Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The 2011 Riots: A Call To Reason

Dreaming Genius co-editor Steven Maclean on the crisis spreading across the country. 

London is bracing itself for a fourth night of riots. Towns and cities all over the country are also now on alert as the unrest continues to spread. As it does, and with each day that passes, the narrative that this was just the actions of 'thugs' evaporates away. How wide spread must riots be before we admit they are symptomatic of a deeper injustice? How many 'thugs' must there be before we ask why our nation is overflowing with people inclined to this behaviour? And how much worse might things get?

Where I am in Walworth, south London, the Turkish supermarket across the road is at the centre of the shaken community. The owners have boarded up the front, but continue to allow people inside on a one-in-one-out basis. Outside, a queue of people eager to stock up ahead of returning home for the night discuss what has happened here. Nobody supports the rioters, but - unlike in the mainstream press - much of the talk is about what has led to this, and who, other than the rioters themselves, are to blame.

I ask one of the men who works in the shop if he are expecting more trouble tonight, "They're coming," he tells me. I wonder if he and his family who are working as well as guarding the store will stay when 'they' arrive? "I have no problem with them, they have no problem with us, It's the sport shops and chain stores they're after."

This takes me by surprise. Shops all up and down Walworth Road have had the front windows smashed in and been looted. I infer from his comments that as an independent shop owner, he has some grievances with the chain stores that dominate the area; a Tesco Express a few doors away hasn't risked opening today. I go inside with my girlfriend and buy some supplies for the evening ahead. People make eye contact more than usual, and there is a strange atmosphere of camaraderie. This, we really are all in together, even if our Prime-minister missed the first few days.

Earlier in the day I talked to a man called Nigel outside Kennington Park Job Centre who was on the way to see his probation officer. He told me he is "close to the streets," but had "changed his ways."

"One night, two, three, OK. People are frustrated, but my mum is out there working." Nigel tells me. 

When I asked him what he thought would happen tonight he looks worried, "I've heard things, man. If the police start with water cannons and shit they are gonna start bringing out shooters."

"It has to stop now." he says, before warning me things are kicking off again down the road in Brixton.

Later, on the way back home after leaving the Turkish supermarket, I see the kebab shop across the road from where I am staying is still open. I go in to ask if they plan to continue business into the night, "it depends what happens," the shop owner tells me.

"if they come, we just close it up," he says pointing to the metal shutters. "The police have told us they are expecting more trouble. They told us yesterday it would start at five thirty, and it did, like clockwork,"

"but the police didn't come until eight. They told us they [the rioters] would be here at five thirty, but they [the police] didn't come here until eight. I don't understand."

Indeed, understanding the police has become difficult of late. These riots started - it's worth remembering -  after a Tottenham man was shot and killed by police. Protestors, then rioters and anyone seen as apologists for them have been criticised for responding to unfounded rumours. But as more is revealed, it seems it is the critics themselves who have been quick to swallow untruths fitting their agenda. First came news the bullet recovered from a police radio was police issue, and now we know the man shot dead, Mark Duggan, never fired a shot.

Speaking to two police officers on Walworth Road I suggested it might be better if large numbers of citizens defended communities themselves, rather than relying on police. I wasn't expecting them to agree, but both of them did, enthusiastically. Any uniform - but particularly one which gives you the powers that a police uniform does - is empowering. But that power has been ripped away over the last three days, and I could see it on the officers' faces. For once it felt like they were there for my sake, not to preside over me. Instead, it is a group usually most disempowered by society who feel omnipotent on London's streets, and that, I suspect, is what this is really all about.

No thinking person would condone the theft, destruction or violence; but to condemn such things without considering the causal factors would be lazy, negligent and irresponsible. Of course, that is precisely what the government has, and will continue to do. My concern is that as with 9/11, these riots could be used to make 'shock-doctrine' style legislative changes to strip away further civil liberties. We'll be told this is for our own good, and neo-liberals will cheer them along from their quasi-moral perches. 

But all this will achieve is an acceleration of the problems which have led us to the shameful place we find ourselves in. Those whose explanation goes as far as, and no further than, 'thugs', need to explain: 'why now?' And if it is as simple as 'yobs', 'lout's or whatever lazy term they wish to apply, were these people born yob babies? Have they grown up in a vacuum independent of outside influence? Or could it be that when you treat people like animals, they eventually begin to act like them?

It seems churlish to argue that the worst cuts since the 1920's combined with mass distrust of police due to harassment and racial profiling on top of an absolute dearth of jobs and opportunities have nothing to do with what we are now witnessing. On the contrary, what we are seeing is the logical conclusion of entire communities and generations condemned to a hopeless future. Of course we have sympathy for those who have lost their homes and businesses, many of whom live in poverty themselves, but why is it we feel no sorrow for those who live knowing they will never own such things? It isn't fair that people have their homes burned, or shops looted, but neither is society fair in general.

For people living in the poorer areas of East London the Olympic Games and the stadiums built to host them must seem like a boastful orgy of wealth. I wonder how many of the athletes taking part would be able to afford tickets were they not competing? And how might things be different had the £9 billion budget for the games been spent on the regeneration of downtrodden communities?

These riots are a BNP/EDL wet dream, but sections of neo-liberal middle-England have begun echoing far-right rhetoric, using terms like 'feral' and 'vermin' to describe rioters they argue ought to be shot or deported. Dehumanising labels are useful to governments with less than tasteful agendas. When regimes want to annex sections of society they deem undesirable or subject a minority to inhuman brutality without the rest of society taking issue, all they need do is play on public fears to have us view them as an 'underclass', or worse still, animals, feral or otherwise.

Most of the cuts which have undoubtably contributed to this social unrest are yet to impact, and we are now teetering on the edge of a world depression - the last of which led to WWII. When the cuts are truly felt, what is already a dangerously flammable cocktail of unemployment, distrust of police, demoralising inequality and social divide could descend into something far, far worse than what we have seen in the last few days. Issues like these divide nations, and volatile economic climates can make the unthinkable a reality. We must be very careful where we move from here; it might come to define us.
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