‘Getting mine’ appeared to be the mantra of the London civil unrest / uprisings / lootings / riots (delete as necessary). It wasn’t action against the police, or fighting the system, it was ‘getting what’s mine’ carpe diem style.
I’m not an apologist for what has unfolded in many parts of London and the rest of the UK over the past few days, but like Chris Rock says (and I am not a woman to quote Chris Rock) I’m not saying they should have looted, but I understand.
I know I need to explain, it starts with a little story, so here we go:
I grew up young, black with not very much money in London. During the summer holidays I used to work in town on Bond, Oxford and Regent Streets, the nearly very expensive squares on the Monopoly board. I could really only go to these places at night to rave, when the West End was turned over to us (ironically that is now the City – bankers by day, black ravers by night) or to work at the weekend in order to be just about able to afford anything in the very same shop that I worked in. In other words, I knew that this place, the pride of London, was not for me in anything but a tangential sense - get in, work, get out. Memorably, I took a trip to Selfridges one afternoon to visit a friend and was struck by advertising slogans that said, a la Barbara Kruger, ‘I shop, therefore I am’. And I couldn’t help but wonder that as I couldn’t actually shop, ergo what?
And this is what I think was at the heart of what happened in London on Monday. Apparently we are what we shop, what we have, or if we have no means for real, consistent, reliable access to this in a legitimate way, we are what we can loot. Without these things, we are nothing and nobodies. Trainers, clothes, mobiles, ipods, macs – possession of these things are tantamount to human rights in the UK, with a dominant society that recognises people according to social class and money and for decades it has been very difficult for people particularly susceptible to poverty (working classes, ethnic minorities, women, young people) to progress socially or economically. For the past year it’s been impossible. No credit, no jobs, no other legitimate ways to get them, and at the very same time costs of basics are soaring – gas, electricity, petrol and staple foods like flour, bread, milk. Of course, some were still getting them, through crime, cash-in-hand jobs, mugging here or there, or petty theft. On Monday and Tuesday, this behaviour left the estates and no-go areas of London and moved into full view and force on high streets, and now we are calling it 'rioting' and 'looting'.
No, there’s been rioting and looting in some communities for a long long time, it’s just that no cameras were trained on it. I wonder whether burglaries and similar crimes will decline over the next few weeks in some (poor) neighbourhoods. I’m willing to bet no one will care enough to look at it.
It has been asked ‘how can these people do that to their communities?’ That’s the point; it isn’t their community. Up and down the country playgrounds are locked, basketball courts are locked, in Hammersmith the Tory-led council transformed a football field into a polo pitch (let’s not talk about the libraries, because yes, young people hung out there, too), and the jobcentres are being shut down. Whose community is that? It’s not theirs and there has been precious little attempt to open it up to them. The cuts have cut them out. These communities have not been sites of enjoyment for them in the large, they have been where the police harass them, teachers are prejudiced against them, bus drivers drive by, and potential employers just say no.
It has been asked ‘why don’t their parents keep these children at home?’ Maybe their parents are working two or three jobs to make ends meet (unsuccessfully), maybe the children don’t want to go home for reasons related to social and economic poverty and it IS summer time! For some of these children being outside of the home is safer, happier and healthier in the short term, bring on the sun. Many of them are hardly ever indoors, the streets of estates have long been home to throngs of behaving and misbehaving young (and not so young) people. It’s a problem now because they are becoming visible, in some areas it is the first time they have been seen on the high streets in any real number for years. You could be forgiven for believing that most of Camden, Clapham and Woolwich is a white middle class holding area for post-university home counties Tobys and Sophies to have extended sleepovers, because widespread gentrification masks the social malaise. We’ve all seen it, but it’s worth taking a look at the map that overlays the London riots map with the 2007 social deprivation map.
The London riots happened extensively in places where poverty and affluence exist cheek and jowl. Crime increases with the disparity between rich and poor, and for the last few nights of London rioting so did the likelihood of looting. Surely that doesn’t take a genius?
And then there is the police brutality. Mark Duggan was shot dead in broad daylight on Thursday, his family were pleading for information and got nothing. They peacefully demonstrated and still nothing, and then allegedly the police set upon a 16 year old girl and that galvanised violent disturbance and people up and down the country with riot in their hearts jumped into the fray.
In 1976 Roots was televised in the UK and that year carnival was turned upside down by riots. I watched Babylon on TV last week and felt a fire rise in my chest. A few nights later Tottenham set the riots in motion and the UK fell like dominoes. Go figure.
I’m not saying I condone the looting, I do not, but I understand.