Tuesday, 9 August 2011
From Camden to Clapham to Brixton
I got up late this morning.
I'd stayed up into the small hours looking at Twitter, writing a blog piece, feeling sorry for a friend who was attacked last night and trying not to seethe at something a former friend had addressed to me. I had some weird dreams and was knackered after a weekend in Holland.
I was heartened to learn on Twitter that people were gathering at the sites of some of the riots to help clean up the mess. Then it occured to me that there was nothing stopping me joining them.
I admit that I dithered. There were other ways to spend the day. I wasn't aware that anyone I knew was going. I wasn't sure exactly where to go or when. It sounded a bit of a faff. Like all OCD sufferers, I'm not wild about a lack of cleanliness. But I went.
First I needed some kit. So I went to a local hardware store and bought some gloves. And yes, of course I chose the ones that looked like goalkeeper gloves from the 1970s. Then I flagged down a taxi before I could change my mind.
I arrived first of all in Camden, the nearest place that I'd heard had a meet-up. I'd missed it. I made my way to Clapham, having been told that the gang had headed in that direction.
I have a very poor sense of direction and I wandered around in a futile manner for some time, before finally jumping in a cab and asking to be taken to where the action was. There I found a police cordon. I fell into a brief conversation with someone.
He sat astride his bicycle, sipping away on a can of lager with not a care in the world. He had a picture of a cannabis plant on his t-shirt. He assured me knowingly (not that I had solicited his opinion) that the reasons for the riots were many. He called me 'Geez'.
Eventually it dawned on me that there might be a clean-up away from this cordoned area, and I managed to locate it. Alas, I was too late again though, as a large group had done its job brilliantly. I bumped into two friends and we hung around together for a while in the hope that the streets might be opened up for us to get in there and get busy. But they weren't.
I sensed that being there was nonetheless worthwhile. There was a pleasing sense of solidarity in the air, not a smug or triumphant one. I did feel that we were reclaiming our city and doing something positive, something that would contribute to the sum of human happiness. And, let's face it, it was interesting.
Shops had been vandalised indiscriminately. They included sportswear outlets - which had also been raided - and businesses of all sizes. The window of a shop that raises money for a hospice had been broken. The staff in Starbucks, which had been wrecked, were handing out glasses of water.
A boy who may have been no older than ten was also astride a bike, peering into a phone shop that had been worked over. He stared sadly at one of the assistants and said 'I feel sorry for you.' The assistant thanked him warmly.
At another cordon I saw a boy of a similar age, dressed like the first in a grey tracksuit, peer at a handful of litter pickers. 'Thank you,' he said simply.
I hadn't done anything yet, despite having started my adventure several hours earlier. Feeling inadequate, I allowed a possibility I had dismissed to float around my mind. There was a clean-up in Brixton starting at 6.30. Maybe I should go after all.
Brixton has never appealed to me. I take the word 'vibrant' as a synonym for 'ghastly' when it's employed as a description of parts of London. I had shown willing and perhaps I could go somewhere more local tomorrow. But the day needed to be resolved properly, and that meant actually doing something.
Brixton isn't all that far away after all. It's only a few stops from Victoria, nearer still to Pimlico. In short order I was there. I turned left, came out of the station and saw the famous Electric Avenue. I carried on to the meeting point five minutes before call-time and saw four people with brooms. I was struck by how pretty the square was and by the thought that yet again I might not find gainful employment.
More people appeared, but no-one was obviously in charge. It further emerged that the streets were rather a lot cleaner than expected, as the council had done a very good job already. But there was a general agreement to carry on. First we posed for a group photo.
We made our way down the street. I was stopped by two youths in baseball caps and low-slung jeans. They asked me if I knew where they could get bags and where to go. I explained it was all a bit unclear and they thanked me with gentle smiles.
Finally we came upon some wreckage. The windows of a Vodafone shop had been broken, and there were thick sheets of glass in the street. I volunteered to help pick them up, as I had my goalkeeper gloves on. A middle-class man with leadership qualities directed operations and together he and I lifted the glass into a reinforced bag. Then a handful of us swept up.
A Welshman who is a freelancer for the Sky News blog asked me if I would do a quick interview explaining why I was there. I looked directly into his camera until I remembered he'd asked me to look at him. It was over in a flash.
Some of the shops were still cordoned off as they remained crime scenes. We went down a side street which showed no signs of damage but which was covered in litter. We shrugged and figured that there was no harm in removing it. So we did. I picked up a few bits of rotten food and lots of debris.
And that's how I spent the next hour. The streets weren't very dirty, but they are a lot cleaner now. I got chatting, but only a bit, with a couple of the others. One of them said she would send me a tweet of a photo she got a policeman to take of us. The other one and I got on the tube together.
Everyone whom I have mentioned other than those two women, the journalist and my friends - i.e. the boozer on the bike, the two grateful boys in Clapham, the two youths who asked me how they could help and the posh chap who directed the glass removal - was black. So were lots of those who were there to clean up. So weren't lots of other people. So weren't many of the rioters.
I'm home now. I could reflect further on what this all means, but I've already written an article about what I think. I can sum up my views in a nutshell anyway. We don't know the circumstances of the rioters, but we do know they're not poor in any meaningful sense, that they're no worse off than huge numbers of people who would never behave in this way and who only go to the shops when they have earned enough money to pay for what they want, and that they're nothing like as badly off as people in other countries who would insist you had their last scrap of food if you were lucky enough to be a guest in their home. We know what it is to be a human being, that we have free will and can choose not to rob, burgle and beat people up. We know that politicians and the police need to do more to quell and quash these riots.
I didn't want to emote, or pontificate further or even think very much. I wanted to do something. So did lots of Londoners and some people who came from outside.
We were an eclectic bunch. 'Diversity' and 'harmony' were not political buzzwords today. They were thoroughly welcome and viscerally real phenomena.
Monday, 8 August 2011
I'm going to take a risk this evening.
A phenomenon as serious as the riots in London merits serious thought. This is a time for level and clear heads. Anger is not a worthless or illegitimate emotion, but it should never be the platform on which policies are built.
Yet I want to record NOW my response to coming back to this London after a weekend away. What I am about to set down for cyber-posterity will be honest, even it has not been considered following a good night's sleep and calm reflection.
I increasingly find it useful when faced with complex and daunting political matters to start with what I feel sure of, in the hope that stating the obvious and outlining my premises / confessing my prejudices will shed some light on those areas that are not currently illuminated for me.
This, then, is what I believe:
What's happening is not remotely OK.
Of course there are worse things happening in the world tonight - and worse things have happened to London in recent years. But it is far from trivial that so many of us are feeling unsafe on the streets. I had to walk through a gang tonight. They weren't rioting and there were lots of police around, but it was not a pleasant experience.
And obviously it's gone a lot further than intimidation. These are dreadful, appalling days for London and it is having a scarring effect on the city.
Every politician's primary responsibility is keeping citizens safe.
I don't want to hear about bicycles, bendy buses or climate change for a bit. I want to know how politicians are going to enable and force the police to do what they should be doing, how the right to protest can be balanced against the fact that large groups of angry people are inherently intimidating and cause businesses to lose earnings, what the Justice Secretary is actually going to do about prisons and penal policy and what is going to be done to make the thought of going for a stroll in Brixton in the evening anything other than a ludicrous fantasy.
We are not at peace with ourselves or each other.
Certainly the rioters make up a tiny minority of the population of London. But there can be no serious doubt that it speaks of wider ills. It should distress and disturb everyone that anyone wants to behave in this way. It is fatuous, offensive and wrong to blame it on a moderate slowing of the rate of increase in public spending, which slowdown hasn't even yet begun in earnest. And it's a cop-out.
We all need to ask ourselves why so many teenage boys in London are so divorced from the morals, mores and values to which anyone civilised subscribes.
I came back from Amsterdam today. It may have a notorious red light district and stink of cannabis, yet there is also a little playground wherever you turn and people can sit outside drinking beer while their children sit with them without people vomiting, fighting or seeking out loveless, unprotected sex with a stranger.
It is high time we dispensed with the solecisms that have dominated public policymaking. Some people really are community leaders. Lots of those who call themselves such are unrepresentative, have no genuine authority, and do more harm than good. We should stop talking about 'communities' unless we mean 'localities'. There is no such thing as the black community, only black people.
Language matters because it does so much to shape our premises. Black people do not have a collective guilt for what is going on tonight, and they would not do so even if every rioter were a black person. Middle-class people (of whatever colour) don't have a collective guilt for it either and nor do teenagers. It is horrifying that it should be necessary to point out that this is a matter of individual responsibility.
There isn't time to consult sociologists.
We can't solve these endemic problems overnight. And some people will always remain beyond our reach. So unsentimental thought has to be given to how to dissuade people from rioting. It seems to me that the police have to be trusted to make strategic and tactical decisions. It also seems to me that the most potent deterrent is not public condemnation, being arrested or rational argument.
In the immediate term, the best deterrent is the threat of physical pain. I cannot even begin to imagine sympathising with a rioter or mugger who gets dinged by a plastic bullet or knocked off their feet by a water cannon.
When arrests are made and verdicts passed, there must be no place for empathy, caveats or equivocation. I do believe it is unjust to make an example of someone. I also think that rather than setting up commissions and promising new legislation, our leaders should focus on utilising the full force of the (existing) law. Damage to persons and property alike should, and does in theory, carry a severe penalty.
We can make this right.
Getting through this and reducing over the short, medium and long term the chances of it happening again will not be easy, but it is possible. The best place to start is from a place of honesty. We need to know why a man was shot by the police. We need to understand why some people are so divorced from normal and decent human conduct. And we should look at what does work as well as what doesn't.
Stimulating schools, responsible and loving parents, housing that is pleasant and well-lit, opportunities for hormone-fuelled adolescents to channel their aggression safely, visible, effective policing and community (in the proper sense of the word) groups which bring the neighbourhood together are some of the factors that encourage harmony to prevail. Let's focus on those.