Monday, 8 August 2011

Recipe for a riot

I don't know, take one measly holiday and the social fabric falls apart. But people of Tottenham, looting ALDI? Have some ambition, for Christ's sake.

Last year, a lot of people expressed their disquiet at the police tactic of 'kettling' student protesters - confining them for long periods, in poor conditions, for no apparent reason - leading to anger and mindless violence. 

What have we done if not 'kettled' our urban poor and ethnic minorities? Insane property prices, low pay, racial discrimination, poor education and political failure have concentrated those denied a stake in society in desolate quarters, kept in place by a racist or (at best) disconnected police force, neglected by the institutions meant to improve their lot. Regardless of your view of what they've done this week, it's not unexpected. 

OK, how do these things happen? Well, there's always a strong dash of opportunism: the element that likes a) free stuff and b) a bit of violence, though they're likely to be at the back of the queue for a truncheon sandwich. Along with the political opportunists and the 'community leaders' who always emerge on these occasions.

But below the surface, all the ingredients are there. At a really basic level, long hot summers produce tense situations that can easily turn violent - New York in the 1970s was a classic set of circumstances.

At the risk of reinforcing my reputation for being a wet liberal (undeserved: I'm a hardline lefty), I will say that institutional contempt and deprivation lead to riots. The specific cause is bad enough - a young man shot dead by the police. But if the police had a reputation for talking before they fired, for treating the poor and brown the same as they treat the rich and white, this riot would never have got off the ground. It's largely not what the police did this time - we don't yet even know what that was - it's what they've done with Menezes and with all the ethnic kids who get stopped whenever they leave their homes.

Add to this the government's withdrawal of youth services in the name of 'austerity': thousands of school kids, often lacking social restraints provided by structured communities, on the streets with nothing to do for 3 months, are likely to find themselves in trouble. To them, government isn't a provider of services: it's simply oppressive bodies such as the police - aggressive and not looking very like their community.

Does this mean I think it's OK to trash the place? No, obviously not - apart from anything else, it's totally unfocussed. Aldi and Carpetright aren't the primary element, unless someone's going to claim that this was an anti-capitalist uprising. I wish it were, but it isn't.

Funnily enough, I've been reading Butterworth's The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents. The problem facing the 19th-century anarchists as they sat in London slums working out the future was the split between 'positive' anarchists, who looked forward to a (possibly violent revolution) and the 'individual' anarchists, who seemed to use the doctrine as an excuse for the worst kinds of terrorist outrages.

To some, outbursts of the most savage violence were natural consequences of the way the underclass were treated - an argument which you might well hear in the coming days. To others, individual murders or bombings became indelibly associated with violence: a great shame given the wonderful premise of anarchism (that without institutional oppression, humanity was capable of altruism, leading to a co-operative paradise).

I'm somewhere in-between. Some of these rioters are the people who'll trash anything, for fun. Some are freelance capitalists, taking their opportunities wherever they can. Some will be politically motivated, though lacking the intellectual skills for concerted, directed action, and despairing at politicians' inability to articulate the needs of a community which has largely been abandoned by the state: just like 19th-Century London

In other respects, the situation is quite different. Malato wrote this of London in The Delights of Exile:
Oh, great metropolis of Albion, your atmosphere is sometimes foggier than reason allows, your ale insipid and your cooking in general quite execrable, but you show respect of for individuality and are welcoming to the émigrés. Be proud of these two qualities and keep them.
Ah well. The beer and food have certainly improved, but we've been conditioned to hate and fear émigrés - leading to the kind of social decay we see this week.

My solution? Not the 'infantile Leftism' Lenin described, which sees immediate violence as the solution to everything. Instead, we need William Morris's formula: 'Agitate. Educate. Organise'.

Here's some John Henry Mackay, cited in Butterworth's book:
Like and enormous black, motionless, giant Kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its tentacles the life and wealth of the City and of the West End'
and here's Morris himself:
Affluent London was 'so terrified of the misery it has created that at all hazards it must be swept out of sight'. 

This is what we've done: created massive areas of our cities left to rot. In them, the low-paid (the majority of officially poor people are in paid employment) and the unemployed. Next to them, vanity projects, 'iconic' buildings, gated 'communities' (they're not really). It's Ballard's airport landscape writ large: shiny surfaces, anti-crowd architecture, fast transport from investment bank to gated bourgeois ghetto with no smelly, sticky contact with the poor in-between. The bankers don't even see their cleaners: daylight is for the rich, midnight for the poor.

Last year, a lot of people expressed their disquiet at the police tactic of 'kettling' student protesters - confining them for long periods, in poor conditions, for no apparent reason - leading to anger and violence.

One more thing: the EDL smash things up wherever they go, without the kind of coverage this riot is getting. Why? Because the media laps up pictures of angry black folk. It fits with the framing they've acquired from history: they always present black people as naturally violent, inarticulate and so on, whereas white rioters are always 'bad apples'. Like Breivik being insane while Islamic killers are 'ruthless/organised etc.'

Don't feed this prejudice. Don't riot. Demonstrate. If you must use violence (and I'm not advocating it), target your anger. You know how these pictures are used by media and politicians. Don't give them easy targets.


Rob said...

I agree with much of what you say, but the kids I'm currently watching on live TV smashing up buses and shops don't have any political motivation - they just want free branded sportswear. It plays completely into the hands of the right, as you imply. Unfortunately, I don't think there's any chance that these youths will demonstrate rather than riot. They haven't got a set of principles, or any beliefs to pursue. It looks to me, unfortunately, like the clichéd "mindless violence". I'm listening to a distraught woman on the radio now, who has lost her home, and all her possessions, in the Tottenham riot. How doing that to someone helps anyone's cause is beyond me.

James said...

This is not a protest movement either directly or indirectly. The chavs are not beating up innocent passers by, burning down people's homes and nicking tellies because David Cameron has closed down their community centres and they can no longer play ping-pong.

These are the actions of an underclass who far from reacting against the rough treatment given out by police to liberal protesters are going around dishing some more out.

Theresa May's line so far regarding policing through consent has been far too weak. We are in the jaw dropping position of a Tory home secretary being soft on social disorder.

If this is indicative of an underlying problem it is that violent criminals no longer fear there are sufficient consequences for their actions.

Anonymous said...

You do speak a lot of rubbish sometimes - these thugs have no politic agenda they just want the opportunity to take something for free and God help anyone in there way.

Anonymous said...

Their way - oops!

The Plashing Vole said...

I didn't say the looters had a political agenda: I said politics and economics are at the heart of it. Consciousness isn't a requirement.