I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney. At 4.15 I came home from work very briefly because I had to get back for a surgery from 5-8pm. There were hundreds of police in front of our house and kids running around everywhere with mobile phones and sticks and stones.
By 4.30pm last night after 15 nervous minutes at home, there was a riot about to start on the Narrow Way and the police had formed rows with shields held up ready to protect themselves. There were more kids coming from all directions on foot and on bikes and several adults, mostly male, not the usual shopping mums. These were not career criminals or habitual rioters. They were kids swept up in the rush of adrenaline-fueled excitement, mixed with and egged on by [ir]responsible adults. Back on the Narrow Way I had to squeeze past the police and through the crowds to get onto Mare street where the traffic had ground to a halt and there were people for hundreds of yards around all heading for the Narrow Way.
On the way home at about 9pm there was glass all over the road, bins were overturned, smoke was blowing over from Clarence road and shop windows were smashed. I was warned to avoid London Fields because of gangs of kids mugging people. Back at home I saw a lot of kids, some really young, carrying sticks and bricks all evening until about 1am. They were throwing them at police vans and intimidating people who live locally. There was no thinking about the cars they burned in nearby streets, nor the risks they posed to residents. Residents on the Narrow Way have very good reason to be terrified of being burned in their homes just because they live over the shops.This was brutal street capitalism, the violent appropriation of goods to be sold for a quick profit combined with nihilistic vandalism and intimidation. This West Indian matriach filmed only 200 yards up from our house sums up the intense frustration of locals.
What is equally terrifying is the brutal racist response from the right. I went to the holocaust museum in Berlin last year. There was a poster pointing out that in 1929 Germany was heavily indebted with massive unemployment, the world was on the brink of a financial crisis and people were looking for someone to blame. The parallels are frightening. The actions of the rioters, fighting for cash, not for rights, or justice or social change, will fan the flames of the racists who are baying for blood. Few people imagined in 1929 what would come. None of us knows what lies ahead now …
The potential for extraordinary violence by seemingly ordinary people has been explored at length by many others better qualified than I and it is essential that we reflect on what we have in common. Events in Nazi Germany described in Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin, the Milgram experiment in which volunteers tortured others under instruction from ‘scientist observers’, the massacre of women and children in My Lai, Vietnam described by moral philosopher Jonathan Glover and the chilling description of Joseph Fritzel who kept his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books all give profound examples of the capacity for violence that each and every one of us have given the right mixture of genes, family and environment. Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, in an article for the Independent today, Caring costs – but so do riots, gives a clear description of the toxic mix of contemporary pressures affecting excluded urban youths. Those commentators who are so proud that they have escaped the same estates the rioters have come from, need to think deeper than the estate, consider their genetic heritage, their family make up and the potential effect of an excitable crowd on violence and looting at a time of intense economic and consumer pressure.
Ultimately we need to see our destiny as inextricably linked with those we are so quick to condem, the solutions we propose, solutions for us all, the pressures to consume and be defined by consumption our shared problem, and their future security our own.
I’ve written a longer version for Pulse Today
A short history of moral panic: The Economist
Potlach: London Riots: The Limits of left and Right
Shoplifters of the world unite: Slavoj Žižek London Review of Books
Most of the Kids are Alright: “If you think you are an idealist, get off twitter, put down your placard, stop gazing at your navel to examine your privilege. Put your money and time where your mouth is. Go and volunteer in a primary school and sit with those who are struggling to read, go and become a school governor, go and do a bit of training to become an adult advocate so that when one of these kids goes through the judicial system and their parents can’t or won’t participate in the process, you can be called on to speak to and for them. If you can’t do any of those things, work an extra shift or do some baby-sitting to free up a colleague or friend who can. Unlike gesture politics, these acts will make a difference.”
Or Does it Explode? Communist analysis from the Commune.
The moral decay of our society. Analysis of power and morality from The Telegraph