Monday, 8 August 2011

Observations about the Tottenham Riots

I am beginning to fear writing about anything in this blog for the simple reason that things tend to come true in unexpected ways. Maybe if I write about my first novel winning the Booker Prize that will happen! The other day I wrote very briefly about riots, and two days ago riots occurred in Tottenham (North London).

Reactions were, by and large, predictable and understandable. I would like to pick out a few and talk about them before going on to make some general observations.

The TV news footage showed foreshortened views from behind riot police lines and CCTV shots of youths in hoods and bandanas wrecking a police car. Nothing surprising there. When civil disturbances are shown on TV the view from behind a stationary line of police with helmets and shields is almost standard. It’s a safe place for TV units to stand, for a start. The stationary line always gives the impression of patience; it’s much simpler than that, as the police are trained to respond to orders to advance, withdraw, or stand. The CCTV images are chosen because of their dramatic effect rather than their use as actualité.

The reaction of politicians could have been stored on a sequencer: “Peaceful protest is acceptable… the behaviour of those who indulged in looting and arson is utterly unacceptable.” It seems a little petty to point out that there are no degrees of unacceptability, that something is either acceptable or it is not. There is nothing intrinsically ‘wrong’ with the statement, of course, given the point of view of the politicians concerned; if you set up some kind of mental linear scale and set at one end a person whose presence throughout an event remains to protest about something by her or his peaceful presence, and at the other end a person who hears there is a riot going on and takes their van out to load up with goods stolen from shops, then you can make such a distinction. However as an analysis of a riot situation it is simplistic. In a riot there is a complex range of psychologies and behaviours; a single person’s object may change, as may his or her emotions, as may his or her behaviour, in reaction to the various stimuli of the situation. The police (the disciplined ones) are watching for a line to be crossed; of course their entrenched position, understandably, is that behaviours A and B are within the law and behaviours C and D are not. The media will make a good story of it, the politicians will make political capital, but the situation itself will be complex.

There is a tendency in the anarchist blogs and web sites that I read to spin the story into one of action against authority. I wish that they would watch such a tendency and subject it to critical review. It’s wishful thinking. Not every example of civil disorder is necessarily revolutionary in itself. Anarchists have a duty to be truthful and open in the face of a society that is secretive and devious.

The story that I heard from an eyewitness is as follows (and I stress that it is only one story):

By way of preamble, on Saturday several hundred people had gathered outside a police station to protest about an incident on Thursday in which a 29-year-old man was shot by armed police. That very fact is unusual in a British context as police in the UK very rarely carry arms. The eyewitness says he saw a woman approach the small police cordon which was in front of the police station and begin shouting at them. She was pushed, and the general disorder escalated from that moment.

The escalation included the looting and burning of shops and, consequently, the loss of several people’s homes, residents of flats above shops and so on. Since Saturday the disturbances have spread to the districts of Walthamstow (which is quite close to Tottenham) and Brixton (which is right over the other side of the city).

I am not going to go into great depths about this subject. If any of you are wondering why I do not adopt any particular moral tone about these incidents it is because I am trying to be objective.

I will finish off with an excerpt from Freedom, the anarchist newspaper. It is simply another eyewitness account, and I reproduce it without comment and purely fwiw:

It was about 10 PM last night when I arrived at a police barricade, just south of Tottenham police station. At that point there was a crowd of around 500, men and women of all ages. Most were there in anger, some were onlookers, and others were just trying to get home.

A couple of girls draped in Ghana flags needed to get up the high road. “Do you think if we ask the police they’ll let us through” asked one. “If we go up there”, her friend responded “they’ll beat us down”. Indeed, one thing that struck me was the way in which black youth reacted to the presence of the police. Perhaps understandably, many were far more frightened of the cops than most students whom I have marched with. A small movement forward by police lines would send people running back in fear.

For the next hour, not much was happening on our side of the police lines, but things were pretty tense. Meanwhile on the other side smoke started billowing. Soon a couple of huge fires appeared behind the police lines – a post office and a double decker bus were burning.

I was joined by some friends and we walked down some side streets towards the other side of the police lines. At the corner of Bruce Grove and Tottenham High Road the rioters were absolutely in control. Police lines, now to the south of us, were being repeatedly pelted, and the air was full of smoke. As the police moved forward, some young people lined up wheelie bins and built a burning barricade, cutting them off from Bruce Grove. “Just don’t go to The Farm” one man said, referring to the Broadwater Farm estate where similar events happened in the early 1980s. Meanwhile a William Hill betting shop was smashed in.

The crowd was still a mixture, now mainly young men and young women, some who were there to fight the police, some who were there to show there support and numerous onlookers and local residents who wanted to see what was happening. A couple of blocks up, the High Road was completely split in half by a huge barricade. Attacks on police were intense, and the fires were now getting enormous.

We spoke to group of women outside their home. They felt it was out of order to be setting the small businesses on fire because those “people work very hard”, but they felt that the police were getting what they deserved, and were “proud” of the middle aged woman they had seen looting a huge chicken from Aldi. Indeed throughout the night, I heard no outright condemnation of the riots by residents or onlookers.

(Article reproduced from Freedom and from The Third Estate. Here is an article from Today's Guardian web-site; The Guardian is a relatively liberal British daily newspaper.)

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