If you’re looking to talk to someone who’s passionately opposed to gentrification, you’d do well to head to Brixton. Even though similar changes are happening in almost every borough across the capital, SW9 seems more engaged with the notion of fighting them than anywhere else. The resistance has been louder, and not just because ‘Yuppies Out’ was once daubed on the local Foxtons’ window. Independent businesses are facing closure and life-long residents are tackling compulsory purchase orders, all thanks to the idea of ‘regeneration.’ The frustrations came to a head in April, when the event Reclaim Brixton saw thousands take to the streets to protest gentrification. In the midst of a wholly positive day, that same Foxtons window was soon smashed.
As a sort of local resident (Herne Hill, to be exact), and as a sort of journalist, I’m forever meaning to write something on the situation. Along with being really lazy, the fact that I’m not actually from Brixton has always held me back. I mean, what do I know? Instead, I drew up a list of long-term residents and community leaders who I could ask about the changes. The name at the top was Rashid Nix. Rashid stood as the Green Party candidate for West Dulwich and Norwood (Brixton’s constituency) in the recent elections. While Labour took the seat, he achieved 9% of the vote, placing him in the top 5% of Green candidates nationwide. His next goal is to run for mayor.
After a few emails and calls, I met him for breakfast in Brixton. The first thing that struck me about Rashid was his presence in the area. He spoke to more people over a 50 metre stretch of Atlantic Road than I speak to in an entire day. Everyone knows him. I was planning to type this up like a regular interview, but it soon became clear that it would be better to just transcribe what he said. I started by asking why Brixton is so attractive to first-time buyers and corporate businesses. Rashid will take it from here.
“No matter where you are in the world, people know about Brixton”
“Brixton is the most famous neighbourhood in London. Why? Is it because it’s the first place that had street lighting in Europe? Possibly. Is it because there were so many theatres around here, and actors, and people creating? Maybe. Is it because one of the oldest synagogues in the UK was on Effra Road? Maybe. Is it because the houses that back onto Loughborough park show that this is a place of immense means and wealth? Maybe. Is it because you had East Brixton station, Loughborough Junction, Brixton station and the tube station? Maybe. Or is it because you had a community of black people that put this place on the map? For me, it’s the black folk that made Brixton what it is. We put the spice into this place, so that no matter where you are in the world, people know about Brixton.
In terms of what we call ‘brands’, Brixton has everything a good one would need. It’s authentic. You don’t really need to market it too hard because people already know about it. It has everything already - even if some people feel the need to fine-tune it. On a more spiritual level, Brixton represents a way of being that’s the complete antithesis of what this country’s about. This country’s about control and Brixton is traditionally out of control. The way people lived in Brixton - and the way they walked and the way they talked, and the way they intermingled - it was like being in the Caribbean. But to find out what’s happening right now, you really have to go back to the 1980s.
Brixton was like an island in itself, so it was a strong, proud community with its own code of conduct. Yeah, it was dysfunctional, there was a lot of madness that happened, but at the same time that sense of community remained. People were concerned with the affairs of their community, and concerned with the affairs of other people. So even though you might not know that person being harassed by the police, you’d still be looking out for him. When the riots happened in ‘81, the community fought the police and sent 400 of them to hospital.
In the middle of London, in the mid-1980s, you’ve got what is essentially an independent black colony living two miles away from Westminster, like maroons - the runaway slaves. That sent out a worrying signal for some. Even the so-called aspirational black people thought they better move out of Brixton. And with that, the area lost much of its professional class, and a lot of the community’s direction went with it. All that was left was the hustlers and the village idiots. When the hustlers are left in control, there’s going to be mismanagement of resources and dysfunctional leadership. Combine that with the crack epidemic and Brixton was really hit hard.
There was a time 20 years ago when you couldn’t give away a property in Brixton. Estate agents called it ‘East Clapham’ or ‘South Kennington’. I remember you could get a flat for about £30,000 in Effra Court. We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities, because back then people just thought ‘you lose one, you get one’, you didn’t think about those flats being worth £400,000 20 years later.
The community could have bought the real estate, but the mindset was always ‘what good could come out of Brixton?’ So more people moved out and it just went right down. Politically, we had left leaning councils. In the 80s, Boroughs like Southwark and Lambeth were really supporting the working class people. But Thatcher had Borough councillors in court because they wouldn’t toe the Conservative line. If you have a local council that’s been elected to deliver a progressive agenda that won’t cut services, but central government doesn’t like the agenda, then the central government will get rid of it. So where does that leave the people who voted for the council?
“This is the only place I want to live.”
I was born in Crystal Palace, moved to Camberwell, schooled in Peckham. But as a child living in Crystal Palace there were only certain places where you could get West Indian produce. Brixton was one of them. I remember coming every weekend with my parents to what is now called Brixton Village. Back then it was all about the cheeky cockney traders doing their stuff, all the banter, and it was a proper working class place. All the West Indian people would come down to Brixton because we knew it had the stuff we wanted. My dad was a music man. He’d buy records in Brixton that were a little x-rated for the time, and my mum would cuss him out when he’d play them back home, then make him take them back to the shop!
I remember walking from Camberwell to Brixton as a 9 year old, by myself, just to be around the vibe. It was a different energy, it was a bit more raw, but it was nice. When I got to a certain age I said ‘this is the only place I want to live.’
For me, Brixton was as near to the Caribbean as you could get. Everyone that was coming over from Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, knew that if they went to that side of the tube station they were gonna see people that they knew from back home. It was that ridiculous. I remember seeing man outside Brixton station who I’d last seen on the block in Barbados! And they’re drinking a beer. I was like, ‘what you doing out here?’ and they said ‘everyone says come to Brixton and you’ll see people you know!’ That’s how it was.
“People are realising the shortcomings of the current political model.”
For the most part, black Caribbeans are politically left leaning, because we came out of a system where we were completely exploited: 200 years of slavery. When slavery was abolished, the slave-masters got compensation, but the slaves didn’t get a damn thing. That formed within us a certain type of mindset in regards to social justice. We would vote for Labour, over and over. At the same time there were West Indians who were hardcore Tories, who came to England just to eke out something for themselves. But on the whole, we have an emotional attachment to the Labour of back in the day, so we still vote for them without realising it’s a very different animal now. In Brixton, we have Labour councillors and MPs being elected, but they do very little, if anything, for the community.
I’m running for mayor because people are realising the shortcomings of the current political model. The current system is not delivering what it’s claiming to deliver. I actually understand what’s going on at the grassroots level, where leaders barely represent the people, let alone speak their language. In 2012, 1 million voted for Boris Johnson, just under a million voted for Ken Livingstone. It was a 38% turnout, meaning 62% of londoners could have voted but didn’t. 88% of Londoners didn’t vote for Boris. How can ALMOST 9 out of 10 not vote for the man who’s in office? How does that work? Those are the type of conversations that need to be taking place to get the 18-29 year old demographic into the polling booth. There are 1.7 million of them. Stormzy could be the mayor if they wanted him to be.
The trailer for Rashid's 2010 film, 'Why Don't Black People Vote?'
If I win the first thing I’ll do is build houses. Housing is the number one issue facing Londoners and the younger you are the more acute the issue, so I’ll tackle that first. TFL has thousands of acres of land in London. Why are our elected politicians selling public assets to private hands? They should use the land to build properties to rent to Londoners at a price they can actually afford. It’s something that the private sector already does, but at a much higher price, so why not the mayor’s office? As for my views on education, any society that doesn’t give a stake to young people is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. I would definitely promote education and training for young people in relation to the Green economy, and the countless opportunities that would be created by London pursuing a Green agenda. Buckingham Palace’s energy bill alone is over £2 million a year! Can you imagine the jobs that would be created in the effort to reduce those costs? Not to mention the environmental benefits and the money saved in the long run.
“People have joined the Green’s because they want to change the system.”
I was always interested in the political process. After the 2002 council elections they were discussing the low voter turnout on Radio 4. Coldharbour Ward in Lambeth was only 15%. I thought ‘that’s where I live!” And that’s when I realised you’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem. You can’t complain about something and not do something about it. I said to myself, “they’re gonna recognise me.”
A few years after I was walking down Coldharbour Lane with my local labour councillor, Rachel Heywood, and I must have introduced about 15 to 20 people to her. They didn’t know who the councillor was - and she’s the most high profile - but they knew me, so I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I laughed and said “I’m coming for your job”. Still, she beat me by a country mile in the election, but the fact I was audacious enough to say ‘I’m taking your seat’ lead to Labour officials asking me to join them! They said ‘I would go far’. But what’s the point when they’re pursuing policies which are detrimental to my community? I might as well join a party where they say, ‘go on Rashid, whatever you think is best, get on with it.’ That’s what I love about the Greens, they let me be me and I agree with their policies.
People have joined the Green’s because they want to change the system. But the Greens have become used to losing, and we as a party have to step up for all of the people who want a new world. I think we need to be very clear and honest about the limitations on the current political system. Then again, look at what happened in Scotland. I remember seeing an interview with Mhairi Black where she was asked if the SNP’s victory was due to tribalism, nationalism. She said ‘no, not at all. The electorate has become educated and they voted in their interests’. This will happen in London as well: People will say ‘I voted for you - how can you sell my home? How can you sell my estate?’ It will switch as quickly as that. People will realise that Labour is not the true alternative they claim to be. Out of 232 Labour MPs, only 48 voted against the recent welfare bill. The rest abstained. That’s only 20% of Labour politicians standing against austerity measures. You lose your right to call yourself the opposition if you abstain instead of oppose. You are just meek. I would never do that. If you play a meek game and you walk around Brixton late at night, you’ll get eaten up. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
"Brixton survived riots. Brixton survived recessions. But will it survive regeneration?"
Right now, Brixton is done. it’s all over for those who have no access to power, be it political or economic. Unless the population is educated in how to operate as a community, and Lambeth council is willing to serve that community, then the corporate hold on the area won’t ease up. Of all the people that have moved into Brixton, how many of them have come into the community and mixed with the local people? Obviously it’s a two way street, but to move into a place and then, for example, complain about men talking loudly at the end of the street, or have police give ASBOs to the drinkers outside of the Ritzy - because middle class people are trying to drink! - isn’t social cleansing. It’s messed up. A lot of these old boys came here from the Caribbean 50, 60 years ago and gave the best years of their lives to this country. They should at least be able to sit back, drink a beer, play a bit of dominoes, and relax. But now there’s nothing for them and it’s Labour’s fault. Brixton survived riots. Brixton survived recessions. But will it survive regeneration?
But I’m not angry. I wake up every day and give thanks, thanks that I’m alive, that I have the ability to go out and have an impact, to make a change, and the fact that I’m running for the Green candidate for mayor just shows how positive I am. I don’t have anything to lose, I’ve got it all to play for. I didn’t go to Eton, I went to Peckham Manor. I didn’t go to oxford, I got my degree from LSBU. I came from the ends. I know the game. To know that there’s always a mathematical possibility of a victory is what I focus on.
I don’t really deal in hope because I know that things will change. The young people who will inherit this mess will soon wake up and stop tolerating all the nonsense they’re being bombarded with. I was invited to give a talk the other day in Hackney about voter participation, and some young men came to hear the real talk, and we got into a discussion where they said; “Rashid if you back down, now that you’re running, don’t come round here again because you’d lose our respect.”
Why would I back down? And they said 'good. That’s what we wanted to hear.'
They’ll respect you for standing. They won’t respect you for backing down."
For more information about Rashid Nix and his mayoral campaign, head to his website. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.
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