I live in the London Borough of Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs. It is a typical inner city borough: it has oases of gentility and privilege, schools are not particularly good but standards are improving, council flats [social housing] litter the borough map, asylum seekers and one-parent families find a home here and multiculturalism is a fact of life. Diane Abbott is our Labour MP: she is the first Afro-Caribbean woman to be elected to Parliament, is on the radical side of the party, and stood for leader after Gordon Brown resigned in 2010. To her credit she was on the streets of the borough this week urging the disaffected to think how rioting and looting was scoring an ‘own goal’ and was a slap in the face to everyone working to improve living conditions and life opportunities for the people in her constituency.
The borough has not been immune to riots and destruction. Hackney was bombed heavily during World War II because of its proximity to the City of London, the rail lines that snake their way through it and the reservoirs that contain the water supply for north-east London. The house in which I live, built in 1874 [older than our London center], still carries the scars of Luftwaffe bombing. Both pro- and anti-Fascist marchers took to Hackney streets during the ‘30s. Since moving here in the early ‘80s, there have been two serious riots, one linked to Toxteth [Liverpool], Handsworth [Birmingham] and Brixton [south London], occasioned by police victimisation of the Afro-Caribbean population, the other in 1990 occasioned by the Government’s highly unpopular Poll Tax legislation in Mrs Thatcher’s final years in office.
Like most people of my generation, I’ve been on protest marches and attended demonstrations. I was part of the crowd during famous student protest against the Vietnam War in Grosvenor Square in 1968, I witnessed student rioting in Paris in 1968, I was tear gassed along with hundreds of other students in College Town [Ithaca, New York] in the early ‘70s [Vietnam and Cambodia]. And I had a brief but fascinating discussion with a protestor outside Hackney Town Hall on Mare Street, E8 during a ‘peaceful’ poll tax demonstration. I had brought my young son along to the rally/vigil. About 10 minutes into the protest, a young man came up to me and said, “Get the kid out of here NOW.” I heeded this advice and, sure enough, as soon as we had unlocked our bicycles, all hell broke loose. At someone’s given signal, peaceful demonstration transformed into anarchist riot.
I feel there are similarities and differences between the Poll Tax riots and what has happened in London these past three nights. First, a similarity: there are people organising the “hit, smash, loot and burn” tactics: I saw two men last night on my HIGH STRET talking on a mobile phone about what shops were open, what closed – were they undercover policemen? Or were they part of the anarchist group? OR maybe, like me, they were just passers by talking on the phone?
A major difference between the riots of 2011 and earlier ones is that the social media confer a distinct advantage to the rioters. Police response is bound to be slow and ponderous when compared to the speed at which a determined set of rioters can appear at a new venue. Another big difference between earlier riots and these is the lack [or at least weakness] of a legitimate cause. Five days after the police shooting in Tottenham, is an explanation being articulated. Yes, the police shot dead a man last Thursday, possibly in suspect circumstances, but no report has emerged from the investigation. Yes, life is tough for young people: university fees have risen to £9,000 a year [about $15k], jobs are scarce, the cost of living is rising, etc. There is more inequality in David Cameron’s Britain, public services are being cut, the economy [job creation] is sluggish, etc. While the ‘us’ go to fashionable restaurants and send their offspring to exclusive private schools, the ‘them’ struggle to make ends meet.
But the evidence so far is that the August 2011 rioting owes little to a sense of grievance about growing inequality and lack of opportunities. Another very human trait is at the fore, covetousness: you can get an expensive phone, flat screen TV and new Nike trainers if you hang around the High Road long enough. Parents can’t control their offspring or, in some cases, parents have given their offspring a shopping list of goods to acquire.
Maybe, I’m an optimist, but I feel that things will die down as quickly as they materialised, and there will be an autumn of trials, soul searching, media investigations and police reviews. Condemnation is universal. Opportunistic snatching, burning and destroying don’t belong on anyone’s agenda in 2011. Let’s hope the contagion of this summer madness dies out soon.