The realm of real-world politics falls outside the intended purview of this blog, but the sight of houses and busses burning on the streets of my former home town has forced me to add a few words into the swirling maelstrom of rolling news, rubber necking helicopter shots, smashed windows and looted shops.
I lived in Peckham for over three years. I loved it there. It felt like home. I also taught in secondary schools in Dulwich, Catford and Bermondsey; three areas with which I also felt some kind of ‘home-like’ affinity. So to see such violence, however overplayed and hyperbolised as the news coverage has made it out to be, on streets with which I am familiar has been shocking, but in a sense, not all that surprising.
Now, of course, the caveat has to be laid down that acts of arson and looting such as those seen in the capital – and now “spreading” to other parts of the country – can never be condoned. I feel a deep sympathy for those who have lost houses/ businesses in all of this; I can imagine how fearful I would be were I still living there.
But there is something in all the ubiquitous coverage of the minutiae of events that worries and angers me. Home Secretary Theresa May described the acts as “sheer criminality”, BBC News 24 (among others, I’m sure) talk about riots ‘spreading’ across the country, as though they were some sort of deadly pathogen. What both these descriptions of evens do is divorce the often terrifying actions of these riots from their actual causes. As when terrorists are described as ‘pure evil’, there is a removal of these events from the comprehensible course of socio-political actions, thus the events themselves are met with incomprehension. “Why are these riots happening?!” we ask, wringing our hands. “Sheer criminality” comes the sagely, but ultimately unsatisfying answer. “Pure evil” is right around the corner waiting to greet any further escalation of violence.
Adam Curtis calls this manner of addressing political events ‘oh dearism’; no succinct narrative of ‘good versus evil’ can be drawn around a certain event, or the actors don’t quite fit into a recognisable story arc – the ‘innocent victims’ turn out to be ‘riotous looters’, so the only response to crisis is… “Oh Dear!”. There is nothing anybody could have done to predict, nor prevent, these riots. They just happened because there are just criminals in this world. Oh dear, oh dear.
Except these riots didn’t ‘just happen’, and they aren’t ‘just spreading’ randomly across the country, as though borne by the wind. No event exists in a vacuum. These riots are a response; initially to the shooting of a man in Tottenham, but then lighting numerous similar powder kegs around London, where groups of people feel marginalised, angry and oppressed. People don’t just decide to riot. It is a desperate measure. Has this genuine and spontaneous outpouring of emotion been hijacked by a few cynical opportunists? Perhaps. But in a cultural environment tacitly demanding a fierce brand of individualism – cutting public spending, removing job opportunities, making schools fend for themselves and not adhering to any curriculum, cutting funding for community centres and spaces – whilst espousing some form of ethereal, intangible sense of a ‘wider community’ as voiced in the jingoistic mantras “The Big Society” and “We’re All in This Together”, is it any wonder? The disjunct between actions and words here further seeks to isolate people from ‘real’ communities, enforces greater individualism upon people and, in part, fuels and exacerbates the underlying cause of these riots; that many groups of people in this country feel unduly persecuted and not listened to by the seats of power in this country.
Like I said, I worked in a couple of secondary schools in the South East of London. The ethnic mix in these schools was, to someone who grew up in an almost exclusively white town in North-East England (where the three great socio-cultural dividing lines seemed to be ‘charvers’, ‘hippies’ and ‘dressers’!), both fascinating and wonderfully rewarding. The school I taught at in Catford had something like thirty-five different first languages among its 1000-or-so pupils. Now, I’m not saying it was always fun – distance and nostalgia are rose-tinted spectacles both – but I did love teaching there.
The reason I bring this up is that I got the quite, but occasionally pronounced, sense of an underlying prejudice towards certain groups of pupils that existed in these institutions. I’m certainly not saying it came from the teachers – well, not all of them anyway – the exact cause is probably to convoluted to ever truly get to the bottom of. But the fact was that, come Friday night’s hour-long detention – which the green-horn NQT’s were on a rota to cover, so I got to do my fair share – the majority of the detainees would be black boys.
Like I said, the reasons for this I think went beyond sheer, overt racism. But there was a ‘suspicion’ that followed a group of these black boys through the school; their miscreant deeds – however slight or commonplace – would always be retold in the staffroom with relish, their punishments always severe.
In my class was one young lad who seemed to be permanently on the cusp of reprimand. He was no angel, he did some naughty shit, no doubt about it. But it was often school hi-jinks; over zealous language on the football field, a lack of interest in particular lessons etc. Yet he was met at every turn with ‘demerits’ (a frankly draconian system of sticker-based reprimand the school adopted that I was reticent to join in with) or detention, letters home or suspensions. It’s not that he was overtly singled out, or that there was a discrete policy of punishment for him and that group of black boys, not that other children went unpunished, nor that this was the whim of any individual teacher, or the policies of the individual schools in question; but he, and many boys like him, always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, always the ones to be made examples of. In short, there was a tacit, but pervading, sense that this group were always ‘up to something’.
This is hardly a revelatory account, much more detailed and accurate accounts of this endemic problem in society at various institutional levels much exist. And as a middle-class, white male, I cannot begin to imagine how this form of institutionalised prejudice really manifests itself to those who have to bear it. But I can only speculate how demeaning and intolerable such a state of affair must be when moving out into the ‘real world’ authority of police. Everybody has in the back of their minds a feeling that school is a jumped-up charade; a game that must be played before getting out into the real world. Though parents, teachers and students never admit to as much, lest the illusion be shattered, as they all have too much invested in it, there is a sense that it is all for show. Yes, you get in trouble, yes the teachers give you too much homework, yes, the kids are all little bastards, yes certain pupils, or teachers, pick on you. But it’s all just part of the game, a game we’ll all just grow up and out of.
But imagine transporting that feeling into society, with no chance of graduation. Where police will stop and search you without seeming just cause. Where job opportunities don’t appear, the infrastructure of your real-world local community is eroded, and prejudice and reprimand stalk you. From this contextualised point of view, the concept of rioting doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible anymore; it certainly gives a context in which it is more than just “sheer criminality” to be met by the exasperated “Oh dear”.
Maybe it’s just because I have just finished reading it (coincidentally on a bus trip down to, and brief visit to, London), but I am reminded of John Wyndham’s classic sci-fi novel ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (thanks to my wife for pointing out these similarities), and not only in the desperate isolation, the maddened, spontaneous looting of shops, and the motifs of society breaking down irreparably (I don’t, by the way, agree with the ‘Armageddon 2011’ coverage afforded to these riots; a further example of media sensationalism making real-world, and thus comprehensible, events seem somehow unreal and out of our control or understanding). One of the minor revelations in ‘Triffids…’ is the explanation of the supposed ‘meteor storm’ that caused the blindness. The narrator and main character, Bill Masen, hypothesises that was more likely one of the circling satellite weapons, detonated in the atmosphere, that was responsible for the global blindness, rather than the spectacularly eerie green meteor shower. This, coupled with the genetically modified Triffids themselves being of human design, belies the sense of wild confusion at how this disaster could have happened, suddenly making it quite coherent. The same is true of these riots. They are not ‘natural disasters’ or ‘sheer criminality’, but responses to real-world political factors and conditions that we ourselves have orchestrated.