17 August 2011

Guest Post: Them Vs Us

“We cannot live in a society where the banks are ‘too big to fail’ but whole neighbourhoods are allowed to sink without a trace. The polarisation is not between black and white. It is between those who have a stake in society and those who do not”.
David Lammy MP, 11 August 2011, House of Commons public order debate

I promise no answers for the events of the last week that rocked the core of my community. I watched in utter horror as young people in this relatively quiet, working class, family neighbourhood of south London, took to the streets goading the police by destroying everything in their wake, seemingly for sport. With no adequate response, but shock, I pose a series of questions, ponderings, emotive ramblings and skewed conjecture as a Londoner grappling with the events that only time will fully comprehend.

As the dust settles following a week of rioting by the youngest in our society, the full extent of the tragedy lies not only in the burnt homes, the ravaged businesses, the innocents dead; but moreover in the exposed prejudices, intolerance, entrenched divide and abject polarisation that pervades this country. It is in the aftermath of this tragedy and the manner in which we respond that will legitimise our sense of identity and define our notion of democracy. Thus far the knee jerk reaction has been to criminalise whole strata’s of our society premised on established racial and class prejudice. Yet to mindlessly castigate whole sections of our communities to the bins of idiocy and mindless thuggery is a mistake. Even if last week’s events don’t appear to be the traditional, palatable rationale for protest, in the name of say… race relations, government policy, injustice or fox hunting (haha!), the rioters excessive consumerism at any cost - to the detriment of their own communities, (from which they have become wholly disenfranchised) - is as powerful a message to society as equal rights, fair pay, government cuts, students fees or any other demonstration/ come riot that engenders a degree of empathy and henceforth debate. This is no liberal drivel. I am in no way excusing this violence, but it is as incomprehensible to me that the perpetrators not be punished, as it is that we (all that participate in society) not explore and debate the root of this catastrophe, pondering the societal ills that have precipitated this utter disconnect from the parameters of social order. As a nation, it’s time to talk…..    

There are some who will seek to hijack the debate, twisting the sordid events to suit their own rhetoric - almost always resulting in further entrenching the divides in our society. Theirs is to separate themselves from the events by virtue of their race, class, education – which these days manifests in – their post code, choice of supermarket, restaurants in which they dine, car and earnings.

In Clapham, when a well-to-do young middle class resident, personally unaffected by the riots was interviewed in the wake of the fires and looting (before the only ‘community clean up’ the Mayor of London chose to attend took place) it was reflex for her to cast aspirations and to scapegoat the ‘youths in the estate’ as the perpetrators, with whom she had no relationship. From Lavender Hill to the Clapham Junction estate there was an insurmountable gulf; a physical, economic and social divide, rooted at the very heart of this community. The haves and the have nots – living side by side – and yet never the two shall meet. To the interviewee there was no room for error, the perpetrators lived in the sprawling mass of concrete across the road, wore hoodies, were barely literate and would never, other than by accident, cross her social sphere. 

In Hackney (arguably the most affected by the riots) where gentrification is less acute, there was an endeavour among residents to rationalise and even legitimise this outpouring of greed and anger. In an area of east London, plagued by poverty, Hackney’s working people, many of whom teetered on the edge of societal acceptability, were unable to simply swallow the nebulous link between poverty and the violent acts of the rioters that the residents of Clapham had been so quick and vehement to equate.

A week on as the news broadcasters parade the inarticulate, aggressive, bandana clad young people before us en route to court to face speedy justice (Magistrates court has lesser sentencing capability - but as the ‘show’ continues  – and centre stage is once again dominated by the educated elite – it is necessary for the politicians to demonstrate swift justice even at the expense of adequate sentencing), their faces contorted in rage, gestures full bravado and self righteousness, a debate sparked in my house, not too dissimilar to conversations being had the length and breadth of the country.

Me: “Have we polarised our communities so inherently that there is no route out of poverty – no future for which these young people feel vested in? Is it that we have given too much? Or not enough? Is it that we have raised children to value consumerism and when they do not have - they simply take? Has the government legislated against the disciplining of children at home and at school, only to blame parents when children rebel? I am disgusted at the notion of removing council housing from families whose children were involved. Where is the justice in this? How will those from families with mortgages be equally punished? I do not believe in a two tier justice system.”

Flatmate (a police officer): “This is not the minors rioting having lost their industry, or immigrants being subject to police brutality and institutional racism. Nor is it the working classes saying no to government cuts by rampaging public institutions, this is the lawless underclass (generations of joblessness) rearing their ugly head. 95% of those involved are known criminals. They are drug dealers, robbers, thieves, bullies, earning more than your average person by taking what is not theirs. This episode shouldn’t engender sympathy only antipathy for the perpetrators. There is no political root to this madness (other than nonsense cooked up by liberals in its wake), only the greed of a few who presumed they could get away with it. Where is the protest in stealing trainers, robbing the local hairdressers, looting the independent shop keeper who is barely keeping afloat, burning your neighbour’s car?”

Me: “The value of time and the colossal strides this country has taken to institutionalise equality has tainted your perspective of the past. In the 1980s when the riots raged in Tottenham, Brixton, Peckham, Clapham (I’m spotting a trend here) the protests descended into violence and looting and the burning of property. I have no misapprehension that the police, the State, the average person were not in the aftermath of the riots, espousing empathy for the plight of these black men and women oppressed by the police and facing mounting institutional racism. No they were branded angry black savages, illiterate, uneducated and uncivilised people occupying the government housing, burning down their own communities.. Ring any bells?”

Having embraced the gambit of civilian opinion on the matter of the riots I decided to listen to ‘experts’ debate the topic on Newsnight, the BBCs current affairs programme…. I am incensed by sensationalist panellist, ‘historian’ David Starkey. His preamble, an Enoch Powell quote, should have said it all, but I sought to listen on only to be discombobulated after his scandalous claim that ‘white kids had turned black’ much to the detriment of society, resulting in the anarchy of the last week.  The black men of the establishment, for 
David Starkey on Newsnight
whom he gives the impression, are few, are those who don’t talk or sound like ‘them’ (he references David Lammy MP) and are in fact emulating their white peers. I found the rhetoric in which he equated ‘black culture’ (apparently a homogenous entity) with ‘gang culture’ violence and the endemic decay of society both alarming and dangerous. It made for uncomfortable and antagonistic viewing as I witnessed the worst kind of entrenched prejudice, the kind that is courted by the media, revered by the masses, acknowledged as an authority by virtue of academic achievement, lauded with plaudits, dressed in the best fineries, smiles to the camera and distinguishes himself from ‘them’ ‘those people’ ‘the ‘unwanted’ all of whom he conveniently (malignantly) categorises as ‘black youth’.  As the second most watched clip on the BBC, I am left wondering how many empathise with David and its cost on interrelations in arguably the most diverse city in the world in the wake of the riots.
diversity of London by Jon Rowlingson

To end I leave you as I began, quoting David Lammy MP. This speech will be remembered for so many reasons, not least as a rebuke of the racist undertones the riots have unleashed in civil society. Here stood an articulate black man, well educated elected Member of Parliament. In his very being he wholly repudiated any theory (literal or inferred) that to be black and from the inner city was synonymous with criminality.

“These riots cannot be explained away simply by poverty or cuts to public services. That the vast majority of young men from poor areas did not take part in the violence is proof of that. Many young men showed restraint and respect for others because they have grown up with social boundaries and a moral code. 

They have been taught how to delay gratification. To empathise with others rather than terrorise them. Those values are shaped by parents, our teachers and our neighbours. It is when these relationships break down that our young people draw their values from elsewhere.”

I leave it for you to draw your own conclusions……

Calamity Jane


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