Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Some reflections on the unrest

Rarely has the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ occurred to me more frequently than over the last few days. Like many people I have been regularly checking the news to find out the latest on the riots and the looting, which of course started here in Haringey following the shooting of an armed man.

If it hadn’t been for the events that unfolded after the shooting, the focus would now be on the circumstances of the man’s death. Have the Met once again lied to us about a death at their hands, seeing as the earlier reports that they had been shot at have now been proved untrue? Though I believe that if you go about armed with a gun you have to factor in the possibility that you might be shot by the police, it is disturbing to find out once again that the police may have falsified information.

Yesterday however we saw the Met applauded by some people who were helping to clear up the mess left by rioters. Usually suspicious of the police force here in London, partly due to my own experience of them when attending peaceful demos, I have for the last few days felt a sympathy for them. It really is a case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t, with forces being accused of not taking enough tough action against the lawless.

Indeed, David Cameron’s rhetoric (once he’d seen fit to return from Tuscany) is becoming more macho by the day, knowing as he does that ‘the people’ (certainly the ones who might vote for his party) want to see a tough approach and punishment metered out to the guilty parties. Not for him a reasoned analysis of what may have provoked this behaviour.

Now we’re seeing vigilantes on the streets in some parts of the country, supposedly ‘protecting’ their communities but actually just getting wrapped up in the same mob mentality and thirst for violence as the rioters themselves.

I am not for a moment going to suggest that the rioters and looters have any sort of ideology behind their actions. Most of them are angry people who feel they have been handed a shitty deal in life, and see this as a perfect opportunity to vent their spleen, and maybe get some free trainers at the same time. Has it got anything to do with the police shooting, the cuts, a mandate-less Government of millionaires who are driving more into poverty? Not on the surface of things; not in any thought-out or easily articulated way.

What perhaps saddened me the most was the comments of some girls who had taken part in the looting. They said that they were showing the rich that they could do this, and striking out against those who had businesses. But in attacking local businesses they are of course lessening the amount of local jobs, damaging the local economy and punishing – and possibly ruining - what may already be struggling shop owners. Clearly though, when you’re caught up in the excitement of vandalising and looting, you’re not going to be sitting back and thinking about the pros and cons, the long-term consequences of your actions either for your local area and your own future.

Indeed, just ask Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who, in the Bullingdon Club back in their Oxford days, went on vandalising sprees, sometimes peppering it with a bit of arson. Doesn’t seem to have damaged their prospects, when you come to think of it…

I’m not sure what the answers are, nor can I fully explain the reasons behind the violence we’ve been seeing. I was struck to see the events last night at Salford Shopping precinct, a spot I know well since I lived in the area during my first two years of university (1996-1998). Back then, the Langworthy estate where I lived was known locally as ‘Beirut’. Packs of kids, some as young as 5, would rampage through the streets. Wherever we students went we would have abuse hurled at us, mostly driven by envy – and who could blame them? The time around bonfire night was particularly frightening, as fireworks (which seemed to be in endless supply, even to the youngest kids) would be thrown and used as weapons (I remember one going off right next to my then girlfriend’s face).

Other students we knew had lit fireworks lobbed into their living room, whilst others had to face a terrifying evening of aggravated burglary. Old people lived in fear and abandoned terraces were often set ablaze. Anyone who co-operated with – or was rumoured to have co-operated with – the police would have their houses daubed with graffiti, declaring them a ‘grass’. I also recall homophobic and racist graffiti on particular houses too. What I don’t recall is much of a police presence, strangely. Indeed, at one car boot sale I remember seeing boxed trainers with labels on them boasting ‘stolen last night’ and ‘nicked yesterday’. Here were people who had either nothing to lose or who knew the police would not act.

In short, it seems incredible that it has taken so long for violence like this to break out in Salford, or in other equally deprived, poorly-educated places. It will be a miracle if this is the end of the violence. If it got us to look at our incredibly unequal, consumerism-crazy society and really change things from the bottom up we could say something good had come of this. However, what we are more likely to see is reactionary responses, more social divisions, more hatred, and more of a mandate for the police to use an increasingly heavy hand. I am already worried about the impact this outbreak will have on the right to peacefully protest in the future, a right we will have to defend to the death.

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