Slowly catching up 1: Flames lambent in Britain

Riots in Lewisham: Image from Guardian
Note: I have been writing this post since Monday, and keep seeing more stuff to add to it, so it has swollen quite a bit, and some of the stuff I have extracted from has been extracted from elsewhere before I got a chance to publish. Not my best blogging moment, but I hope you find something of interest here!

I was out of the country and away from the TV screen and internet during the week that apparently shook Britain. I’m still digesting the news and analysis, and the Bobist party line has not yet taken shape. A Demos bean-counting exercise found a huge gap between the language of left-wing commentators, blaming political and social structures, and right-wing commentators, stressing moral responsibility and the breakdown of community.  Thankfully, however, there is a third line, which attempts to show the complexity and ambivalence of the riots. Exemplary here would be Steve Hanson. Some choice quotes from his “The riots”:
The riots were a kind of consumerist individualization gone loco, the ultimate ‘me’ of the looter, not the ‘us’ of a wider social fabric. I don’t condone the riots, the destruction was immense and the trauma for those affected will be profound, nor do I think they were in some way a political cry, but I cannot bring myself to express admiration for the parents who shopped their son over a packet of chewing gum picked from an already smashed shop window either.
Terrible damage is being done to the language. 'Excuse' 'understand' and 'explain' are under attack. To understand is now to excuse. This is a disturbing political development. As embodied in the words of David Davies MP/ Special Constable: "Anyone who ever blamed the police for kettling or brutality [is] to blame." If that isn't a latter day Angry Brigade invitation to a police state, I don't know what is. The abuse of the word 'community' has been particularly interesting. Diane Abbot especially allowing herself to be trapped by retrospective community disease, inventing 'communities' which hadn't existed for 20 years. Burning Western Union is not burning 'The Community'. Communities don't create mobs who burn the high street. Communities create order and consensus. What they mean by community is a row of identikit corporate outlets, defining what we respect and aspire to.
Property defines our culture, morals, and politics, the destruction of property is therefore by definition a political act, conscious or not. Crime is political. And law and order only fails when political trust has failed. When the social contract breaks down, laws and morals are meaningless. And they are only the product of our value-system, anyway. Last night was what No Such Thing as Society looks like.
There have been a number of interesting reports on the riots in my corner of South London. Transpontine reported on riots and rumours of riots in New Cross and Deptford and sums up some of the local coverage. Lia Gilardi reported from Brixton. Brockley Central, of course, have huge amounts of coverage from the area, including the faint echoes here in Brockley itself, and published an interesting anatomy of the riots in Lewisham. There was a carrotmob in Lewisham, to support local businesses, organised by Councillor Mike Harris (an occasional guest poster here), and Lifetime Barbers soldiered on. Francis also reports from Lewisham. Crosswhatfields from Deptford. Little Richardjohn reports from Peckham. Heather Wakefield analyses the causes in Lewisham as a borough. 853 has a series of reports on Woolwich, one of the worst hit London town centres but more or less ignored (along with Bromley, Walworth and to a lesser extent Catford) by the mainstream media: for example looking at  the Woolwich wall, and the aftermath and the media coverage.

Raven reported from Eltham and Malatesta pithily sum up the English Defence League rioters there:
In Eltham a bunch of ‘middle aged men’ – who surely should know better – ended up chanting EDL slogans and fighting with plod. Locals claimed that these characters were outsiders and were not welcome especially after they attacked a bus with some black lads on it and members of the EDL Facebook pages were calling for some ‘nig bashing.’ How 70s! The EDL have claimed that these chaps weren’t members but seeing as how there is no formal membership scheme anyone who says they are EDL is therefore EDL no matter how many times Kev and Tommy deny it.
This is not to say, of course, that any white vigilantes are racists or fascists, and some of the white middle class liberal reactions to vigilante-ism were as hysterical as white middle class conservative reactions to the rioters. I have to agree with some of Brendan O’Neill’s contrarian analysis here. And, of course, white liberal hysteria can have negative effects on the ground, as the next two stories illustrate.

First, a twist on the EDL story more recently in Woolwich, where someone who was briefly a member of the EDL has played a major part in the (multiracial) efforts of the community to rebuild itself from below, but been boycotted by the council because of his EDL past. Interesting report and comment from Darryl.


Deptford United: image from Transpontine
Second, Richard at the Third Estate has a very interesting report on two unity demonstrations. The first (also reported in detail by Caimen Del Barrio and by Ewa here and discussed in an interesting critical comment thread at Crosswhatfields) was a march from Deptford to Catford against “the cuts that caused the riots”, called by the Deptford Assembly street meeting and involving the South London Solidarity Federation among others. There was an interesting incident outside the Islamic centre in Ladywell:
Only at one point was there any tension with the police; they seemed to be holding the march up for no reason outside the Islam centre. After talking with a policeman, I found out that they believed there was tension between our demonstration and the Muslims outside the centre, and that we had been ‘squaring up to them’. In truth, many people on the demo were calling to the centre’s members to ‘join us’, to become part of the unity demonstration. To show that solidarity, a few people (I believe misguidedly, though not wrong) began chanting ‘Free free Palestine!’. The local coppers, however, didn’t realise that this was an attempt at solidarity. In fact, on questioning, I found that the policeman believed the chant to be a racist jibe of some kind.
SolFed’s own report adds some more:
In the end, the demonstration was a mitigated success.  Not as many locals attended as was hoped, while the local left’s attempts to blame the riots on “the cuts” was shallow and ill-conceived.  Clearly the motivations behind this week’s disturbances are more fundamental than the recent budget cuts, appearing to hint at whole lives of atomisation, disengagement and anger on our estates.  The efforts of Deptford residents to talk to each other and collectivise their problems can only be positive.  Together we can fight to improve our lives and our neighbourhoods.
Richard notes that the demonstration was almost entirely white in a very multi-ethnic area. In contrast, Richard found himself caught up after dark in a smaller spontaneous demonstration of local black men, with one clear message:
The group of friends, from all over Lewisham (it’s a big borough), had decided to show that ‘not all black people are looters’, and to protect their community from the EDL. News had reached them that there were hundreds of EDL supporters in Eltham, about one hour’s walk away. Concerned that the EDL might make their way up to Lewisham and Catford, the group were marching down there... the black demo had only one chant: ‘Peaceful march, peaceful march; We’re protecting our community, we’re protecting our community.’ It was a more simple, clearer message than the variety of socialisms barked out earlier.
Among Richard’s interesting conclusions are this crucial one:
I think both demonstrations showed the almost total lack of working class and community organisations in London. A friend of mine says that back in the 1970s, an incident like the past few nights would have had an immediate response from hundreds of community groups across the capital. The black community no longer has such groups, and there have been only a handful of meetings. The only organisations that may have the ability to call such cross-generational – and also cross-community – meetings, are the churches. But they have remained silent. We will do well, I feel, to keep asking what the historical reasons for this are. (This also might explain why the politics of community groups are so unknown to London’s younger population, including the police). I am told that years ago, the local police would have known who the local political groups were, what they represented, and what they were trying to achieve. That South London SolFed were thought a threat to the Islam centre is not only worrying, but historically interesting.
Transpontine (who also adds a little to what I’ve put into this post here) raises some related issues about what the riots mean for class solidarity and anti-racism:
Still the Polish woman leaping from her flat, the Asian families mourning those killed in Birmingham, the black women at my work complaining about the unruly youth, also pose a problem for any future 'left' or 'radical' movement. The problem is not so much how to overcome cultural barriers but the difference between the rage of those who feel they have nothing to lose, and other working class people who feel - and sometimes are - threatened by this anger. A working class consituency of all ethnicities that can be mobilised by papers like The Sun behind calls for more police and harsher sentences. A New England where overt official racism is marginalised, but marginalised young people - and especially young black people - have a tougher time than ever.


From other parts of the capital, Reuben has an interesting report from Green Lanes, which explores the role of shopkeepers and community (refuting Richard Seymour’s claim that condemning the targeting of small businesses is “sanctimonious”). Patrick Hayes reported from Enfield, where he found the vigilantes were not a bunch of racists. David Bowden reported from Croyden.


Listening on the radio to the reports of the punitive treatment of the rioters by the courts, and the interviews with rioters’ families, has been a very depressing experience. The rioters’ families (or at least those the BBC interviewers persuade to talk on microphone) seem to confirm the Cameronite broken Britain analysis, spouting rubbish like “at the end of the day I can't keep him locked up 24/7”, claiming the task of looking after six other children lets them off the hook for taking their eye off the ball, or blaming “the government” for not letting parents punish their children harshly enough to instil a sense of right and wrong. Some of the stories emerging show us young people who seem every bit as evil as the tabloids portray them, and (writing as someone who knows how hard it is to try to be a good parent) of lives blighted by flawed parenting. The sixteen year old boy who killed 68 year old Richard Mannington Bowes as Bowes attempted to put out a fire. His 31 year old mother (do the arithmetic) who hid the evidence. Anyone who think the sickness in our society is only socio-economic and not also moral has to ignore these stories.

On the other hand, the orgy of retribution the magistrates and prosecutors have indulged in, at the prodding of the executive branch of government and of the vindictive middle market media, has been distasteful, to say the least. How can it be right to deny bail to children guilty of vey minor participation marched to the police station by their ashamed parents? We could argue over the philosophical underpinnings of children’s rights that means that courts don’t normally allow juvenile offenders to be named, but why is looting such a heinous crime, compared to, say, mugging, that these child offenders need to be named and shamed? One judge (Andrew Gilbert) was explicit in saying minor crimes would be punished harder than the law usually allows: “the courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than if the offences had been committed in isolation.” Yet isn’t what another judge (Elgan Evans) described as “collective insanity” a mitigating rather than an aggravating factor in an individual’s peripheral participation in such events?

Thus I tend to agree with Richard at the Third Estate when he suggests that “For the last week, the courts have been overflowing not only with adminstrative paper work, but with class conflict. The rich are judging the poor, the privileged the disenfranchised, the powerful the weak. Those who have been scared and frightened by the rioting of the angry are now sitting in judgement and meting out punishment on those who frightened them.” Reuben, also at the Third Estate, is sharp in contrasting the offences committed by the Tanzanian academic who kept a young woman as a chattel slave and by boy who stole £3.50 worth of bottled water from Lidl, judged worthy of equal punishment by the courts.

Also depressing has been listening to the platitudes spouted by the politicians, especially those of the ruling party, many of whom spent a fair part of their Eton,  Westminster and Bullingdon Club days engaged in minor acts of drunken, wanton destruction, and who have no idea whatsoever what it might be like to live somewhere like Salford. As Cameron sounds increasingly Thatcherite, it is hard to remember he once posed as a compassionate, progressive kind of conservative; as Harriet, another Third Estate blogger notes, the hug a hoodie days are well and truly over.

Cameron and his colleagues are revealing the fakeness of the new Tories’ libertarianism as well as of its progressiveness. Despite his small government/big society rhetoric, we know hear him calling for curfews, banning particular forms of clothing, evicting people for their behaviour, censoring social media, teaching parenting skills. “We’ve got to be less sensitive to the charge that this is about interfering or nannying,” he says. Yet it is precisely him that partly won an election on the rhetoric of a backlash against perceived nannying and interfering by New Labour. Similarly, David Davies, supposedly a hero of civil liberties, as quoted above blames the riots on those who have blamed the police for heavy-handedness. The only area where the Tories are truly libertarian is the marketplace and workplace, where health and safety has become a swearword and deregulation opens up new opportunities for corporate venality.


More heartening has been the relative absence of race from the public conversation. Although there were instances of communal violence and black/Asian tensions within the Birmingham riots, and the English Defence League did their best to capitalise on the violence and stir up racial tension, not least in Eltham, the subsequent commentary has tended to avoid the sort of racist language that characterised commentary in the 1980s. In fact, David Starkey’s comments stand out all the more because of this absence. As Starkey half put his finger on, multiculture (but not the official doctrine of multiculturalism) has become an unremarkable, everyday feature of urban life in Britain; the good and bad sides of Britain the last two weeks have spotlighted – the rioting youths, the plucky traders, the noble parents, the feckless parents, the families made homeless by arson, the brutal police – are all profoundly multiracial. Only our political rulers and senior judges remain all white.

The real analysis will not be done by the politicians and the pundits, but in neighbourhoods, by the people living amidst the ruins. As always, and as Little Richardjohn says: “The task will be left to ordinary people, in the main, talking to each other and trying to find real solutions which can begin to repair the damage of the last 30 years, and trying to resurrect some hope for the next generation of teenagers.”


The shooting of Mark Duggan has been widely reported to have been the spark that set the blaze. Terry Glavin analyses the misreporting of this incident. More from Francis. And Darryl analyses how social media rumours and sloppy journalism distorted the story in Charlton.


Here’s the always fantastic History is Made at Night has some posts on the historical antecedents and reverberations in the riots: this one on the Sun’s reporting of 1981 and 2011 concludes a fascinating series on the long hot summer of 1981, and at Transpontine on the Deptford Red Flag riots of 1932. And here is David Osler (re David Starkey) on how being a little on the wigga side of things may not be such a bad thing, and how it was ever thus.


Previous posts: on the Big Society in Lewisham and elsewhere; on Ian Tomlinson and the police; on the left and anti-social behaviour; on who broke broken Britain.


A great piece of co-ordination Bob. Truly useful work.
Would a Sarf Blog Conference be any use in the circumstances?
bob said…
Indeed it would!
Andrew Coates said…
This is a very useful summary of what's happening - particularly from the ground level. It reached across the country Bob, and everyone was in quite a state of shock. I felt it immediately since I originally come from Haringey.

Talking of the repression: they have brought very serious charges against a couple of youngsters in Colchester for trying to organise a water-pistol fight on Facebook.
Waterloo Sunset said…
Zizek's article on this is pretty interesting.

The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?