I did not predict a riot. Nor did the police. Nor the politicians. Nor did those retrospectively muttering darkly that they knew it was coming. Did they really predict that Ballardian scenario, the polite queue of looters in the ghostly retail park? Did they tell us disorder would come to Ponders End? That so few could wreak so much damage? That people would smash up Poundland for a packet of crisps? No, they spoke of widening inequality and racism, as many have for many years. The riots that were “predicted” were for justice, not JD Sports.
Now there is an ever-widening multiple-choice checklist of causes of this disorder: rap music, drugs, single parenthood, the Olympics, “the cuts”, the huge gap between rich and poor, relentless consumerism, political correctness gone mad, an emasculated police force, looting bankers, fiddling MPs, even the “liberal intelligentsia” with their previously well-hidden desire for footwear from Foot Locker. The most apocalyptic merely point to the moral decay at every level of our state. So, smash and grab at your explanation. Try it on for size and off you go. Let’s hope it fits into your already well-established belief system, because then we can all get back to business.
The politicians – ever more distant, yet ever more implicated in this sense of entitlement (get what you can, while you can) have uniformly gone for the criminality angle. A search for context implies namby-pamby excuses. Thus we have a bizarre situation in which we must praise the police while cutting their numbers and bemoaning their tactics. Many shellshocked folk are asking, why weren’t they there? What happened in Wood Green, for instance? A hundred or so kids caused mayhem. Many of the “riots” involved a very small number – but it only takes one person to burn down a shop or drive a car that can kill.
The whole getting-back-to-business thing, the nice folk with new brooms cleaning up the mess, this attempt to stitch together some torn social fabric, is laudable, but still part of the denial about what damaged goods this society has produced. The rioters got cheap thrills: some of this was simply fun. I saw some of the BlackBerry Messenger invites to join in, and they might as well have been about an illegal rave. My own snobbery about the cheap stuff they took is actually a fear about poverty of aspiration. If you want free stuff, to get your “tax back”, is a plasma or a phone really enough to satisfy this urge? Why can’t everyone be like Wills and Kate and bling up in an Aston Martin convertible?
Mind you, there is not a lot of fancy stuff to be looted in some of these areas. I have lived in Tottenham and Wood Green, which have escaped gentrification, and yet are part of the same borough that contains Highgate and Muswell Hill. Such is London. Wood Green High Road, a shopping destination for my kids, even has an especially bad Bhs for poor people that is quite unlike any other Bhs because it has had a closing-down sale on for about 15 years.
Hackney, where I live now, has come up in the world to the extent that the local high street is full of ridiculous baby clothes shops where you can spend one week’s jobseeker’s allowance on a pair of shoes for a six-month-old. As this is London, though, the estate in my road is monitored by Operation Trident, drug deals are done openly, gangs operate and some of the Turkish Cypriots who we must now all describe as a wonderful community in fact run their shops as fronts for the distribution of heroin. Turf wars between Turks, Kurds and the boys on their stupid baby bikes, who run stuff, are regular occurrences. So I am afraid I find this division of ethnic communities into good (armed with baseball bats) and bad (hoods, gangs, feral) a little simplistic.
Gangs are not new. The last time I wrote about the murder of one my kids’ friends, Etem Celebi, in 2007, and expressed concern at the number of young, mainly black, kids being shot and stabbed, the response here was mostly that I should move. So now to hear mobs of MPs talking about early intervention strikes me as unbounded hypocrisy when all such services have been mocked as part of the silly, bloated public sector. A community outreach officer? That’s a joke, right?
David Cameron’s talk of criminality “pure and simple”, when we know it’s not simple or pure, is depressing. What has shaken me to the core, though, is the absolute collapse of those prepared to stand up for liberal values. What needs protecting now is not simply small businesses, but a set of beliefs and freedoms, which appear to be smoldering in the wreckage. Like everyone, I have been through the gamut of emotions from fear (mainly about my cat, home alone – which is absolutely dumb) to anger to incomprehension, ending with hysteria. The ballerina who stole two tellies morphed in my mind into Black Swan; the organic chef who smashed Nando’s mushroomed out of control. I have shed self-indulgent tears for the old barber, my daughter’s friend’s uncle, for the shopkeepers of Mare Street. I have felt for the beaten-up Malaysian student and applauded the woman who socked it to the idiots in Hackney, while noting that the tabloids seem to have forgiven her somewhat chequered past. We all emotionally loot the good stuff to reassure ourselves.
But what I cannot grasp is how flimsy so many liberals turned out to be in the face of this disorder. Within a few hours Twitter – derided as fiddling lefty babble – was asking for the army to be brought in right away! And for water cannon. If a conservative is merely a liberal mugged by reality, then for a while, parts of the left got so real I thought they were going to ask for air strikes and internment.
There has been a more nuanced response since then, where we can talk about race, Mark Duggan’s death, the numbers of people who have died in custody, the effects of gentrification and the failure of education. These are long-term failures, not an instant reaction to cuts – many of which have not even come into effect.
This act of collective self-harm may not look political, but of course it is. It is a game-changer in that it will be used to usher in the most rightwing of polices. So we now have a coalition of the dazed and the confused, comprised of the left banging on about the cuts and supposed liberals who now want harsher prison sentences for the rioters. Meanwhile, e-petitions calling for rioters to have their housing and benefits taken way proliferate, new gangs form as offshoots of the English Defence League, vigilantes are praised, intra-racial tensions rise. All this means that civil liberties appear to be on permanent notice.
While some reach back to Durkheim and are revolted to see what anomie really looks like, don’t forget that many may not have known what form this unrest would take, yet knew the kids were not all right. It is possible to be appalled at morally criminal acts, yet seek out wider social explanations. These ideas are not mutually exclusive. Only morons would think they are.
I asked a few years ago, after a Unicef study said our children were among the poorest and least educated in the western world on any measure, that our youth be decriminalised. That of course now will be derided. After the crime survey of 2004/5, my mind was blown by the 1.5 million people who replied that they would consider emigrating “mainly because of young people hanging around”. Yep, to somewhere where they are culled?
Bleeding-heart liberals change their spots, though, don’t they? Look at them. One man also read that Unicef survey in 2007. He was concerned about a society in “deep trouble”. He said then: “We have the unhappiest children the developed word.” His name was David Cameron.
So all of us have seen these kids and tried not to hear them. And some are now much bigger than us. Never woven into the social fabric, how easily they rip it to shreds.
The choice is still whether we cut them out of any notion of society altogether, or seek to unpick the threads of their discontent. My fear is that the post-riot rhetoric – punitive, hard, distant, condemning – is simply mirroring the alienation of so many. Dividing the world into them and us – isn’t that what gangs do?
So put shutters up to protect shops. But too many shutters have already gone up in people’s minds. The new “community” – a word I implicitly distrust – agrees that what will bring our children back into society is further locking them out of it. There is no one answer, but perhaps now at least we can acknowledge the collateral damage of a war we pretended wasn’t happening.
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/ 13 August, 2011