On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.

Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Why The British Public Need to Care

Romain Brisbon. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Mark Duggan. Cameron Tillman. Sean Rigg. Latasha Harlins. Stephen Lawrence. Laquan Macdonald.

Here lie a few names which make up a much longer list of human beings, most of them teenagers, all black, some British, most American, all whose deaths have illustrated the huge flaws in the law enforcement and justice systems that are put in place to protect its citizens. From misunderstandings between neighbours to suspicious deaths in police custody to police brutality gone too far; all of these lives were taken by people who were never aptly punished for their crimes, except that of course of Stephen Lawrence, whose family fought for 17 years to yield a conviction of the teenager’s murderer after he was killed in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993.

In 1997 Tupac rapped “on earth, tell me what a black life’s worth// a bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts” . This was in reference to the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991, a teenager shot dead by a shopkeeper for appearing to steal a bottle of orange juice. Latasha’s killer was convicted but never sent to prison instead she paid a $500 fine, served 400 hours community service and was put on probation for 5 years. Latasha’s death left a bitter taste in the mouths of many black Americans and the following year the acquittal of the officers responsible for the excessive beating of Rodney King as well as the light sentencing of Latasha’s killer sparked the LA riots which went down in history as some of the worst the US had ever seen.

When asked whether he felt the Michael Dunn case (or the loud music murder) was ‘racial’ or not Grey’s Anatomy actor, Jesse Williams responded “it’s racial because it doesn’t happen to white people” . Let us note firstly that it is not racial because it is the case of a white gunman and a black citizen. Neither was Trayvon Martin’s case about a white male vs a black teenager, George Zimmerman who was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder in 2013 was latino. Latasha Harlins’ killer was Korean, not white. The police officer, who shot 14 year old Cameron Tillman dead in Louisiana this year, was black. This is racial because police brutality only affects the voiceless and marginalised, otherwise the police simply wouldn’t get away with it, and all too often the most marginalised are ethnic minorities and the poor. It’s racial because the justice system seems much more eager to lazily protect the killers of blacks than those of whites. A UK court will not hesitate to jail a black or mixed race teenager for 30 years for the murder of another black teenager, so why so must we wait 17 years in the case of a white killer? These cases have all demonstrated how the law seems more reluctant to protect its minorities than its majorities in a situation that occurs between two citizens. When one of those citizens is a police officer, the odds ae even worse.

In 2011 following the murder of black male Mark Duggan, for which the police officer who shot him was acquitted, riots, which began in Tottenham after protests outside the police station escalated, spread throughout a number of the UK’s major cities. The mainstream British media, leapt to the conclusion that the riots were the result of an unruly generation trying to create an excuse to grab themselves a new plasma TV or pair of Nike air forces. The moment has now arrived for us to attempt to put these riots in their correct context. In 1992, following the cases of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, there were riots. In 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, there were riots. In 2011, following the death of Mark Duggan, there were riots. Riots clearly inflamed by the economic situation, by the ongoing neglect represented by cuts to social and public services, as well as by the time of year, but riots bred from an injustice just like all the others. Despite initial reports stating that Duggan was holding a gun when he was shot the inquest revealed that the police had shot an unarmed man and yet ruled the killing lawful, punishing none of the officers involved, clearly reflecting a deeper race-related injustice in society.

In the UK and US alike police brutality makes it easier for every young black male to feel personally attacked when Eric Garner, Mark Duggan or Mike Brown lose their lives in such situations. Ask any law abiding black male from a troubled area and he will tell you that he too knows what it feels like to be treated like a criminal. Stopped and searched, stripped of your dignity, assumed to be up to no good. Ask the family of Sean Rigg who died in police custody and whose cause of death has never been revealed if they feel like the police work for them or against them. Frustrated and disenfranchised people use the only power they can think of or muster up to make their voices heard and their anger felt. Injustice breeds civil disobedience. It did in LA in the early 90s, it did in the UK in 2011 and it’s happening today in Ferguson and in New York.

The case of Mark Duggan may be far rarer here in the UK than the seemingly routine shooting of young, black and often unarmed males in the US, but we still face a huge amount of tension between the police and minorities in the UK. The conversation that emerged from the LA riots put the issues faced by the communities who rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, into national dialogue and meant that those who previously had no awareness or reason to care about racism and police brutality and misconduct, could ask the questions that we should always be asking about how our authorities treat the powerless. However, following the riots of 2011 there was almost no public acknowledgement of a need for change and no visible action taken to improve the relationship and trust between black people and the police.

The watershed case of Stephen Lawrence highlighted for the first time for the British public, the institutional racism of the metropolitan police, and while we have witnessed positive change we still have so far to go. From the Brixton riots of 1981 to those of 2011 we see again and again the manifestation of this ongoing and toxic relationship which continues to destroy communities, yet we, the British public refuse to indulge in any conversation about race. It couldn’t possibly be a question of race because we got rid of that with the multiculturalism act, right? Wrong.

Our incredibly biased media that will allow you to believe that in the presence of a black male (and it is more often men than women, although women are of course also affected), you could be in danger. You thus have the right to be afraid or suspicious and if you happen to be a police officer, you may then manifest this fear or distrust through violence towards aforementioned black male. If you are not a member of the police, manifest this fear violently, and we’ll probably still forgive you.

So we can see why Tupac’s lyrics resonate so strongly with black communities on both sides of the pond. What is a black life worth if there is no justice for taking one? Until the IPCC can effectively punish officers for mistreating citizens undeserving of such abuse, black Britons will struggle to find confidence in the police. The problem is simple. The police routinely operate with greater disregard for human life possessed by those whose race or (lack of) riches make him or her, another powerless member of the masses.

If you want to imagine what Eric Garner went through, firstly you can listen to the 14 minute recording that wasn’t sufficient to yield a conviction, and secondly you can watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which in 1989, twenty-five years ago, depicted the breakout of a riot following the death of a black male who is strangled to death by a police officer who initially intervenes to break up a fight. Twenty-five years ago, Spike Lee imagined a scenario to illustrate the effects of police misconduct, its unfairness, its brutality its devastating effect on the local community and yet twenty-five years later we still seem reluctant to heed his lessons so that we can accept and acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action to ensure this never happens again, in the UK and US alike.