By Wendell P. Simpson
LONDON- I walked around London in the last few days since the riots and the city seemed to be eerily serene. I mean, I could smell the charcoal stench of spent emotions mixed in with the charred aroma of burnt flats, but there was still an odd quiet. I don’t know whether it’s the calm before the next paroxysm or the renowned natural stoicism of the British, or the practiced cool of a people who stood tall in the face of Hitler’s blitz, the relentless rash of terror visited upon them during the IRA bombings that hit Central London during the 70s, and the Brixton riots that rocked Southeast London in the 80s.
The spark that ignited the rage was the shooting of an allegedly unarmed Black man, Mark Duggan, by police in the working class east London neighborhood of Tottenham last week. Initially, the explosion was confined to the one neighborhood; by the next day, however, the city exploded into a riotous frenzy with violence a looting spilling out all over—not just confined to the city’s less affluent areas, either. Sporadic violence broke out in Fulham, Clapham Junction and Croydon—all areas with a substantial middle and upper middle classes.
And the reaction didn’t confine itself to London, either. Spontaneous outbursts occurred in cities across the country, such as Birmingham, England’s ‘Second City’.
Several things jumped out as odd to this ex-pat London resident. One, that in a country where the cops, except on occasions of extreme danger such as a terrorist attack, never, ever carry guns, somebody got gunned down in the street; two, that so far, there has been no explanation from the police as to WHY this particular individual ended up on the angry end of a policeman’s pistolio; and three, how and why had individuals from neighborhoods like Fulham and Ealing elected to become part of the riotous fray.
Across the street from my house in Walthamstow, an ethnically, racially and economically diverse area untouched by the outburst, at the Queen’s Arms pub, the neighborhood denizens sat around the outside café tables enjoying pints of lager and they were talking; not in muted tones, but as I approach them with tape recorder and pen and paper in hand, they seemed a little reticent. They know me and I them; I’m their token American and they’re my neighbors with whom I share an occasional light conversation over a pint or two. Some of them know, through our casual exchanges that I work as a freelance writer.
I guess that it’s the prospect of talking to the demon press that might make them a bit uncomfortable; after all, the only thing that managed to wipe Rupert Murdoch’s abuses from the front pages of the British tabloids were the riots.
PHOTO: People try to kick in the window of a jeweller’s shop near the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, central England, as violence spread outside London Monday, Aug. 8, 2011. Violence and looting spread across some of London’s most impoverished neighborhoods on Monday, with youths setting fire to shops and vehicles, during a third day of rioting in the city that will host next summer’s Olympic Games.
And secondarily, what makes the caution all the more visceral is the fact that our cloistered little Walthamstow Village community is only three Tube stops on the Victoria line away from the Tottenham area in which the firestorm kicked off. Everybody’s got friends and/or family who’ve been touched in one way or another by this week’s carnage. Everybody knows somebody…
I keep it loose and informal; I don’t know any personal information, like last names, I don’t ask for any—but I do pose the inevitable questions—how and why?
Arms fold and lips get a little tighter. You can almost see the synapses inside their heads churning; having come to know something about these Brits, I know they are carefully considering their answers. There are no easy ones.
One lady, a Jamaican woman who emigrated to the UK some 30 odd years ago, throws caution to the wind, launching a response that grows less tentative the more she pontificates.
“People will disagree with me,” says Alicia in her lilting accent, ” but every time there’s a recession, and I’ve seen three since I’ve lived here, it makes the poor people poorer and the rich people richer. They crush the unions and take away jobs and send them out to foreign countries and there’s nothing to support the workers. They call it a recession, but it just a way to disenfranchise the people. And they wonder why the youth are anxious.”
“I don’t believe the issue is racial”, says Chris, a white working class Brit hefting a pint of stout to his lips. “Everyone tries to make it a race issue. It’s not. It’s a class issue.”
“It’s mixed,” says Sammy, a Brit of Indian descent echoing Chris. “These kids are yobs (juvenile delinquents) who have nothing better to do than to riot and create a proper nuisance.”
“They should bring in the army and put an end to the lot of them,” Chris says. Sammy shakes his head in agreement—but Alice offers a counter punctual ‘no’, her dreads swinging as she differentials her head back and forth in the vehement, insistent way Black women do when they think they’ve got it right and you’ve obviously got it wrong.
She’s not the only one. As I alight from the National Rail train at Hackney Downs, one of the areas hard hit by the turmoil, I can see the ennui etched across the faces of the folk, mostly Black and Asian, and a few whites, who stand on the platform.
Let’s not get a wrong impression here: Although there are ethnic enclaves in London, nothing approaches the kind of rigid racial segregation that defines demarcation in American cities—the boundaries tend to blur here. Black, Asian and white tend to live together more comfortably—class, much more than race, seems to be the defining feature of Britain’s divergences.
I don’t broach the subject of the riots with any of these folk; I think I feel their angst. I know their angst—it feels like the days in my own Philly neighbor just after the MOVE bombing. There’s just shock and awe.
PHOTO: neighbors and volunteers help clean up the area of Clapham in the aftermath left by riots in London Tuesday, August 9, 2011. Britons swept up, patched up and feared further violence Tuesday, demanding police do more to protect them after three nights of rioting left trails of looted stores, wrecked cars and burned buildings across London and several other cities.
(AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)
But I do overhear the conversations.
One lady standing maybe three from me says to her friend, “I don’t condone the looting,” she says, “but there is another dynamic at work that no one in the government wants to address. The cuts have caused people consternation…” Her friend nods in agreement, again, the Black woman head shake.
I meet two friends who live in Hackney at my favorite Halal doner shop in the area specifically to discuss this article.
“These young anarchists, while not intellectuals, seem to have grasped a strategy that will attract the maximum amount of attention,” says Adebule, a Brit of Nigeria descent and an aspiring entrepreneur and Master Degree candidate. “As your own Fredrick Douglass once said, ‘Power will concede nothing without demand’.
“This is a matter of the disenfranchised making their discontent heard.”
Abiola, a sister also of Nigerian origins, disagrees. The social worker shakes her head in that same universal Black woman’s way, as if they’re all in ubiquitous affinity.
“The rioters are exploiting a situation,” she says. “Many of them are merely looting shops and disrupting the businesses of regular working people struggling to make a proper living. The full measure of punishment should be brought down upon them all.”
This exchange digresses into a debate between the two of them that essentially ignores me and highlights the divergence of opinion that divides Londoners—and maybe even skirts the real issue of the feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement affecting British youth.
So, in order that I could suss out an opinion that would be based less on immediate emotional impact and more on fact, I contacted David Michael, a retired Scotland Yard Chief Inspector and a Brit of African Caribbean heritage.
Michael, a thirty year veteran, suggests that the answers are never as simple as those of us with jaundiced opinions would like to make it out.
“Some people argue that festering resentment related to socio economic conditions, to police abuse, to police abuse of ‘stop and search’ procedures as well as government policy impacting on youth services and provisions may be an underlying cause impacting on the escalation of the situation, ” says Michael. But that alone, he suggests, doesn’t explain the extent and reach of the violence. Not all of it, Michael says, can be attributed to a disenfranchised class of youths.
“There is always a danger of copy cat action,” Michael says, “especially when anti-social behavior and disorder is televised on a continuous basis into people’s living rooms. “
But Michaels does believe there is a legitimate grievance on the part of people who are subject to the inherent injustice, unfairness and alienation that remain an explicit component of British life and institutions. He also suggests that the hypocrisy of the politicians, in a way, endorses misbehavior on the part of others.
“While acknowledging that the behaviors of those involved are criminal and inexcusable,” Michael says, “the argument of those who believe they belong to a disempowered, unheard and largely discarded underclass cannot be scotched off. The politicians who dismiss the disorders as merely wanton criminality are misguided.
“Politicians in the United Kingdom of all persuasions should not only take stock of what should be done, who else should be heard, and how we can develop a more fair, just and inclusive society; they also need to acknowledge the corrosive behavior of their colleagues in the House of Commons and House of Lords who engage in dishonorable actions of their own done. We should denounce criminality without fear or favor. “
Michael dismisses the notion that the turmoil is racial in nature. “The evidence supports that young people across vast geographical areas were involved. It was not determined by race, ethnicity or national origin.”
At the end of the day, Michael seems to hold that the root causes are complex and varied and that there is no simple explanation.
“Those who took part are not aliens,” says Michael. “They were involved in criminal activity and should face the consequences; however, branding them as thugs, yobs and feral, is over simplistic and further endangers the fabric of our society. And while we should not endeavor to excuse or justify pugnacious criminal behavior that puts lives at risk, we should examine our structures, processes and procedures that pre-determines some of these young people as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Much more needs to be done.”
Leave it to the Brits to be pragmatic—and sensible.