Tag Archives: Brixton Riots

Interview: Linton Kwesi Johnson

Eminent dub-poet, scholar and political-activist, Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in rural Jamaica and moved to the UK as a youth to join his parents. They were part of the “Windrush Generation” – people invited over to the UK to aid the rebuilding of the UK post-WWII

Debi Ghose, presenter of the Brixton Allstars radio-show, spoke to him 30 years after the Brixton Riots.

When you first moved to London, what did you think of the British culture and how you were accepted into the UK?

Well, those of us who came from the Caribbean were coming from a British colony, so the British way of life was not alien to us. We spoke the English language, we were socialising to the cultural institutions familiar to Britain, we studied English literature and knew more about English history than we knew about our own history! The actual culture was not difficult, what was difficult was the racial hostility that we met when we came here.

When did you join the Black Panthers?

I joined the Black Panther movement in the late 1960s. I became interested as a schoolboy – I think I saw one of the newspapers that they used to sell on a Saturday, then started to attend meetings and joined the organisation’s youth section. Around that time, there was a Black Power movement in the USA, which had been preceded by a Civil Rights movement by Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference, so there was a wave of consciousness of Black Awakening for young people on both sides of the Atlantic. Our generation felt that we could no longer tolerate the things that our parents had tolerated and we wanted to change the society, so we got involved with those organisations that we thought were more effective in bringing about racial equality and social justice.

What did being part of the Black Panthers give you?

Being a Panther was a life changing experience for me, because for the first time I discovered Black history; I learnt about African culture, I discovered Black literature in terms of creative writing, novels, poetry and so on. It opened up a whole new world for me and was a profound influence. It was in the Panthers that I learned about the rudiments of organisation – how one goes about mobilising support and building a movement for change.

Was it at that point that you started writing poetry?

I came to poetry through politics, as a consequence to my involvement with the Black Panther movement and discovering Black literature. I was inspired to articulate in verse how I felt, and how the generation of Black youth to which I belonged felt about growing up in a racialised society.

Can you explain what the Brixton Riots were retaliating against?

What was happening, for want of a better term, was racial oppression. People were being discriminated against and victimised. We were constantly harassed, intimidated, beaten, and a significant section of us were criminalised – some people even died in police custody. It was very difficult to get justice in the courts, especially magistrates courts where it was your word against a police officer’s. You stood a better chance of getting justice with a jury, but all that was poisoned by politicians exploiting race, like Mrs Thatcher who talked about Britain being swamped by an alien culture; at that time, it created an atmosphere which made it very difficult for a black person or any ethnic minority person to get a not-guilty verdict in a court of law. There was discrimination in the place of work, people were racially abused, in school we were relegated to a third class education, and so on.

How did you feel when the situation culminated in the riots?

It was a feeling of sheer exhilaration that we’d had the chance to fight back and to give the police a bit of their own medicine which we had been taking for the longest time. It was a feeling of power. It was a feeling that things would never be the same again, and that sense of power came from what had happened 6 weeks before that – black people had marched through the streets of London to protest the death of 13 young blacks in a racist arson attack in a fire in New Cross on the 18th of January. That big march was called the Black People’s Day of Action and happened on the 2nd of March, and 6 weeks later the Brixton Riots happened. So that sense of power that we had felt from seeing 20,000 people marching through London – you can’t imagine it. That gave us a sense that we could change our situation and help London to become a better place, and rid it of the extremes of racial injustice.

How long was it after the riots that you felt changes?

The changes didn’t come until the end of the ‘80s, beginning of the ‘90s – and those changes came largely because of the British State sitting up and taking note of the fact that Black people had some power. Not just because of what was happening in Brixton, because there were subsequent riots here again in 1985 and also in Tottenham, but these were national events because we had uprisings in nearly every major inner city area of the country; Toxteth in Liverpool, Moseyed in Manchester, Handsworth in Birmingham, St Paul’s in Bristol. The government’s response eventually was to put in place policies to speed up the emergence of a black middle class, and to take down some of the barriers. This happened under the watch of Michael Hesseltine, who was the Minister of the Environment, and they put in place “inner city urban renewal” policies, and that’s when the changes began to happen. I think the decisive event was the Black People’s Day of Action, because riots are spontaneous, but when you see a set of people who have been down-trodden, have the ability to mobilise nationally and put 20,000 people on the streets – that is an expression of power.

In this time of financial crisis, does it remind you at all of the situation in the ‘80s?

No, not at all. In the ‘80s, this country was far more polarised. A class war was being waged by the Tories against organised labour. Mrs Thatcher’s government wanted to claw back all the gains that the working class had won for themselves in the post-WW2 settlement. It was a period of heightened racial tension, you had groups like the National Front on the rise with their paramilitary wing – Column 88. It was a period when racist attacks were rampant, there was of course the New Cross fire when 13 young Blacks died – but we’ve moved on from that situation. There is no idealogical warfare going on in this country now. Once the Labour Party used to represent organised Labour, now all the political parties in this country represent corporate interest – they all represent business. The situation has changed, the context has changed, and in many respects things have changed for the better. Blacks have been instrumental in helping these changes, and in helping to change Britain, we’ve changed ourselves too.


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Breakaway Brixton: Design your own Brixton flag

Neil Arun and Will Aspinall want to bring Brixton together – by getting people to design a Brixton flag. Today is the deadline for submissions and Brixton Blog interviews Neil Arun about the project

Documentary-makers Neil Arun and Will Aspinall together make up Breakaway Brixton. They want people to sketch designs for a Brixton flag. Why? Because they ‘believe making a flag is the best way to bring people together’ and thereby ‘make Brixton better’. The winning design will be unfurled on April 11, the thirtieth anniversary of the Brixton Riots. Aspinall and Arun are making a documentary along the way to explore concepts of identity and secession.

What’s the motivation behind Breakaway Brixton?

We’re making a documentary, so we’re coming at it as journalists. Why this subject? We’ve both lived in Brixton for a long time and like it a lot and we both have a sense it gets a bad deal. One way of rectifying that is to make Brixtonians themselves more conscious of the neighbourhood they live in. The best way to do that is to make a flag – it’s an excuse to get people talking.

There’s a broader motivation too – I’m very interested in secession movements. I’m a journalist and I’ve reported from a lot of places that have had separatist movements. I’d like to look at how that sense of identity works on a purely emotional level. What is the smallest unit of place someone can feel loyal to? It’s a very relevant question at the moment of course, if you look at what is happening in the Middle East. The idea isn’t to have tanks rolling onto the streets of Brixton, but to play with the idea of revolutionary methods and identity. It’s about having a voice and not being apathetic. If people ask me where I’m from when I’m travelling, I often say ‘’London’ and then if they know London, I say ‘Brixton’ –  I took the Brixton Pound to Iraq and of course it’s completely useless there. I couldn’t exchange it! But it had a far greater value. It made me feel like I belonged somewhere. I could show the Brixton Pound and feel for the first time a sense of pride. Regardless of how effective it is as a currency, it’s very effective as a symbol of Brixton. That was really the inspiration behind Breakaway Brixton.

How does the thirty year anniversary of the riots fit into this?

The riots occupy a strange place in Brixton’s collective memory. They paint a negative picture of Brixton, especially to those who’ve never been there. But people don’t ask whether the factors that caused it have really been eliminated. Thirty years down the line, we should be able to talk about it properly.

How have you been getting people to enter designs?

We’ve been stopping people on the street and asking them on camera to do quick designs. We’ve also worked at a primary school and have got local pubs and businesses interested. So far the response has been really good. At first we were worried that people wouldn’t get the idea, but actually when you stop them they do get it very quickly. You don’t have to live in Brixton to take part, but you do have to have an opinion about Brixton which you can share.

What will happen to the designs once they’ve been submitted?

They will be published online and on Facebook. There’s also talk of getting some of them displayed in a Brixton venue.

If you fancy entering a last-minute design, you can go to the Breakaway Brixton website or Facebook page for more details.

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Brixton Riots on Radio 4

Have a listen to this week’s episode of ‘The Reunion’ on Radio 4, in which novelist Alex Wheatle, former Lambeth Council leader Ted Knight, Darcus Howe and Brian Paddick discuss the Brixton Riots. It’s very timely – the thirty year anniversary of the riots is in April. The programme can be heard here on iPlayer.

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Market madness and nuclear nightmares: Brixton’s murals

Brixton has some of the best remaining murals in London. Brixton Blog got Ruth Miller, from the London Mural Preservation Society, to take us on a tour

Ruth Miller wanted to organise a walk around Brixton murals, inspired by a thread about Brixton walks on the urban 75 forum, but when she set about researching the murals she found there was almost no information out there. So she ordered up books, searched the archives, contacted the artists and, in 2010, set up the London Mural Preservation Society. Now, finally, she can do those Brixton Mural tours – and she took me on one this month.

First up was the Brixton Academy Mural, above, completed in 1982 by Stephen Pusey. Like many of the murals in Brixton, it was commissioned by the council after the Brixton riots and its theme is obviously racial harmony. There’s something a bit tacky but undeniably  endearing about it. The children are scaled up all wrong and the colours, having been painted in pure pigment, are still glaringly bright. Pusey took part in consultations with the residents in the area and, unsurprisingly, it turned out that they didn’t want anything too depressing in the post-riot landscape. So the bright colours are fitting. “If you watch an old Grange Hill, that’s kind of what the playground in this mural is like”, says Miller. “But it really was like that – the kids were a bit poorer and people weren’t that well off to buy their kids cool clothes”.

The mural cost thousands to make, but once it was built there was no responsibility on the part of the council or the owner of the wall (in this case the 02 Academy) to maintain or repair the painting. It is now fading, peeling and being destroyed by bad weather. This is a story we will encounter again and again on the tour, and one Miller intends to put right.

Can you see all the Lambeth symbols in the mural above? The bricks represent Brixton (think about the platforms at Brixton Underground), the Swan is Stockwell, the gates are there for Gateley Rd, and the Brixton Rec logo is in there somewhere too. This painting, along with the one below, is on Bellefields Rd and was painted in 1987 by a collection of women from the London Wall Art Group.

Ruth Miller has gone to great lengths to talk to the artists involved in the mural painting project of the 1980s – and there were an extraordinary number of them. When someone added to Wikipedia the names of the artists behind the Brixton Station murals (see below) – Angie Biltcliffe and Karen Smith -, she went on a hunt to find them. But Angie has just died in November 2010 and Miller still hasn’t been able to locate Karen Smith. Their works, however, are some of the best in Brixton.

“I really like these. You can see the one at the top of the stairs when the train arrives and they both really reflect the atmosphere of the market – the diversity of foods and strange things you can find there. But they’re not even protected by a varnish or anything.”

What colours!

And now for the best of them all. Brixton’s most famous mural – Nuclear Dawn. It was painted by Brian Barnes and Dale McCrea between 1980-1981, at the peak of the Cold War, and this year it will be 30 years old. On 20 February, Brian Barnes will be giving a talk on the work at the Dogstar pub.

Nuclear Dawn was one of several ‘peace murals’ commissioned around London during this time, including Ray Walker’s peace mural on Dalston Lane. Nuclear Dawn features a frightening skeletal figure walking over London as nuclear bombs drop and, under the Houses of Parliament, the elected politicians including Thatcher hide in a bunker.

Sadly that bunker is now covered by graffiti and much of the mural has been damaged by trees growing too close to the wall. Ruth Miller succeeded in getting the trees cut down last year, but she is still hoping for some more extensive renovation to preserve the painting properly. “It’s my favourite mural”, she says. “As kids we were very scared of it”.

There were two more peace murals in Brixton, but they were covered over when new housing was built on Vining St and Rushcroft Rd. You can still get a glimpse of them if you look carefully:

This is by Fujiyama, facing Atlantic Rd. And if you walk in the opposite direction, along Vining Street to Rushcroft Rd, and look up, you’ll see this flash of blue:

It’s poor solace for what we’re missing out on, though. This flickr photo shows the original on Vining Street.

It would be a real shame if any more murals in Brixton were lost or destroyed. And there sure are more of them. Below is ‘Big Splash’ on Glenelg Rd, a rather joyful and idealised painting of life in Brixton. The river is based on the Effra, the vases around the side make reference to the Royal Doulton factory once based in Lambeth and the children are all local kids.

Our final mural is a surprising one. Tucked behind Acre Lane on Mauleverer Rd, it is absolutely huge. The picture below shows only one part of it. It was inspired by Brockwell Park, but the best bit about it is that a resident living opposite reputedly asked for a Caribbean beach view to be inserted into the Brockwell Park pavillion. The perfect view to wake up to every morning…

To find out more about the London Murals Preservation Society and to take part in Ruth Miller’s mural tours (which take in more than we saw here), visit the website: http://londonmuralpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/

Brian Barnes, who painted Nuclear Dawn, will be speaking upstairs at the Dogstar at 12.30pm on 20 February in celebration of the 30-year anniversary of Nuclear Dawn. See here for details.

Ruth Miller, leading the tour


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