Twenty years after the young photojournalist David Hodge was fatally injured during the Brixton riots, long-time resident Miranda Sawyer reports on the vibrant mixed community that now thrives along the old 'Frontline'
Sunday April 24, 2005
Brixton, south London, is a place with a reputation - though I'm not quite sure what it is any more. If you choose to listen to local councillors, police superintendents and estate agents (now there's a dinner party), Brixton is 'on the up'. If you've invited anyone who's lived in Brixton for more than 10 years, they'll tell you their area is being invaded by property-robbing professionals and ditto crack-heads. If you're holding a 'no Londoners' do, you might end up classing the whole of Brixton as a riot-prone no-go area, like Compton, or Iraq. If it's a taxi driver you're talking to, count yourself lucky. They're happy to drive to Brixton these days.
I've lived in Brixton for 15 years, moving between its SW9, SE24 and SW2 postcodes, and I'm aware that when I say I live here, there's usually a reaction from the listener - either positive, as in 'you must be cool,' or negative, as in 'you must be mad.' But, though Brixton has more than its fair share of both the hip (some Dazed & Confused types opened a highly confusing fashion shop on Railton Road last year) and the insane (it hosts 1 per cent of the UK's mental health patients), there's room for plenty of others, from the well-established West Indian community, through the long-term African residents, to the recently arrived Eastern Europeans. Brixton boasts significant Irish and Portuguese populations; a lot of French, Italian and Spanish; plenty of Indians and Pakistanis; an underground scene of post-crusty white activists; plus artists, fashion designers, poets, pop stars ...
If you can't get rid of the estate agents, they may well have moved on to discussing Brixton's superb Victorian housing stock, its energetic bar scene, its range of shops, its world-famous market, the Academy, the Fridge, the Ritzy cinema, Brockwell Park and the Lido. But this is not what pumps the blood of an area - the people do that. And Brixton's mixed-up community adds up to an energy, a kick. To a lively life. Yes, there's an edge to it, but I never understand when people say stuff about Brixton, like, 'Isn't it a bit rough?' Rough is outside a suburban chippy at Friday night closing. I know. That's why I moved here.
'Brixton's like a drug,' says Ian McPherson, 35, Brixtonian born and bred. We're chatting in the Dogstar, the first of the new breed of made-over bars that started to spring up in the Nineties. 'It's a stimulant, it gives you a buzz, you're walking around and something dynamic's happening over there ... And people like you, you come here when you get mature. This is the place to be if you wanna find out who you are.'
Felix Buxton from Basement Jaxx would agree. He's spoken of how entrancing he found Brixton when he arrived, the strange vegetables in the market, the different languages, the noise and colour. (Remedy, Basement Jaxx's first LP, with its calypso rhythms, its sound system toasting, its horns and soul and funk, is soaked through with Brixton.) People in their early twenties flock here, especially those that have travelled. If you're an India freak, Brixton market is as close as you're going to get to that crowded, bright, all-life-is-here street feeling.
It's different for people who grew up here, of course. Ian, who lived on an estate off Hayter Road during the Seventies and Eighties, sees Brixton not as exotic and exciting, but close-knit, and inward-looking. He counts himself lucky to have travelled, 'because it opened my eyes to what I had'. Before he went to the US, at 17, he was on course to become a bad boy. 'In America, I met kids who were joining the army just to get an education. And mine was free! So I thought, if I put as much effort into my studies as I do into my street life, then I'll get on. And I changed.' Ian now works in design, and splits his life between Brixton and Brooklyn.
He recalls the original Brixton riots, during the Eighties, which for many years defined the area. The first was in April 1981, triggered by a stabbing, but rooted in spiralling unemployment (up 82 per cent within ethnic minorities in one year) and in Operation Swamp 81, a police attempt to curb local robbery and burglary. During six days, officers stopped almost 1,000 people, mostly black, arresting 118. Their actions were seen as harassment and racism, especially as they stopped many upstanding citizens, including three members of Lambeth Community Relations Council. So, when officers tried to help a black stabbing victim, their van was surrounded and the victim rescued by angry youths convinced that the police were letting him bleed to death. The next evening, an officer arrested a man outside an Atlantic Road mini-cab office, on the notorious 'Frontline', and it all went off. The fighting lasted for two days.
Ian, who was 10 at the time, remembers the word going up on his estate that there was a riot - 'I didn't know what it was, I thought it was a party' - so he went down, on his rollerskates. 'I never seen anything like it, so much black people angry,' he says. 'And forget the law, it was out the window. There was rows of police, but there was a strong section of people - blacks, punks - and it was mayhem. The day after, it looked like a war zone. Right on Brixton Road, cars flipped and burnt.'
So, when the next riots came, in 1985, Ian knew what they were - and he and his teenage mates decided which stores to hit: Frank Johnson's (Brixton's best trainer outlet, always the first to be turned over), and the Lonsdale shop, for table tennis bats. 'There was information rushing round - a woman got shot by the police - but it was exciting; you're not thinking about the reasons why someone died, you're seeing it as an opportunity. It was only the dreads and the conscious people who were fighting the fight. You have looters and soldiers, and the majority of people were looters.'
Ian was caught by police in the Acre Lane petrol station, taking sweets, a clock and some spray paint for his BMX. He was chased down the road, caught, and battered with truncheons. The police threw him in their van, where one officer punched him in the face. He was saved by a priest - and by his age. 'When they found out I was a minor, they started panicking.'
The 1985 riots began because of an early-morning police raid on a house where they thought Michael Groce was staying. They were looking for Michael because he'd recently waved a gun at one of their officers. He wasn't there and, in the confusion, Inspector Douglas Lovelock shot Cherry Groce, Michael's mother, while she was in her bed. She was permanently paralysed from the chest down. Michael didn't find out until days later when he switched on the TV in his sister's flat, where he was hiding. He gave himself up to the police.
When a crowd gathered outside the Groce house the press swarmed into Brixton. By the afternoon, an uprising had started, and the Sunday Telegraph sent David Hodge, a 29-year-old freelance photographer, to cover the situation. It was his first assignment for the paper. He took pictures of youths trying to break into the jewellers in the Reliance Arcade on Brixton Road. As he moved closer, he was jumped and beaten up, and his camera gear was stolen. Passers-by saved him and took him to King's College Hospital. He was discharged after 48 hours, but within a fortnight he'd lapsed into a coma and died. The subsequent trial of an 18-year-old security guard, Elroy Palmer, collapsed because the jury couldn't agree on a verdict. The second trial failed, and Palmer moved to Australia.
Anne Hodge, David's mother, 'never wants to see Brixton again', but she's proud of the good that has come from her son's death. David was medically trained, especially interested in heart transplants. His heart was donated to a female doctor, who lived for another 10 years. And his family and friends set up the David Hodge Award for photo-journalists under 30; later, The Observer took on the award. The pictures you see here are taken by Philipp Ebeling, the current award winner.
The 1981 riots resulted in the Scarman report, the first ever official report to admit that the police contained racist elements. Scarman led to a new code of police behaviour, the creation of the Police Complaints Authority, and to the cessation of the SUS laws (stopping people on suspicion, rather than evidence, notoriously used against far more black people than white). The 1985 riots, coming during a wave of civil unrest, and just after the miners' strike, led to a politicisation of Britain's poor, a national resentment of the police, and to Thatcher's more disastrous hard-line stances. And a review of Met gun policy after Cherry Groce's shooting resulted in a ban on CID detectives carrying firearms.
There have been a couple of other mini-riots in Brixton since; in 1995, sparked by the death of Wayne Douglas in police custody (the Dogstar had its windows put in; Frank Johnson's was done over, again); and in 2000, when police shot a man who they thought was armed, but wasn't. But they were over within hours; the real riots were a long time ago. Still, it's hard to live down their legacy; even today, local residents only see the media when something bad is happening. (Over the past few years, plenty of journalists have taken advantage of the house prices and moved in; but they don't tend to go out in the area, other than to Tesco's, once a week.) The world outside Britain has a higher opinion of Brixton. It's seen as a successful multiracial community and attracts high-profile visitors, such as Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. When Mandela came, in 1996, the place was packed. I took a photo of him getting out of his car outside the Recreation Centre, and he's just a smiling, tiny figure among hundreds.
A bad name stuck for years to Michael Groce, and perhaps deservedly at first - he has more than 50 convictions and 15 jail spells. But he worked hard to live a better life, helping local kids by talking through his own experiences, setting up a Saturday football club, writing and reading poetry. He struggled with cocaine addiction for years, funding his habit through armed robbery. It was only when a kid said, 'Well, why should I change? You haven't,' that he managed to really turn himself around. He suffered a setback last year, when he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs, convicted of a GBH charge from several years back. He and his fiancee, Alison Skeat, are appealing against the conviction. They have a baby girl.
I meet Alison and Phoenix at a benefit for Michael at the Albert pub on Coldharbour Lane. Larry Love from Alabama 3 is playing to an amiable crowd. There's a man in a furry Muttley suit, complete with grinning head, in the corner, drinking pints.
Alison gives me a letter from Michael: he sees a great future for Brixton, and for his family. He has three other children. I meet Charlene and Charmaine, both bright, polite teenagers. Michael's letter says that he wants to do more work with schools and youth clubs, not just in Brixton, but nationally. 'I've gone from crime to rhyme,' he writes.
Everyone you meet in Brixton is keen that you talk up their district. They know there are problems, yet they're proud of where they live. But while they see their area as friendly, as a place where everybody knows everybody, some feel that this can be a disadvantage, too. Horizons can close in.
Pedro de Cruz, 20, points to the self-centredness of local youth: 'At my school, it was like, "How can I further myself? When is it my turn to be the big guy?" All about being the big man in the endz. Individualistic.' Pedro and his friends from Live, a Brixton-based magazine produced for and by the young people of Lambeth, blame this partly on American culture, the influence of rap. 'They see 50 Cent,' he says, 'and think that they can be shot, be a gangster and still make it.'
Cleo Soazandry, 19, co-editor of Live, is more dismissive. 'They don't know their history,' she sniffs. 'If you was to get to know yourself more - your past, where you come from, where you can go as a people ... if you can't do that, you're just going to follow what you see in front of your face.'
Cleo lived in France before she came to London. 'When I hear boys saying, "I live in Brixton, in the ghetto," I laugh at them. There's Marks & Spencer's and McDonald's, and buses and people and nice houses. In France, there's nothing for the youth - no magazines or TV, and not that many openings for black people. So, when I came here and went to school I thought, "I can be anything I want!" The opportunities are here.'
Despite Cleo's optimism, it can take time for the advantages of a British Brixton life to sink into the minds of its more disenfranchised youth. PDC - Poverty Driven Children - are a notorious south London gang. Also known as the Muslim Boys, as they claim (unsubstantiated) links to al-Qaeda, they've been demonised in the media (Lee Jaspar, the Mayor of London's senior advisor on policing, described them as 'as tough to crack as the IRA'), and have been involved in shootings and brutal knife attacks. Yet a meeting with PDC members on the Angell Town estate finds them only wanting to talk positive. They insist that they're trying to give good advice to the next generation - 'People know we're from the street, so they listen' - because they never got any themselves. 'No one told us how to make money legal, how to live on a day-to-day basis, and now most of our friends are crack-out or lock-up.' They've released their own CD, which is sold on the street by younger kids, who are paid a percentage of each sale. 'We're not angels, but we're trying to change it,' said one member. 'But all the press want to know is, "Who is PDC shooting?" Nothing about the good we're trying to get across.'
When I first came to Brixton, there were no late- night bars, other than Mingles, Cooltan, and the arts squat set up in the old Coldharbour dole office. Now new clubs (Plan B) and bars (Living Room) have joined local stalwarts like the Effra. The recent wealth sloshing into Brixton is both good and bad, says Shane Collins, local Green Party candidate and Cooltan regular. Good because it's led to increased community pride, bad because there are less free venues and the money doesn't always go to locals. 'Black people buy their food in the market,' he says. 'White people shop at Tescos.' And black people don't go to the new white hang-outs. But, for Ian MacPherson, 'If a black person won't go to a nicely designed bar, they're saying only white people can drink in a nice bar and that's crap.'
Arthur Baker and Stuart Hopson Jones, co-owners of Harlem, a bar-club-restaurant that's replaced the old Prince of Wales pub, want their venue to be as mixed as the local community. Arthur moved to London from New York eight years ago; he sees Brixton as the city's Harlem. The pair would like Harlem to offer a 'you're worth it' style to their customers, and are joining forces with other bar owners to see that the street dealers are moved on.
Since the media hounding of former Chief Superintendent Brian Paddick, Lambeth police's position on drugs has been unclear to most people. They know that heroin and cocaine are illegal, but are you allowed to carry dope in your pocket? Can you smoke it on the street? Perhaps due to that confusion, there seems to have been a large influx of international junkies into Brixton. Just 10 years ago, there was only one beggar at the tube: he's long gone, chased away by the new, young breed. And now, dealers hassle you as soon as you turn left from the station, mithering until the corner of Coldharbour Lane and beyond. It's this that locals don't understand; if they can see what's going on, why can't the police?
So I go to see Chief Superintendent Martin Bridger and Superintendent Dave Zinzan. They explain that their recent priority has been to shut down local crack houses, and this has led to some of the more desperate drug pushers trading their wares on the street. But we're not to think that they don't care, or they're not working towards solutions using undercover policework. And they'd like us to know: you can't smoke a joint on the street, neither can you deal cannabis. However, if you're stopped for another reason, and a search reveals you're carrying a small amount of marijuana for personal use, you won't be charged.
They seem reasonable men; I ask them what the Brixton riots mean to the Met. Bridger says 'the police were more arrogant then,'; Zinzan thinks that 'they didn't have the attitude that they were there to serve the community, whereas we work very closely with community groups, explaining what we're doing, getting their reactions, working with them to achieve what we all want.'
He cites the police's recent closing of a known dealing house on Coldharbour Lane. 'We involved community leaders and shop owners from the start, checked that that was what they wanted. When they said yes, we set up a raid, at two o'clock on Coldharbour Lane on a weekend afternoon. You can imagine what would have happened if we'd done that even five years ago. But this time, the community leaders were with us and stood there and helped explain to people what we were doing.'
Zinzan and Bridger tell me that they plan to use the premises to set up a mini-police station right in the heart of Coldharbour Lane, to protect locals from dealers and crime. 'Now that,' predicts CS Bridger, 'really will be international news.'