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By KD Tait
27 April 2015
Saturday 25 April saw the first demonstration by Reclaim:Brixton, a movement formed to defend the interests of residents against government policies which privilege property speculators and undermines the social fabric of our community.
2000 people from a cross section of Brixton assembled in Windrush Square under the banner ‘Reclaim Brixton – Lambeth is not for sale’ – a direct challenge to the local Labour-run council which is closing libraries and youth centres, demolishing social and council housing and encouraging for-profit companies to build housing that local people can’t afford to live in.
The main gathering was joined by residents from Loughborough Park estate, who imprisoned by a fence and security guards and feeder demonstrations from Cressingham Gardens, an estate whose residents fighting against demolition and the London Black Revolutionaries, a direct action organisation involved in several recent high profile actions against racism and oppression.
Speeches were made by the organisers and representatives of local housing campaigns. A statement was read out on behalf of a local disabled woman facing eviction by Lambeth council.
A demonstration marched from Windrush Square through Brixton arches, highlighting the campaign to stop Network Rail’s campaign to force small shops out of Brixton’s central market district.
Around 3pm several hundred occupied the main junction in Brixton and carried out a brief occupation of part of the Town Hall. The demonstration then paraded through Brixton, subjecting Foxton’s Estate Agent to an act of symbolic property destruction to draw attention to the speculators who buy up council and social housing on the cheap only to rent it out at extortionate prices beyond the means of residents.
The scale of the problem is revealed when you learn that the average rent in Lambeth is £2,549 pcm, against a London average of around £1500, yet Lambeth is in the bottom 10 per cent of local authorities on the index of multiple deprivation and the eighth poorest borough in London.
The demonstration marched through Brixton Village and appropriately ended up at the Police station, a symbol of state authority that squats in the heart of Brixton, garrisoned by an overwhelmingly white police force and scene of the police murder of local musician Sean Rigg in 2008.
People peacefully occupying the lobby of the station were driven out with pepper spray and batons, with a number suffering serious injuries. Speeches were made by local people that denounced the racist history of the London Met in particular, and the British police in general, expressed by the fact that of the 995 deaths in police custody since 1990, not one officer has been convicted by a court.
The political dimension
The demonstration was billed in the capitalist media as a protest against ‘gentrification’, but talk to activists and organisers on the ground and you are far more likely to hear it described in the more ugly and accurate terms of ethnic and social cleansing.
Official figures show that close to 500 families are being shipped out of their borough each week. Between 2011 and 2014, close to 50,000 families have been forced from Inner to Outer London boroughs, dislocating hundreds of thousands of children from their schools and friends. In just three months last year Lambeth Council forced 277 homeless families to move out of the borough.
Spiralling rents, combined with the privatisation and demolition of council housing alongside welfare reforms are driving people out of the areas they have lived their whole lives, and their families for generations. In a borough that is 40 per cent non-white and 50 per cent non-English, this disproportionately affects Black and ethnic people.
Policies that make Lambeth and Brixton a more attractive place to live should not come at the expense of driving out the people who live here. The Labour-run council should not hide behind central government cuts to hand over swathes of the borough to property developers, motivated solely by profit.
That’s why Reclaim:Brixton is not just a protest against certain policies, but a movement that aims to advance a positive vision for Brixton. It demands an end to the demolition of council houses – repairs, not ‘regeneration’. Around 20,000 people are on the Lambeth council house waiting-list. Instead of building thousands of luxury flats, we should be building decent housing for the people who are living in unsuitable and insecure accommodation. We don’t want ‘affordable’ housing priced at unaffordable rates, we want rent caps on the private sector to stop rip-off landlords exploiting people.
Lambeth’s Labour Council claims its hands are tied by central government policies. It is true that the hollowing out of local democracy means Councils are heavily restricted in their ability to borrow money on the markets to build council housing. But it is equally certain that a Labour government would do little more than apply sticking plasters to the wounds opened up by seven years of Coalition and Labour austerity.
Britain’s housing crisis has been a major feature of the general election. But so far none of the mainstream parties have come anywhere near to offering a credible solution. Labour’s promise to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020 is too little, too late for millions of people.
The struggle to seize control of housing supply and organise it to meet people’s needs rather than fatten the bank accounts of speculators and private landlords is one that requires a political solution at a national level.
At a community level Reclaim:Brixton was a good start that shows it is possible to unite the disparate local campaigns that have been left isolated by the failure of the left and labour movement to build a united campaign against austerity. The absence of any significant number of trade union banners, despite the presence of individual activists, indicates work still has to be done to bring the unions in. The example of the Ritzy workers’ struggle for a living wage shows that collective action is our most powerful weapon in the fight for decent wages, working conditions and housing.
The question now is how a campaign should organise itself in order to sustain the momentum and build the kind of campaign that can mobilise the latent potential in collective action by the working class of Lambeth.
There is often talk of the importance of drawing in the ‘silent majority’. If by that we mean the hundreds of thousands of working class people who are alienated from existing political campaigns then we need to offer a credible way of ensuring that decisions can be made in a way that represents the interests of much larger numbers of people; collectively, democratically and with accountability.
To escalate the action and deepen the influence of the campaign, decisions about future actions and tactics must genuinely reflect the attitude of a much larger number of people. Small campaigns based on a few dozen activists can ensure ‘ownership’ by allowing a quite large divergence in views and tactics, allowing individuals and collective groups to act autonomously. But this is no way to organise a serious mass movement.
The behaviour of many of the left groups, not to mention the Labour council’s open siding with big business at the expense of residents is a major cause of popular apathy to political campaigns. Many people fear that the larger left groups and their franchises like the People’s Assembly or Unite the Resistance will try to take over movements and subordinate them to the interests of one organisation.
The answer to this is not to exclude political organisations, let alone to reject political debate in order to preserve an inchoate community consensus. A movement which is a coalition of different campaigns and interest groups ranging from single-issue to the general needs a mechanism of organising itself that draws all participants into common discussion and collective decision-making.
Open political debate will strengthen our ability to resist and articulate an alternative by overcoming the idea that politics is the preserve of professional politicians or activists. A thoroughly democratic structure is necessary to prevent this sectarian manipulation by ensuring the concerns of the majority predominate and are therefore able to transcend the sectional priorities of political organisations and interest groups.
For that we will have to demonstrate that decisions are made and seen to be made by a structure which is democratic, transparent, accountable and genuinely representative, with no privileges for groups or leaders. A committee to Reclaim Brixton which assembles delegates from all the housing campaigns, tenants’ associations, trade union branches, community groups, political organisations could have debates and make decisions on coordinated action confident that it accurately reflects the views of the majority.
A first step towards this would be to call as soon as possible after the election, an assembly open to activists of all the different campaigns and organisations where the way forward and the forms of organisation and structure could be debated and decided upon.
The campaign to defend what we have won and to fight for what we need is inseparable from the struggle to define what future we want for ourselves and to bequeath to future generations. As socialists we believe that future is one that brings the millions of dispossessed, disillusioned and disenfranchised into struggle for the common ownership of society’s wealth in order to end the tyranny of a capitalist class that rules society in the interest of the millionaires.
Building working class self organisation and political representation is the first step on the road to reclaiming a future of socialism and human liberation. If you agree, join Left Unity and join our struggle.