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Observations and Interviews

On February 2nd from 12-2pm I participated in the comms storm that Save Nour Save Brixton organised. This involved people tagging Mayor Sadiq Khan in as many posts as possible and commenting their thoughts about the Hondo Tower decision. The comments all used the hashtag #FightTheTower which allowed me to observe the public’s participation in real time. My own tweets became interlinked with a digital crowd. The hashtag affordance of both Instagram and Twitter also serves as a digital archive. This forced Sadiq Khan to listen, he couldn’t ignore the 1000s of participants. He announced he will hold his own public hearing into Taylor McWilliam’s plans for Brixton. Through collective action online, the campaign built more power and turned a neighbourhood issue into a London-wide problem by connecting Hondo Tower with broader conversations of gentrification. As Save Nour Save Brixton stated, it should not be this hard for communities to be heard. Below is a video from ITV news covering the event:

!! Today 1000s of us used #FightTheTower... and tonight we made the ITV News! 🔥🔥🔥@MayorofLondon please listen to Brixton! pic.twitter.com/4CpSm2nBM7

— Save Nour #FightTheTower (@save_nour) February 2, 2021

I want to thank Danai, Chris, Alfonso and Steph from Save Nour Save Brixton for speaking with me. Their insight and reflection on the campaign and their relationship with the neighbourhood was so helpful for this entire project. Below are some themes that came out of the interviews. Each interview was approximately half an hour and took place over a recorded phone call.

Reflective thoughts about the changing nature of the neighbourhood:

“I used to work at the Ritz Cinema, and we used to get supplies for the Café from Jose, the Mediterranean shop on the corner of Atlantic Road with Brixton Road and they closed the shop a few years ago. It was devastating because it was all about evicting existing independent small shops in order to regenerate or whatever they call it. The carpet shop, the Mediterranean shop all the local shops we have been living with for a long time are closing because they are evicting them and telling them they could come back but the rent was tripled, and they never managed to”

“We said ‘there is a 20 story tower going up where Sports Direct is, what do you think?’ and almost everyone said ‘oh that’s not good’ but some people would say ‘that is not good because I like Sports Direct and it’s been there for years’ and some people would say ‘that is not good, this used to be a Tesco and I used to go there before it got turned into a damn Sports Direct now it’s part of the problem’ and some people would say ‘oh this used to be a Portuguese bar 15 years ago and then it got turned into a damn Tesco’ so it’s always a question of what it means to people. What gentrification means to people, what change is, where it is coming from and making sure it fits into that broader picture”

“I shopped at Nour regularly and I had been for years when I worked at a restaurant in the market, I was introduced to it by my boss and I thought it was an amazing place, a gem right in the heart of the market.”

“The way gentrification usually works is like a lower income area has a strong sense of identity. Therefore, it can become some sort of a brand by itself which just becomes ‘cool.’ The people they move there because they're comfortable living there, and they don't have a lot of income. And then that becomes more desirable. And then the developer sees this. They saw opportunity a few years ago, and it was a goldmine. They were like ‘guys, Brixton is a perfect place because of the Afro-Caribbean influence, the music, foodwise it is really interesting because it's a market and also it's a commercial hub, because that has been the purpose of Brixton since 1877.”

Focusing on social media as a tool to organize and mobilize:

“We knew social media was key from the beginning”

“Interesting that you [speaking to me] wanted to get involved because of Instagram as well”

“I don't personally have a Facebook account, I have deleted my Instagram account since this has begun, I didn't want to be a part of any of those platforms while the next presidential election happens in America. So, I'm incredibly sceptical of this platform. But they are powerful. And I think this entire campaign renewed my faith in the positive side of it.”

“There's such an appetite for people to understand how these different political systems work and have things explained in a more kind of tangible, social media friendly way. And I think some of the people on the campaign just have such incredible PR skills that they've been able to do that.”

“We were all aware of how important social media is for organizing specifically online and then it was the only thing we could do which was obviously strange to start with because when we were in the pubs brainstorming ideas, obviously Covid was sort of looming in a sense and maybe we were denying it, but we were planning big events and bringing people together and discussed wider issues in Brixton and get visuals that way, but that all sort of had to be scrapped and then by necessity it was all online and our homes pretty much.”

Transitioning from Save Nour to Fight the Tower:

“It felt extremely good, and we are very happy that this family did not lose their shop as I said before, I have experienced friends and neighbours through going to the shop for years and years. For consumers, they can go somewhere else but for them they would have lost their livelihoods so when we won the battle for Nour Cash and Carry it was a massive encouragement and proved that we can actually together, if we combine skills of different people in the same area, we can genuinely achieve a lot of things— The feeling of also anxiety about what is going to come next was very important because we knew we are not out of the woods. Taylor Tower was breathing over our shoulders, literally, so we knew this was not going to be the end. We have nothing against an individual but you have control over an area and behave this way and you do not take into consideration the livelihood of people but all you want to do is investment and development ignoring the real needs of people and trying to, not threaten, but your weight on the people who don’t have as much as you have.”

“We didn’t really see it as ‘oh what do we do now’ there was always recognition that it was one aspect of a much broader problem and definitely not the first aspect either, not the first-time gentrification has come to Brixton or the first shop to be threatened which eviction and many have already been evicted and that is gone now. One thing we heard from people in the community when we were organizing particularly was saying that’s all well and good, but Brixton has already changed and has been gentrified to some extent and it isn’t a binary of now gentrification is over and the Tower is coming so if we beat them everything is fine and done. It fits into a bigger picture and a longer game for decades. It was never waiting for the next thing because there is already lots going on and the idea is to try and expand the campaign into much broader conversations about what Brixton should be and its place in the world, what development looks like and who gets to have a say in that development and what direction it goes in? Whose interest does it serve? It’s quite an ambitious kind of picture but I think it is important to situate each individual campaign in that broader picture.”

Leveraging with Lambeth Council and the importance of transparency:

“They are political representatives so what happened is that they communicate with us through their website. They have a website where they put their applications there and if you wanted to put your objections or approval for the project, for instance, you have to follow the procedures. So, we familiarized ourselves with these procedures and they are a little bit difficult to find, it is not made very easy, and it is not only Lambeth but these very heavy government websites that you have to move very deeply within to find what you need. It’s the way bureaucracy works, and it is a difficult thing to navigate even if you are the most savvy person—First of all we familiarized ourselves with the system and found what is available to us to inform people with what is happening, then we used our social media to connect with people like counsellors and the police. So, we communicated with them through there and we made sure to involve the local paper, and we informed them about the council website, where to go to find information about this particular project and the application. It has been very useful, when you have social media and you can put the links for Lambeth council and then of course, maybe the counsellor knows what you are doing. Transparency is important, to use social media in order to inform people about things that they will find more difficult”

“I think what's become very clear is that there is a general shrouded, hidden, mysterious element to most people as to how the council functions. This isn't necessarily part of the infrastructure of the Council, but from an outside perspective, it seems incredibly confusing. I think through challenging them in quite a public way, we've been able to just kind of raise questions in a public forum that social media has provided. And then has given us reference, and I think everyone exists in that place. And the counsellors have to exist in that place.”

“Before social media, we've we would have put all our energy on the streets. That would have been good for talking to people, but I think the benefit on social media is that we've put Lambeth Council in the spotlight worldwide.”

Concerns about exclusion:

“People over a certain age who do not use this kind of smartphone, but we still want to engage with them because they are very important to the community. They have a stake in what is happening in the centre of Brixton, so it is very important that we engage them, but I have seen that we are doing as much as we can. Part of my life was without a smartphone because we had cords, so I am understanding what it is like for someone older than me to actually feel a little bit intimidated by the whole thing, but I didn’t want any of these people to be excluded”

“We took it very seriously from the beginning, especially during COVID where social media was our only way to communicate and we tried to engage by calling people, members of local communities and local groups to engage physically whenever we were allowed to you know 1:1 and interviews with television channels and newspapers with individuals from the community who are against Hondo tower, or they want to protect Nour from being evicted”

“Engaging with people and linking them together can all be done online you just have to be incredibly mindful of who isn’t in those spaces. Particularly with the shop, there is quite often a lot of elderly people who shop there and other demographics who aren’t on social media or looking out for hashtags about the campaign”

Co-implication of online and offline organising:

“We left flyers and printed posters and stickers around Brixton to try and raise awareness for people that weren't online or that had maybe missed that, because that's always a consideration”

“We had interviews happening in the heart of the market with camera and one person filming and one person talking because as you know the covid rules change over time so we followed the rules, sometimes we were allowed to have, to demonstrate outside the town hall and when we are allowed to do that we did, we also had interviews when it was allowed to bring one person into your house not from your bubble also when we were allowed we would project live the decision of Lambeth council to the application of Taylor Tower, so we had a projector projecting the whole application hearing, we stayed there for 5 hours and had food and drink, stayed distanced, masks and sanitizer and the right amount of people and we had live streaming and people, members of the public were standing there with us watching, symbolically we did it on the wall of the Brixton recreation centre”

“Near the site in Brixton where they are proposing to build this tower, we got a projector and we first of all held speeches, and food, we had done a fundraiser for the campaign with the idea that any leftover money would go on to help with broader anti-gentrification campaigns which is the tower at the moment. So, we used some of those funds to provide refreshments for people and we had sound equipment and had people giving speeches about the tower and the local area and it was really quite powerful because we broadcasted the meeting, the planning application meeting, live on to the side of this building and we must have had 50-60 people. To get the word out there we basically had to use only social media and it was tricky because we were trying to make sure there was enough people there and trying to get people to come and take part and be brought into the picture because the whole point is to bring community members involved but at the same time we didn’t want there to be 100s or 1000s of people turning up to Central Brixton because that could be a risk to people and we were handing out gloves to everyone trying to protect people at the same time”

“You aren’t usually thinking what if too many people come”

“We did some flyering to raise objections against the tower and you can object online but what we did is print out these post cards addressed to the Lambeth planning officer and got people to write on them in the street why they were objecting to the tower and then put it in a box which we then posted to the council and now they have had to take them all into account at least 100 messages.”

Musings on Covid, the digital and the neighbourhood:

“Personally, I am a very neighbourhood type, I believe in the community and that happiness and propensity comes from the community from the locals. My personal view is that we amplified through the campaign, not only the voices of the people who needed it most, but also the need to focus on the local talent. I tell you this because, Covid creates a kind of quietness around and everybody stopped, they were doing this erratic London life, going there and jumping up and down the trains and it gave us the opportunity to look around and say this is my neighbourhood”

“Covid is a very negative and bad thing, but speaking to community, is gives us the opportunity to care for each other practically, I was delivering medicine, food, helping with people who were sick, we did a lot of that during the springtime alongside the campaign so it was very interconnected, the link was fantastically done because social media, WhatsApp, we had all these groups that helped a lot for people to say what they need.”

“I think one of the most positive experience during the pandemic has been this kind of heightened sense of locality.”

“We lived in [redacted] for two years before and didn’t know a single person in the neighbourhood, our friends were met in different ways and lived in different parts of London. But now we know dozens of people in the area through the campaign and also more broadly through mutual aid stuff, we also got involved with mutual aid on WhatsApp chats”

“You know at the height of the pandemic people were really into making bread for some reason? Someone in our mutual aid chat said they had sourdough starter and asked if anyone wanted any and you can come get them, so a bunch of us went around to get it and then we made a new chat for that and then people were using the chat to put pictures of their bread they baked. When I have lived in more transient student areas people don’t know each other as much so it has some way brought people together. My partner recently got a bike and has been waiting for a helmet to be delivered, we were going to go on a bike ride yesterday and didn’t have a helmet for her, so I stuck it in the local chat which has come from mutual aid chat, and now we have borrowed someone’s bike helmet for the week! It brings people together, these interactions on a neighbourhood level.”