People from all backgrounds – black, white, Asian, working class and middle class turned out to clean up their areas after the riots. Amongst them was Charles Brown, who looks at the contradictions of the riot clean up movement.
On Tuesday morning I was one of hundreds of Londoners who went to show solidarity with the people of Hackney and Clapham and to help in the clean up. Arriving at Clapham Junction it was heartening to see a large crowd of people from all backgrounds – black, white, Asian, working class and middle class – armed with brooms, bin liners, heavy duty gloves, dustpans and brushes, ready to help.
Even then, it seemed inevitable that there would be those in government, media and on the right who would want to co-opt this largely spontaneous initiative. Yet one of the most striking things from conversations engaged in and overheard was the complexity of people’s motivations and reactions.
It would be wrong to say that there was not considerable anger at the destruction of shops, livelihoods, homes and for some, jobs. Some voiced views that were echoed in the following day’s lurid headlines which crowed over the ‘Fightback’, and called for sweeping the scum off the streets and for the shooting of looters.
But far more made it clear that they knew that there was far more to the events of recent days than mere criminality, whatever David Cameron might say.
Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s attempt to address the crowd was treated with contempt by many. Many felt that government and police had failed to protect them but as this young man made clear, many are just as angry at a government that is creating the conditions for this week’s explosion. Local MP, Conservative Jane Ellison also found herself facing an angry response from one local young man who attacked the government’s cuts to education and their failure to create real opportunities for working class people.
One Hackney housing liaison officer who works in the estates at the epicentre of Monday’s riot told me that he had seen the explosion coming for weeks. Cutbacks in local services, hatred for police who for constant stop and search, hopelessness had made a volatile mixture. There were other factors, he said. While many were just genuinely angry – and, as they saw it, fighting back – gangs also play a part. But it’s not enough to just write it off as gang driven. What is it that drives gang culture in the first place? Local people also point to some of the reasons in interviews like this.
Johnson, May and now Cameron predictably have wasted no time in trying to scavenge off the goodwill shown by people up and down the country as it gives them an opportunity to bury root causes under moralising and rhetoric. Cameron is trying to paint the events of recent days as good versus evil and as an example of the former, he lauded not only riotcleanup but also praised ‘the million people who have signed up on Facebook to support the police’
The founder of that page has since been exposed as racist, Sean Boscott so Cameron might want to think about choosing his friends more carefully.
Some on the left have voiced suspicion of phenomena like #riotcleanup. As one tweet put it, “ Wonder how many of the people will be out on the streets defend local services from the cuts.” Some certainly won’t but from my encounters, I think many would and we have to reach them.
Zoe Williams has pointed to some of the risks associated with some of these ‘spontaneous’ initiatives. Certainly, in Enfield and Eltham one can see the claws of another breed of scavenger, the English Defence League and other racist organisations.
There are other dangers: that well-meaning and understandable attempts at local self-protection does not spiral out into vigilantism or into interethnic conflicts. There is also the danger of tragic events like the deaths of the three young Asian men in Birmingham. No one wants to see another father like Tariq Jahan have to make another address like the dignified, emotional plea that he made last night.
It has also been disturbing – if not unpredictable – to see the speed with which many middle class liberals have gravitated towards authoritarian rhetoric and to frame this issue as one simply of policing and control. These arguments have to be countered.
For the left, the challenge is to fill a political and ideological vacuum. Much has been made of courageous, Pauline Pearce who angrily spoke out against the madness of attacking one’s own. But we need to heed Pauline’s words when she said, “If we’re gonna fight for a cause let’s fight for a fucking cause.” That’s the only long-term solution.
The author would like to thank Lee Laycock for the images.
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