Walking up from Hoxton and you know something has happened. Everywhere is quieter than usual. Shops are shuttered, only a few pedestrians, hardly any cars; and two white guys laughing outside a pub – the Union Jacked local between a building site and an abandoned council estate; most of its flats bricked up. They are two middle-aged men with proud beer bellies laughing on the street. An ordinary scene, now odd. The countryside has returned to the city; and it is a beautiful summer night, made even more so by the silence that surrounds me. Just past Queensbridge Road and I hear an electronic bee storm: police cars are screaming up to North Hackney. There is tension suddenly, although they are quickly gone – it is their sirens, louder, more piercing, than usual. The country atmosphere returns, but there is unease now. What will I see at the Hackney Empire?
I pass a young lad in black. A rioter? I think so: there is something stiff and self-conscious about him; tense, he looks resentful and alert. As I approach Regents Canal about 10 young men, again wearing dark colours, walk silently across the road. They seem strangely harmless. On another occasion, at this time of the evening, I would be wary of them. Not today. So near to me, but they look far away: utterly self-contained they do not see the streets around them. They have a goal and they heading towards it. Nothing else matters; or so it seems. Harmless, as I say.
Although naturally curious I am more than ever observant today. The quiet streets, the occasional noise, the clusters of people walking past me, all seem to share a detached quality. There is quiet calmness vibrating with a subdued tension, and within this enclosing atmosphere there are many discrete elements – thick corduroy trousers relaxing behind a pub’s glass door; an olive dark head floating on top of a narrow t-shirt; her thick hair coiled and straggly, strands hanging down her side. There is a boarded up shop, and a rare car on now empty streets… It is like a film: life chopped up into individual scenes, each one full of potentiality. Everyone is a star today. Even the ruined drunk his face like some smashed up pottery. Today his long thin frame looks as tall as a lamppost. Everything is isolated and exaggerated.
I reach Broadway Market. Just about everything is closed. The usual crowd of young, rich, and always beautiful, people has left the promenade; though a few stragglers remain. All at home watching their streets on their wide screen TVs… it is more interesting, here, outside.
I walk through London Fields. I see two helicopters: big brother and tiny sister; the police and the press. There are a few people walking towards me. Nearly all of them are in their twenties. They are the fashionable bohemians, working in design and the media one suspects, and who live and socialise in this now trend-setting area. Although today they are mostly European. There are two old black guys talking together, and watching what’s going on in the park. Suddenly up ahead there is another gang; on bicycles. They ride slowly away. It is still and quiet; everywhere feels subdued. Then I hear the helicopters. The countryside has been turned into a factory. There will be no escaping them tonight. Later I go to sleep to their industrial music, almost directly overhead. The council has closed down for the day, so there will be no environmental officers to ring to evict them…
I’m walking along Mare Street. There are more people now. Everyone seems relaxed. There are a few bins upturned, and one café window is smashed. So British - so low key.[i] Here is another young lad in black. He looks quite different from the others I have seen: prosperous, clearly middle class; smiling and confident. An activist? Black Bloc? Later I hear a bank has been hit in the early hours…
There are two police helicopters now. They are very very loud. I look up and there is thick smoke just a few hundred yards away. It is a car, I am told, that has been set on fire. Mare Street is suddenly a war zone. I continue walking through this battlefield; an odd one, for there appears to have been no battle – the damage is slight. I turn off the main street, and walk past a large Tesco; its back yard now a police stable; its horses’ excrement littering the surrounding streets.
Before I left Hoxton I checked out the news, wondering if I should change my usual route. The rioting looked bad. Yet what I am now witnessing does not match these earlier pictures. Of course there are signs of damage, but it is much less than I expected; my perceptions shaped by images on the internet. Has the press been exaggerating? Honing in on a few incidents, and letting our imaginations do the rest? Are our news channels, with their dozens of journalists, desperate for every slice and crumb of violence, magnifying these activities, blowing them up onto our VDUs, to create an alternative, phantasmagorical, reality? I wonder about this and walk on.
Living in different worlds you hear different stories. In one office the rioters are mindless yobs and criminals. In another they are victims of intrusive police tactics; and it is these that have caused the riots. On the newsstands there are calls for the toughest penalties; they demand the rioters be washed away with water cannon. On left wing websites we hear talk of insurrection…
Having no idea myself of what is going on what immediately strikes is the media’s desperate need to explain what is happening in the days that follow; that irritating itch to give it all some meaning. Yet no one really knows why these riots took place. At this moment my feeling is that these events have no big meaning at all. OK. You don’t believe me. So let us start with the rioters. Everyone takes it for granted they know who these people are: individuals have been turned into a homogenous crowd; who are then labelled as petty thieves or the poor victims of austerity. But do we really know much about them? From the little direct evidence I have seen these people seem a mixture: nearly all young; mostly poor, but some clearly middle class; the latter suggestive of political activism; but not exclusively so. If this is true it already suggests different people and different motivations: resentment, opportunity, a bit of fun, and radical politics are possibilities. There are certainly professional criminals (probably more than is realised) taking advantage of the chaos, and there is the odd sociopath. Some businesses may have been trashed out of petty revenge. In some cases there is probably a racist element too. The smashed window of Gays The Word in Marchmont Street suggests other prejudices have also been exercised. Nothing better than a riot for hurting those you don’t like… Although most of what has occurred, I would guess, is simply created by the riot itself:
Outside the Argos a number of DVD's were scattered all over the floor. A car that had come out of a side street and realised there was no way of getting up the road pulled over and two white women jumped out the car and started picking up as many of the DVD's as they could. One of the women then shouted to the other "come on let's go, let's not get greedy" and they drove off. This was at approximately 7:30pm. (Nick Smith)[ii]
At a football match people chant and abuse the opposition. In a riot people enter smashed up shops and pick up goods lying on the pavement. The event creates the actions, which would not have taken place without it.
The next morning I walked through the quiet streets of Hackney passing one shattered window on the way: a police station in Shoreditch. A target, clearly – nothing else was touched. It was re-glazed on the same day.
Darcus Howe, in a BBC clip that has now become famous, called the riots an insurrection, a product of the historical moment. Maybe. But I doubt it. I don’t think it has anything to do with the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the demonstrations and activism in Spain and Greece; or even the London march earlier this year. Although their existence has created the possibility of large-scale disturbances; helping to create an atmosphere where tensions can be unleashed into activity, resentment into violence. Add a recession, government cuts, bonuses for bankers, long summer evenings (Howe said that this wouldn’t have happened in January. I think he is right), and an overly aggressive police action, together with the Met’s reluctance to apologize and sympathetically intervene, and the bonfire is waiting for the lighted match.
Howe had some interesting things to say about the police: the increase in stop and search under the anti-terrorist laws antagonising the black community, and the stridency of middle ranking officers who, positioning themselves for the top jobs, currently vacant because of the hacking scandal, are using special projects to call attention to themselves. Such heavy handedness creating the situation that led to the killing of Mark Duggan.
Small details like this will probably explain why the riots happened when they did. Although it will explain very little about what followed: once a riot starts it follows its own momentum; will have its own rules and follow its own direction. As for the wider issues, those enormous state-of-society questions which the media stars love so much, I have little idea about them, apart from obvious generalities… Riots happen, usually amongst the poor and disenfranchised. They are rare, and occur because of a conjunction of general social factors with particular actions on the local street and city square. Some wider social pressure is usually a background cause: often a squeeze on the poor’s standard of living, often mixed with discrimination and a general lack of respect. However, these general causes are never in themselves enough to cause a riot. They are the kindle for the bonfire, but it is a local torch that sets it alight. It is the actions that happened in Tottenham before the riot that must be understood if we want to understand this past week’s disturbances; and to prevent them happening again some time soon. Clearly the background causes should be alleviated and reformed: the unfairness of the current austerity and the general barbarism of the popular culture, its love affair with greed, and its cynicism and ugliness, created by the rich folks whose representatives condemn its recipients. To do so will reduce the amount of combustible material for future riots.[iii] Though of course this will put a squeeze on profits. Thus the hysterical shouting of the popular press: feral Britain, created in their own image.
A riot happens. A volcano explodes. You try to understand it as best you can: you try to find out the causes why it blew up at that time and this place. However, it has no necessary meaning outside of these immediate circumstances. An event happened because of a combination of factors, most of which we can only guess at. Like riots of the past, once they take place they create their own momentum, which spreads out to neighbouring towns and cities; more so today because of technology and the conformist culture it creates: advertising makes consumers of us all; only in the last week it is young Londoners you have been creating the commercials. At some point, maybe this week, that momentum will slow down to eventually dissipate completely. And these things happen more or less regularly: at least once or twice in every 50 years (in some centuries more often than others).
The urge to find a meaning is so great it leads to confusion: one headline screams that the problem is lack of community. The two groups I saw seemed reasonably tight knit: they didn’t look like alienated individuals brought randomly together through thoughtless violence. If Craig Murray is right a lot of the looting is by criminal gangs; although how much arises out of a malfeasant urban sub-culture is debateable – like him I don’t know. I suspect such a view comes from cultural ignorance: an outsider commenting on something he doesn’t understand; too reliant, perhaps, on a media he so acutely criticises. James Meek in an excellent piece seems closer to the truth: London isn’t a melting pot but a collection of inward looking communities, who hardly engage with each other.[iv] Youth culture is another such self-enclosed community, and like other generations over the last fifty years chooses its fashions and symbols from the corporate leisure industry, albeit using them in their own alienating way – they want to be different from their parents (harder today than thirty years ago?). How the journalists and commentators love the hippies of 1960s and the punks of the 1970s. How little they like the gangster cartoons of today.[v] Or at least when the “crooks” are running free. And how easy they mix up these images, artfully constructed by the protagonists themselves, with their everyday lives – all wearing grey and black, all pretending to be gangsters, yet all going to school on Monday to Friday; possibly church on Sunday. That is, generally well-behaved and sensible. Ordinary. Boring. Just like you and me. Although, for once, and for a few days, they are real gangsters! International celebrities on TV! Another dream come true. There are real criminals and gangs, of course, yet they too may be another discrete community, partly living off segments of this youth culture, but separate from it. It seems probable that it is these gangs, as Murray argues, who are responsible for the most of the theft and violence.
Riots build up because of a large number of causes, and we should try to understand them if we want to help the shopkeepers and shop assistants, and the small businessmen, who have had their livelihoods (hopefully only) momentarily wrecked. But we should be wary of jumping off into metaphysical speculation, using these tentative explanations as a diving board to jump into the big themes; those billboard posters of Angst, Soft Parenting, and the Capitalist Disease. These are the lifeblood of particularly the media and its phalanx of experts; our modern day Sibyls, reading god’s wrath into Vesuvius’ boiling anger… It fills up the time, when they run out of fresh images.
In the BBC interview where Howe brilliantly condemns the presenter for her disrespect we see two worlds collide. It shows us how limited (and frankly stupid) the mainstream media can be. Thus we see a well-practiced professional unable to deal with a person with a totally different worldview and a method of expressing it. We also hear her lack of interest in finding out the reasons for the riots. Howe’s views may be wrong[vi] but they are highly suggestive, and seem, at least without further investigation, to be very plausible – underlying tensions, set off by the police. This is something hard and particular, something that could be explored, and in great depth…. So what does she do? She avoids them! Asking Howe if he is justifying the looting. Only moral condemnation is allowed. It condemns her, of course, to universal ignorance. I don’t want to understand! Please don’t tell me the truth! Essential pre-requisites for a successful career in the corporate media. It is a place where difficult facts cannot be accommodated to the priestly mind; the new age vicars who pontificate in these garish studios about beasts on our streets. Those guardians of western civilisation, who hate reason and run away from enlightening explanations. And who live in a world almost totally isolated from the one they cover with their film cameras. Meek’s piece shows what happens when they actually meet this world in person: they do not even see it; there is an invisible wall between them.
This is the media labyrinth. Hiding from awkward facts by concentrating on the meaning of an incident; which tends to reflect conventional prejudices (and their training in our best universities – postmodernism so useful for the ruling classes). In this case the feckless poor, with overtones of race, feral a favourite word of the moment. Twenty years ago it was underclass; before that the lumpenproletariat, and before that the Mob… Different words of course – it takes time for the new ones to acquire the patina of unacceptability -, but they reflect age old sentiments. Bring out the water cannon! Because we are not tough enough to tame these animals…
Michael Albert in a piece on ZNet falls into this media trap. Much of what he writes is reasonable, but it is conditioned by mainstream presentation of these events. He is simply reacting against it; using their language but giving it a different meaning.
He is right, it is obscene to have to listen to the press condemnation of relatively mild violence; most of it against property, when it is so forgiving of the wanton destruction of drone attacks in Pakistan and the casual deaths of innocents in Libya. Although Sir Ian Gilmore put it better, and with more subtlety:
Popular and governmental violence are commonly assessed by different standards. Governments are judged by political criteria, under which consequences are at least as important as intentions or methods. Violent repression and official terrorism can thus be justified by their apparent success, and abuses of power excused by reasons of state. Popular violence is given no such latitude. Ordinary moral standards are applied, with the result that it is almost inevitably condemned. ‘The wild justice of the people,’ wrote James Mackintosh of the French Revolution well before the Terror, ‘has a naked and undisguised horror. Its slightest exertion awakens all our indignation, while murder and rapine if arrayed in the gorgeous disguise of acts of state, may with impunity stalk abroad.’ The double standards involved in denying individuals or ‘the people’ the indulgence that is commonly given to ‘the justice’ or the violence of governments probably help to cut violence. But if, for a change, the same standards are applied to popular and governmental violence, and if the violence that was instigated from above is added to the government’s own violence and that of the governing elite, then in eighteenth century England violence came much more from the rulers than from the ruled. (Riot, Risings and Revolution; Governance and Violence in Eighteenth Century England)
But Albert is also wrong. It is too easy to deflect one’s attention from the particular damage to talk about general themes; to hide behind relative comparisons. The mainstream media want to condemn. It seems only natural for their opponents to support those whom it oppresses. Just what those media outlets would expect; and, if they think about it at all, want – it confirms their prejudices about the left. Such talk ignores the effects on individuals: the small businesses closed early two days running; the Turkish men apprehensively waiting outside their shops, ready to protect them; the extra expense of wooden boards and shutters – I saw a new one fitted over a mini-cab office the following day. It ignores the real victims, and misunderstands them. For the poor, where so much of this took place, the riots had no meaning other than mild disruption, fear, a little panic, and for a small minority, devastating damage and violence, which will take them months to recover from… To talk about insurrection or revolution or Tahrir Square is to run past the small details to embrace the large themes. We are making heroes of thieves and muggers; while patronising their often poor victims; reducing them all to the same level. Before the riots they may both have suffered the same social degradation; the aggressive class war of the coalition government. Afterwards everything changed – there is a world of difference between a looter and the man he robs.
And this is the biggest error of all: conflating the causes of the riot with the riot itself; the latter, once started, a self-contained phenomena, that has no meaning apart from itself.
Such views also assume a coherence to the riots, which they don’t have. You are not going to organise criminals for progressive politics. Black Bloc already “exists”. Kids out for fun are unlikely to be politically interested; while those fuelled by resentment might be; if you knew who they were. Although even here we have to be careful. Before I reached Broadway Market I was expecting it to be trashed. So much conspicuous wealth and youthful insouciance so close to poverty would surely create some strong prejudices. A riot a perfect opportunity for revenge, especially as its epicentre was only a few minutes away. Not a single window was smashed. It suggests resentment against the rich is not part of the consciousness of most of this riot’s participants.
Moreover, large numbers of people who are socially engaged will be repelled by the violence; while the passive majority will be overly influenced by the hostility of the press – the actions are too close to people’s prejudices. London is not Egypt or Spain. It is a mistake to glue all these actions together; and it is to forget the TUC march earlier this year, and how little effect it has had. It is also to mix up the causes of the riot with the riot itself. Understand and fix the causes; reprove the rioters; always remembering the real gangsters in the City and Westminster. To even suggest these modest actions is no doubt to be called a Red by our populist press. And quite so, if it he means to be civilised and humane. Go beyond that and you become a easy caricature, a fantasist in search of a revolution.
The one hope is that like the riots in the early 1980s these act as a warning to an extremist government: that the austerity measures have gone too far; have created too much social pressure; and must now be relaxed. This is possible, and might well happen; although, in a very British way, it will be done quietly no doubt; behind closed doors.
[ii] This is an interesting eyewitness report of a riot in Walworth Road that confirms my later impression.
“It wasn't really a scary environment, I'm not saying that people weren't frightened, but I think a better description would be shocked and disgusted. I saw a middle aged woman walking with her elderly mother through the worst hit area and they were obviously concerned, but I (and I hope they also) didn't feel that they were unsafe. It sounds stupid to say it, but the atmosphere amongst everyone else seemed like carnival - I actually saw a girl getting chirpsed (chatted up). There were plenty of people (my estimate is maybe as many of 50% of people there) hanging around, fascinated by everything and enjoying watching the 'entertainment'. They didn't seem to be in the wrong place, they wanted to be there and to see what was going on. I got the feeling that they wouldn't get involved in smashing any shops in, but if there were goods dropped by looters, they wouldn't hesitate to pick them up and I actually witnessed this later on…”
The piece includes a typical act of British politeness:
“I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking and barged quite hard in to a big black guy with a bandana over his face, who was with three or four other guys, instinctively I said sorry and he responded "Cool bredren" and spudded me (touched fists).”
[iv] Although many of the comments are critical of this piece, he seems close to the truth: his description of Broadway Market is very accurate, as I know from personal experience. Also see Nick Smith’s piece, where he makes a clear distinction between the majority, almost pushed by the pressure of circumstances into stealing, and a small, possibly organised, minority:
“From what I noticed the instigators were older guys (20+) but a lot of the followers were teenagers.”
[v] In a profile of Mark Duggan the guardian makes no attempt to differentiate between reality and illusion in Duggan’s representation of himself: is his Facebook page showing a gangster or someone pretending to be one? He may well be a violent gang member; but hundreds of others who copy the image are not.
[vi] I think he is wrong about the “insurrection”. It’s just a riot. As Milne notes in his piece: this looks different to what happened in Brixton and Toxteth in the early eighties.