In spring 2011, my friend Will Aspinall and I began wondering what it would take to liberate Brixton from the rest of London. Neither of us had any real answers, but we did agree that Brixton must come together around something before it broke away from anything.
As a way of anchoring our counterfactual fantasy, we decided to unite the neighbourhood around a new flag, and film our efforts.
Though the cause was in jest, our curiosity was sincere. I suppose we were inspired by the televised passions of the Arab spring and by the looming anniversary of the Brixton riots. In the spirit of pub-stool revolutionaries, we wanted to brighten up our backyard with the reflected glory of distant uprisings.
We were also both temporarily unemployed. Now was the time to fill in some missing chapters from our misspent youth.
Why a flag? We already had a local currency, the Brixton pound. A flag seemed like a natural successor, another symbol of mock-statehood. It would be eye-catching and, we hoped, a vehicle for a popular vision of the neighbourhood. We organised a public competition for a new design, with the winner to be revealed at a grand unfurling in Windrush Square.
The climactic ceremony would unite the community—and throw down a gauntlet to the authorities. We expected to attract crowds large enough to make the police nervous. Hoisted above them, the new flag would no doubt violate some arcane Lambeth council regulation.
We canvassed strangers on the streets, enlisted friends through Facebook and left behind posters in pubs. We met bus drivers, policemen, shopkeepers, students, commuters and hustlers, amassing hasty sketches and many hours of footage for our film.
Typical suggestions for a flag reflected Brixton’s mix of cultures. The designs variously evoked the colours of the rainbow, the Union Jack, local landmarks and symbols associated with the largest immigrant communities in the area.
As the anniversary of the riots approached, some commentators began tracing their present anxiety over integration to the official response to the Brixton unrest in 1981. Columnists in the right-wing press spoke as if multiculturalism were somehow a genie released by the Molotov cocktails flung thirty years ago.
And yet many Brixtonians also seemed to make this link—in positive terms. They spoke with guarded pride of their neighbourhood’s historic conflagration and of its current diversity. The former had been inevitable, they said, and it had made the latter possible. Time and again, I was also struck by how the south London patois made homonyms of rights and riots. “We had to fight for our riots,” people would say, before I realised I had lost my ear for the accent.
On the central question of whether the riots could happen again, opinion was polarised. Many believed that the recession and cutbacks were seeding resentment in the estates. Later that year, when Brixton shops were trashed in a nationwide outbreak of looting, it seemed that the pessimists had a point.
At the same time, young, professional newcomers to the area seemed to regard the 1981 riots as a distant anomaly. The recent arrival of coffee bars and gourmet restaurants in an old shopping arcade had shown that even the hipster tribe, native to affluent parts of London, could hold territory here.
We had never been more aware of the fault line between neglect and gentrification than we were that spring, filming on the streets to a looped soundtrack of preachers and police sirens. Brixton felt like the civic equivalent of the bay of Naples—crowded, colourful, and shadowed by the vague threat of an eruption.
I hoped that the debate around the riots’ anniversary would be transmitted through the new flag. The flagpole should be a lightning rod for controversial ideas. Our playful scheme should point to something more significant—a political awakening of sorts.
Alas, I was not prepared for the hard reality of revolution. Our Facebook page attracted about 100 fans—fewer than a large house party. Many of our friends, observing our antics from their office desks, thought we’d lost the plot. In the end, we only received a hundred designs for flags.
To make matters worse, Lambeth council loved the idea. We also received encouragement from McDonald’s, whose local franchise controlled access to Brixton’s most visible flagpole. We easily secured permission to hoist the flag from Piano House, one of the tallest buildings in the area.
Even the name of our scheme, Breakaway Brixton, left officials unfazed—they repeated it as casually as if it were one of countless worthy, inner-city initiatives. In the jungle of local government, our battle-cry had become another fruit of the quango tree.
Fewer than 50 people showed up at the grand unfurling in Windrush Square.
There was no showdown with the cops, no scuffle around a flagpole, no crowd surging through the streets. The dream of a political awakening never caught on.
We had left the masses unmoved, yet we had won the hearty endorsement of the establishment that was meant to obstruct us. Confronted with our cause, the public had asked: What’s the point? But local businesses and bureaucrats had asked: what’s the publicity value?
If there is a lesson here for anyone planning a grassroots political movement in Brixton, it is this: the popular hunger to confront the establishment is no match for the establishment’s appetite for popular credibility.
A quote widely misattributed to Gandhi says successful revolutionaries pass through four phases: first they are ignored, then derided, then opposed, and finally, they triumph.
In its appeal to the public, the Brixton flag campaign was probably stuck between the first and the second stages. Apart from a few supporters, it elicited mainly indifference and some mockery.
Luckily for us, a flawed campaign still works as a filmed caper. Our 24-minute documentary about the flag, Unflappable, goes on public show at the Ritzy Cinema from Sunday, 29 July.
Will Aspinall and I have a lot to learn as community organisers. But when in some distant future, kids ask us what we did in the great recession, we shall point proudly to a film about a flag that failed to bring Brixton together.
Of course, the Ritzy Cinema is also one of many local businesses that are featured in Unflappable. But I can assure you that they are screening the film purely for its artistic merits. Whatever free publicity they received played no part in their decision. None whatsoever.