First things first – I don’t condone any of the rioting, looting, arson, muggings and general thuggery whatsoever. I think it’s frightening, horrible and hugely counter-productive. I hope that those involved are held responsible for their actions. I feel I have to put this because any attempt to move beyond stock responses to all of this seems to be jumped upon by crazies who accuse you of ‘siding’ with the rioters and being pleased that families are being burned out of their homes.
There are, of course, already thousands of responses to these riots out there. What I think is pretty irrelevant. However I’ve felt such despair in the past few days that I feel the need to articulate it, to get it out there so that I can move on.
The reason for this despair are the reactions to these events I’ve seen and keep seeing, particularly those from people who self-identify as ‘lefties’ and/or ‘liberals’. Card-carrying Labour members. Socialists. People who routinely condemn the reactionary rubbish found in the Daily Mail or The Telegraph. People who, only two weeks ago, were applauding the ‘measured’ Norwegian response to the massacre there and contrasting the commitment to ‘more democracy’ with the reactionary responses they imagined you’d see in Britain.
It has, to put it mildly, been eye-opening. Beliefs, if they mean anything at all, surely must be beliefs that we hold even when it is difficult to do so, when it seems that we are in a tiny minority and when there is a rush towards easy certainties. The speed with which educated, ‘liberal’ people have abandoned any semblance of reason and resorted to the language of the far-right has truly frightened me and makes me worried for what is to come after these riots are over.
Firstly, there has been an unthinking prostration before the police. People who, only last week, were at the very least suspicious of the Mark Duggan affair are now fully-fledged cheerleaders for the police, shouting down anyone who dares to question them. Let’s remember that the spark for this was the police shooting a young father and the suspicion which immediately followed this. Eyewitnesses immediately questioned the version of events put forward by ‘police sources’ and, it seems already, they were right to do so. Trust in the police is utterly destroyed in many of these communities. The IPCC swiftly moving in did absolutely nothing to placate matters – the same IPCC who, after all, immediately accepted the police’s version of events in the Tomlinson killing and only had to accept that it was false when video footage of the attack emerged. The relationship between the police and these communities is clearly hugely problematic and is playing a huge role in all of this. Yet with quite grim inevitablity, people responded to two evenings of riots by demanding a more authoritarian response from the police. I’ve seen countless demands for the police to ‘crack some skulls’, to ‘shoot the bastards’. Cuddly, giggly liberal icons like Caitlin Moran were asking for the army to move in. There was, it seems, absolutely no effort to attempt to understand the relationship between the rioters and the authorities, the effect that more brutality would have on the situation (and that is the paramount thing – I wasn’t worried about this response because of a hand-wringing concern for the people rioting, but because I genuinely believed it would make things worse).
It has since emerged that the police were ordered to “stand and observe” initially. We didn’t need the army, tanks, bullets or cannons. We needed an effective police presence. The reasons ‘police sources’ have given for this initial, ineffectual approach? That the MET felt ‘inhibited’ because of the response to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the kettling at the student demos earlier this year. It really defies belief – after riots sparked off by the police shooting a man and then (it now seems) deliberately misleading people about the circumstances, the police imply that they haven’t been able to effectively respond because people make too much fuss when they kill innocent people and imprison innocent kids. If we applaud this, if we play this zero sum game and agree with the police that it’s either their way or chaos, our society is fucked.
In short, it’s perfectly possible to want an effective response from the police, to believe that there are many brave police officers out there, without completely suspending your critical faculties.
The second hugely depressing response, one which seems almost ubiquitous, is the dehumanising of the rioters and the belief that they are all rational individual agents. There is an illogical tension here – on the one hand these people are portrayed as ‘mindless’, ‘feral’, ‘idiots’ and ‘scum’ who lack any intelligence whatsoever; on the other, they are individuals who have rationally chosen their actions and are only rioting so that they can get ‘trainers and free TVs’. You can see the hatred dripping from the screen when people write and speak it. People who seem to believe that, across the country, people have decided that now would be a good chance to get some free things. People who happen to overwhelmingly come from areas with similar economic and social backgrounds, with similar problems, with similar demographics. Clips of rioters speaking have been passed around in order that we can all laugh at how inarticulate they are, assure ourselves that they are all subhuman morons who deserve nothing but brutalising.
Make no mistake – it’s clear that the riots have moved very far from the Duggan situation. It’s clear that hardened criminals are taking advantage of them. It’s clear that many of the people involved have absolutely no political intent in what they’re doing. Accepting that is very different from saying that this is not political. From saying that there are reasons why these people even feel that they can/should engage in this behaviour while the rest of us assert that we would never do it. Others have written about this background far better than I could so I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that when people demand that the rioters get a job, when they wonder where their parents are, when they ask why they are attacking shops, when they (as one man did on BBC news on Monday evening) express shock that this is happening in an area of ‘trendy people with good jobs’ – these are political issues and looking at each of them seriously goes some way to beginning to understand why this is happening.
The latter point regarding the ‘trendy people with good jobs’ is one very relevant to the responses I’ve seen as I think many of the left-leaning people whose reactions have provoked despair would probably fall into this category. I’ve lived in Hackney for 5 years now and I initially moved here because, quite simply, it was the cheapest place I could find. It wasn’t horrible or intimidating by any means but even then, people expressed jokey surprise that I would move to an area just beside the ‘Murder Mile’. In the years since I’ve seen the ‘gentrification’ of Hackney progress further and further, with more and more young professionals moving to previously ignored areas such as Clapton. Clearly this gentrification brings many benefits. However, it has also further fractured communities. We move into these areas and they become ‘ours’. The gangs, drugs and general ‘underclass’ who are not carried along with us become enemies on the doorstep. We exist alongside them uneasily, ignoring their existence until it becomes impossible to do so. The most striking, shocking example of this was the shooting on London Fields last year in broad daylight. London Fields is, of course, now a cliche associated with hipsters and ‘yummy mummies’ but it is smack bang in the middle of an area where privilege and ‘community’ exists alongside huge deprivation, unemployment and crime. I think we’re all guilty of blinding ourselves to this and of selecting which ‘community’ we’re a part of. It’s completely understandable and it’s difficult not to feel impotent and scared when you look at the problems around but, if we’re to move forward from this in any meaningful sense, I think this is a valuable lesson to learn.
I think nowhere is this disconnect better illustrated than in one particular response I saw to the riots on Monday, when someone living in a gated block of flats high above the streets was whipping themselves (and others) into a frenzy over the prospect of riots coming to Hackney. Updates fizzled with excitement and offers of shelter from people outwith the area were rebuffed as they did not want to ‘miss’ their ‘first ever riot’. This isn’t ‘community’. This is glee at the prospect of witnessing the ‘other’ tear themselves apart for your pleasure. Inevitably, this response turned to expressions of ‘disgust’ when the clips of the inarticulate ‘scum’ began circulating and they said that rioting was ‘fun’.
I was scared on Monday. The rioting seemed to get ever closer and my boyfriend was in a car driving around London attempting to get home (in a small glimmer of positivity from all this, he was taken in and helped by some people we know who have my eternal gratitude). I completely understand the fear and the gut responses this provokes. If civilisation is to mean anything, if we truly believe deep down in the fundamental good of people, if we hold hope that each and every person deserves the chance to improve themselves, we have to resist that fear. We have to think about our responses, think about the communities we live in and the role we play. We have to think about why this has happened and try to learn from it in order to ensure it never happens again. Because, unfortunately, as long as inequality advances unchecked, materialism is valued above education and the underclass are seen as uncivilised monsters just waiting to ‘kick off’ at the first opportunity, this is going to happen again.