So, the next few posts are From The Archives, originally published elsewhere, bear with me…
I’m re-posting this from a note I wrote on Facebook, so that I can engage with more people about what we’ve seen on the streets this week.
To be clear, I don’t think I’ve got any special insight into the rioting; I don’t live in one of the affected areas, I’m very lucky in that respect. I also feel, whole-heartedly, for those who have been affected. This situation is not good and we need to think about how we are going to move on.
A lot of the analysis that I’ve seen from other Regular Folk like me has troubled me, and I think it’s incredibly important that we have this debate as much as possible and in as calm and thoughtful a manner as possible. I’ve seen liberals advocating treatment of the rioters that is nothing short of labour camps, and I feel a very profound need to make sure that people are thinking about reactionary statements like that so that we can avoid such throwaway lines taking hold of the dominant discourse about one of the most troubling times in the recent history of this country.
There have been deaths in this situation. It needs to end and we need to stop it from happening again. May Mark Duggan, Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir rest in peace. My heart is with their friends and families.
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The first thing I want to say is that I’m a bit baffled by the continuing “condemn or condone” discourse that’s going on. We’re not, as individuals, a mainstream political party – even if we belong to one (I don’t). It therefore doesn’t matter whether we condemn or condone what is going on; we are not the law-makers or enforcers. Perhaps sadly. Saying “I was really upset to see someone’s home being burnt down”, and “I was really upset to see a police officer brutalising a sixteen-year-old girl” are not contradictory statements; they are both statements that I hold to be true and they cut against the reductive dichotmising of the situation into “for” and “against” categories. I feel the need to admit that really bad things have happened in London and around the country this week. I don’t feel the need to say that everything that has happened on the streets is bad or that everything that has been done by the state, against the streets, is good. Let’s talk about what’s actually going on, and not in glib maxims about support or opposition that absolve us of looking closely at the situation.
The other thing that’s muddling me up a bit is people saying that the rioting is not “political”. Left-wing friends seem to be using this to mean that it hasn’t taken the form of organised demonstrations (or uprisings etc.) with specifically chosen, class-conscious targets; we’re not seeing Whitehall ripped up, for instance, or Molotovs in the City. Right-wing, or at least liberal and more rightwing, friends seem by and large to be saying that it’s not political because they don’t believe it to be in any way related to government actions or socio-economic circumstances. Even Harriet Harman on Newsnight had a hard time explicating the view – which I was glad she implied and irritated that she dropped – that those hit hardest by the cuts and the economic climate are the ones who are rioting for that very reason – that they have been hit hardest by the cuts and the economic climate.
For my part, I don’t think there can be any doubt about the “political” nature of the rioting. Look at how it began, with Mark Duggan’s shooting last Thursday. A young black man from a poor area was killed by the police, who it seems then tried to disguise the conditions of his death – ballistic reports and IPCC investigations show that the bullet in a police radio that Duggan is supposed to have fired is police issue. Members of his community, I presume friends and family members among them, then banded together and marched on the police station. Too right they did. Surely this meets everyone’s criteria for a political action – for the left, it is organised and focussed; for the right, it is a direct response to a state action.
The rioting began there, in Tottenham, after that action against the police. It began in the highly political anger of those who have been instulted by the state, one time too many. Rioting is an expression of disenfranchisement; I don’t understand how smashing up your own back yard can be seen as anything other than an expression of helplessness, or hopelessness. Surely the statement is, quite clearly, “I don’t care anymore”? I have never held much truck with those who think that apathy is in some way apolitical; to be apathetic is, usually, to open the doors to being reactionary and really quite right wing – in such circumstances as “being apathetic” means going unquestioningly with the status quo. Middle class kids who don’t vote put “apathetic” under their political views on Facebook. This in reality means “willing to let what’s happening keep on happening and to make excuses for it half-heartedly from time to time, so I don’t have to trouble myself with action” – see why I think that’s reactionary and right-wing? On the streets though we’re seeing a different and infinitely more important form of apathy. People who just don’t care about their home communities, about their neighbours, at all. Homes and grocery stores being torched are to me a far greater signifier of political apathy than the big places, like Sainsbury’s or EMI, going up. It shouldn’t be that you can live every day just round the corner from somebody and then set light to their home without thinking twice about it. The sentiment “but for the grace of god, there go I” seems to have taken on an ironic sneer, so that in this angry moment, the only available form of status elavation available is, “well it’s their house burning, not mine”. I have found this particular sentiment very difficult to phrase but I think that destroying one’s own home area is indicative of a kind of mass dip in self-esteem – “we don’t matter, who cares if we mess this place up?”
For people to feel that they have no economic or social value, that they might as well be on fire as anything else and at least they might get a new telly out of it, that’s political. Cutting people’s jobs, benefits and services isn’t automatically the cause of a riot – that’s an argument I’ve seen the right-of-me contingent throwing around quite a lot too. “When their benefits were cut, they weren’t replaced with a crow-bar and brain-washing with a ‘smash, destroy’ message.” Sure; people have individually taken the decision to run out, smash a window, take a DVD player, drop a match. They have done this as autonomous individuals, not under the control of anybody else. It would be extremely disrespectful of me to suggest otherwise than that these actions have been taken by individuals with brains and the capacity for independent thought. They are people however who have been driven to the point of despair.
Things have happened in my own life, as they have happened in nearly everybody’s, that have made me extremely, extremely angry and extremely, extremely sad. Made me question what the point is of anything at all (amittedly I’ve read enough Beckett and Sartre not to look for a “point” in quite that way). But I don’t burn things down or run through the streets smashing shop windows and taking what I can. Partly because of the nature of a riot; in a psychogeographical scenario not disimilar to that of the creation of designated Temporary Autonomous Zones, new rules apply when large numbers of people act together. Anger feeds off anger, adrenaline builds and bricking places and mugging people becomes acceptable within the new rules of that space. That’s part of how it works and why it catches – but it has to begin with anger and sadness more extreme than mine, or at least with less space for expression and development and less faith that actually, someone will listen and respond. I think it’s really telling that when a journalist asked one of the rioters whether they thought it would work they said, “This how we get change here. After ’85 [Broadwater Farm uprising] we got a brand new swimming pool. It wasn’t coming here before.” (I got the quotation from a Workers’ Power article, I’m not a member of Workers’ Power, this article isn’t anything to do with them, advocating them or condemning them etc.).
So maybe no good comes of rioting. Maybe it is wrong to smash and burn things, rob people (whether it’s wrong to steal from corporations is a different matter), the rest of it. Maybe it isn’t inevitable, and maybe it does destroy communities. None of that means that it isn’t political. We do not stop riots like this from happening by locking up everyone involved for as long as possible. I’ve even seen people advocate “sending them to Afghanistan to look for mines” – doesn’t that mean slavery, and slavery of a kind as physically dangerous as it is ideologically? In essence, a singularly aggressive form of labour camp? Punishment won’t fix it – it’s too deep-rooted a problem for that. It is social structures and political systems that need to be reviewed to stop this happening again – surely the fact that there were riots under the last austerity government speaks to that? Each individual circumstance isn’t the cause of the riots; people aren’t automatons; nobody made them do it. But I’m pretty sure that we are collectively responsible for making them feel that it didn’t matter if they did do it, and that besides, they had to do something right now and nothing else was making a blind bit of difference.
I think more things about other aspects of the riots, but these are responses to things I’ve seen come up most frequently on Facebook/ Twitter/ Blogosphere.
My unconditional love and solidarity to all of those affected by the rioting and especially to the families of the deceased.