Brixton is many things to many people. To me, it’s my home. To others it is variously the unofficial centre of black London; an artsy, left-leaning alternative and inclusive community; a gay mecca; a self-satisfied gentrified London borough brimming with 20- and 30-somethings drinking Starbucks; the drugs capital of London; the site of one of the best parks in London (complete with a recently restored 1930s lido); a deprived neighbourhood brimming with gangs, sink estates and gun crime. All of these clashing counterpoints coexist and are in their own ways true.
Walk around Brixton’s noisy, jostling, litter-strewn streets and you’ll see London in all its disorientating diversity: the chichi Farmers’ market; disreputable stalls unlocking stolen mobile phones; Marks and Spencer, the spiritual home of middle-class England; halal butchers sweeping blood and ice into the gutter at the end of the day; vegan cupcake shops; bearded, thobe-wearing Muslim men selling joss-sticks and distributing Islamist leaflets outside Iceland; a boutique selling expensive clothes made from traditional African prints; the Black Cultural Archives; Morleys (one of the oldest independent department stores in London); Portuguese delicatessens selling pasteis de nata; pound shops being undercut by 99p shops. All of life is here. These juxtapositions make Brixton the place it is: vibrant, exhausting, energetic, frustrating, depressing, inspiring and unique.
London after a night of rioting. Image credit: George Rex
This week the contrasts and contradictions were even starker. On Saturday, I had lunch with my husband, baby and a friend in the newly rejuvenated Brixton market where independent restaurants and quirky cafes sit alongside traditional market stalls selling mops and meat. We tucked into a delicious meal and congratulated ourselves for living in one of London’s most exciting neighbourhoods. On Sunday afternoon, some of my friends danced in the road to reggae music at the ‘Brixton Splash’ street festival (the theme for this year was ‘Community Champions’).
Yet in the early hours of Monday morning, gangs rioted down Brixton High Street, smashing windows, looting shops, terrorising business owners and residents and burning down Foot Locker; riot police and dogs were deployed and helicopters circled overhead. By Monday morning the ever-busy high street was cordoned off, silent and smouldering. By Tuesday, normal life had seemingly returned, yet an atmosphere of unease prevailed. By Tuesday afternoon rumours of fresh violence saw businesses suddenly shutting down early and cinema goers turfed out mid-film as Brixton residents braced themselves for another onslaught that – thankfully – has not, so far, arrived.
Foot Locker. Image credit: brainlove
As the week progresses, order has been tentatively restored yet a sense of wounded, angry confusion reigns. Politicians, media pundits and punters are struggling to understand the events. Were the riots simply meaningless thuggery or were they, at some level, rooted in a justified sense of outrage by underclasses that have been deprived of a stake in society? Were the rioters ‘protestors’, ‘victims’ or amoral ‘scum’? Are the riots rooted in race, social class or neither? Were these groups of young people expressing anger and frustration at government cuts or did they simply see the riots as a heady ‘big night out’; an exhilarating, destructive computer game played out, this time, in real life? Were these events an attack on the injustices of capitalism or were they, in fact, capitalism playing out to its most extreme degree with people rioting not for their political rights, but for their right, as consumers, to grab a new pair of trainers or a flat-screen TV?
Once again there are many versions of the truth in Brixton. This is a community that, at best, thrives on its contradictions and juxtapositions. We can only hope that this proves, once again, to be the case and that the divisions brought into focus by the riots aren’t strong enough to pull Brixton, London, and indeed Britain, apart.
Hannah is from the UK and lives in South London with her husband and new baby.
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