James Meek recalls a recent stroll down Hackney’s Broadway Market, and what it said about London, on the LRB blog yesterday:
As Ghaith and I walked down the street a disturbance began. A group of about thirty young black kids were moving together, looking anxious and excited. Some had makeshift weapons in their hands, poles and lengths of broken-off wood. After a moment, between a gap in the shops that looked through to the base of a tower block, we saw the reason for their anxiety – two tiny figures on bikes, dressed in black, hooded and masked. As we watched, one of the figures reached into the pocket of his hoodie and lifted – just enough to show – a hand gun, spreading panic among the larger group.
The trouble subsided as quickly as it began and the participants dispersed before the police arrived. Throughout the episode, a young, casually dressed, thoughtful-looking white couple sat at a table outside a wine bar, watching and sipping white wine. The neck of the bottle leaned, misted with condensation, from the rim of an ice bucket on the table. The couple didn’t look concerned that the gang confrontation or turf battle, whatever it was, would affect them; the feuding kids didn’t seem to see them, either.
This is the reality of multicultural London. It is not a melting pot. It is a set of groups that are rigidly self-separated by race, language, religion, class, money, education and age group, who have not only come to an unspoken agreement that they will not mix, but have become complacent that this agreement will not and need not be challenged [...]
…this is not the mixing city its liberal inhabitants would like to think it is. Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it. The yuppies don’t go to the white working-class pubs, and the white working class don’t go to the yuppie pubs. The Muslims don’t go to the pub at all and the post-Christians don’t go to the mosque or the church. The young don’t mix with the old. You don’t marry outside your income and education group. Parents segregate their school-age children by class and race.
This theme, of what happens when different London’s “rigidly self-separated” groups collide, is echoed by former adviser to David Cameron Danny Kruger, writing in the FT today:
The districts that took the brunt of the rioting on Monday night were not sink estates. Enfield, Ealing, Croydon, Clapham … these places have Tory MPs, for goodness’ sake. A mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill. It is people in places like these who wrinkled their noses when, in opposition, Mr Cameron talked of “broken Britain”. They felt safe in the city, and thought it ill-mannered to talk like that about the locals. Britain has got better, richer, more “tolerant” – but only, we now find, insofar that “we” are more tolerant of “them”: the esteem was not reciprocated [...]
London has an underclass (a hateful word to the people in it, but no worse, and more accurate, than “the poor”). To generalise brutally, they are un-nurtured, brought up in a microculture of neglect, arbitrary and erratic discipline, and love without its concomitant need for boundaries and good behaviour.
Meanwhile the wider culture – that is us – has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism. We have substituted welfare payments for relationships, rights for love, and the sterile processes of the public sector for the warm morality of living communities. Once the police have put down the riots, the rest of us have more to do than clean up the broken glass.
The insidious flourishing of anti-establishment attitudes is paradoxically helped by the establishment. It grows when a child is dragged by their mother to social services screaming for help and security guards remove both; or in the shiny academies which, quietly, rid themselves of the most disturbed kids. Walk into the mental hospitals and there is nothing for the patients to do except peel the wallpaper. Go to the youth centre and you will find the staff have locked themselves up in the office because disturbed young men are dominating the space with their violent dogs. Walk on the estate stairwells with your baby in a buggy manoeuvring past the condoms, the needles, into the lift where the best outcome is that you will survive the urine stench and the worst is that you will be raped. The border police arrive at the neighbour’s door to grab an “over-stayer” and his kids are screaming. British children with no legal papers have mothers surviving through prostitution and still there’s not enough food on the table.
It’s not one occasional attack on dignity, it’s a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped. Savagery is a possibility within us all. Some of us have been lucky enough not to have to call upon it for survival; others, exhausted from failure, can justify resorting to it.
The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, meanwhile, has been talking to forensic psychologists about the looters’ motivations:
Forensic psychologist Kay Nooney deals impatiently with the idea of cuts, specifically tuition fees, as an engine of lawlessness. “These people aren’t interested in tuition fees. In constituency, it’s most similar to a prison riot: what will happen is that, usually in the segregation unit, nobody will ever know exactly, but a rumour will emanate that someone has been hurt in some way. There will be some form of moral outrage that takes its expression in self-interested revenge. There is no higher purpose, you just have a high volume of people with a history of impulsive behaviour, having a giant adventure.”
Of course, the difference is that, in a prison, liberty has already been lost. So something pretty serious must have happened in order for young people on the streets to be behaving as though they have already been incarcerated. As another criminologist, Professor John Pitts, has said: “Many of the people involved are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future. There is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.”
And finally, Paul Lewis and James Harkin, also in the Guardian, who have been out and about at the riots in London and making observations about who’s been involved:
Jay Kast, 24, a youth worker from East Ham who has witnessed rioting across London over the last three nights, said he was concerned that black community leaders were wrongly identifying a problem “within”. “I’ve seen Turkish boys, I’ve seen Asian boys, I’ve seen grown white men,” he said. “They’re all out there taking part.” He recognised an element of opportunism in the mass looting but said an underlying cause was that many young people felt “trapped in the system”. “They’re disconnected from the community and they just don’t care,” he said.
In some senses the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of deprived young men who identify with each other, he added. Kast gave the example of how territorial markers which would usually delineate young people’s residential areas – known as ‘endz’, ‘bits’ and ‘gates’ – appear to have melted away. “On a normal day it wouldn’t be allowed – going in to someone else’s area. A lot of them, on a normal day, wouldn’t know each other and they might be fighting,” Kast said. “Now they can go wherever they want. They’re recognising themselves from the people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”