Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London's Burning

There was a riot the night I moved into my house in Brixton, south London. A burning police motorcycle lay abandoned where it had been dragged, about 250 yards from my front door. Many years later there would be bricks through my window, my partner mugged by a crack addict, Portuguese squatters 'shooting up' inside phone boxes next to the town hall, and angry young black men who shoved me aside in the street.

Of course, my friend Kieran Creagh, a Catholic priest working in South Africa, witnessed his first riot at age eight: Catholics and Protestants were tearing themselves apart, a herald of The Troubles emerging as he returned home from summer holidays to the Crumlin Road in north Belfast. But the disturbances now blanketing parts of London, and other inner-city areas in Britain, are more confusing.

London has grown into a strange kind of city-state, a mix of communities of rich and poor, haves and have-nots, aspirational middle classes and wannabe gangsters wedged side by side often in the same streets. Unlike Paris, which has shoved its poorest (often African) communities out into the banlieues away from the centre, or the great American cities where tens of miles separate projects from gated communities, there is no vast gulf of distance protecting London's middle classes from the terrible ennui of dispossessed youth – youth who in some ways are as reviled by their own communities as by others. But, by and large, these groups do not mix. They live side-by-side in separate lives.

South London's heavily Afro-Caribbean community was notorious among white middle-class Britons for much of the 1980s. Even today people still talk about the days of carnage in 1981, when local black youths rose up and took over the streets of Brixton in protest at the Metropolitan Police's heavy-handed stop-and-search tactics.

Traditionally riots in London – there have been many down the ages – have been linked to sectarian tensions, poverty or mass reaction to police brutality. The Poll Tax riots of 1990 were a wake-up call to the then-government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady". Some say these riots were the beginning of the end of her rule. In Brixton in 1981, in Toxteth in Liverpool in the same year, then Tottenham in 1985, black youths went on the rampage against widely-known police abuses. Major inquiries and reforms ensued in intervening years. Surely we had learned the lessons of that past?

True, the shooting of a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, by armed police in north London on Thursday evening did cause an outburst of disgust from some sections of the community. But the wanton – almost random – destruction; the looting; the use of social media to organise attacks up and down the land (instant messaging on Blackberry phones, Twitter, etc.) suggest other forces at work.

Many of the attacks have now spread to prosperous suburbs such as Ealing (west London), yuppie inner city ghetto Clapham (south London) and other areas and cities where there is no link to any shooting. Political leadership has been absent until today [Tuesday 9 August], when Prime Minister David Cameron returned from his Tuscan villa to try to take charge of a situation that has caught everyone off guard. In the streets of east London, local mosque-goers have seen off youths from Hackney, just north, whilst Turkish shop owners have been patrolling their streets in Dalston (near Hackney) armed with baseball bats. A joke is doing the rounds: Where is the (far-right) English Defence League at a time like this? It is the immigrants protecting the yuppies next door, not the police or the white so-called working-class heroes from the EDL.

As I've written often, and elsewhere, we live (as the Chinese would say) in interesting times. Communities and communal ties are shifting fast; there is a whole generation or subculture of young men growing up wedded to criminality. I predict mass crackdowns and court cases within the coming weeks: there is little sympathy as far as I can see for any of the rioters, most of whom seem bent on random violence and a crazy shopping spree. Worryingly, according to the latest reports, the young guys taking to the streets on Saturday are now joined by older, more organised criminals. But it is still the hooded youth - young men and women - doing the looting on a massive scale. What does it say about a society when minors effectively control its streets?

The Right are calling for no mercy; the Left are groping for answers amid the narrative of dispossession. I meanwhile will be wondering what the silver-tongued estate agents who have made so much commission from selling London's crowded apartments and tenements will be saying to their potential clients next week on Northcote Road in Clapham, or Brixton Hill, Bethnal Green, or Hackney Road.

Nick Ryan is a British journalist, author of the exposé of extreme Right groups, HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate.

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