I’ve woken up and I’m fifteen, invulnerable, my heart thumping with adrenalin. I’ve never seen or felt this before and didn’t know it could happen: people squeezing under cars to get out of the rain of glass, pavements strewn with rubble and injured people and blood (there’s a deafness in my ears from the roar and screams of the crowd). I can smell petrol fires and I’m running past smashed up windows of cars and shops. I’m on the frontline because I want to see what’s going on – I can see the faces of the police, ashen, white – and before the next charge of boots and uniforms and the answering volley of stones and bottles, sticks and whistles, I can see people picking up and dropping broken slabs of paving stones from under our feet to hurl them over my head at the police.
The ground under my feet is being torn up. The basic social contract that I won’t break the law by being in a riot and that, in return, my society will keep me safe is being ripped apart in this confrontation with the hard reality of violence: we must break them or they will break us. I see a policemen get hit in the head with a brick; people are tearing down walls. Smoke from a police van on fire drifts into the spaces between us. And I’ve woken up because I know my colour and my class can’t be repressed anymore; there are too many of us, change has to come.
That was August thirty-five years ago, and this is August 2011. By my reckoning, the difference between then and now is that this generation of rioting looters and arsonists thinks we failed. Not only did we fail to end discrimination, create better outcomes in education, health, employment and social mobility, we failed to end the entrenchment of hopelessness and poverty in the young. These are not even our children; they strike me as the grandchildren of Thatcherism which told us that the only thing that matters is the money, a consensus submitted to by New Labour – which bought social justice by redistributing money to keep the young in education, to bolster healthcare and the incomes of the poor, and handed on a Treasury note that ‘there is no money’ in an atmosphere of crisis and cuts in public spending to this present Coalition government. These looters are doing what they’re supposed to; grabbing the goods they see in the shops and can’t buy in a recession. They loot the bling – the sports shoes, gold watches, mobile phones and plasma TVs; and you can recognize the very poor when you see a woman looting potatoes from a corner shop. These acquisitive looters are certainly copying the gold standard of a social contract eroded by and evaporating with the money. These are riots in the cause of consumer goods. Burning and robbing other people’s things is one thing, but soon enough, and with no social cause or justice worth the name, people too become indistinguishable from things: witness the widely-circulated photo of the woman leaping for her life from a burning building; such potential deaths still threaten to bring the house down on top of us. This whole distressing episode began with the police shooting dead a black man in north London they said was a gunman; no evidence he fired a shot, we’re told, but the man was already indistinguishable from his gun.
On the television, acting head of the Metropolitan Police, Tim Godwin, urged parents to keep their children indoors and give the police ‘space’ to deal with the rioters. Criticism of the slow, largely ineffective police response to widespread violence, arson and looting across London comes hard on the heels of question marks over the police shooting in Tottenham, challenges to the violent policing of civil protest and the resignation of senior police officers over the News International hacking scandal, which trespassed on the still culturally-daunting and dreadful territory of a dead girl’s mobile phone. The police appear paralysed – or at least as compromised as a political class that appears to have had News International place-men listening in to the office of the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition and the Metropolitan police service itself. Among the threatening talk of using curfews, baton charges, rubber bullets and water-cannon, the message from the most senior police officer in the UK seemed to confirm a view of the family as the last refuge of social responsibility and cohesion, and to appeal for public support in treating the overwhelming young rioters as orphans to whom no mercy might be shown. This is sad stuff; both the failure of policing by consent, lacking public confidence while being flouted by rampantly acquisitive alleged criminality, and the recourse to a dehumanisation of swathes of our young population as ‘criminal thugs’ deserving the ‘consequences’ of their action – including a potentially unprecedented level of violence in policing which our ‘broken society’ (a Coalition government catch-phrase) hasn’t the authority to enact. Instead, the capital has been flooded with 16,000 policemen and an informal curfew has operated among people in my family who might possibly be mistaken for rioters.
I crept home from my riot unscathed, no one asked me any questions, and I slipped in beside my mum, across from my dad, to watch the riot happen on television. On the news they said it was a race riot. I knew it wasn’t; we only became black because the policemen were white. Race was their problem; it was our poverty that was being policed and their racism gave it a black face. My parents were shocked – as Irish and Nigerian immigrants, they didn’t want trouble, they wanted me to integrate: keep your head down, don’t make waves, work hard, get on… But I’m native, a Londoner, I knew their way wasn’t possible for me because at fifteen I was already living the sharp end of being told I was black – we wouldn’t get on if we didn’t stand up for ourselves. There was a generational schism in my family about how to deal with our society. We were poor and young, black and white, with our own London culture, and were fully-conscious of our difference from that nonsense half-life at the margins of old-fashioned, class-bound, economically depressed Englishness we were being offered as a future. It was the no future of punk in its black-clad espousal of Anarchy, the mass unemployment of dole queues, or a rejectionist, and separatist, Black identity waiting to be ground down by Babylon that I danced to but couldn’t believe gave me anything but energy to find a way forward. One by one, my brothers and sisters, all of us teenagers, started to come home from that Notting Hill riot that each of us later realized as a watershed in the way we wouldn’t be treated anymore.
Back then, the sus law, a provision under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, could get you stopped, arrested and convicted on suspicion of an arrestable offence, and was used as a stop and search tool by the police, disproportionately against young black people. Today, provisions under the 2000 Terrorism Act serve much the same function, and I have to ask myself and my generation, what has changed? If the rioters on the streets of London and other UK cities have any accusation to level against me, and against our money-oriented society, I would have no defence against the claim that instead of working our way towards a new kind of social contract that privileged the future of the young we offered them the freedom to over-value money, and then we took it away.
Photograph by Andy Armstrong