London Riots: Keep Calm and Carry On?
I live on a quiet street in Clapham Junction in South London. It is a nice neighbourhood in the way that Woodbrook is nice. There are hard working people here and young educated people who enjoy having access to other young educated people and the places they frequent. There are two exits at our train station; one leads to St. John’s Hill where most of the stores, pubs and restaurants are located, the other, Grant Road leads to council estates (plannings), fried chicken joints, and cheap barber shops.
On Monday August 8th at 9 p.m., still in work clothes, I left the station via my usual St. John’s Hill exit to a scene of chaos and mayhem I had never experienced before.
My usual route was crowded with persons entering the station, and, with no police presence, I could either take the other exit or venture down a back road, which would have undoubtedly led me into the heart of the looting.
My only choice was to walk my typical route, which meant through the tail end of the two to a 400-strong crowd invading my junction. I stuffed my laptop in the sleeping bag my sister had returned to me earlier in the day, untucked my work shirt from my trousers, and followed with a deep breath and an even longer steups!
In the streets were kids, some wearing dark jackets, scarves and gloves, but many who were not at all attempting to conceal their identity. While menacing from afar, I could best describe the atmosphere among the so-called rioters as celebratory. These were young, shouting, laughing teenagers stuffing their pockets and throats with bottles of liquor stolen from nearby corner stores. Some were passing bottles of alcohol into the odd, passing car, with shouts of “Merry Christmas”. Others were calling their mates on phones letting them know that they’d reached the junction.
Store windows were being smashed, and within an hour the group would have trashed and emptied many stores on a nearby shopping street including several electronics, cell phone and jewellery stores and a costume store, which they set on fire. Wearing blue, pinstriped trousers, a shirt with French cuffs and spectacles in the midst of flying glass, I saw the raw ugliness of humanity and was legitimately scared.
As you would likely know by now, these disturbances started in Tottenham when a black man named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by the police. We’re still not sure whether he was a community leader in the notorious way it is used in Trinidad, or if he was a genuine leader. We also don’t yet know if he fired the first shots. Peaceful protests at the local police station rapidly turned ugly and sparked rioting and looting in Tottenham. One neighbourhood led to another until the violence had spread to Brixton (the famous site of the 1980s riots against police brutality against blacks), Croydon, Peckham and Clapham Junction, and other cities in England.
Unlike the Brixton riots of the 1980s, these are far less grounded, if at all, in a political or civil cause. Walking home that night I heard not one cry for justice, respite from police brutality or improved economic opportunities. The only cause these children seemed to have been championing is disrespect.
The selection of stores on their path of destruction is telling. The bookstores in my neighbourhood were left untouched, and the owners didn’t even bother to board them up to protect them on subsequent nights. Public buildings such as the library and post office were similarly ignored. Flat screen plasma TVs, iPhones, Nike kicks, bling and booze – if a store had any or all of the above, it was guaranteed to have suffered attack.
Opportunistic theft cannot be condoned under the veil of economic hardship and disenfranchisement of the underclass, and we should be reluctant to champion the baseless cause of unsupervised hooligans.
Although austerity measures have been rolled out by David Cameron’s government, in response to the economic downturn, the UK is still very much a ‘Nanny State’. British citizens receive considerable housing and unemployment benefits at the cost of hefty taxes, which are levelled at citizens and non-citizens resident and working here. As such, it’s difficult to sympathise with the economic argument for protest against the state. No one is saying that problems don’t exist. However, to wreak even more havoc does nothing to make life better.
A BBC TV presenter interviewed the Trinidad-born broadcaster Darcus Howe in a video you can find on YouTube entitled “They’ll never replay this on BBC”. In it, he riles against police brutality and complains that his angel of a grandson has been harassed numerous times by the police. Contrary to Mr. Howe’s experience, I witnessed in Clapham the most docile of responses I could have imagined from the Metropolitan police. There were about twenty police officers with five vehicles higher up my hill, well away from the chaotic scenes nearer the station. The children were thus acting with complete impunity.
As many Londoners followed up with calls for more, as opposed to less, police heavy handedness, most of us immigrants know that if this recreational criminality had broken out in most other countries around the world, there would have been ready use of tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons or worse. But perhaps this tempered reaction associated with the way the English manage to dodge emotive earnestness can have its advantages. The old English adage of “Keep Calm and Carry On” applies suitably today, as on any other. The day after the riots, in my neighbourhood, we went to work again, as usual with our heads down – no good mornings or eye contact, barely stopping to take pictures of the destroyed storefronts on the way.
The English are quick to move on, and with only the subtlest of hints of emotion. Returning home from work that day, I saw snappy hipsters dressed to match their brooms and pans. For the volunteers, Starbucks was kindly distributing free drinks served on police riot shields, and photographers were keen to get shots of young people and especially young black people out lending a hand. The show will no doubt go on.
While the show goes on we must be careful how we deal with the uncovered societal issues. From Twitter to the Telegraph, racist associations and xenophobic comments are already being spewed. In a letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Telegraph a man from rural southwest England asked, “Why does no one acknowledge that these riots are largely the behaviour of Afro-Caribbean youths?”
It startles me that a man on a couch in Cornwall could tell that these youths were of Caribbean origin. I certainly heard no Caribbean accents in Clapham Junction that night and wouldn’t be able to tell whether a Black person with an English accent was of African, British, American, Caribbean or Latino origin even if I tried. Blaming one race and more specifically one subset of that race is a cop-out and a useless deflection of ownership of broader societal ills that this country faces.
Nevertheless, the scale of the rioting seen in England is unprecedented, and begs the question – what has changed? What about English society, one that prides itself on order, and is founded on a stoic resoluteness, has changed? In the land of CCTV, where justice is served as a rate that we could only manage for ‘dinner specials’ and doubles, why are young people, in 2011, deciding that now is the time to challenge the rule of law that has apparently cultivated its own mistrust?
Just as there are two exits in Clapham Junction station, there are two paths for England. One takes us down the road of xenophobic, society-crushing finger pointing and name-calling. The people on that road walk backwards and look backwards. It is the easier road to walk on, but it is circular, and – before you know it – twenty years on your kids and politicians are using the same excuses.
The other path is to a society we all feel a part of. It is a path that is really an entrance. It is an entrance to a road that is signed with justice and fairness. Where communities take ownership bravely and responsibly, and where cheap excuses are not on sale. Not everyone on that road can afford a plasma TV or an iPhone just yet, but there are schools and heroes on that road that people can learn from and look up to. There is a work ethic and freedom that uses the inputs of hard work and dedication to output stability, growth and a sense of community and oneness.
I know which path I’d rather take.
Image credit: Associated Press.
James Walker is an analyst, both in job title and modus operandi. His life goals include becoming at least four of the following: calypsonian, sambista, columnist, educator, or salsero. James is also mildly obsessed with curry, games, and limes, and lives in London.