Reading the Riot Act

BBC News (1985: Riots in Brixton after police shooting) recalled that,

Riots have broken out on the streets of south London after a woman was shot and seriously injured in a house search. Armed officers raided a house in Brixton early this morning looking for a man in connection with a robbery. Crowds began to gather outside the district’s police station when news broke the police had accidentally shot the man's mother, Cherry Groce, in her bed with apparently no warning. Local people had already been very critical of police tactics in Brixton and a mood of tension exploded into violence as night fell. Dozens of officers dressed in riot gear were injured as they were attacked by groups of mainly black youths with bricks and wooden stakes.¹

As with pretty much all mainstream media coverage of rioting, one needs perhaps to be careful in processing such coverage. While reports of rioting routinely include tallies of police injured, no such consideration of physical frailty is generally extended to those members of the public caught up in disturbances not necessarily of their making. No tallies of injuries sustained by/inflicted on members of the public – either at the hands of rioters or at the hands of the police – are included in such reporting. In similar regard, we perhaps ought to be sceptical of the prospect of a timely and fortuitous availability of medieval-sounding 'wooden stakes'.

Along with Railton Road, Coldharbour Lane had over the course of the middle to late twentieth century developed or acquired near-iconic status as one of the original 'frontlines', indicating the contested territory wherein the police and black youth regularly clashed or otherwise came into confrontational contact with each other. On a map, Coldharbour Lane is one of the main thoroughfares in South London that leads south-westwards from Camberwell into Brixton. Although the road is over a mile long, with a mixture of residential, business and retail properties, the stretch of Coldharbour Lane depicted in Donkor's painting centres on a few blocks, not too far from Brixton Market and nearby shops, bars and restaurants, where Coldharbour Lane meets Acre Lane in central Brixton. Donkor's painting recalls a time when Brixton was very much, and very much regarded, as a black (as in, distinctly African-Caribbean) neighbourhood. True to the 'frontline' nature of Coldharbour Lane, Donkor's painting showed three ghetto defenders, each in various stages of hurling rocks at the massed ranks of their tormentors, located outside of the frame of the canvas, some distance to the right of the depicted rock-throwers. In point of fact, we do not know for certain what the first rioter is about to hurl, as his hand/weapon are located beyond the left side of the artist's canvas. Rock, half-brick, petrol bomb, whatever the weapon, the first rioter, and the one closest to us, is about to let it fly. As something of a dramatic backdrop to the group of three, there stands an anonymous housing block, its façade of muted colour effectively pock-marked by what seem to be impossibly small windows, making the building more reminiscent of a prison, or a low rent Ministry of Truth² building, rather than a building of homes in which Londoners are supposed to live.

Reminiscent of images of rock-throwing young Palestinians of the Intafada, some of Donkor's urban warriors are at pains to mask their faces, to prevent subsequent identification by police photographers and surveillance cameras, and the judicial and extra-judicial retribution that would come with such identification. Only the face of the third figure is visible, though he nevertheless wears the traditional clothing of the disaffected ghetto dweller, the hoodie. Like The Sky at Night, [a painting by Tam Joseph, discussed earlier in the text], Coldharbour Lane 1985, consciously avoids (re)creating a scene of bloodlust, wanton destruction and mayhem. And like Joseph's painting, Donkor's, in its particularly restrained way, shows a small group of ghetto defenders, seeking to join righteous battle with the uniformed aggressors who have come into their midst, and invaded black territory in the most brutal and rudest of ways. Coldharbour Lane 1985 is characteristic of Donkor's style of painting. He fearlessly tackles key, dramatic, monumental moments of African diaspora history, but does so with a painterly preciseness that borders on aesthetic frugality. Despite the animated scene depicted, Coldharbour Lane 1985 resonates with an almost deafening silence, almost as if the riot is taking place with the environmental volume turned right down, or muted altogether. As such, the painting stands in marked and salutary contrast to the shrill, hysterical and sensationalist tones that normally accompany television reports of urban disturbances; reports that by their nature, offer more in the way of heat than light, on the causes and anatomies of a riot.

¹ accessed 25 May 2012.

² The Ministry of Truth was where Winston Smith, the main character of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, worked. In the book, it is described as an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising some 300 metres into the air, containing in excess of 3000 rooms above ground level. To emphasize the sinister and terror laden function of the Ministry of Truth, on the outside wall of the building there appeared three slogans of the Party: "WAR IS PEACE," "FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,"and "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

The full version of the above text was published in the journal Visual Culture in Britain, Volume 14, Issue 2, Summer 2013.