We’ve all been glued to the internet and our TV screens for the last few days, watching as London seemingly imploded. So many voices have piped up with opinions (like areseholes, we’ve all got one) and they range from the ‘WTF?’ (see Max Hastings in Daily Mail – highlights include references to polar bears, wild beasts, DIY, and royal weddings) to the factual – Paul Lewis and James Harkin painting a picture of who the looters were, to the ‘Hmm, interesting’ – Zoe Williams on the psychology of looting.
As a Hackney local with a keen journalistic eye (ahem), I myself was invited onto On Point with Tom Ashbrook on NPR to talk about the London riots. You can hear the audio of my American radio adventure here. I am wary of adding my voice to the cacophony of voices already out there – really, there’s only so much one can read before going cross-eyed – but here goes:
I cannot condone the violence and looting of the riots. I just can’t. But I can note context; I believe it’s possible to do both of these things. I understand the frustration of many youths in these parts of London (I grew up in a council flat where my parents still live in Stratford and now reside 2o minutes away from my childhood home). I get the disaffectation, and the rage. I get that police mistrust is seemingly at an all time high, when more than 300 people have died in police custody since 1998 without a police conviction and when a black man is seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than any other group. I get that there is inequality on a scale that feels unreal.
There’s been a lot of liberal handwringing about the riots. Personally, I’m not keen on the ‘it’s all down to the cuts’ argument for the riots, though. It diminishes the dignity of the working poor – emphasis on ‘working’ – in London and beyond. And a lot of the language being bandied around (on both the right and left) smacks of victimhood, which I find distasteful: it disempowers us, infantilises us and takes away all responsibility. No-one is saying that these boys (and it is mostly boys) aren’t angry – their rage understandable and palpable.
But get this, it’s possible to say all that on the one hand and also acknowledge that there is an underlying issue of lawlessness on the other. Many of us in these communities recognised much of the behaviour shown during the riots. Because what London saw over those few days, many of us have been seeing on a smaller scale for years. And guess what? Many of us are resentful of the youths who had become virtual untouchables in their own neighbourhoods. We recognised the disregard for authority figures, the intimidation with attack dogs on loose leashes in communal stairwells, the piss, the used condoms, the defiant stare downs. The councils did next to nothing – and the fear of reprisals was a looming spectre. The police weren’t much better; many times they never even attended. Instead, there were high visibility stop and search operations which did nothing to help, save raise ire even further. So in many ways, the riots were a case of when not if. The rot has had a long time to set in, and has roots in the policies of this government and many governments past.
Where do we go from here? The cuts won’t help. But if they are to be inevitable, the government could do a lot worse than redistributing money to the causes that matter. Community is built from the ground up – if your policies help to create morally and financially bankrupt ghettos, you will reap it in events like these riots. As Camila Batmanghelidjh wrote in her wonderful piece for the Independent, ‘Caring costs – but so do riots’, “Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit.” I wish I could meet her just so I can shake her hand.
Speaking of community, I read this piece this morning. I’m still not fully sure what my thoughts are, but what do you think? I was at the riot clean up in Hackney on Tuesday morning – and among the majority white crowd, I saw many black and brown faces (I noted this in a tweet and posted pics of the crowd) I think it’s raises very valid points especially re: gentrification and the ‘othering’ of certain peoples. But I object to its overly emotive language and is, as my friend on Twitter put it, guilty of transferring the “writer’s agenda onto the looters”. I think it does a pretty sterling job of othering those it writes about too. But hey, that’s my opinion. [Arseholes etc.]
*Black Fridays will now move to Thursdays. Because having The Friday Pretty and Black Fridays on the same day is bloody jarring.