14 December 1995
Brixton: that was no riot
Following the death of another black man in custody around a hundred
protesters held a demonstration on Wednesday night, 13 December. The demonstrators
marched from the police station to the high street with the intention of
blocking traffic. At that point hundreds of riot police attacked the march
and cordoned off the area.
According to commentators this was the worst disturbance in Brixton since
the riots of 1985, after the shooting of Cherry Groce, or even the 1981
riots provoked by the police operation Swamp '81. Lord Scarman, head of
the inquiry that followed the 1981 riots, where the strategy of community
policing was first introduced, said the morning after the riots that all
his efforts had been destroyed by the latest disturbances. Scarman's views
are echoed elsewhere, as community leaders talk of relations with the police
being set back years.
In fact there was no riot in Brixton on 13 December. Instead the police
massively overreacted to what was a relatively small demonstration. The
looting and burning of shops that took place once the area was cordoned
off had little to do with the people protesting over Wayne Douglas' death
in police custody. Rather, what sporadic disturbances there were were provoked
entirely by the police actions.
The police lost control because they believed their own myths about how
dangerous Brixton is. Fearing a re-run of the 1981 riots they ended up recreating
the conditions that would make some conflict inevitable. Once riot police
were deployed and parts of Brixton cordoned off there was bound to be some
antagonism. The police provoked more hostility by harassing commuters, returning
from work, who were told that they could not cross police lines to get home.
In the end the community police office was burnt out, some cars were burnt
and some bottles were thrown. Just seven arrests were made and a policeman
was hurt when he was knocked off his motor bike. Hardly a riot.
Wayne Douglas: killed by the crime panic
Twenty five year old Wayne Douglas, whose death sparked the protest, was,
according to witnesses, savagely beaten by police officers at 2.30am on
the morning of Tuesday 5 December. Police allege that he was accosted after
a burglary. They say that half an hour after his arrest he was found dead
in his cell. Speaking about the case, metropolitan police commissioner sir
Paul Condon suggested that he had died from heart failure because he was
'overweight' and from the exertion of the alleged burglary.
The background to Wayne Douglas Death is the current crime panic. On the
morning he was killed twelve thousand police officers were deployed in operation
Christmas Cracker - a high profile campaign against burglars. The extraordinary
thing about this operation is that it was not done to punish any particular
crime. Instead the police just rounded up as many people with past convictions,
or people who had been informed upon, detaining as many as 2334 in a single
morning of dawn raids.
This kind of preventative policing rides roughshod over people's civil liberties.
The police made it clear that they intended to keep as many 'burglars' inside
over the christmas break as they could to keep the crime figures down. But
with preventative policing people are being punished for things they have
not even done yet. That kind of attack on people's rights is possible because
of the overexaggerated fears of crime that most people have. Despite the
fact that recorded rates of crime are falling for the second year running
the perception that crime is out of control means there is little dissent
about the extension of police powers.
Once people are prepared to give the police more powers to deal with crime
the consequence is inevitable. Flushed with moral righteousness the police
claimed the first fatality of the clamp-down on burglaries when they beat
the life from Wayne Douglas' body. The more that the crime panic rises unchecked
the greater the likelihood that more people will die at the hands of the
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