Riot Remembered by Nicholas Sebley

Thursday 18th August- the front pages of The Sun, The Mirror, and The Mail etc. are mostly concerned with a shark attack and Gerard Depardieu pissing himself on a plane. Business as usual it seems- who would have thought that 10 days ago London was in flames, torched by a generation of young men, most of whom are unemployed, most of whom live in the poorest parts of London. But this was nothing to do with socio-economics we were told by a cabinet of millionaires and a media predominantly white and middle class: these rioters are just ‘feckless’. Case closed.

If you didn’t personally witness any of the riots at the start August, then your view of these events- who did what and why- will mostly come from the media and government. Yet it is not uncommon for politicians or journalists to portray and explain such upheavals in ways that affirm their own social position or political agenda. If you’re conservative then these riots were the result of permissive liberal values that unwittingly created a culture of entitlement, benefits, fatherless families, lax discipline in schools and casual drug use.

The right wing media and government were quick to build this narrative, often downplaying the amount of rage expressed in those 3 days. For example in order to cement their case that this was opportunistic looting unrelated to deprivation, many papers put photos of the same four rioters on their front-page- a ballerina, teaching assistant, an Olympic ‘ambassador’ and an 11 year old. Andrew Gilligan wrote a particularly deceitful leader in which he claimed that someone that young can’t be looting out of need or despair. This one sentence reveals how much he knows about the most deprived households of England. Later Boris Johnson had the courage to buck this trend (on page 17 of The Telegraph) and admit that so far 69% of the people charged had previous convictions and the ‘majority came from the lower socio-economic classes’.

A cynic might suggest these right wing journalists and politicians – all rich compared to the rioters, mostly white, and many in the sway of corporate power- have a tacit agenda not to link these events to socio-economic factors. If so they aren’t doing society any favours because if the causes of these riots are misrepresented and therefore not addressed then the rage will rise again, in one form or another. Let’s be totally clear- to seek the cause of something in order to minimise the chance of it occurring again- is not to excuse or condone it.

However Cameron’s professed view is that it is this very attitude that led to the ‘fecklessness’ in the first place: there has been too much empathy, these kids have been learnt how to play the game whilst avoiding any responsibility for their actions. In short these rioters have been morally corrupted by too much carrot- so now it’s time for more stick. Yet anyone who visits an estate in Hackney or Tottenham won’t find many incentives to be ‘the best you can be’. Furthermore research into those who habitually commit violent crimes- has found one common denominator across class and race: such people have little or no empathy for others.

Gang members who were at the heart of this trouble hurt others and commit crimes regularly- therefore they must lack empathy. It’s undeniable. Due to neural plasticity if these same people receive empathy in a structured and consistent manner- for example in the programmes mentioned below- they would learn to develop it themselves, and will be less likely to offend. In the words of one report: ‘People who have empathy do not want to hurt others.’ There is no empathy on display for these rioters – it feels taboo to show it. But both anecdotal evidence and research has suggested that unless they receive it in some form or another then the chances of them becoming well adjusted and law abiding are pretty slim.

In fact it seems that the most successful initiatives to reverse entrenched social problems have utilized both carrot and stick. We’ll help you out of this situation if you follow certain rules but if you persist we will punish you tenfold. In Glasgow for example a successful crime reduction program offered gang members weekly call ins, counselling, and support finding work and education but with the caveat that if they transgressed the penalties would be severe, and effect all areas of their life- tax, driving, housing etc. The result: a 49% reduction in violent offending by the gang members who took part, with over 100 of them now accessing full-time employment, work placement or training. Community leaders referred to the changes as ‘incredible’ with one adding ‘The community are telling me they see a real difference and they feel safer’.

Further a field in Indonesia, a counter terrorism police unit called Detachment 88 has had remarkable successes in combating Al Quaeda, using a combination of hard and soft tactics. Such an approach has its roots in a decision made by the government to consider terrorists not as intractable criminals but ideologically confused souls. "It is Detachment 88's policy that suspected terrorists be treated as good men gone astray," says Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesian terror with the International Crisis Group, a global conflict watchdog.

As a result there is neither torture nor abusive interrogations, all suspects are tried in public courts, and some have access to respected moderate Muslim scholars. This method has borne fruits: of the 400-plus terrorism suspects in custody, the Indonesian police estimate that around half have either cooperated with police or renounced violence. If an approach based on respect for people’s core humanity can have such an effect on hard-line Al Quaeda operatives then surely it can work with London’s youth. This is what these rioting youths are- good people gone astray- any other take on it implies they are irredeemable.

In terms of media narratives there have been a few other elisions- we still haven’t heard much from gang members about why they did this. If a riot is the language of the unheard in Martin Luther King’s much-touted phrase- then these people still haven’t been heard. It’s also been interesting to note how quick the media and politicians were to dismiss any connection between these events and the various ‘Days of Rage’ that prompted the Arab Spring.

Yet one interpretation is that there is some Mexican wave of discontent rippling around the planet, catalysing those who feel oppressed to rise up. Statistical research has shown that two factors in tandem- a global economic downturn and government cuts- do provoke such unrest. In Arab countries it was clear who was oppressed and who was oppressing- so the movements for change had a discernable political agenda and aim. When this wave hit England our most alienated members of society- inner city gangs-rose up in fury but couldn’t articulate why they felt this way, who was responsible or what they wanted. It descended into a mass grab for designer goods.

This reminded me of an observation by Augustus Boal, a theatre director, who was exiled from Brazil by the military junta in the 70's, and came to live in Paris. He found the experience strange, noting that in Latin America at that time everyone knew who the oppressors were, could point their finger at them etc. But in The West many people felt oppressed but they couldn't locate the source of the oppression, they couldn’t join the dots between why rents were so high and wages so low etc. or why they had to struggle so hard to bring up a family when others seemed to have millions. This is largely a result at how skilful Western politicians have become at facilitating the agenda of big business whilst reassuring us they are on our side. Everyone knows that bankers bust our economy through their malpractice yet still ended up with massive bonuses- few could explain how this is just or why politicians have done nothing to stop it happening again. 

Likewise few could explain why 8 out of 15 youth clubs in the deprived borough of Haringey should close to pay for the bankers’ excess. We can’t really parse the injustice of this system fully- it’s so complex now- and more importantly even if we could it’s not clear how to fight it. Yet we carry the anger somewhere in our psyches.
These London rioters couldn’t stand up and demand democracy- because on the surface we have it. They didn’t even demand more of the pie- they just took it. It was wrong but experience has shown that condemnation and punishment on their own rarely solve such deep-set social problems.

We set out about 12am to get a bus home. Walking up Stockwell road we came to Brixton Academy where Morrissey had played earlier in the evening. Here was a van with the side window smashed and a man sat on the pavement with blood running down the left side of his head. The wound didn’t look that serious but the man was pale, shaking and obviously in shock. His friends were trying to calm and console him whilst calling an ambulance a number of times. We sat with him- the story came out- some black kids had stoved in the window and attacked him with a piece of wood.  I presume he was the passenger and it wasn’t clear if the van was in motion at the time. The ambulance didn’t come- eventually they were told ‘it’s not going to come you will have to put him back in the van and drive him yourself’.

This news heralded an unwelcome feeling that was to grow throughout the night- the first sense that this was not just a riot this was a societal malfunction, a loss or even ceding of control, overwhelm. No Police. No Ambulance. The air was acrid with burning plastic. We kept walking to Brixton High Street. The smell of burning was stronger now- groups of young people- with hooded tops, balaclavas- would sometimes appear, half running towards to tube station area, mobiles in use, purposeful intent and yet random targets. The Police Station- opposite the burning Footlocker store- had two policemen standing behind glass, watching as events unfolded. The thought ‘where are the Police?’ would do circuits through my brain- going out of sight, to return later with the next peak of fear. We waited for the bus. I was gung ho at this point- thinking bring it on- if some teenager wants to start on me it would be an opportunity to let out some of my own rage. This bravado didn’t last very long as it began to sink in- no bus was coming, no police were coming; anyone meeting force with force would be massively outnumbered.

We decided to return to the pub. But suddenly I felt how rootless I was- I had no connections with this area. There was nothing to appeal to – no common ground- except basic humanity and it felt like these rioters had ditched that tonight or perhaps years ago. Anyway it was a bit late to pull that trope out the bag: yeah I saw but ignored your poverty and suffering for decades, and got on with building my fashion/art/music career but now Shit I just remembered we are both humans and we have far more in common than not and please don’t hit me with that baseball bat.

So we returned to the pub. Went upstairs to a room reserved for the bands that had played earlier. The space was filled with white, twenty something musicians. They seemed to be feigning ironic detachment or disinterest to the riot unfolding. Black humour, glee, quiet cynicism- anything but revealing they might be feeling frightened or vulnerable. We sat in the room and Paul told me about his school days in Peckham. I found his story shocking- he’d been beaten in school relentlessly by both blacks and whites. Taken to the toilet with 7 older pupils and told which one he’d have to fight- the biggest of course. Day in, day out. In the end he joined the BNP to get protection- it worked. Finally he just stopped going to school. He was saying- how can you enjoy anything? How can you find peace or be happy in a world like this? How can you laugh, dine out, makes toasts to the future- knowing what is happening in Palestine, knowing what is happening in the estate next door?

We went to the window- a gang appeared in the street below. Their rage was palpable even from two stories up and 50 yards away. They started ripping the shutters off a shop with their bare hands, smashing the door down, pulling things into the street to blockade the road, then trying to smash the windows on cars that slowed down, trying to pull the people out. It was incoherent rage, no purpose, except to hurt- to violate- to make other people feel what they felt. Terror and pain. Finally they pulled a man off his bicycle and annihilated him. They beat, kicked and stabbed him. Time slows down in these moments, some strange ancient stilling occurs. I felt the whole gamut- horror, fascination, shame for them, for us watching, the desperate urge to go out there and stop it. Especially the last one- because I knew I had been that person once. Annihilated. Left alone to a terrible fate. But I didn’t do it- it felt impossible. Self-preservation won out.

Of course I can rationalise it- it was over quickly; they weren’t letting people out the pub; it would have been finished by the time I‘d have got there; the most I could have hoped for would be to have been beaten and stabbed in solidarity with him- and so on. But still – there it was- that moment we all have to face (and in fact is always present) do you put yourself in harm’s way to protect another?
How many people were watching from windows like us I don’t know but after the gang left his form lay heavy on the tarmac for less than a minute before people came from houses and shops to tend him.

And in a way it felt circular- when it matters- we abandon those most in need. I bet a fair percentage- but not all – of those teenage rioters were hung out to dry by this society from day one. Then they pop and take out all their hate – and again we watch. Again we don’t intervene. And that is what community is made of is it not? Not just baking cakes together, not just being accommodating when things are easy- but sacrifice. Being there for another when it means loss for us. If that had been my brother out there on that dark road I would have fought with every bit of my life force to protect him. The teachings of all spiritual traditions tell us that it was my brother out there. Such words feel laughable, pretentious in a capitalist society. And to act on such sentiments impossible- the degree of suffering is too vast, too compounded- a juggernaut-the number of people willing to step up and meet it too small.

I tell this story in detail because what I witnessed doesn’t fit the media narrative that this was just opportunistic attempt to get some free stuff. 

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