When I was born in London in early 1990, Margaret Thatcher was serving her final year as Prime Minister. Though I remember nothing of her time as PM, I eventually learned how much of a divisive figure she was. Her strengthening of neoliberal economic policy in Britain caused much anguish, particularly among the working class. Also, as an international relations student, I grew to despise her when I learned of her relationship with Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in Chile, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In fact, despite her ostensible opposition to racial segregation, her government allowed Britain to be the world’s primary financial investor in South Africa – essentially bankrolling the oppression of black South Africans. Regardless of the behaviour exhibited by her government in both domestic and foreign policy, I had never expected what I saw unfold in Brixton last night.
Yesterday, the 8th of April 2013, I woke up with the news that Thatcher had died of a stroke at the Ritz Hotel in Central London. I walked by the hotel on my way to university that afternoon to see what the atmosphere was like. A few police officers were on the road, and there were around forty people (including journalists) standing around, all watching the gates intently, as if something were about to happen. Though in general, there was nothing to see.
When I arrived at university, I immediately went online to read people’s opinions, laugh at some distasteful (though occasionally very funny) jokes, and hearing about the international reaction. I was definitely quite curious when someone posted a link to a Facebook event with the title ‘Street party in Brixton – #nowThatchersdead’, intending to begin at 5.30 on the very same day.
After finishing work, I showed up in Windrush Square in Brixton. Brixton, by the way, was not a random choice of venue. Brixton, the site of two large riots (1981 and 1985) under Thatcher’s governance, was a traditionally working class area that felt the brunt of some of Thatcher’s socioeconomic policies. However, in recent years, there has been a significant influx of students and young professionals moving into the area, which has led to increasing property prices and changes in the cultural make-up of Brixton. Brixton market which was once full of cheap-and-cheerful flavours and vibes from the Caribbean and the Far East, is slowly becoming enveloped by posh French cafes, £8 burgers and hipsters.
Windrush Square was buzzing; around 400 to 500 revellers of all ages, playing music, chanting and cheering. I saw toddlers dancing with their parents, teens and young adults with beers and spliffs, and many people who appeared to be old enough to remember the entirety of Thatcher’s governance. It was a vibrant and exciting environment, as well as being peaceful and welcoming. Though it was difficult to feel comfortable knowing that we were celebrating someone’s death. Especially due to the lack of subtlety; a waving banner attached to a shop front exclaimed ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ and an alteration of the cinema’s redograph by revelers that read “MARGARET THATCHERS DEAD. LOL”.
Though the “LOL” was eventually changed to “EQUALITY IS THE KEY”. I met a lot of interesting and friendly people at the event, and most I met shared my view – that Thatcher was not worth revering, though this celebration of her death was in poor taste.
Eventually after the crowds had died down to around 200 people, I watched as many of them moved into the middle of a busy crossroads and began dancing and playing music in the street. As traffic came to a standstill, police vans came along and ensured that everyone returned to the pavement. However, soon after, the group returned to the street and began to march and dance their way down the long road. This is where things started to go wrong.
Several individuals in the group, hooded and hiding their faces began vandalising Brixton high street. Some began emptying bins into the street, and using whatever they could find to block the road. I witnessed a few other throwing bottles at shops, seemingly indiscriminately, including one young man who smashed the glass window of charity shop Barnardo’s.
From what I saw, the crowd was predominantly people partying, dancing and having fun (for questionable reasons), with a minority of violent hooligans. Though, unlike at certain other public demonstrations I have observed, the police did not seem to be provocative, and the majority of the crowd were accepting of their wishes for revelers to stay out of the road; despite a few unnecessarily destructive individuals, it was a peaceful event.
However, the crowd eventually came to a halt outside Brixton police station, where they continued their singing, dancing and playing of instruments , including some disparaging chants being directed at the police. As police presence increased, I left the scene.
I won’t be forgetting April 8th 2013 for a while…