I was in Hackney when I got the text, on my way to an organising meeting on local responses to the riots/uprisings. Police vans were cruising up and down Dalston High Street, nervous shopkeepers were standing in doorways and hipster NGO/graphic designer types were sinking pints outside a trendy pub. “Deptford Community defence meeting outside Ladbrokes on the high street @ 8.30 – to put out fires should they occur.”
I made a U-turn and got there early. I used to live in Hackney but moved to a housing co-op in central Lewisham last year. Deptford is down the road from me. About five months ago, local activists squatted an empty ex-job centre on Deptford High Street and re-named it “Social Centre Plus”. It held film nights, art exhibitions, anti-cuts organising meetings and we had an a walk-in advice centre for workers and unemployed. It eventually got evicted and demolished.
When I got to Deptford High Street everything was boarded up or shuttered down. Virtually no one aside from some jerkily-walking junkies was out. And the cops. Loads of cops. In borrowed vans – one from the local council, with a bizarre scrawled big red heart on the side, some undercover in unmarked cars and some in lights-flashing riot vans. But they kept on coming, a patrol every five minutes, streets on lock down. A helicopter shuddered its way over to Greenwich. A queue gathered outside the only off licence still open. Everyone’s eyes were on the side-streets.
Deptford High Street had already seen a spate of looting on Monday, the Gregg’s bakery got ransacked first and some cash machines and a Tesco got their glass bashed in. A couple of the 11 – that’s right, 11 – bookies also got a kicking. The fear tonight was that people living above shops might find themselves burnt out if whatever was below them was worth smashing into. There’d be no tears shed for the banks and bookies, but people’s’ homes were a red line.
100 of us ended up congregating outside the Ladbrokes, some with flasks of tea and biscuits, others with beer. All of us were local. Some “street pastors” stopped by, walking the talk, calm and gracious, protected by nothing but fleeces with “Street Pastor” written on the back. Some local folk used to spending a lot of time in the streets also joined us, dead sceptical at first, challenging us, and quizzing us on what we were doing and what we really thought about the riots.
All of them said they saw it coming and most said it was necessary and “liberal means of change don’t work”. They challenged us on why we talked about about what “they”, the “rioters” and “them” should do – “Why is it ‘them’ that are going to make a change or take risks?” They asked: “What about you? Where are you in this?”
We caught up on all the news – Peckham and Brixton and Tottenham mainly. A “take”, one massive “take”, that’s what was going on. The police had lost control. Everything was out of control, up for grabs, all bets were off. The streets had been coursing with a power that was by turn raucous, energised, festive and euphoric, or menacing, threatening.
A couple of friends were mugged in a park in Hackney, a friend of a friend saw his flat go up in flames in Clapham, lost everything, while others in Croydon couldn’t even get home. Some said some Brixton boys were running with their shooters out all giddy, others saw telly after telly leave Curry’s under the arms of sprinting youth. Fear-lines had been breached, anything felt possible, the “invisible” were setting the agenda. One young girl said: “We are making history like them people in the history books, you speak loud, people will hear you, we need to be heard and this is our time, this is our time.”
We held a flash consultation shout-out for what a banner should say. Consensus produced in rainbow Goldsmiths art student lettering: “DEPTFORD UNITED – YOU’RE INVITED”. We hung it on some metal shop shutters.
The police cruised by and concluded “you’re the nice people”, whatever that meant. Reports of not so “nice” people were coming through though – a group of a few hundred EDL were marching through Lewisham and were coming our way. A police officer confirmed it was actually Millwall (probably EDL too – the network being in large part organised and sustained through football firms) and that they’d been moved off by the police towards Woolwich.
One of the SolFed (Solidarity Federation) organisers clapped his hands and got everyone’s beer-fuzzy attention. “It’s all alright that we’re here in the streets tonight but we need to do more than drink and chat, we need to have a discussion”. A black woman in her 30s took up her voice and talked about life in the ghetto, that what was going on was a response to that and that when this was over, we’d still be in the ghetto, and how do we get out of the ghetto for real?
Others talked about the dismantling of the NHS, how we need to fight for it, stop it being looted by private companies for profit when it’s ours and belongs to us. Others talked about the need to get organised in unions, the need for solidarity.
As sirens blared in the distance and the acrid smell of something going up in smoke wafted over us, we agreed to have an emergency demo the following the day, to make it political, what we were feeling, seeing, doing, responding to, to take back what the Sun and Mirror and Cameron and every po-faced commentator on the TV was saying – “this is not political”, “this is crime, pure and simple” – to reclaim the discourse around the resistance on the streets, away from the far right and establishment, not to co-opt it or “represent it”, but to start being political about the causes of it, to take the focus away from the symptoms to the actual causes: the lack of power, the lack of direct and participatory democracy, the lack of dignity, justice, “real life” – not just struggle and struggle and struggle.
We agreed to meet at 1pm on the corner again, make a flier and give it out to all the market traders on the High Street and tweet it out, Facebook it, email it, ring it round and text it large to everyone we knew.
We made it back to the streets and took them from Deptford to Lewisham Town Hall. Banners were up from the Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance and the anarchist Solidarity Federation; Socialist Workers Party papers for sale all over the place, and a fair few people were wearing trade union T-shirts. There were around 150-200 of us. Kids on rollerblades swerved between us and in and out of us, running rings round the police horses flanking us. We were mostly a mix of local activists, but passers-by did join us, motorists honked their horns in approval and people waved from their windows and out of pub terraces.
There was a tense moment when we passed by a mosque and some of those attending thought we might be the English Defence League or even NF (chants of N-N...N-H-S! could have started off sounding really wrong...).
We had megaphone melt-down – literally, the batteries combusted – from being continuously passed from hand to hand, for chants of “No Ifs, No Buts, No Public Sector Cuts”, “No Justice, No Peace”, “Blame the Government, Not Our Kids” (the most popular one), “No War On The Poor”, and going past Lewisham Hospital – set for privatisation – “NHS, we love you, we won’t let them privatise you”. Outside the Town Hall we spoke out on the £88m to be axed from Lewisham council’s budget over the next three years, losing more than 350 council jobs and shutting youth, pensioner and unemployed services and almost every library in the borough.
On the way home, groups of boisterous kids were zooming by on bikes yelling: “Blame the government!”. Later on, friends would witness a march of 30 black youths chanting “Peaceful march. We’re defending our community” being kettled by the police. They’d come out in response to reports of hundreds of EDL supporters marching in near-by Eltham.
Opportunity knocks us
The (narrow) spectrum of political opinion and representation in the mainstream media and even on the left independent media exposes the power dynamic that sustains it. It is overwhelmingly white privileged, public school, and upper-middle class and it is utterly dislocated from working class and underclass conditions in this country.
Labelling the rioters “thugs, thieves, morons, criminals” is nothing new to the ears of many youth who hear this every time they go out in a group or gang, just walking down the street, or getting stopped by the police. Using this language to shame or separate or condemn reinforces the problem of alienation, stereotyping and the restriction of youth identity and agency.
The liberal sentiment of “these people don’t have opportunity, they don’t feel part of their community, that’s why they’re smashing it up” is flawed. Since when was Primark, Footlocker and Tesco “part of the community”? Whose community?
The mass-scale looting of commodities – bling, clothes, wealth and status symbols reads like a form of neo-liberal Stockholm syndrome, where hostages come to care for their captors. At the same time it is contradicting it, biting the hand that feeds this false power. That this is where we have been conditioned to believe power lies – commodities, symbols, symbolic power - shows us how little real power is accessible to us, and that whether that consumer status symbol is bought or stolen, it has more power over us than we have over it, because it’s power is illusory, distracting, it doesn’t translate into real, lived, influential power.
That kind of power takes organisation, that power isn’t and cannot be commodified, it’s the kind of power that comes through some kind of organised self-representation. That kind of power can be inter-generational, but it needs spaces and bases and structures and co-ordination, as well as memory and history and vision that isn’t co-opted by those who would seek to reproduce the system we have, only to be a token within it, a “community leader” courted, wined, dined and patronised.
Mark Duggan is being mourned. Grief for him joins the grief of families who have lost 330 relatives at the hands of the police since 1998. The fact that no officer has ever been convicted of murder, and inquests return verdicts of “unlawful killing” and “manslaughter” instead, flies in the face of justice for the victims or any social change on the ground.
Positive change can emerge from what we’ve been witnessing and what some have been participating in. The issues that these riots/uprisings have thrown up about capitalism, government, work, home, family, and power need opening up, not shutting down.
In terms of “has this peaked?”, the street tactics have been all about creating moments and opportunities and have been highly decentralised and autonomous. If the goal is largely smash, grab and go along with some more overtly anti-police action, then it’s a momentum that’s unsustainable, reliant as it is on shock and the unpreparedness of local people and police to respond. 16,000 police were occupying London; if it got bigger, the army could be called in, and then what? If this has exposed so much of what’s wrong and broken, then how can we start organising together for alternatives, and fast?
If we want to stop history repeating itself – riots every decade – followed by recuperation, some compensation, heavy sentences, independent enquiries, new old racisms, a new sports centre and some new faces in parliament – then we need to start building social bases for fundamental change, fundamental transformation of how and who has wealth, power, and agency: talking and organising on the causes of the symptoms we’re seeing. More of us on the streets, challenging fear and the fear of each other; challenging crime, organising more community, more solidarity, more coming together. There is an opening here and a glimpse of what we can expect to see more of – community – but also repression, less agency, more division, more criminalisation if we don’t change the system we are reproducing on a daily basis.