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?