Here is my story of riots, media, sadness, frustration and hope for a good life in a great city. It is only my story, told only through my eyes, and with my still aching heart.
Sirens and Social Media
I just moved to South-East London last week. On Monday after work I went running in the park with my husband. We watched our neighbours arrive and use the space – all ages, all races, all outside in the sunshine. There was a hula-hoop class, and some people playing frisbee. We ran laps. Lots of kids were at the playground. As we ran, we discussed the rioting that was happening up in North London, and down south in Brixton, too. What was happening? We didn’t know: we couldn’t say. We watched to see which way the cop cars were driving. South was away from us, East was towards home.
At the pub, the bartender was away from his post. We joked with one of our neighbours that perhaps we should just help ourselves. When he got back from checking Twitter, he said that he was closing early: “A gang of thugs are running up the Walworth Road”
We checked Twitter ourselves. “The Walworth Road” was trending. The night was long, and tense. The neighbourhood, so coherent in daylight, seemed suddenly marked by invisible lines. The road was closed. The footage on the phone showed a giant line of black police trucks. No one was on the street except running shapes.
Owning the Street
On Tuesday morning I checked Twitter again. Someone from the area – an artist, apparently – had organized a cleanup down the Walworth road. I was late, but went anyway. I spotted the cleaners immediately: a group of youngish, mostly white folks with a slight bohemian air, standing in the middle of the street where our middle-aged, mostly black neighbours had gone back to shopping. A shopfitter was nailing up the hole in the Carphone Warehouse shop. “There wasn’t much to do” said one man “most of the places that were hit are big chain stores, and they have their own cleaners. There was a local jewellery store, but I’m sure they won’t let us in. We did as much as we could, and we’re waiting to see where to go next”.
It felt good to be on the street – to turn up and do something unexpected with a bunch of other people. We stood around waiting to hear the next buzz from Twitter. “Clapham Junction!” someone said, looking at their phone, “I heard there’s 350 people there already”. I joked, “we are the morning-after mob, running around town with our brooms and gloves”.
I thought about the thrill of being outside of everyday life, of being on the street with others, waiting for the next announcement, or invitation. The big wide, wild city, being made comprehensible by messages from others. But like the Walworth road of shoppers and broom-toting cleaners, the messages are divided. Social media market researchers note that Twitter users are mostly over age 25, and mostly have incomes of at least 20,000 per year. Meanwhile, the low-cost versions of Blackberry devices have made them attractive to young people, and that the particular features of encrypted messaging, so attractive to the business people who were the phone’s first market. Regardless of the demographics, what everyone wants to do is communicate, come together, and be together. Censoring one platform because that’s what one demographic uses is only an entry point into censoring us all, and taking away our right to use media to come together for all manner of good -and fun- things like cleaning.
Constructing the News
In the street in Clapham Junction, everyone wanted to talk. I stood with three strangers as we watched the TV cameras focus in on the devastation. “How is this going to play?” I asked. “Well, Sky News has already focused on the punishment” said the tall black man I was chatting with, “No one wants to talk about causes. The language is already divided. I’m writing a play about the Brixton riots. It was 30 years ago. So many things were the same: we had a Tory government, we had a royal wedding. The one thing we didn’t have was this. There has been a persistent, 30 year failure in dealing with the issues of the inner city. ” Our conversation moved on to greed, and to the way that the council housing sell-off a generation ago fed the housing bubble, making it impossible for the entire generation under 30 to ever expect to own their own home. “This is the first time,” said a man with a bicycle, “that people can’t aspire to a better life than their parents. All they get is the idea that if they could just get on X Factor and impress Simon Cowell they could be rich.”
As he spoke, we saw the blonde head of Boris Johnson pass across the street below, secured in a clump of security guards and media. The devastation formed a perfect backdrop to his speech deploring violence and asking for more police resources. People stood, holding brooms, booing the man who took a holiday while they lost their streets. A mother gave her small daughter a broom and dustpan saying, “Enough Boris, it’s our turn now”
The Good Life?
A few days have passed now. The politicians have returned to show their glistening pale faces on television. To tell us that we must meet violence with more violence, with water cannons and rubber bullets and the Army. That we must take homes and benefits from the people who already feel that they have nothing and are worth nothing. That we must censor citizens because it is the ability to communicate and to gather, not the reality of poverty, that causes a riot.
All of this is wrong. The UK is an astoundingly unequal country. But it does not have to be. As I wandered through my new neighbourhood on Tuesday everyone I spoke to understood that support, compassion, and a sense of future are what’s missing for many inner city kids. We all need to feel that we can contribute – to feel that someone or something is depending on us. My neighbourhood straddles Lambeth and Southwark. In North Lambeth, community programs and youth parliaments have been working for years to create opportunities. To cite only one example, Roots & Shoots has been working since 1982 to train and educate area young people, in the process transforming a derelict space into a wild garden. Incidentally, no major instances of looting were reported in North Lambeth.
I love my new neighbourhood. I want to make it an even better place. I’ll pay higher council taxes so that my neighbours have better places to live, or so that the schoolyard at the end of the street can stay open in the summer, or so that one more youth leader can start working. I’ll give up my free time to mentor. We all deserve a good life. A good life, like a good garden, comes from effort. It takes work, nurturing. It doesn’t come from robbing and looting – whether you are rich or poor or simply feeling entitled. I still think that we can grow something better together.
Hi Alison, thanks for this post and what is ultimately – I think – a positive message about what has happened in the past few days.
I think one of the strangest things to come out of the whole debate around the riots is discussion of the idea of “entitlement”. Boris Johnson, for example, claimed that the riots were caused by “a sense of excessive entitlement” (which as Simon Jenkins pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian is quite amusing, as the Johnson clan probably have a pretty strong sense of entitlement). We seem to be reaching a point where it is becoming a term with negative connotations. But what I like so much about your argument is that it is perhaps an idea that can be reclaimed. We should – all of us, regardless of creed, colour, or class – feel entitled to certain things, and you list lots of them above.
Thanks Nick for your comments. Yes, I did want to be positive, because what I heard on the street on Tuesday was critical, contextual, and left opportunities to be positive. I think of the day as a kind of ‘gonzo ethnography of crisis’ and this post was trying to put together some of the initial results from that.
I do believe that people are entitled to a good life. One of the incredibly positive things I realized about Britain is that its welfare state is that it was created with those intentions. To provide the basic safety net – the basic pillars on which to create a good life.
I can tell another story here – this morning I met my across the street neighbour. He was patching and painting the front of his house. He asked where I was from and how long I had been in England. “I have been here since 1966” he said, “I have been in this house since 1981. They told me in 1980s I could buy it, but I didn’t have the money. So now I am a council tenant. But the council here, they do nothing. So we do it ourselves”.
There’s a whole lot of positive entitlement there, and maybe some reflections on the structures that entitlement has contributed to over the years – while my neighbour has an enormous stake in his house (probably more than the council does), he’ll never be able to retire to the country on the proceeds from selling it.
I hope we can recapture some of the positives associated with the foundations of modern Britain. To my mind it’s irresonsible to call it ‘broken’ and ‘sick’ without considering how to repair and heal.