Britain’s rebels without a cause

“If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a fucking cause,” shouts a woman in Hackney venting her contempt at kids on the rampage. What do the rioters want? New sneakers?

Prize for the wittiest tweet goes to “Sally Can’t Dance” who wrote facetiously: “Turkish and Asian groups have stood up to & chased off rioters. Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities.”

Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily reported:

Turkish and Kurdish business owners between Hackney’s Stoke Newington High Street and Kingsland Road in London have been fighting to defend their properties from days of rioting across the United Kingdom.

“It was between about 9 or 10 at night,” said Yılmaz Karagöz, sitting in his coffee shop next to a jeweller’s shop that has been shuttered since Sunday when the rioting began and a pharmacy that closed a day after.

“There were a lot of them. We came out of our shops but the police asked us to do nothing. But the police did not do anything, so, as more came, we chased them off ourselves,” Karagöz said.

The staff from a local kebab restaurant ran at the attackers with döner knives in their hands. “I don’t think they will be coming back,” Karagöz said.

In other parts of London, local groups have come together to engage in similar ad hoc community policing.

At Open Democracy, Laurie Penny writes:

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

Camila Batmanghelidjh writes:

If this is a war, the enemy, on the face of it, are the “lawless”, the defenders are the law-abiding. An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.

Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best. The drug economy facilitates a parallel subculture with the drug dealer producing more fiscally efficient solutions than the social care agencies who are too under-resourced to compete.

The insidious flourishing of anti-establishment attitudes is paradoxically helped by the establishment. It grows when a child is dragged by their mother to social services screaming for help and security guards remove both; or in the shiny academies which, quietly, rid themselves of the most disturbed kids. Walk into the mental hospitals and there is nothing for the patients to do except peel the wallpaper. Go to the youth centre and you will find the staff have locked themselves up in the office because disturbed young men are dominating the space with their violent dogs. Walk on the estate stairwells with your baby in a buggy manoeuvring past the condoms, the needles, into the lift where the best outcome is that you will survive the urine stench and the worst is that you will be raped. The border police arrive at the neighbour’s door to grab an “over-stayer” and his kids are screaming. British children with no legal papers have mothers surviving through prostitution and still there’s not enough food on the table.

It’s not one occasional attack on dignity, it’s a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped. Savagery is a possibility within us all. Some of us have been lucky enough not to have to call upon it for survival; others, exhausted from failure, can justify resorting to it.

The Guardian attempts to answer what might sound like a simple question: who are the rioters?

Take events in Chalk Farm, north London. First the streets contained people of all backgrounds sprinting off with bicycles looted from Evans Cycles. Three Asian men in their 40s, guarding a newsagent, discussed whether they should also take advantage of the apparent suspension of law.

“If we go for it now, we can get a bike,” said one. “Don’t do it,” said another. Others were not so reticent; a white woman and a man emerged carrying a bike each. A young black teenager, aged about 14, came out smiling, carrying another bike, only for it be snatched from him by an older man.

They were just some of the crowd of about 100 who had gathered on the corner; a mix of the curious and angry, young and old. It was impossible to distinguish between thieves, bystanders and those who simply wanted to cause damage.

A group of about 20 youths were wielding scaffolding poles taken from a nearby building site. They used their makeshift weapons, along with bricks and stolen bottles of wine, to intermittently attack passing motorists or smash bus shelters. A man in a slim suit stood on the corner recording the violence on his mobile phone.

Most of those he was filming had covered their faces. One had a full balaclava with holes cut out only for the eyes and mouth. “Is that you, bruv?” an older man, aged about 30, hands in pockets, asked the man in the balaclava. Recognising his friend, he laughed and added: “Fuck. Don’t stand near me – you’re going to get me arrested.”

Seconds later there was a smash as the minicab office around the corner was broken into. Teenagers swarmed in, shouting: “Bwap, bwap, bwap.”

The arrival of a line of riot police from Camden, where a branch of Sainsbury’s and clothing stores had been looted an hour earlier, signalled it was time for everyone to move on.

But there was no rush; the group knew from experience that police would hold back for the time being. “Keep an eye on the Feds, man,” said one youth.

Overheard snippets of conversation gave an insight into how the disparate groups were deciding where to go.

One man said: “Hampstead, bruv. Let’s go rob Hampstead.” Another, looking at his BlackBerry, said: “Kilburn, it’s happening in Kilburn and Holloway.” A third added: “The whole country is burning, man.”

And as multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called “black youths” are largely behind such violence.

While cappuccino-drinking property owners in Notting Hill suggested it might be time to bring in the army, similar calls were not be made by the residents of riot-torn Hackney.

“I am having a look to make sure we don’t get caught by any rioters tonight,” said Neil Clifford, who is chief executive of the shoe chain Kurt Geiger but, for now, was sipping a cappuccino outside the Joseph store in Notting Hill. “It’s pretty shocking. We look an embarrassment to the world. I think we probably either should have a massive influx of police or the support of the army to deal with this.”

Pat Burn, a retired social worker who has lived in west London for 30 years, said she heard the sirens and feared for her and her elderly husband’s safety.

“I think everybody around here is very worried. It feels as if things are out of control.” She too thought military support might be needed. “The police should get the water cannon out and use the army if they can’t cope.

“I’m not sure how it will all end. This area will be a target because it is wealthy. The problem is that in this country we live in extremes of rich and poor. We need to live in the middle, like they do in Scandinavia.”

No one in Hackney was calling for the army. On Clarence Road, scene of some of the most dramatic and frightening rioting of the night, many said they felt the police had been alarming enough. All along the street, neighbours gathered in threes or fives, some talking discreetly among themselves, some debating noisily the cause of the disturbances. A few teenagers on low BMX bikes wheeled slowly along the street, looking at strangers with suspicion. No one was talking about anything else.

“The police were hanging at the bottom of the road, hundreds of them, waiting for trouble,” said one man in his early 40s, who had stood on his doorstep until 2am to protect his front windows. Like most people on the street he would not give his name.

“Their priority was to protect Mare Street … the banks, the post offices. That’s what their priortity is. Not us. Taxpayers are supposed to serve and protect the community. It’s a joke.”

But the young rioters’ grievances with the police, he and his friends agreed, were much more deep-seated. “When you have police officers jumping out of vans, calling 18-year-olds bitches and niggers; I’m a youth worker, I see it all over.

“That’s what’s happening. They are thinking, who the fuck are you? And so it starts,” he added.

“You have a generation of kids now that don’t respect their parents or the police,” chipped in his friend. “When we were youngsters we were made to have respect for the olders. Now if an older was to slap a youth that kid is going to pick up a hammer.

“I was one of these kids but it’s bloody hard for them. There’s nothing to do at all. University fees have gone up, education costs money. And there’s no jobs. This is them sending out a message.”

The same depressing picture – a mixture of alienation, anger at the police, boredom and mischief – was reiterated by locals across the Pembury estate. “They just want to be heard,” said a young black woman. “This is the only way some people have to communicate.”

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, eager to return criticism at those governments who were two years ago condemning the crushing of the Green Movement, asked: “What kind of country treats its own people like this? The ugliest treatment is the police’s unacceptable attack on the people, who have no weapons in hand.”

If the Iranian leader’s accusations were predictably opportunistic, he did employ one rather persuasive rhetorical device: to suggest that Britain’s economy had already been savaged by looters — not ones dressed in hoodies, but those wearing pin-stripe suits: the bankers.

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2 thoughts on “Britain’s rebels without a cause

  1. Colm O' Toole

    Adbusters the Anti-Capitalist magazine has a piece on their blogs entitled “Is Rioting Revolutionary?”

    This is, for me, the fundamental point: at what point does a riot become a revolution? Must the London youth don Black Bloc attire and shout utopian anarchist slogans while burning cop cars before their acts are recognized as a kind of political rebellion? Must they be able to articulate themselves in a way that is intelligible to readers of Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri before their riotous flashmobs are acknowledged as the highest form of networked insurrection yet achieved? I suspect that when revolution comes, the ones who have been too long waiting for it will be the very ones who miss it. For they will be too accustomed to looking in the wrong direction, waiting for the wrong words, the wrong actors, the wrong kinds of political deeds.

    Some people may look at the news coverage of London and assume it is not a revolution in the making. They will see the clothes stores ransacked and the plasma TV’s looted and say that this is not a political act. They will see it as just mindless violence and chaos by thugs. A good quote is Mao Zedong on revolutions.

    “Revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly and modestly.”

    My general view at present is that this has the makings of a Revolution but is yet to achieve its momentum to survive. If tonight and tomorrow see a continuation or escalation of violence we will be into the weekend when I think it will really gain alot of momentum. There are some problems facing a revolutionary situation at present (less looting more fighting for a cause needed, the joining of the anarchist bloc which has been silent so far, the continuing unity of the ethnic groups).

    But be in no doubt this is an explosive situation and Cameron is as clueless as Mubarak (he actually had the nerve to call the looting “selfishness by kids with no sense of responsibility” completely ignoring the looting and selfishness of the banks in stealing 10’s of billions.) Cameron is stupid enough and elitist enough and patronizing enough to make the youths even more angry.

  2. Dieter Heymann

    The quotation of Mao is totally misplaced here. Mao and his cohorts were fully prepared to take over the government of all of China and rule. They had gone through many years of observation and learning. It was never a question whether they could govern China but could they win first? Am I to understand that these arsonists and looters can govern Great Britain? That is laughable.
    As to “momentum”, that depends entirely on who will grab the opportunity to use these nihilistic rowdies to advance their cause. Let’s be clear that the victory of the Nazi party in 1933/34 was a revolution in the sense that they completely took over and remade the governance of Germany using the guns and bayonets of the SA to intimidate voters. There is no SA yet in England but don’t hold your breath.
    Let us also remember that Leon Trotsky ordered several Red Army soldiers on the day of their revolution to go to the cellars of the Winter Palace to smash all bottles of wine to pieces so that the Bolshevik revolution could not be drowned is a sea of looting Russian drunks because he knew that that might have turned the not-yet-committed working class of St. Petersburg against the Bolsheviks.
    I seem to have learned that successful revolutions need at least the acquiescence of the general population. Even better: active support such as was the case of Solidarity in Poland which spearheaded a genuine revolution. Neither seems to be the case in England today hence there will be no revolution now or in the future triggered by such arsonists, looters, and possibly murderers. Forget it.

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