Last night in Hackney

I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney. At 4.15 I came home from work very briefly because I had to get back for a surgery from 5-8pm. There were hundreds of police in front of our house and kids running around everywhere with mobile phones and sticks and stones.

By 4.30pm last night after 15 nervous minutes at home, there was a riot about to start on the Narrow Way and the police had formed rows with shields held up ready to protect themselves. There were more kids coming from all directions on foot and on bikes and several adults, mostly male, not the usual shopping mums. These were not career criminals or habitual rioters. They were kids swept up in the rush of adrenaline-fueled excitement, mixed with and egged on by [ir]responsible adults. Back on the Narrow Way I had to squeeze past the police and through the crowds to get onto Mare street where the traffic had ground to a halt and there were people for hundreds of yards around all heading for the Narrow Way.

On the way home at about 9pm there was glass all over the road, bins were overturned, smoke was blowing over from Clarence road and shop windows were smashed. I was warned to avoid London Fields because of gangs of kids mugging people. Back at home I saw a lot of kids, some really young, carrying sticks and bricks all evening until about 1am. They were throwing them at police vans and intimidating people who live locally. There was no thinking about the cars they burned in nearby streets, nor the risks they posed to residents. Residents on the Narrow Way have very good reason to be terrified of being burned in their homes just because they live over the shops.This was brutal street capitalism, the violent appropriation of goods to be sold for a quick profit combined with nihilistic vandalism and intimidation. This West Indian matriach filmed only 200 yards up from our house sums up the intense frustration of locals.

What is equally terrifying is the brutal racist response from the right. I went to the holocaust museum in Berlin last year. There was a poster pointing out that in 1929 Germany was heavily indebted with massive unemployment, the world was on the brink of a financial crisis and people were looking for someone to blame. The parallels are frightening. The actions of the rioters, fighting for cash, not for rights, or justice or social change, will fan the flames of the racists who are baying for blood. Few people imagined in 1929 what would come. None of us knows what lies ahead now …

The potential for extraordinary violence by seemingly ordinary people has been explored at length by many others better qualified than I and it is essential that we reflect on what we have in common. Events in Nazi Germany described in Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin, the Milgram experiment in which volunteers tortured others under instruction from ‘scientist observers’, the massacre of women and children in My Lai, Vietnam described by moral philosopher Jonathan Glover and the chilling description of Joseph Fritzel who kept his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books all give profound examples of the capacity for violence that each and every one of us have given the right mixture of genes, family and environment. Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, in an article for the Independent today, Caring costs – but so do riots, gives a clear description of the toxic mix of contemporary pressures affecting excluded urban youths. Those commentators who are so proud that they have escaped the same estates the rioters have come from, need to think deeper than the estate, consider their genetic heritage, their family make up and the potential effect of an excitable crowd on violence and looting at a time of intense economic and consumer pressure.

Ultimately we need to see our destiny as inextricably linked with those we are so quick to condem, the solutions we propose, solutions for us all, the pressures to consume and be defined by consumption our shared problem, and their future security our own.

I’ve written a longer version for Pulse Today

See also:

A short history of moral panic: The Economist

Potlach: London Riots: The Limits of left and Right

Shoplifters of the world unite: Slavoj Žižek London Review of Books

Most of the Kids are Alright: “If you think you are an idealist, get off twitter, put down your placard, stop gazing at your navel to examine your privilege. Put your money and time where your mouth is. Go and volunteer in a primary school and sit with those who are struggling to read, go and become a school governor, go and do a bit of training to become an adult advocate so that when one of these kids goes through the judicial system and their parents can’t or won’t participate in the process, you can be called on to speak to and for them. If you can’t do any of those things, work an extra shift or do some baby-sitting to free up a colleague or friend who can. Unlike gesture politics, these acts will make a difference.”

Or Does it Explode? Communist analysis from the Commune.

The moral decay of our society. Analysis of power and morality from The Telegraph

12 responses to “Last night in Hackney

  1. Not so long ago posted a comment on Julie McAnulty’s latest post and I hope she (and you) wont mind if I repeat much of it here:

    It may suit the Tories to say the riots are all down to criminality and/or thuggery (implication: nothing to do with us, they’re just freakin’ thugs) and no doubt to some extent that is true but just as infection often occurs where the tissue is damaged, so civil unrest tends to occur where and when society is damaged: and that tends to happen when the Tories are in power. Recall who was in power when the other major riots over the last few decades took place…

    And now the Tories want to set up a two-tier health service! How much more divisive than that can you get!

  2. If we believe that it has nothing to do with us, then we believe that society is fractured, that we, the educated, wealthy, peaceful have nothing whatsoever to do with them, the uneducated, impoverished, violent youths. I think that the only way out of this is for it to have something to do with all of us, a one state solution in which we all share responsibility for eachother. Hackney has become more divided in the 20years I have lived here, the profigacy and extrovert hedonism of the fashionable newcomers has done little or nothing to change the prospects of the kids who were rioting, only reminded them of the bling they cannot and will most likely never be able to afford.

  3. How I agree with above – and wonder when those in authority, especially running companies, realise that by looking for the short-term gain, they are building up for more riots.
    If we outsource jobs to call centres abroad; close down manufacturing industries because using cheap labour in another country makes an item less expensive, and don’t worry about the people that no longer have jobs – just so that you can earn a massive bonus to enable you to buy a house in a gated community that ensures you don’t meet your fellow Britons – then you can’t blame youth for mindlessly running amok because they have lost all respect for higher authority.
    Cameron etc. should come out from behind iron fences, actually listen to people, encourage manufacturing and service industries to start again – and realise that if people don’t have work, they look for other outlets for their energy and frustration.
    What is happening in NHS is sadly typical of what is happening all over Britain; the penny-pinching cost cutting is no overall benefit to the service; just massages the books so admin officials get a bonus for ‘saving’ expenditure, when in reality processes haven’t saved a bean.
    I just feel so sorry for the people living in the areas where rioting has taken place.
    Adela Stanley

  4. Its frightening to think of what could come, which is why I try to focus on the positives. It must be awful to be living right in midst of it all, I hope you are safe. x

  5. Ludicrous, absurd, and crazy as it seems, Dr No is a one nation tory. We need the bastards, but let them pay. The current lot – every time Cams opens his mouth he loses another ten IQ points – are going to take Hacksawing to new fettling lengths.

    Rioting is going national – so stick your 16.000 troops in one town. Thick – or what?

    And these guys have a plan for the NHS?

  6. I’m finding it really difficult to fully untangle ’cause’ and ‘effect’ in respect to these violent riots. I hear a lot of people(politicians,residents,friends and family) citing various reasons for why they believe what has happened has happened and whom is to blame.Emotions are still high and understandably so. I think eventually when the dust settles and we have a chance to pause and put aside the strong emotions felt by everyone, there needs to be a more rational scientific look into why this is happening.

    It’s appears to me a very complex subject. Looking to history whether it is your WW2 example or previous riots, what appears to be recurring is a disenfranchised group of people who have little to lose. Could this be a ‘confounding factor’ i don’t know. I know to some, this sort of explanation may be perceived as legitimatizing that sort of behaviour.Should there always be someone to blame? Or should we accept the flawed human nature of ‘greed’ that lives more strongly in some than others, with the same sadness as a large Tsunami destroying a city?

    I would be very interested to know more about the backgrounds and motives of those who were arrested and charged to understand there reasons more fully. I think we all deserve to know to get to the most accurate truth we can find.

  7. Notwithstanding the stupidity of concentrating police forces in one place, so leaving other places vulnerable to attack, the fact that rioting has happened in as many places as it has tells us that this isn’t a local ‘criminals and thugs’ problem. Whatever ‘it’ is – Dr No strongly suspects that sober reflection will reveal that the root cause will be the existence of a hitherto largely unseen ‘underclass’, ‘it’ exists across the country.

    However much Cammers may wibble on about the big society, it seems that he may in fact be overseeing the establishment of the big underclass. Dr No has said it before, but it bears repeating: if the Health and Social Care Bill gets enacted, and gives rise to a two tier health service (think dentistry, but the same NHS-private split extended across the whole NHS), then the underclass problem isn’t going to get a bit worse, it will get hugely worse, and today’s riots will come to be seen as the first drops of rain of a furious storm that is yet to come.

    If that isn’t reason for those who remain in the middle of the road on that damn bill to get up and say no, Dr No doesn’t know what is. All he would add is that, as the man said: we know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.

  8. Some very perceptive comments about an increasingly complex situation. What’s lacking (for me) at the moment is some sociological analysis. I’ve come across some initial ideas in the London Review but nothing specific. Wher are the experts? Do they all work for Boris and so are gagged? M ytake is that the basic capitalist structure of british society has not changed in fifty years. There are more insiders who have made a quick kill and are the fat cats of the decade but it’s till ‘us’ and ‘them’ – it cries out in every politician’s sound bite.
    Just a few words on the parallel as you see it between Germany in the thirties and Britain in 2011: German society was in a highly febrile condition. A lost war, a ‘half-revolution’, massive hyperinflation that literally destroyed the salary-earning classes, perpetual strikes and uprisings, in 1929, if that was when the poster was published, the economic situation only deteriorated after the October crash, when unemployment began to rise, so the divisions were less noticable than a couple of years later when Germany was close to a civil war. I suspect that British social structure will survive the present unrest – unlike Germany in 1932.
    On Milgram – I thought people now read his experiment rather differently and that the very selective choice of probands makes the findings questionable.

    • It’s definitely ‘us and them’ from my perspective as a GP in Hackney. A decade ago when I started working as a GP I explained to my trainer that it was easier to understand a middle class refugee who didn’t speak a word of english than a native from the estates, but whereas we had access to advocates to interpret for non-english speakers we GPs were the advocates for the people who had spent their lives in depreivation and it was up to me to interpret their stories in order to help relieve their suffering. Ten years later I don’t doubt that I’ve learned a lot, but I still struggle, the pressures of their lives are so remote from my own experience – I don’t live on the estates that you cannot get a pizza delivery because the motorbikes too often get stolen, I don’t walk the staircases where people are beaten up for being gay, mugged for being an easy target (elderly), or stabbed for being in the wrong gang. I don’t have to listen to the drunks upstairs beating eachother up or listen to my own parents beating my siblings. I can imagine what it’s like to live like this because I hear the stories week in week out. When one woman in her 60’s said that being mugged in the park was nothing compared to being tied up with a rope with a bag put over her and a shotgun to her head, I felt stupid telling her to stop smoking for the sake of her heart because her heart seemed to be the least of her worries. Her life and mine are not, and will not ever be the same.
      From my perspective capitalism is brutal because it brutalises us all, but from the perspective of my patients from the estates only brutal capitalism seems to be the way out. A heroin and crack addict this week boasted of a £50k a year habit, financed by petty crime. We look after hundreds of addicts, anarcho-capitalists every one. I know there are also community activists, socialists and communists, but most people are not thinking outside the box, they’re not thinking about changing society, but about getting a piece of the action.
      Until we who presently benefit from capitalism’s spoils realise that we are all being brutalised and make radical changes, we will have to expect to see capitalism’s violence erupt much closer to home.

  9. I would take up Dr No’s point that an underclass exists and indeed I believe that it does.

    Perhaps you may feel that my opinion is controversial – I consider it honest. The underclass is a product of the nanny state and I would lay the blame for this with both Nu Labour and ‘Human Rights’ and also the dumbing down of society where all are declared to be equal when they are not.

    I am not your equal in intelligence; I am not equal to you in the position you hold in society, I would hazard a guess that I am not equal to you in so called privileges of background, yet I do not consider that I have less importance than you as a human being. Saying that does not make me equal to you in the many gifts and privileges that you have and enjoy, I do not have the advantage of your ‘voice’ – you are more likely to be heard than I, but I do not envy you – but applaud you. Yet again, I do not regard your ‘voice’ to be more important than mine – but realise it is more likely to be heard.

    I believe the underclass to be a spoon fed product of the nanny state where it appears the ‘undeserved’ are pampered to the point where (their) individual ‘rights’ are deemed paramount above all others, where those who understand the ‘system’ feed from it and are encouraged to do so – as it is their ‘right.’ (They) are encouraged to stay where they are, receive financial benefits that I can only dream of, to be dependant, to be spoon-fed and therefore have no ambition to rise above their situation.

    It is very apparent to me as someone who exists outside this system, yet who has needs, is somehow exempted from this privilege of being a member of the underclass. I am expected to fend for myself. I do not mind this – or perhaps I do – as I see the underclass as having more ‘rights’ than me. I contribute to society and because of this am not considered needy, although I can state with certainty than in some respects I am.

    I guess this is a roundabout way of saying of saying I know how opinions can be swayed, how distrust, resentment and then hatred is born. It must have been so easy for Hitler to rope in his people in a time of financial crises after appointing a scapegoat for the ills of his nation. So very easy – and those who did not conform through intelligent thought – did so eventually by fear, the fear of exclusion, the fear of repercussions.

    You state that “Those commentators who are so proud that they have escaped the same estate rioters have come from, need to think deeper than estate, consider their genetic heritage, their family make up and the potential effect of mob violence and looting at a time of intense economic and consumer pressure.”

    I believe you are wrong – you are re-confining them to their estate. You are disallowing them advancement, their position in the world where they burst out (through effort) of the confines of their so-called heritage. They cannot be held accountable for the ?sins of their fathers.

    Respectfully

    Anna :o]

  10. Lets not forget how all started- the police shut someone, and this projected like in 1980’s in Brixton a public response- The police action was violent and received a violet reaction: a simple law of physics- Aren’t the neighbourhoods/cities taking actively taking part in the violence the economically depressed areas in England?does this tells us something about the participants, beyond their maladaptive behaviour? Aren’t the violent participants majority coming from the segregated ghettos? – Isn’t this the same in France and Italy, Chile or wherever, when a member of an oppress sector gets violently kill by the police without a reason?
    I also think that the people who took place in the revolts, are known as the lumpen to the oppressor nation, the ‘criminal element’ , cut off from the socio-economic class. The lumpen usually come from a lumpen organization that the oppressors call a ‘gang,’ or survive as some type of parasitic hustler. Although we do make choices, often times in imperialist society our choice to engage in crime is a logical one due to the national oppression we endure. As Marx suggested, it is our job to fully understand the laws of social development, and the lumpen are an essential part of these laws today, the lumpen discontent, should be understood, incorporated to our revolutionary cause and not rejected. This, if we expect to one day change this capitalist brutally unfair society.
    Saludos from an also rioting Chile-(students fighting from free education)

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