'All tube stations in the capital that were closed due to the riots have
now re-opened however there is a police cordon at one entrance to Ealing
Not quite the top story on BBC News' website, but nearly there. Three days of rioting in London, and all unable to shake the average Londoner's laserlike focus on the inefficiency of public transport. There's probably in something the old joke that the general reaction in London after the 7/7 bombings was 'God, what a tragedy, I hope everyone I know is safe... how the hell am I going to get to work? If I take the Northern Line to Leicester Square, then...'.
Some background. On the fourth of August, armed police stopped a minicab carrying a man named Mark Duggan, in a planned operation to arrest him. In the course of that, both Duggan and a police officer were shot; Duggan was killed, and the officer lightly injured, leaving hospital the same day. A non-police-issue pistol was recovered from the scene, and a bullet was found embedded in a police radio. This is what was known publicly at the time. However, there are two complicating factors. The first is that CO19 - the Met's specialist firearms unit (note that British police are not routinely armed, so they're roughly analogous to a an American SWAT team) - don't exactly have the best record when it comes to not shooting people they shouldn't have. In addition, the body charged with investigating police shootings, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, tends to investigate in such a way that words like 'no charges against the officer', 'unnamed amount in damages' and 'public apology' turn up a lot. That's the first complication. The second is that Mark Duggan was black, from a deprived area, and well-known in his community. None of these things should be a complication, but they all are. It's worth noting that the operation to arrest Duggan was under the auspices of Operation Trident, the Met's unit for investigating gun crime in black communities in London. If you want a cheap and quick summary of Trident's relations with the people it's policing, Wikipedia has you covered:
'As of 2004 only 16 of the initiative's 300 officers were themselves black.'
It's no secret that relations between the Metropolitan Police and young working class men in London, particularly black ones, tend towards alienation and hostility. Getting into the whys and wherefores of this is heavy wizardry, as you'd expect, but it's all too clear that policing by consent is not what's going on here. Facile answer number one: the Met is filled with racists, all coppers are bastards, etc. etc. Facile answer number two: the Met are stalwart defenders of liberty and public order to a man, and Afro-Caribbean communities in London do a shitty job preventing criminality amongst their young men, blah blah blah multiculturalism, blah blah blah race card blah. Shite, both of them. Does the Met have a problem with racism? Yeah, of course it does. I think most Londoners will have seen as much before, and the usual boilerplate explanations of 'a few bad apples' simply don't hold up to scrutiny. It may have been years since Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor and the Met being described as 'institutionally racist', but there's plenty of evidence that officers use their stop and search powers disproportionately, not to mention good old-fashioned condescension. Having been searched by the police in London before, it's fucking humiliating, regardless of how polite they are. Add race into that mix and you have something very volatile. So much of the mistrust aimed at the police is justified. The flipside of which is that much of the past few days' rioting hasn't been related to that. It's a major factor, sure, but at what point is looting a jeweller's shop anything other than criminality for its own sake?
Anyway. Back to the facts. Duggan was from Tottenham, which is a pretty seriously deprived area in parts. Gentrification's been working its dubious magic, along with government funding, but the combination of London's highest rate of unemployment, some of its highest levels of poverty, and one of the largest black communities have made it a flashpoint for racial tensions since way back. You could make the case that a lot of the rioting happening now is the legacy of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, which happened in Tottenham under similar circumstances (a woman named Cynthia Jarrett had a stroke during, and arguably due to, the police searching her home over her son). In any case, on the 6th of August there was a peaceful protest march of about 300 people to Tottenham police station - from, in fact, Broadwater Farm - to protest Duggan's shooting and the general feeling that the police weren't giving out enough information about it. Rumours were going around, tensions rose, the crowd wanted to speak to a senior officer, they weren't getting to, and after that all it really took was one confrontation to spark something much bigger. By that point, a riot was pretty much inevitable. Supposedly, a sixteen year old girl was shouting at the police, threw 'a leaflet and maybe a stone' at them, which for all anyone knows could've been a rock, and got beaten. No-one knows how badly or what actually happened, but that was the justification for riots that pretty much gutted Tottenham that night.
The next night, rioting spread to Brixton, in South London, and the day after in Hackney - after a man was stopped and searched by police, who found nothing. We're now at a state whereby large parts of north and southeast London's most deprived areas have been gutted by fire and looting, every police cell in London is full, and officers are being called in from neighbouring police forces. On top of that, disorder has spread to parts of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham. Oh, and in the middle of this, the IPCC saw fit to inform people that the bullet they'd found lodged in a police radio was police-issue, and then later that Duggan had not fired at police, which lends credence to the 'police fuck-up' theory of the shooting. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London had all contrived to be on holiday at the time, so the government's initial response was not quick. Actually, the latter resisted coming back, because if he did he'd have been 'rewarding' the rioters. Which leaves me somewhat curious as to whom Boris Johnson being in the country constitutes a reward, other than satirists.
Either way, it seems clear that this has long since
stopped being about Mark Duggan, whether you view him as the straw that
broke the camel's back or a convenient excuse for a
bit of the old ultraviolence. Watching the news, I saw them interview a
young guy from (I think) Lewisham. He was about as pissed off as you'd
be if a riot had come through your area at night, but one thing that
stuck with me was him pointing out the shops that had been looted,
including a charity shop. Fuck all of value, and pretty low to be
robbing it in the first place. Hence, the official description is
'mindless criminality', although there are two competing narratives
readily available. The first is a race riot. This isn't wholly
inaccurate, but at the same time fails to mention that plenty of white
kids are taking part in the riots just as happily. I nearly got into an
argument with a police inspector of my acquaintance when he called it 'a
failure of multiculturalism'. It is, but I think not in the way he
thinks it is. It's not that multiculturalism was a bad idea, unless you
think that having West Indian families living next to Nigerian families
living next to bog-standard
ticked-the-White-British-Church-of-England-box-on-the-census families is
inherently a bad idea - and if you do think that, you're a fuckwit -
it's that we've spectacularly fucked up at implementing it in any
meaningful sense, and you end up with whole communities feeling
disenfranchised and alienated.
The second narrative
is closer to my heart as an old-school leftist, and that's that what
we're seeing is more or less class warfare. The people who are rioting
have, as a rule, been systematically fucked over by the British state
in myriad ways. They don't like the police, for the most part I don't
blame them, and all the public sector cuts in the works are going to hit
them hardest. Raising tuition fees didn't bring half the ire cutting
EMA did, and that's because EMA
affects a lot of poor kids at school or college, who need it more than
Tristram needs his degree in Media Studies, and who are
a lot more likely to get angry and break things, Charlie Gilmour
In any case, the prime minister's called Parliament back, and met with COBRA (not an organisation of supervillains - basically Britain's national shit's-fucked-up-what-now committee). No-one had any idea what they were going to decide, and as far as I'm aware no-one does now, other than that they didn't decide to let the police use water cannon, or to bring in the army. No-one has any real idea how long this is going to go on for, and you more or less have a ring of riot police around London - think of Paris and the banlieues here; the really rough areas aren't inner-inner city, but between the city and the outer suburbs. Could be a couple of nights, could be a couple of weeks; although at the far end of that I'd be expecting to see the Household Cavalry camping out in Brixton anyway. Chances are, it'll probably calm down gradually, but when it does, it'll have been at the cost of communities and areas that have spent nearly thirty years repairing and recovering from the last such riots in the 80s, and generally struggling to make themselves places people would want to live, invest in, and so on. After this, they'll likely be back to square one, and with this government and this economy, I wouldn't hold my breath for a quick solution to violence that's been horrifying, criminal in a relentlessly petty sort of way, and worst of all, utterly self-destructive.
* * *
Possibly you've heard the old feminist canard that the personal is the political. Well, that was the political. This is the personal. I'm a Londoner. I was born in Lewisham Hospital. Not exactly within the sound of Bow bells, but close enough to some of last night's rioting. The places I grew up in, went to school in - the intersections between nice, leafy, middle-class suburb and desperate-poor borderline-slum - have been absolutely in the grip of events. Bromley, Peckham, Croydon - I can't really describe how strange an experience it is of watching that from afar, from the far end of the country no less. There's a chant that goes round at left protests sometimes, a call and response thing. Few people shout out 'Whose streets?', everybody else roars back 'Our streets'. Yeah, well, my streets. Not mine in the sense of ownership, but these are the same streets I've stumbled down drunk in hazy twilight laughing at shitty jokes, the same streets I've danced round puddles to avoid getting my new shoes wet as a kid, the same streets I spent my adolescence heaving a bag full of school books up and down. The same pub I had my first beer in. South London made me, and now it seems determined to unmake itself. I really don't know how to describe that feeling.
But London will weather it. It's survived the Blitz, the IRA, al-Qaeda, and worst of all, industrial action by ASLEF. It can survive a few dickheads who think the law doesn't apply to them, whether they're wearing hoodies or uniforms. Let me tell you a story. The worst I can remember things being in London was on 7/7. Last day of term at school, and I was 14. You know how it is on the last day before the summer holidays. The teachers don't care, they're too busy thinking of a well-earned drink after work, and as such they're content to let you fuck about as long as you don't break anything. Which was how me and about half my class came to be sitting in an otherwise empty classroom, talking the kind of shite 14 year olds do. Then all of a sudden a kid of about 18 comes in with two friends, big scary prefects' uniforms and all, and says, "Turn the TV on."This is an ancient, tiny monitor buried in one corner of the room, up against the ceiling, and so we have to faff around looking for the keys. Someone asks what's up, and Scary Older Kid, who to a 14 year old may as well have been nine feet tall, says, something like, "There's been a gas explosion on the tube," to which the immediate reaction from us was somewhere between "Er... what?" and "Bullshit." But eventually we get BBC News on, and it's just that; gas leak of some kind, unconfirmed reports of explosions, speculation blah blah blah. Everyone gets their phones out. And what I remember next can't be true; I've checked and the timing is off, having undergone some weird compression in my head over the last six years. But it's what I remember. I remember hearing a siren, then looking up from my phone, then hearing lots of sirens. The South Circular, which you need to use if you want to get to central London from the south, pretty much, ran right past the window, and as I looked out I saw the emergency services going past. As in, in a convoy, almost. Just ambulance after ambulance, and police, and the fire brigade. And everyone just looked at each other for a second, and that's what I remember.
London was strange for a while after that. I remember reading something by someone who worked up in Vauxhall, who said she heard nothing but police sirens for a good couple of days afterwards, as the Met went into headless chicken mode and started treating every piece of litter in a public place like it needed the attention of Jack Bauer. Then we had the aborted attacks on the 22nd, and Jean Charles de Menezes, but all of that went over my head at the time. Everyone got a little more paranoid, and the next term I remember mercilessly taking the piss out of a friend who'd left his school bag on a train to Victoria, where the police had promptly blown it up in a controlled detonation.
...that's not the point of this story. The point is, on the 8th of July, every adult I knew who worked in London got up, had a cup of tea, said "fuck 'em", and went to work anyway. So that's one reason why I love London, and one reason why, when after these riots are done, I'm not expecting a backlash. I love London because it's the most diverse place I know. Glasgow's wonderful, but there's nothing like being able to walk down two short streets and hear half a dozen languages. And I love that it pisses people off, that it scares people, that people don't understand it. I love the Bengali on the street signs in Brick Lane. I love the Nigerian girls at East Croydon station who laugh at their own jokes loud enough to make commuters stare at them. I love the Somali bloke in Camden Lock who got me to try goat curry. I love the Bulgarian girl in Croydon who'd sit and smoke with me and tell me ludicrously offensive jokes about Romanians. I love that I could go out for dinner and have my restaurant choices be a curry house, a Thai curry house, a Chinese restaurant, a chip shop, a Japanese restaurant, a pseudo-Italian restaurant, a very Italian (and not chain) pizzeria, a fried chicken place that wasn't KFC, a Turkish kebab place and a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, all within walking distance. I love that when I took my grandparents on a train through Brixton, they were shocked - shocked! - at the number of black people. Why? 'Because they're not from 'round here.' 'No. You're not from 'round here. They're from 'round here. I'm from 'round here.' And it'll survive.