Travels in Nihilon

A few more angry thoughts about the outbreak.

  1. This couldn’t have happened a hundred years ago – the kids would have felt ashamed and if not ashamed then afraid of the consequences. They would have known the shopkeepers back then, and probably many of the makers too.
  2. Luxury in the media has reached disgusting levels. There aren’t good role models. Even the survivalists and self-sufficientists (Tom and Barbara excepted) are inauthentically roly poly. Imagine a population of Ray Mearses and Hugh Fearnley Tits – the countryside would look as if locusts had been through.
  3. Advertising, product placement, game shows. Pernicious forms of aspiration. Having and getting, as a way of being yourself. They fuel the web, the free city papers and commercial television, and they helped to pressure cook what happened last week.
  4. Their parents aren’t able or willing.
  5. You can’t stick two fingers up at the police without committing a crime. There was a huge current of wanting to fuck the police. I’m not sure what else the police stand for in these kids’ minds, but definitely protection of something they don’t have a stake in.
  6. Can’t a sense of entitlement to luxury consumer goods turn into politics?
  7. Ed Miliband is right to worry about those who don’t feel they have a stake in society, but he is wrong to say it’s “ridiculous” to compare looters to bankers. There is plenty to compare about them. And these children grew up under a Labour government that believed in trickle down – the poor patiently waiting to receive the crumbs from the table of the rich.
  8. I feel for the police, like I always do. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
  9. Grant Shapps, David Cameron, and all who think like you – are you completely mad?
  10. Definitely the Spirit Level people are right. But it is possible to go too far with equality. If everything comes for free it makes people just as foul.
  11. Protection from the EDL? I’m for a nice big police force and a better IPCC.

Afterthought – another man died of his injuries last night. As well as thieves the arsonists and killers were abroad. I wonder whether they were opportunists waiting for their free run of the city, or whether they also stole, and whether thieves also burned and killed?

More afterthought: reading today’s Observer was a good experience. Peter Beaumont, who usually covers wars in other lands, has a substantial piece in which he talks to Clasford Stirling, one of those men I sometimes hear about who sublimate young rage into football. He says “The confrontation with the police before the looting happened. It was total anger. I’ve never seen young people face to face with the police like that.” And youthworker Alvin Carpio, who “says that … within the groups at the forefront of the trouble – criminal street gangs and local groups of youths who describe themselves as being in “gangs” – a sense of responsibility and loyalty does exist; it is simply misdirected. “There are communities within communities with their own rules”” and that “how for some with few paths available for them to follow, the figure in their community with the big car, the drugs and money appears to offer an alternative.”.

Also in The Observer, epidemiologist Gary Slutkin takes a public health approach to gang violence and rioting as if it were an infection. He questions conventional law enforcement of “community crackdowns, arrests and harsher penalities, heavy-handed suppression techniques, pointing to a (D.C.-based) Justice Policy Institute report (somewhere in their website?) which shows that these tactics have little of their intended effects but create deeper divisions between police and community.

Tracy McVeigh goes to the Hoxton the fashion students don’t visit, to interview nervous underfed kids in cheap, worn clothes who join gangs to defend their patch from the gangs in the next estate, or who have to scurry through the safest route to get a takeaway, and for whom youth clubs are one of a few safe spaces where somebody cares. Fewer than a quarter of those arrested for last week’s violence were under 18.

Tim Adams attends an overnight sitting at Horseferry Road magistrates court and is struck by the bleary eyed banality of the accused and the Dickensian quality of the prosecution. Yes, I’m with him to a certain extent. But he also completely excludes the victims from his reckoning. On the preceding page is a photograph of an 89 year old shop keeper, not very prosperous-looking, who lost everything. What about him? Nobody is much talking about restorative justice, but surely if these looters are so bewildered the morning after, it could work here?

Then I leafed through the Observer Magazine which is a stinky publication full of adverts for the kind of aspirational – i.e. useless, wasteful, environment squandering – products its journalists are now commiserating with people for stealing, and I felt kind of queasy. I get The Observer for the journalists but it makes me cringe in equal measures.

I listened to last year’s RSA debate between the authors of The Spirit Level and some of their critics. In a nutshell the critics query the evidence. They say that raising everybody’s wealth will improve outcomes on a wide range of health and social indices. I thought that the hypothesis that more unequal societies are worse was well defended – and not only in statistical terms. For example – and topically – Richard Wilkinson (one of the authors of The Spirit Level) on the link between inequality and violence,

“Because violence is triggered by disrespect, humiliation, loss of face, being looked down on an in a more unequal society we judge each other more by social status, competition increases and so people get more sensitive to it.”

Generation terrorists

I haven’t been able to read much about this yet. Riot vans were charging south-east to Lewisham all yesterday afternoon, then the consumer revolution (where you take what you feel you deserve, and don’t pay) spread the other side of where I was, to Peckham. I headed north after work, uneventfully. Today the sirens haven’t stopped and there’s smoke in bits of the sky.

In Barkingside, Gems and – no! – the Co-op. Our inadequate high street may have saved us from the worst. Perhaps, I speculate, our tighter parenting traditions? At any rate, it’s lucky since Twitter says Barkingside police station is shut.

On the outbreak of looting and vandalism in London I have only wonderment. Why pound shops? Why Job Centres?  Not an uprising at the death of Mark Duggan, surely, with so much burning, trashing of small businesses and flats above shops, and carrying away of consumer goods. (To sell? To keep because we’re all entitled to a free flatscreen TV?). Really Grand Theft Auto? How young? How many? How covetous of expensive footwear? School children with time and no money, no holiday jobs, nowhere to go and nothing laid on for them (youth services cut)? Rites of passage? Competitive copy-cat action, for a story to tell? Why this shitting in their own back yards – because they are too young to grasp the consequences? It must be hard to keep a determined 16 year-old from going out…

There is a protest about policing and there is a much larger spasm of smashing and grabbing. Through the fog reaches Alex Wheatle writing in last night’s London Evening Standard. After condemning the looting and arson, he comments,

“There is a deep aggravation in the black community that despite the many deaths of young black men in police custody there has yet to be a conviction of any policeman or policewoman. Tensions heightened with the recent death of reggae artist Smiley Culture, who allegedly took his own life with a kitchen knife at his own home. Again, no one in the black community believes this account. In a similar response to the Smiley Culture controversy, the IPCC announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Duggan.

Many in the black community who I speak to have no faith in the IPCC and believe it is an investigative body that is not fit for purpose. Over the years we have seen investigation after investigation but no conviction.”

“Justice” was the chant in Brixton 30 years ago, “justice” was the chant in Brixton Town Hall at a public meeting following Smiley Culture’s death and I heard the same cry on Sunday morning on the streets of Tottenham.

Trust between the police and the black community has been painstakingly rebuilt since the Eighties. For example, I am now consulted by the City of London police on stop and search policy for ethnic minorities. That simply didn’t happen in the Eighties. In Brixton the community now enjoys the Summer Splash street festival that was initiated by local community leaders hand-in-hand with the police.

All this good intention and goodwill will be undone if young black people perceive the police as an institution that never has to account for its own criminality.”

Ballistics investigations will shed more light. Yesterday’s protest began with a bereaved family’s long wait outside a police station to see a senior officer, and became continuous with a long list of black people to meet unexplained deaths in police custody. Then it became a smash and grab by kids who clearly don’t understand that when you take from a pawn-brokers, burn down your local Post Office, and trash your local Job Centre, you hurt your poorest neighbours. I blame the two most recent governments above all, but it would be nice if parents felt some sense of responsibility and brought their children out in their new nikes and watches, to clean up.

Raiding and burning a modest business, or taking possession of a flat screen TV or pair of trainers you didn’t buy, or hurting police officers who arrive to keep the peace, has nothing to do with Mark Duggan’s death. Opportunism and getting carried away explains these things, but not the underlying mentality of the youthful smashers and plunderers, nor their supporters’.

Generation Terrorists in the Manic Street Preachers’ nihilistic debut album.


Update 2 – The World Tonight was very good. There was an interview with wined up looters which for me raised a possible link between Mark Duggan’s death  and the riots – “showing the police we can do what we want – and now we have”. Bonnie Greer wearily disillusioned those who like me are horrified by the parents – “These kids don’t live in a Dick and Jane world”, pointing to the win or lose world of television, calling on society to listen to the young people while prosecuting the criminals. And an interview with two young men from South London, who shake their heads about the rioters and the police, who mostly get it wrong.

The people who wrote the Spirit Level are right.

A thousand huts

Sporadically looking at alternative homes at the moment. A Thousand Huts is a campaign to revive a declining interest in hutting – usually colonies of simply-structured, intermittently-used, often informal and haphazard dwellings without amenities in rural northern Europe. They grew up before the era of planning laws and their presence, like that of other intentional communities, is a reminder that the question of sustainable plentiful homes is ultimately a question of who owns the land.

There’s a video by Paul Wimbush about hutters at Carbeth – built to get the factory and shipyard people of Glasgow and Clydesbank into the country during the newly invented weekends. Their successors are now faced with rent rises which push their cost of living beyond most caravan sites, although caravan sites have far more in the way of amenities and services.

There’s a descriptive research report which identifies some perceived benefits of hutting – the peace, quiet, tranquility and escape – and patterns of use and expectations which place hutting in the category of seasonal retreat rather than year-round residence.

So hutting seems to be a matter of small numbers of people getting out into the country in summer in a way which sustains commitment to a community and to a rural economy. Small cabins in wild, off-grid locations, renovated or built from scratch and limited only by the owner or occupier’s skills and invention. And the land laws.

EDL update

Not a definitive update, due to pressures of work, but a bunch of stuff I found on the web.

Proselytising Muslims in Peterborough have invited the EDL to dinner at the Khadijah Mosque after a number of conversations at their street stall.

“A member of the EDL approached us and it actually was a very positive incident.

“He was asking questions and listening to the answers we were giving.

“We had a similar incident in Wisbech previously, where a member of the EDL approached us to talk about Sharia law – he did not know what it was, but had a number of misconceptions.

“We were able to explain what Sharia law was and answer all his questions.

“When he left he actually apologised for some of his previous views.

“He was more polite than some other people who approached us, who kept interrupting and not letting us finish.”

This is in keeping with what The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor found during his undercover work among the EDL:

“Last year, I spent four months undercover on EDL demonstrations, witnessing its growing popularity. At each demonstration I attended, I was confronted by casual racism, a widespread hatred of Muslims and often the threat of violence. But I also met non-white people, gay rights activists, disaffected working class men and women, and middle-class intellectuals. I came to the conclusion that the EDL is not a simple rerun of previous far-right street groups. “

The EDL is against sharia law. It’s good to organise against religious law because religious law is deeply pernicious. Sharia law in particular is beginning to flex its muscles in my part of the world so I’m all for pushing it back. The trouble is a) that many of the EDL’s members are also violently racist, b) they frequently implicate all Muslims in the perceived threat and whip up hostility against Muslims, c) EDL business is conducted as an unsavoury expression of insecure nationalism, and d) what about political Christianity? Surely being a committed campaigning secularist is a far better, more inclusive, more positive, less discriminatory way to keep the authoritarian excesses of religion out of public life. In response to religious impositions, there is far more potential in secularism than nationalism.

The Peterborough piece continues:

“Stephen Lennon – also known as Tommy Robinson – an unofficial leader of the EDL, said he was interested in meeting with members of the mosque.

He said: “We have done similar meets across the country in the past, and it is something we would be interested in doing.

“We would not want to hold the meeting in the mosque. We would want to do it in a neutral location.

“We will be in talks with the mosque to see if this is possible.”

Update: it’s not – quite reasonably the mosque is interested in improving relations with its local EDL supporters, not the EDL as a whole.

I’m all for words and exchange – but the problem of a marching, street-dominating event can’t be directly addressed with words, so I think it will be necessary to go to Tower Hamlets on September 3rd and put as many bodies as possible in the way of the rally the EDL plan there. But the street-fighting, spirit-of-Cable-Street, wannabe-heros had better stay away. It’s hard to distinguish between racist and anti-racist among the itchy fisted geezers, presumably lacking both sex and ideas for fulfilling pursuits, who are drawn to such things as an EDL rally for the entertainment, the scars and the nostalgia. But there’s plenty of difference between resistance and provocation.

Update 25th August: News from Hope Not Hate that the Met “requested a ban on the English Defence League march in Tower Hamlets because of fears that this would whip up tensions in the area and ignite trouble”. So though they may rally in Tower Hamlets, they will not be marching through. This is a good outcome.

Bashar Al-Assad’s death charge

Russia is mildly tsking at Assad. Foreign Secretary William Hague pointed out on this morning’s Today Programme that there was no will among the Arab states to take action to prevent the bloody rampages of this particular insecure leader, so we won’t be sending anybody.

Lost count of the dead now in Hama – something like 1,500 since March – but let’s hope it remains far less than the 20,000 who died there at the hands of Al-Assad’s father in 1982.

That’s the dead. An estimated 10,000 detained.

Imagine. Just imagine.

PS The Egyptian army forcibly cleared protesters out of Tahrir Square today, with some local approval.