|Riots in Lewisham: Image from Guardian|
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.
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.
|Deptford United: image from Transpontine|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.