Like the troubling event itself, the strong protests and related violence following the death of Rashan Charles have stirred unease across Dalston and surrounding areas in Hackney about what might be simmering in that part of London and what might happen next.
Local MP Diane Abbott and seasoned campaigner Stafford Scott have made a good job of insisting that the investigation into why the 20-year-old is no longer with us gets to the truth while at the same time urging people not to trash the streets. Those streets and the people who live in and use them form part of the context for the bleak and distressing events that have taken place. They are streets that have seen a lot of changes. Are those changes and the unrest that has erupted on them related?
I think they surely are. But maybe not in quite the way as has been claimed. The case has been made that behind the disturbances and the expressions of mistrust of the police lies a broader conflict arising from a breakdown of community togetherness brought about by gentrification. But just as social unrest never occurs in a social vacuum, gentrification is never only a force for division and marginalisation. Any sense in which it has informed responses to the fate of Charles and the tragedy that his struck his family needs to be seen in that light.
A bit of history is useful here. In 1983, 21-year-old Colin Roach died from a gunshot wound inside the entrance of Stoke Newington police station, which is literally right next to Dalston. Many have never accepted a coroner’s jury’s 8-2 majority verdict of suicide. As in nearby Tottenham, suspicions of police cover-ups have endured and been replenished down the decades. That legacy, I suspect, has a life of its own – one whose explosive potential local police chiefs and community leaders are unlikely to be unaware of.
Another part of the backdrop is far more recent. As a Hackney resident for 35 years, and one who lives a 20-minute walk from Dalston, I am very conscious of the borough’s past bad reputation and also of the repair work done to it. Yet although crime statistics have been on a downward path, a vicious criminal subculture has never gone away. And in the last few weeks, there’s been a spate of ugly incidents: the robbery of a 92-year-old woman in Hoxton; moped thefts and assaults with knives and acid across the borough, mostly committed by children; complaints by shopkeepers and market traders in Dalston of shoplifting kids running amok. As ever, you try to keep things in perspective. Yet the ripples of disquiet are persistent, nagging away at peace of mind. The death of Charles and the confrontations that have followed have added to and perhaps even drawn from a more general anxiety about community safety, a climate of dangerous tensions – a sense, even if only imagined, of a nasty mood in the air infecting evereyone to some degree.
Can the effects of gentrification help explain any of this? Can the lunatic rise in private property values sweeping across much of East London and the influx of more affluent residents that has gone with it have created conditions that make some people more likely to throw things at the police or set fire to mattresses on Kingsland Road than they would otherwise have been? Again, history is worth consulting. The gentrification of Hackney has been underway for decades, as has resentment of it: the punk workerists of Class War were painting “Mug A Yuppie” on walls and bridges way back in the mid-1980s. And what, to ask a well-worn question, do we mean by gentrification? Or by its companion phenomenon “regeneration”?
If we mean raising the standards of Hackney’s state schools from their often sorry condition in the 1990s to the heady heights they routinely scale today, how has that divided the community or helped incomers at the expense of the longer-established? If we mean the enhancement of social housing, public transport and public spaces, does that foster disadvantage and exclusion? If we mean high streets moving upmarket or low income private renters being squeezed, the argument that gentrification disrupts and discomfits becomes stronger. But can you have one set of things without the other? And how can you stop the ones you don’t like in a city undergoing a massive population boom and all the pressures that brings with it?
It would be wrong to dismiss the idea that neighbourhood change, especially the rapid kind many Londoners have been experiencing lately, can have disruptive, alienating and, yes, angering, effects on some who live in those neighbourhoods. In fact, the importance of mitigating such effects and of trying to help people unnerved by them to take advantage of new possibilities that might be created by them is probably under-recognised.
But change is in the nature of this city. Its whole history is a saga of shifts and reconfigurations, economic, social and cultural. Its people have long resembled a restless kaleidoscope of aspirations and discontents, never holding the same patterns for long. The forces of continuity and change have always coexisted, sometimes more comfortably than others. For some in Dalston, this may be one of the less comfortable times. But for all that is different, much has remained the same. If fury at Rashan Charles’s death is indeed, as some contend, fed by a connected anger about unwelcome change, might it not also be nourished by resilient traditions? And might it even be that anger against the way Dalston has changed is not felt by the majority?