Friday, 12 August 2011

London Loves.....A New Pair of Trainers

Many esteemed writers have had their say on the London riots. Most of the comment has been eloquent and heartfelt but few have really been able to put themselves inside the heads of the rioting kids. Instead I feel we ought to listen to the kids themselves - the products of this environment. And to those who grew up in the area where the whole thing exploded.

I left off for a while for things to simmer down before wording my response. Partly because the whole thing was at turns depressing, confusing, sad and at times even comical. Partly because I didn't quite know what to say. This blog is about the things London loves after all. And the vast majority of Londoners really did not love these riots. In some quarters there has been genuine hatred directed towards the looters; an incredulity and sheer disbelief at what was happening on our beloved streets, to our beloved shops, communities, buildings, houses and citizens.

The hate-filled, angry responses towards the looters did not surprise me. These responses came from people who have voices, people who index highly within the social networking sphere and aren't shy about tweeting and facebooking their disgust. Middle class, relatively affluent people, some with young children, most with a mortgage and a comfortable job. People with nice things furnishing their houses and disposable income in the bank to buy more stuff to adorn their homes (even if it means going further into our overdrafts....tut tut). People like me, people like you.

What I've tried to imagine over and over in the last few days as I saw kids smashing in the windows of JD Sports in my own beloved Wood Green (where the real looting of commercial high street premises began) was "if I was a 14 year old kid right now, would I be doing this?" The answer is no I don't think I would.

Yes I was angry and anarchistic as a kid, yes I didn't have the trainers and computer games that I wanted but I didn't grow up in poverty dependent on parents who were dependent on benefits, alcohol or drugs. And I didn't therefore have that sense of helplessness unique to poverty.

Many of the Londoners expressing disgust at what happened this week have probably never been inside a council flat. Not to generalise about council flats, but they are often sparsely furnished, undecorated, chilly and damp. This might sound like a 1980s cliche. It's still true now in at least 50% of cases even in spite of the amazing work done to social housing schemes under New Labour.

My response I suppose needs to be broken down piece by piece because the London riots were not a singular entity but a hotch potch of strange events triggering echoes in different suburbs. Wood Green, a place where I lived for 20 years of my life until moving out a matter of weeks ago is not a rough area. It is poor yes, multicural certainly. But people are generally happy and treat each other with respect. There is however a difficult relationship going on within the community. Above the shopping mall and high road there are council flats where families with young children and teenagers live. I've seen these kids spitting off the balcony onto shoppers below, chucking things off, smoking weed up there, comparing pitbull terriers. It's almost a hidden world above the shopping paradise below. They are bored, penniless, naughty and watch everyday as the capitalist machine rolls on and consumers pile in driving 4x4s from surrounding posher areas like Muswell Hill and Crouch End to do their shopping. They watch the capitalist machine they are not part of day in day out. And they get pissed off. And when they can, they nick stuff from the shops.

I'm not here to discuss the socio-economic reasons why they are bored or penniless or want to steal stuff. What I am saying is it's a reality that seemingly 90% of the population cannot understand, and that is where London society has failed.

If we cannot understand children being so disengaged from lawful, civil society that they are prepare to loot then perhaps, instead of simply criticising, we should make an effort to understand and look at what it is in London that is broken and needs fixing.

I would like to draw a distinction however between looting and violence.

While I can understand the mentality of looting what one doesn't have and what one is prohibited from having because of an entrenched system of disenfranchisement I cannot understand the wanton violence towards people and the destruction of property we have seen - particularly burning down buildings.

In the early hours of Sunday morning I watched a 1930's art deco building in Tottenham burn to the ground taking with it 23 residential flats above. On Monday I watched a building in West Croydon burn furiously for an hour also taking with it people's houses and independent businesses. The wanton, almost senseless destruction that took hold of Enfield, Ealing, Clapham and other quiet suburban areas baffled me as much as it baffled 'outraged of Tunbridge Wells' and yet I agree with some of the 'liberal commentators' who have spoken out against the massed ranks of public opinion. The system that has created inequality in these London boroughs - the economic wheels powered by a morally bereft banking system, supported by complacent politicians who further alienate the youth by closing youth centres and pricing them out of an education system increasingly aimed only at the privileged few - these are the things that should outrage people. And we should all be outraged at ourselves and our own complacency for failing to recognise how disaffected young people are in London today.

Finally, and sadly, the trigger for all of this destruction was quickly forgotten amongst the clamour and the madness. Mark Duggan, shot dead by police in Tottenham, was a black man with a young family living in a predominantly black area of London. Black men on the streets of London are 26% more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. While London has made huge strides forward since 1993 when in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence killing the Metropolitan police were described as "institutionally racist". For many in areas like Tottenham, Edmonton, Lewisham, East Ham, Harlesden, Southall and Brixton there still exists a tense stand off between ethnic minorities and the police. That this simmering tension was brought to a head by a killing is sad. Sadder still was that the furious response - a peaceful march that descended into violence - shocked so many of us. The majority live light years away from these downtrodden areas and it is not our place to cast judgement without first attempting to understand or to reach out and help poor communities.

As with the Rodney King beating that triggered the LA riots, America was shocked by the ferocity of response from the black community. But why? Here was a man being savagely clubbed by police officers only a generation on from the civil rights movement and the end of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Here in London, a place I like to think of as more racially integrated than LA, Duggan was shot dead just 25 years on from the Broadwater Farm riots - an episode of Tottenham life (in which a black woman died in her own home during a police raid) that left wounds which have never really been fully healed

More recently in 1999 in Tottenham Roger Sylvester, a black man with mental health problems died after being held down by six police officers for twenty minutes. The unlawful killing verdict was later quashed at which point his family "opted out" of the legal process.

There are other frequent incidents of poor policing and insensitive police attitudes in Tottenham and similar areas; many go unreported but are noted and memorised by the black community. It is easy to ignore what many of us do not have to face on a daily basis. The policing of these communities still has a long way to come.

The best that can come out of all this sadness would be that London becomes tighter, stronger and more unified. The famous 'Blitz spirit'. This has already begun in the shape of organised clean ups and the wonderful 'Why We Love Peckham' noticeboard outside a smashed and boarded up shop.

Quite frankly, what London needs right now from all of its inhabitants be they black, white, Turkish, Asian, policemen, looters, shop owners, MPs or residents is, quite simply, love.

Remember London loves you and you love London.



  1. Good article!

    It is indeed sad that a genuine protest caused these "unpardonable insurrections". Could this have been nipped in the bud? are the cops more efficient at handling stop and search in these deprived/posh neighbourhoods than managing rioting? We saw the G8 riots, student uni fees protests all degenerate into violence. It appears lessons were never learnt from previous London protests so we are always caught napping.

    On the other hand we see leaders continue to play ostrich, some coming up with knee-jerk solutions. Doling sever punishment will further disengage these chaps from society, taking away their benefits will further entrench them in poverty, they will have a criminal record anyway so cannot hold a job ever. Where will they be... street chaps for life?

    The root causes need to be identified. Even media coverage didn't give the full picture of the riots. A mate of mine lives in posh Ruislip said the youth also went on rampage, shops were shut, some smashed, but this went largely unreported. What similarities do the posh Ruislip rioters/looters have with the deprived Brixton,Peckham youth? That's where we can start sorting the mess from...
    The looting and violence knew no colour, age, race, religion, we need to find out what the common thread is and tackle accordingly.

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