A riot of my own

Never been in a riot, as The Mekons’ first single had it – a riposte to the Clash’s White Riot; equally, as of this week, I’ve never been so close to one. I suspect this may be the experience of others. I live in South London, and although the riots began in faraway Tottenham on Saturday, and spread to even-further-away Enfield on Sunday, the newspapers’ handy, cut-out-and-keep riot map of London quickly sprouted little flame symbols right across it, east, west, north and south. Shops were looted on Monday night in Brixton and Streatham, where I lived for 15 years, and certainly yesterday, as I travelled home through South London, shops and businesses and pubs were closed and boarded or shuttered up, so there was no room for geographical self-satisfaction. This unrest affects us all in London – and now affects people in Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and pretty much anywhere with some shops. So, as I write, I’ve still never been in a riot, but I have lived in a riot-torn city.

In 1981, when Brixton, and subsequently Handsworth, Toxteth, Southall, Hyson Green and Moss Side, went up in flames, I was in Northampton, which remained untouched. (The closest the flames came was Bedford, which was still a county away.) I was working in Sainsbury’s on the Saturday when the riots were rumoured to be coming to town. My job was to collect shopping trolleys and I spent a lot of my day out in the Grosvenor shopping centre, Greyfriars bus station and adjoining car parks. I was rounding up some trolleys in the bus station when I heard the sound of young, male voices shouting; it’s kicking off, I thought. I came up with a brilliant plan of action, which was to climb inside one of my trolleys for protection. It might have been a stupid plan, but I like the fact, retrospectively, that I came up with one. As it turned out, the young, male voices belonged to a very small group of young males, who ran through the bus station, trying to frighten everyone, but quickly ran out of steam, and just sort of stopped. They were a bit pathetic. But so was I for being scared. There was no Northampton riot in the summer of 1981.

This summer’s riots are not yet burnt out, so we won’t discount Northampton prematurely. On the Chronicle & Echo website, in fact, they talk about a number of copycat riot stories in the town turning out to be no more than unfounded, or even wishful, rumours. Eight people were arrested last night after some stone throwing on the Wellingborough Road, but that’s it. (Actually, there’s a debate going on, on the Chron website, about which number equates to a riot: it seems to be 12 people with “a common purpose”.) As it happens, I spent yesterday in Northampton, visiting my parents. I went up on the train from Euston in the morning. Before the train left Euston, two teenage boys came into our carriage and sat down across each other from the aisle. For the record, one was white, one was black, although both spoke in the familiar patois of young people, which is essentially black.

I must admit, I was disturbed to hear the more loquacious of the two enthusing about the previous night’s rioting in London. My estimate is that the boys were no more than 16 years of age, and yet he clearly believed the unrest to have been a spectator sport. He spoke as if he was there, but he might easily have just watched it on TV. Either way, he felt that it was exciting and cool – and, in his own young mind, justified – that people had looted shops. He spoke of the “Feds”, which I now understand to be the de rigeuer slang name for the police. The Feds were clearly his enemy. His friend, much quieter, eventually fell asleep, so the other boy shut up. To be honest, I was glad to have had a safe opportunity to hear the voice of the disaffected teenager up close. The headrests of the seats meant that I didn’t catch the boy’s eye. I don’t think he would have liked it if he felt he was being watched, although he was talking loudly enough to sound as if he wanted to be heard. (I hate it when two people sit opposite each other in a public space and raise their voices to be heard by their companion, by the way. It’s so arrogant. But don’t get me started on that.)

Here’s the inevitable bit: the ticket collector came into the carriage, and politely requested to see the tickets of the two boys. He woke up the one who was asleep. The other one admitted he didn’t have a ticket. He informed the ticket collector he was going to Milton Keynes. He was informed that the ticket was £17.50. The boy asked if he could pay for it at Milton Keynes, implying that he didn’t have the requisite cash on him but could access it at his destination. The ticket collector was not satisfied with this option and informed the boy that he had to pay it now. After a bit of discussion I couldn’t hear, the price was lowered to £8, so I’m assuming the boy told him he was a child. He still didn’t have the money. The sleeping boy claimed that he had paid for a ticket, but could not produce it. The ticket collector repeated his request for the money, at which point the non-sleeping boy started using swear words, and was told that he didn’t need to swear. The situation had turned a bit ugly.

Also in the carriage was a young woman – I’d say she was around 20. She leaned over from her seat and admonished the boys, saying, “We’ve all paid for our tickets, so why don’t you pay for yours?” I admired her indignation but felt it was ill-placed. The ticket collector had control of the situation, and the non-sleeping boy answered her back: “Who the fuck are you?” The ticket collector advised her, in a calm voice, not to get involved. It was agreed between the ticket collector and the two boys that no money would be forthcoming, so the ticket collector left the carriage. It was patently obvious that he was either fetching someone, or calling ahead to the next station. When he was gone, the boys left the carriage and I could see them disappear into the toilet together. They were going to wait it out until Milton Keynes.

Apart from exchanging smiles of relief with the young woman, we kept quiet. We were glad that they’d gone. We pulled into Bletchley, and the boys did not reappear. If I were them, I would have done. Having told the ticket inspector they were getting off at Milton Keynes, it would have been cleverer to get off at the station before, and get the next train. When we pulled into Milton Keynes, the boys emerged from the toilet and came back into our carriage to get off the train. They now had their hoods up. Good disguise. Sadly for them, the ticket collector had called ahead, and there were about seven large looking men on the platform – let’s say it was the station master, some other uniformed network rail employees, one security guard and another big bloke in casual clothes, who may or may not have been a police officer. The boys, worried now but keeping up the macho pretence, told each other that it was “the Feds” as they huddled by the door waiting for it to open. But the doors didn’t open, except for the one that the staff opened manually to enter the train.

So, the boys were escorted off the train and questioned by seven men. It was clear that they were about to use the same story they had used on the ticket collector: one of them had paid for a ticket but could not prove it by showing a ticket, the other one convinced he could get the £8 at Milton Keynes. I can’t lie, I was glad that their fare-dodging plan had been foiled. If they had booked ahead online, as I had done, they could have picked up one-way tickets to Milton Keynes from Euston for £6. It was a bargain.

It was a minor, unimportant, even everyday incident in the broader scheme of things in The Current Situation. But it gave an insight into the mindset of two very young boys who seemed to have either been involved in the rioting, or had been supporting it from afar. Two boys who felt that the “Feds” were the enemy, and that stealing goods from shops, throwing bricks and setting fire to property was a cool way to behave. I will not read any more into what kind of boys they were. But they were certainly the kind who felt that they could use trains for free. (Were they coming home to Milton Keynes? Had they come down to London to join the fun? Or did they just hop on the first train out of Euston that left from a platform with no automatic ticket gates or guard?)

I’ve spent so much of the last three days watching 24-hour news, I am convinced it is a power for evil rather than good at times like these. We didn’t have Sky News or News 24 in 1981 – your chance to get on TV! It’s quicker than applying to be on Britain’s Got Talent! – and, as such, I think they burnt out more quickly. Social networking has been a tool for spreading information, but it has also been a tool for organising clean-ups, so it’s hard to call for its abolition, like someone who has never used Twitter will probably already had said in the Mail, a newspaper I’m avoiding even more stringently than ever currently. We live in a 24-hour culture, but we need reasoned coverage, like the sort you get in newspapers – remember them? – or on evening news programmes, not the endless replaying of the same footage, which gives the impression that a student is having his backpack robbed every 15 minutes, and that a burning building is still burning 24 hours after it was lit. I speak as someone who has been glued to Sky and the BBC since Saturday, but glued to it and hating myself for it. These are riots that take place mainly in the evening, not all day. (Perhaps if it rains tonight, the looters will stay at home with their mums. I am not the first to note that riots generally take place in clement weather.)

Like Brixton in 1981, the riots had a flashpoint, which was an incident involving the police, which has led to civil unrest, violence and looting. While I obviously don’t condone violence, when it erupts against the police, what might very leniently be described as an angry response rooted in a broader political and social malaise loses any precarious moral high ground when it turns into, or leads to, the looting of shops, and the burning of property. This time, although the shooting of Mark Duggan is looking to be a pretty regrettable affair, the violent reaction to a potential unjustice seems to have turned into looting almost immediately, and that certainly seems to be the driving force behind the subsequent riots occurring outside of Tottenham, which fall squarely under the banner of “copycat.” Social deprivation, racial tension, unemployment, poor policing, decimated public services due to the cuts – these universal grievances carry a moral weight. Until you use them as an excuse to not pay for your tracksuit.

I do not discount the broader political and social malaise, but it’s so much easier to take a reactionary, even right-wing view of those participating in social unrest if all we see is young people – and it is mostly young people – going into Currys and Carphone Warehouse and walking out with stolen goods. How quickly any political high ground is lost. You have a problem with the police, you don’t burn down and loot local shops where local people work. You don’t ram buses with recycling bins. You don’t burn down a post office. You don’t pillage from a minimarket whose owner probably doesn’t have contents insurance.

These riots have long since stopped being a protest. They have turned into a free-for-all. (Check this excellent, on-the-ground report from the Guardian‘s redoubtable and unflappable Paul Lewis on the demographic of the rioters.) Friends and relatives of Duggan have repeatedly distanced themselves from the disorder and want no part of it. These riots are a terrible advert for young people, the majority of whom, let’s agree on this, are not doing it. They’re a terrible advert for the police, who failed to keep control for three nights’ running in London, and only managed it last night because 10,000 more officers were drafted in. (The Duggan inquest is already a terrible advert for the Met, who, once again, seem to have put out one statement, and then contradicted it with another one. Mind you, nobody is running the Met at the moment, due to resignations over the phone-hacking scandal.) And they are a terrible advert for London. And Manchester. And Birmingham. And elsewhere.

I think of London as a city where people of all ages, races, creeds and hat size generally rub along together – a brilliant advert for multiculturalism and community spirit – and then, to quote the appalling Pearl Harbor, all this happens! If you live in Manchester, or one of the other fine cities and towns with broken shop window glass underfoot this afternoon, I expect you feel largely the same. We ought to be good at this getting along with each other shit.

The two boys on my train may or may not have been masked up and rifling around the broken glass in a JD Sports window in London on Monday night. But their apparent glee shocked me. Other masked crusaders have been caught, or interviewed, by the media, expressing a similar glee. My usual sweeping complaint about teenagers today is that they are disengaged and apolitical. I was happy when the student protests proved me wrong on that score – most of those on the streets were issue-driven and clued-up, and active, not passive. But I’m not hearing the same from the rioters of 2011. Now, you might say that this is because, on the whole, they are ill-educated, and students are more likely to be white and middle class, but when in the heat of the moment, a gaggle of them kicked in Millbank’s windows and scared the shit out of blameless party workers pushing pen around in the offices there, the woolliest, most liberal bit of me almost let the students off the hook. But even that woolliest, most liberal part of me finds it hard to let the opportunists in hoods and scarves off the hook, because they are directing their anger at the wrong things.

If you want a revolution, you’re going to have to break a bit of glass. But have a look at whose glass it is and ask who’ll be paying for it to be replaced before you stick a boot into it. Or is my dazzling logic and perspective a bourgeois luxury?


14 thoughts on “A riot of my own

  1. Reading the story of the two youths on the train. What struck me is the disproportionate cost involved in dealing with them.

    Their reaction to the ‘riots’ (I don’t know if these are truly riots but that’s another argument) is consistent with the emotional maturity of many teenagers. I can remember saying some dumb things when I was 16 and certainly not proud of them.

    I didn’t dodge train or bus fares though. We might have been relatively poor but we weren’t thieves.

  2. Great post, wouldn’t have expected any less. You articulate the thoughts of all conflicted woolly liberals everywhere. Every aspect of this situation has been shocking and confusing, even away from the actual burning and looting. From the realisation that the BBC’s coverage was nowhere near as up-to-date or as slick as Sky News’ (and I hate myself even more for being glued to Sky) to the shock at seeing how old Darcus Howe was looking and on reflection, feeling older myself. You also realise that you are truly middle-aged when you struggle to understand the next generation.
    I am sat at my desk in Wood Green, hearing sirens even now, arguing with friends online that it isn’t necessary to get more right-wing and less empathic as you get older, and feeling the argument slipping away…
    Difficult days ahead as the media analysis and public opinion will no doubt only be heading one way…

  3. Interesting article Andrew. One of the saddest things about these riots is that their severity and lack of purpose could be what brings in the use of rubber bullets and water cannons on the streets. These rioters may be responsible for tougher, more draconian measures on all acts of civil disobedience or even peaceful protest with genuine political purpose. There are lots of reasons why I think these riots are absolutely stupid, nasty and unnecessary but the levels of dehumanisation the right are pulling out scares me a hell of a lot more. How can we moderate a debate between someone calling rioters “vermin”, “scum” and “rats” promising to throw them out of their houses and ditch them from benefits, for life, and the liberal perspective of lets try and sort it out, find out the causes and make sure this won’t happen again.

    I think maybe I rambled off point a bit but I think the fact that these weren’t politically motivated doesn’t mean that the causes and solutions aren’t political. Maybe I’m a terminally liberal bourgeois too though…

  4. Just wanted to say I helped with the clean-up in Birmingham today and was very heartened by the variety of people who turned up to help – including Young People. I felt a lot better about things once I’d done something to help, too. And we will be out there every day until it stops. Just to point out a positive, anyway …

  5. Very good post indeed, Andrew. I share your confusion and helplessness. And I’m genuinely fearful of how on earth we get back from here (already asking myself the question ‘back to where?’ as I type.). We are a terribly damaged, resentful and cynical society with terminally skewed priorities, and I just don’t know how you(we) start to change that. I’m not sure the will to change is even there.

    I have to hope I’m wrong, I guess.

  6. Fantastic article and soothing reading for a soul who has had his political views stretched from one wing to the other and I’m more confused than ever. This underclass has been bubbling away for a long time and the minority of teenagers who behave in this way are not scared or awed by any peers in society – parents, teachers, police or any authority. In my job as a ticket collector I have seen this in the flesh on an almost daily basis, where a 15-18 year old has shown no respect to police officers having previously not bought a ticket. They believe getting on a train, grabbing a tv or a pair of trainers as a right, and shouldn’t have to pay, save up or work for it. It’s part of our ‘get it now, get it fast’ culture born from the likes of the McDonald’s model.

    Teachers have had their authority diluted, it is the pupils who are in power and any discipline handed out to the class is met with outrage and subsequent loss of livelihood for the teacher concerned. Parents have been dissuaded from publicly smacking their children, and the police are caught between a rock and a hard place. I have witnessed these kids so often to know that they themselves have the belief that they are above the law and that no one, not even a policeman can do anything.

    I am 33 and when I see a policeman walking towards me, I feel a little scared and in awe to this day. I respected my elders, my teachers (with a little fear, which never did me any harm) and of course my parents. And what in the hell is wrong with having winners and losers at school’s sports day?! It all adds to the soup that has boiled over this week. 99% of childern and teens can override this and have strong leadership at home, these looters just plainly take advantage of it, blaming someone else for their actions.

    Unfortunately this minority has nothing to give or provide nor do they want to change their attitudes to do so. Luckily the amazing people of London have become closer because of this and have demonstrated once again, that we all rub shoulders happily and will come to each other’s aid for the greater good and to weed out this offfence to our communities.

    • I had a few slaps to the backs of my legs as a kid, and I knew the boundaries. I went to a comp and was sufficiently scared of the teachers not to do anything wrong beyond a bit of cheek, and a bit of attitude at Upper School (which was peer-related as I tried to get in with the “hard kids”, whose crimes were as extreme as not doing their homework or having their ties askew). All I can say is: I was lucky to have been raised and educated when I was. I don’t have kids, but most of my friends and relatives do, and I do not envy them. The world around these kids is one of glamour and promise and untold millions, flaunted by their sporting and non-sporting heroes, and by the TV programmes they watch. It’s all part of our tabloid world, where the lowest common denominator is aimed for at all times, and subtlety and nuance are stamped out. It’s a black and white world of rich and poor, or so it seems through the tabloid prism. If you can’t get rich, the kids are led to believe, it’s not worth living.

  7. I’m not even sure where to go after saying ‘Great article’.

    I have a feeling we will spend the next few weeks, months and possibly even years looking at the root causes of this utter blight on our national consciousness. My parents distinctly recall the riots of 1981; I was born just a couple of years later and grew up in what seemed to be a sensible, stable society. I had both respect and a healthy amount of fear for my elders and those in authority. Sadly, and by no means does this extend to everyone, there does seem to have been a shift over the last couple of generations and I agree to some extent with Matthew James Phillips up there that the apparent loss of this respect and fear has done us no favours. Having seen a number of videos from the last few days where young people talk about not giving respect until they get it first has left me despairing.

    Trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions is difficult: I would probably peg myself a woolly liberalist too. At the same time, I was so angry from talking to friends who were scared and seeing specific areas in two cities I’ve spent the last 8 years of my life in (London and Manchester) hit over the last three nights that I referred to the perpetrators as scum on a facebook message and immediately felt guilty.

    Picking apart the underlying causes is no mean feat – it’s my very personal opinion that there is a real mix of opportunist criminal activity and disaffection with what you so eloquently termed “broader political and social malaise” but where do we draw the line between them? A friend yesterday posted a link to the current e-petition proposing “Convicted London rioters should loose all benefits” (I don’t want to go off on one about that spelling but maybe we should have a petition proposing anyone wanting to start one should use spellcheck before submitting … ) and my heart sank. Is this really going to be the answer? Is turfing those convicted of taking part in these recent criminal acts out of their homes going to go any way in making them feel a part of wider society? Of course they should not be allowed to get away with criminal acts, especially not those of severity that have seen people lose their homes, livelihoods and lives, but I don’t see how widening the margins of the current, expanding, political and social situation is going to help.

    Andrew, you questioned in a comment on ‘Buy! Buy!’ who has the time or money for a different kind of growth anymore: the spiritual and cultural kind. I think the same question can be applied to this situation as well: investment in giving our future generations a sense of purpose, hope and place, not just of consumerism and entitlement, is vital for us to move forward. Of course that does take financial investment but more than that it takes time and care. What we put in, we get out.

    • I must say it is heartening to hear from like-minded liberals who are also wringing their hands over all this. We must not forget it. It’s not practical to have 16,000 police officers on duty every night in London. Or at least, if we have to, somebody is going to have to pay for it … and we know where that debate ends.

  8. So true about the rolling news coverage!

    I too feel punch drunk with all the recent jaw-dropping events, the analysis veering from one extreme to another, and my own discomfort at how many people stood by apparently impotent, perhaps filming events for posterity … while tutting.

    Last night, a few of the little toerags were filmed coming out of court, and their cocky strut spoke volumes about how they continue to feel that they are the victims (or heroes?).

    While I have been shocked and angered, I notice that my friends in London seem much more sanguine about it all. Not sure if they’ve been desensitised or I’ve been hyped up by too much internet and TV outrage.

    I wince at the backlash from all of this.

  9. I don’t excuse the looters, and I find the kind of behaviour Andrew encountered on the train equally irritating. But what example has been set for young people in this country? For thirty years in this country we, and I’m talking about the majority of us here (though not every one of us), have lived beyond our means, hoovering up consumer goods bought with money we didn’t have. It wasn’t illegal behaviour but it was unthinking and greedy. In doing so we priced the poor out of the housing market, forcing people away from their family neighborhoods and into more ‘affordable areas’. In doing so we have passed on the cost of this to the younger generations.

    Corporatist capitalism IS at the heart of this. If we think the answer to the disconnection between the majority and those looting and rioting in our cities lies only with solutions for the latter party, then we will continue to sleepwalk into problems far far greater than the admittedly sad and worrying violence of recent nights.

  10. Off work and onto trains – I’ve been travelling about for much of the last five days. And certainly not watching rolling news. If you close your eyes it all goes away.

    On Monday I sat behind two teenage boys of probably a similar age to your two. That train passes some kind of works that one lad described as a disused salt mine, despite much evidence to the contrary (people quite clearly at work shifting “salt” into train wagons, etc). He went off into a story about how he’d been in there once with an older acquaintance. They’d run through the mine stealing all this “copper and shit”. The police had been after them, but they’d had to retreat because of “stones falling off the mine roof”. And because mines famously have many secret exit routes, our heroes managed to get away with the gear, and the police never got near them.

    Teenage boys talk shit. Or some of them do. And it was ever thus. I’d completely forgotten about those lads at school who spouted these sort of tales, until I overheard this. They were always boasting of their exploits, which often involved them getting the better of the police or other authority figures. It was mostly bullshit, and you didn’t need to be a genius to see the holes in the plot because – coincidentally – they weren’t the brightest kids in school.

    Some people never grow out of this. Often they’re the ones who never find work, or who can’t hold on to a job. Which is not to suggest that every unemployed person thinks like this – I’ve spent more years out of work than most people. But it’s easier to continue to live in this fantasy world where you’re Bo or Luke, and the police are Boss Hogg, if you’re unencumbered by the demands of long-term employment. I found “the feds” thing quite funny the first time I heard it used a few years back, by a student. But these days its use seems less ironic, and more a genuine attempt to romanticise something that isn’t the least bit romantic. We’re in an unhappy place.

    The fact is some people can’t see any reasons to feel good about themselves in the real world. Some people never achieve anything in terms of the criteria that our society has arbitrarily decided to judge us by. And some people are too defensive of their fragile egos to ever ask for help. Life becomes a battle. And if you’re not winning then the easiest thing is to just pretend that you are. Just create a version of the world where you’re never wrong and everyone else is. And if someone ever dares to try to point out the reality of your situation, just shout them down because you don’t need that kind of disrespect.

    There are more people who don’t fit society’s criteria these days, because the criteria have changed. There used to be jobs for them – lots of them. And there were communities that existed around those jobs – both in and out of the workplace. No one cared if almost half our children were below average because the few people who got to see those statistics understood what an average is. Then those same elite people decided that to remain competitive, we’d inevitably have to start exploiting cheap labour in other countries, because our labour costs are higher. Obviously the rest of us could carry on as before, because we’re cleverer than foreigners – they’d never replace us with cheaper alternatives. But the “others” – they’ve been left to rot for the last thirty years. Obviously that strategy has been built on a blinkered and downright racist view of the world, and – ooh – around about now we’re all starting to find out just how clever we’ve been, and just how sustainable our higher “Western” salaries are.

    But I digress.

    Of course you end up feeling like a Daily Mail columnist when you find yourself disapproving of rioters. But these aren’t rioters – they’re looters. In the eighties people rioted as a reaction to injustice. A lot of that was to do with race, but some of it was about those at the bottom of the ladder seeing what was starting to happen to them and their communities. The people at the bottom these days have never known any different.

    I’m making assumptions about who has been rioting. I’m generalising. I shouldn’t. Of course, everyone involved should know better: we all know you don’t steal. But I honestly believe a large proportion of them won’t see it as stealing. Or at least when they tell their stories it won’t sound like it was stealing. If it’s the police trying to stop you breaking into that department store, then it’s only the police you’re getting one over on by looting the place. There are no victims in these stories, only heroes.

    And there are only ever happy endings.

    Coincidentally they were never the brightest kids in school. Just like in an Enid Blyton mystery, there was a secret exit from the salt mine. Your lads hid in the loo on the train, which no ticket dodger has ever thought of doing before, ever. Burn down someone’s place of work and you’re really sticking it to The Man. Texts and messaging services are so ephemeral – organise a mass looting using them and you’ll leave no trace.

    And perhaps worst of all: if you close your eyes, it all goes away.

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