When my son, who’s 19, called from Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was watching the livestream of protesters defying curfew there for the second night in a row, and listening to young people dry heave, like my students in Colombia, from the tear gas. Because he has first-aid training for mountaineering, my son was volunteering in a medical tent clearly identified with a red cross, but the state police fired on them with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and he and his friends hoofed it home. The real medics told him to stay in for the night. It was going to get rough.
A year ago, during the riots, James Meek wrote that London 'is not the mixing city its liberal inhabitants would like to think it is. Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it':
It has been suggested that to make sense of the recent riots we should put down our commentpapers and turn to our bookshelves. At the Economist, 'Bagehot' has been readingHooligans: A History of Respectable Fears by Geoffrey Pearson (D.G. Wright reviewed it in the LRB in 1983). Slavoj Žižek looks to Hegel. But the book I've been brought back to most often over the last couple of weeks (at the urging of someone too young to know about the riots) is The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont, illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
The Peckham Peace Wall was established on the morning of Tuesday 9 August by members of the Peckham Shed theatre group on temporary hoardings protecting the broken windows of Poundland on Rye Lane, between the Card Factory – a greetings-cards shop - and the entrance to the Aylesham Centre, just across the road from a clothing store called – to the delight of tweeters - Loot. All available space was filled by Friday 12 August, when the hoardings were removed and put on display at Peckham Library. But Poundland professed itself so 'touched by the community’s work' that new boards were put over the windows and the Post-its began filling up again. Here are some of the messages that were up at 5 p.m. on Saturday 13 August.
As part of the authoritarian crackdown following last week’s riots, David Cameron announced on Friday that rioters should be evicted from their council houses – even though the only thing that we know for sure about the connection between riots and where people live is that some of the disturbances happened in or near social housing estates like Pembury (which is owned not by Hackney Council but by the Peabody Trust; last Wednesday its chief executive said the estate, no longer under the scrutiny of the mass media, had almost returned to normal). Given that fewer than 10 per cent of people in England live in council houses, evicting council tenants who took part in the riots is going to be a very selective punishment – even if the proportion among rioters turns out to be higher.
The general impression of the Blitz, fostered by war movies and many books, is of a period when intense national solidarity reigned supreme and class was transcended as everybody sang songs and went about their work. But Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch draws attention to a piece by Gavin Mortimer (author of The Blitz) in the First Post on looting during 'our finest hour':
It’s the Glorious Twelfth, when by tradition tweeded patricians, with beaters and ghillies in tow, pitch up on Scottish moors to kill gamefowl for fun. These days it sets back a party of eight about £50,000 a day to hang around on sodden heather waiting for ptarmigan and grouse to startle from their coverts. So the beads are drawn nowadays not by plus-foured opisthognaths but by short-sellers from Manila or Mile End out for kicks that boast a cachet lacking from paintball. Like the shooting season, the public riot is a child of summer, a free-access Glastonbury without the portaloos.
The police do not need any new legal powers to deal with the kind of disorder that has been seen this week in English cities. The Thatcher government’s 1986 Public Order Act put the crimes of riot and violent disorder on a statutory basis, with those convicted being liable to terms of imprisonment of up to ten and five years respectively. Despite the prime minister’s snide remark in the Commons yesterday, there are no human rights concerns, ‘phoney’ or otherwise, that prevent pictures of suspects being circulated if that’s the most effective way of bringing them to justice.
If you haven't read it already, may I recommend Nathaniel Tapley's 'Open Letter to David Cameron's Parents':
At 7.45 yesterday (Tuesday) evening the windows of Diesel on King Street had been smashed, and potential looters were waiting patiently for the police to go away and tackle disruption in Exchange Square. They didn’t look like the rioters who had congregated around Piccadilly Gardens earlier in the evening: no scarves over their faces, no small gangs, no abundance of Nike sports wear. They were unassuming looking couples, enticed by a free pair of £120 jeans.
Anyone who says the riots don't have anything to do with the cuts should have a read of 'Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe 1919-2009’, a discussion paper issued under the auspices of the Centre for Economic Policy Research's international macroeconomics programme and currently doing the rounds on Twitter, which looks at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of the First World War: The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. So much for 'criminality pure and simple'.
Some years ago, not long after we saw the looting and burning of Baghdad together, I went with my Iraqi friend Ghaith for lunch in Broadway Market, in Hackney, one of the many parts of London where gentrification of a previously run-down area has been going on for years. The street was, and is, lined with cute shops, bars and restaurants for attractive, trendy, second-generation creative and media types. It has become one of the poles towards which the compass needles of estate agents and fashion-conscious yuppie couples quiver. There is no point in looking to buy a house nearby unless you have at least half a million pounds at your disposal. When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension. As Ghaith and I walked down the street a disturbance began.
Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life? The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis. They made the mess.
When I got to Mare Street people seemed excited rather than angry. The rhythm of the riot was well established. Every so often a police charge would surge towards Bethnal Green, scattering rioters into side streets where they’d regroup before pushing back. There was the odd cry of ‘hold the lines’, but no one seemed to pay much attention. Outriders ran on ahead, overturning glass recycling bins and arming themselves with bottles. Others fired fireworks at the police, at buses, and at cyclists.
The other evening I was on the roof of a bar on the tenth storey of Peckham multi-storey car park. Frank’s campari bar has been going for three summers, and it’s been written about more than 'locals' who feel smug about it would like. It has the best view of London I’ve ever seen. The city looks like the place I wanted to get to from the boring north London suburb where I grew up. I don’t know what’s going on outside in Peckham Rye right now – except through Twitter and the lamestream media – but the police helicopters are still overhead.