riots in the Streets?

London Housing Activists Stopped a Disabled Woman Being Kicked Out of Her Home

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