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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 police.
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