Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Our Cities Alight

I thought the world might be ending in 1981, in the depths of the Cold War our cities suddenly caught alight. Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapeltown and Moss Side were ablaze both literally, and with anger fuelled by long term social deprivation and resentment at police stop and search powers directed at young black men. It was a troubled year, Bobby Sands starved himself to death and more riots took place on the streets of Belfast, US President Ronald Reagun was wounded in an assassination attempt and a man fired shots, which later proved to be blanks, at the Queen.

I remember keeping a scrapbook at the time, I was slightly obsessed with the rioting, I cut out out reports and pictures from the papers and built up a dossier of violence and disorder, photographs of disaffected youths throwing missiles, of wounded policemen being sheltered by comrades, of shops and workplaces and homes burning.  I could not understand then why people were destroying the amenities in their own neighbourhoods, if this was the only protest they felt they could make, why did they torch their own community centres.

The riots that have exploded across London, and which are spreading through our larger cities, have taken a different hue. The original riot seems to have been triggered by the police shooting of a man, reports are now contradicting the first story that Mark Duggan fired first and wounded a police officer, it is now being said that all the shots were fired by the Police.  Tensions boiled over and Tottenham suffered more for it.

Some activists in Tottenham are claiming that last month there was an entirely peaceful march to Tottenham police station, which it is claimed around 2,000 people took part in and was almost completely ignored by the media. Protesters/rioters in Tottenham interviewed by NBC pointed out that if 20 black kids smash up a branch of William Hill and burn a sports car, they can bring the world's media to their doorstep.

The more extensive riots that have taken place though have no political or activist connection with the first events in Tottenham. Television reports carry footage of largely young people bent on a bit of window breaking and looting, organised, it is claimed, on the Blackberry Messenger closed system. This is vandalism and theft on a large scale and nothing more. It may well be that the people involved in these events are at the poorest end of the social spectrum, but these riots are not anti-police or against authority, it's just a bunch of kids out to cause mayhem and steal some trainers.

Last night Sky News were warming their hands over the footage of a huge blaze consuming a furniture store in Croyden, and taking with it the jobs and livelihoods of the families that worked there.  As buildings burn in Tottenham and Croyden, ordinary working class families have lost everything, their jobs, homes and all their possessions bar the clothes they are wearing. Sky repeated that footage late into last night, I must have seen the same group of three kids run past the burning building 15 times.

Whatever your situation in life, you still have choices, and if you are poor and excluded then looting a couple of pairs of Adidas trainers from JD Sports isn't really going to improve your social situation.  We live in a technological age where you can choose to use your mobile device to organise a mob of your wrong thinking friends to firebomb Currys, or you can use it to inform and educate yourself.

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent." - Mohandas Gandhi


  1. A well thought out commentary as always. The media, as usual, are grateful for the excitement and don't really help matters.

    But let's not discipline children when they are young or instill some sort of civic pride in them. We must continue to teach them they have a right to do whatever they want without consequence.

  2. very well done. I learned a lot that I didn't know by reading this. Thanks, YS!