The real news is happening in the currency markets but tonight as a Londoner let’s talk about this.
The third night of the London-wide riots. Tonight it’s Peckham, Croydon, Lewisham, New Cross Gate Currys (ha!), wherever. Yesterday riots erupted in Brixton after the Splash event, down to Streatham, around Enfield, Walthamstow and Islington, rumours of Westfield. First night began in Tottenham and Wood Green after a young black man was shot by the police after a roadside stop-and-search. It was a clear cover-up.
Let’s keep our heads first and talk about the who, what and why. Ok – firstly, it’s a combination of looting and violent confrontations with police, usually involving projectiles. These riots aren’t particularly unusual. In another part of the UK, Belfast, these kinds of confrontations occur pretty regularly by angry young men against the police. Like the young, mainly black British teenage boys ramming bins into JD Sports and police vans, these are areas of long-term economic and racial disadvantage and exclusion. That doesn’t mean the protestors are wrong or right. To talk about it like that is ridiculous. To talk about the death of Mark Duggan in specific relation to it, or to talk about the riots as a purely political thing, is also to completely miss the point. But it helps to think why these riots always occur in urban deprived areas, usually defined by poverty and discrimination in forms high unemployment, mental health and substance abuse problems.
The riot gets set alight by some spark. The police attack someone, kill someone, or at least it seems that way – and they cover it up. Like with Tottenham 1985 or Brixton 1981, this happens after a long run-up of hassling, stop-searches, crackdowns by the Met police, battling in 2011 as it has been since the early 1970s with institutional corruption, racism and incompetence. Who leads it right now? Why did the last two Met commissioners resign? Anyway that’s not the point. The police have been killing members of the public on protests or the transport system for some time, and we haven’t seen a similar response yet. So why 2011? Let’s talk about the longer game. The Coalition government announced in 2010 a huge series of cuts to public services and spending, many of which began in April 2011 (and it’s going to get a lot worse). In the last 4 months we’ve seen youth services, carer support, social services and basic infrastructure come under huge pressure to make their own cuts, reduce services, make everything short-term, goal-oriented and profitable. Community and charity organisations have had their local government funding cut, services closing, libraries closing. There ain’t nothing to do. And there is even less help with finding a job, finding full care for a sick relative. Cutting EMA, turning universities into a debt-for-life, where you might not even get a job in that tesco hypermarket built for local jobs because of a criminal record, where there is no more training opportunities apart from at your local overstretched college. What’s left? So you’re aged 14 or 16, from a socially deprived community, in a very low-income household, suspicious of racial discrimination from school and employers, with even less money, less help and less future. See that cottage above? You’d be pissed off too, no?
So we have poverty, discrimination, police violence. Let’s add to that boredom. Chaos, madness, are the words that eyewitnesses caught up in the 2011 London riots keep using. Rudeboys on a rampage. There ain’t nothing to do. Areas marked by high unemployment and education dropout rates like Brixton, like Tottenham, like Woolwich, like Hackney, like so many places, high youth populations. Harassed by the police when out on the streets, but nowhere else to go. Anger and no way of expressing it, not when representative democracy in the UK is a total lie, as anyone following the LibDems recently knows, or anyone whose tried to tell the difference nowadays between Labour and Tory. No wonder few people know their name of their local MP, when they’d never listen anyway. What do bored young men do? They fight, they have fun. We know this from riots everywhere else ever. It’s rarely political in purpose. It’s about going mad, taking some revenge and maybe a new pair of trainers.
A common response to the riots is contempt. People on Facebook and Twitter compete to pour scorn. The newspapers will use the occasion to vilify the urban underclass again, call for sweeping security measures or higher funding for police forces who have ‘lost control’ of the city. Observers noticed the Met police refusing for some time to step in, either fearful of exacerbating it, or seeing in the chaos a great PR moment to call for new powers and further state funding. Quotes from unnamed ‘local residents’ (realistically Giles, Seb or Jemima from government or Met Police Press Offices) will blame outsiders for starting it. These were local boys though, always are.
This is already too long. Riots are neither right nor wrong, they occur for fairly straightforward reasons. But let’s talk finally about Nike trainers and iPads. If you’re a Londoner, you’ve probably had people contacting you asking if you’re alright, telling you to watch for your safety. People on trains tweet to their followers their fears of getting their iPad stolen. Stupid thugs. In Brixton and Peckham, teenage boys try and steal trainers, phones. A Greggs, a McDonalds, a Lidl, a Peacocks store and a bus are trashed. Fighting and looting, with the prize now that law and order has visibly disappeared to reap spoils, get what you really want. The question applies to left-wing and largely-middle-class protests too – what do you want when the police disappear? If they went away, if you took control of the streets? What would you do? What do you want to happen?
This afternoon I saw what, 12 blue robocop armoured police vans roar down towards Peckham? This was the police getting a handle of things, cooling the anger of communities. The future looted by venture capitalists and an Oxbridge-educated Political Class. Bored kids smash shit in return. Lefties write into the Guardian and ‘Like’ each others’ facebook riotporn (see my looted collection above). Reactionary liberals fear for their safety of their arts graduate sons and daughters. More police on the street? That always solves these problems eh.
Later, a group of 15 boys I watched trying to break into Currys in New Cross Gate. Apparently they were successful eventually, I got bored watching, realised it wasn’t my riot, these boys don’t need student voyeurs, critics or celebrants – all of that misses the point. When the authority of the police goes, you’re empowered for a second. Beating and breaking and smashing and robbing. You go for the hollow consumer items now out of reach, the only things you have been trained and socialised to want – TVs, fun, phones, shoes, fires. The same consumer items other Londoners are now fearing for the safety of (what if they take my iPhone?). London’s burns for another couple of nights maybe, who knows, before some press conference is organised with a few token black Christians representing the ‘community’ as non-verbal facetime fodder (these are multi-racial places). Cameron calls for order, Clegg licks his balls, the police get some extra powers, more young men get beaten up or shot up or imprisoned for some disproportionate amount of time. Maybe the Territorial Support Group take revenge on a south London crowd of drunken 14 year old boys, Kings College hospital stuffed with battered rudeboys. Maybe not so different than the riots of any Friday or Saturday night in most city-centres, same boredom, same anger, same fundamental impossibility of getting out of your situation.
Social mobility and representative democracy? These words are even emptier now that the only training comes in images, in hunger, in wanting, that anger. White middle-class pundits pass judgement. I want a fuckin satnav: young and old, men and women, a community comes together in looting. Big society? We’re all in it together, so hand me that toaster. As London, Leeds, Birmingham, wherever burns, David Cameron announces that he has no intention of cutting short his holiday in Tuscany. The riots might get stopped but the real problems ain’t going anywhere.