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January 10, 2012
January 10, 2012

To Riot

Author: anonymous
This article is also available in: eles
To Riot

I am not for or against it. I am it.”

Howe, 2011 [1]

To riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.”

Žižek, 2011[2]

Rather than yet another generalising analysis of the London riots, their causes and concerns, this is my own subjective statement, a declaration of my relation to the conditions of actions in public space that I experience in London, and the conditions I experienced during those days in August 2011. I do this both because there are already some excellent written and spoken analyses [3] to which I have little to add, but mainly because I would rather not be embroiled in the task of explaining and judging the conditions and actions of others, balancing each word to make sure it remains within the acceptable and politically correct. The riots, a spontaneous, dispersed and diverse series of events, are all too easily instrumentalised for political aims that in one way or another reduce what happened. This text is therefore the mere fragment that is my experiences in those days and in London more generally.

Not Our People.

This was both about Mark Duggan and it was not … just as the recent rebellions in Oakland in 2009 were both about more than Oscar Grant, just as 2008 Athens was about more than Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 1992 L.A. was about more than Rodney King, the 1965 Watts Rebellion about more than Marquette Frye…

Ciccariello-Maher, 2011 [4]

On the Monday, the third day of riots, when the eruptions had spread from Tottenham and Enfield to the borough of Hackney where I live, I was told by someone, who had recently participated in the student demonstrations, not to go out because “these are not our people”. But I did go out. Firstly, because the police had killed Mark Duggan and looked like they were once again going to get away with it[5], and this made me angry, so if the people on the streets were also angry, then yes, they are my people. And secondly because the eruptions in the streets had been spreading from place to place over the last two days and were now looking like a response to more than the one killing, so I wanted to hear what people were saying on the streets.

“These are not our people”. This person’s comment expressed a sentiment that was not uncommon amongst what I heard from the political Left in the days of the riots. It reflects an intense but often ignored class and race segregation in England that runs deep both historically and materially and psychologically. It goes for not only the Right but also much of the Left that there are those who are a legitimate part of social and political life, and act accordingly, and those who “are not our people”. They are the “feral youth”, the gangs and the underclasses of England, whether black, brown or white. This underclass is supposedly irrational, they don’t know what is best for themselves and they are governed by “base instincts” rather than “rational motivations”. It is a suffocating condition. A pressure cooker of antagonism. And I was left wondering why so many people were surprised that riots had finally broken out.

The supposed irrationality of the rioters was finally challenged, at least slightly, when interviews and comments from “the youth” and people had taken part in those days and nights started to trickle through on youtube and facebook[6]. One comment of a person speaking to an ITV journalist[7]:

“You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?… Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

The next evening I read some status updates of some of my “friends” on facebook and saw some saying things like “send in the army and gas them all!” Disgusted, I thought about their responses, watched the news and realised that these TV screens, full of burning police cars and trashed buildings, overshadowed the triviality of many of the situations on the streets. What looked like an urban war on the screen was at times an almost calm suspension of law and order, the goods simply being there, free to take, with what seemed like no consequences at the time. People were meandering in the streets, one or two clashes and then the deserted shops, the burning cars left to warm people chatting about what was happening, some getting drunk, some arguing and discussing and other people picking up what they figured they needed, a can of beer, a TV, some cigarettes, diapers, crisps.

When the trials began in the subsequent weeks, it became clear that the looters had included people of all classes and backgrounds, and were not limited to the “feral youth” category of the English working class that had been blamed for the “mindless destruction”. In other words, the looting had been done by anyone, people simply thinking, “why not?” The window is already smashed, and I kind of want those trainers, everyone else is doing it, so why not? The hypocrisy of my facebook “friends” was evident. It might as well have been them. But in the end, it was those who are “not our people” who got the blame and provided the excuse to call these events a non-political lashing out of mindless thugs and criminals [8].

Not Political.

These are not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers.”

Bauman, 2011[9]

Bauman’s analysis forgets the other half of the story, that defective and disqualified consumers are also defective and disqualified producers. In other words the notion of the rioters being out of control consumers that just “want, want, want” – whatever the social cost – is a skewed analysis. It turns the actions into an individualistic pursuit and places the blame on the selfishness and base materialistic desires of the individual rather than recognising the (non)working conditions of an increasing amount of people in the country and the nihilist and no-future condition of the young: under suspicion in any public space, nowhere to go[10] and a future of unemployment or wasting life and energy on a shit job for shit pay. Instead, the majority of statements in the media, from all political spectrums, dismissed the rioters as selfish consumer thugs and the mantra “this is not political” was repeated over and over.

But the politics was everywhere, present in the discussions happening on every street corner about what the police had done in the neighbourhood, what the government had done to the education system and what the bankers had done to society. Politics was also present in the smiling faces behind bandanas, balaclavas and headscarves, an excitement and joy that I have never experienced on the streets of London before. I was on Clarence Road in Hackney, and the police were being pushed back and repeatedly challenged. At one point a police car was spotted down the road and half of the people ran towards it, jumped on top of the car and threw things at it until it sped up and escaped the scene. People had taken the streets. This was not a symbolic “taking the streets” of demonstrations in which permissions are granted by the correct authorities, safety and property laws respected etc. This was a territorial taking over of the streets in which the forces of the state no longer had control. And it was liberating. There could be no bystanders, everyone saw each other and you had to get involved, talk to people, participate in some way or another. Politics was everywhere. In the anger that was vented to the police, the shouts of previous abuse and repression, the discussions and arguments between people about the most efficient ways to react, the challenges to those who came to just watch and take pictures…

An essay by Christos Filippidis[11] describes the de-politicising apparatus of media discourse following the riots in Greece after the police killed Alexandros Grigolopulos in 2008. He describes how the city during the revolt was conceived as an urban jungle and how the jungle, the wild and primitive, had been associated with the impossibility of politics and therefore beyond comprehension, something to be repressed, cleared away, or eradicated. This was very similar to what was happening in London in those days and the fear that the irrationality of the urban jungle would take over entirely meant many people stayed inside in fear. But Filippidis then goes on to refute the basis of these assumptions, beginning with the notion of the jungle as pre-political. In Hackney I saw a few distinctly middle class people out with camera in hand, a “safari” through the jungle to get some “good shots” of the “animals”. Most of the “animals” were smarter than that and would either steal the cameras which would otherwise incriminate them or simply make sure the safari tourist knew it was time to go. The usual segregation of this area in which young black kids are too frequently harassed by the police and where gang violence has resulted in too many deaths while white internationals can take advantage of the resulting low rents, but are otherwise unaffected by these conditions, was temporarily suspended. Everyone saw each other. And in one way or another, you had to show which side you were on.

Not Me.

“The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out.” …

Žižek [12]

A suffocating condition. And the riots were liberating to me. I know that there will be those who read this that will disagree with me and some will probably be very angry. Angry that I have anything positive to say about events that involved the destruction of some people’s livelihoods, that involved the deaths of five people. But this is a description of my experiences in those days, my subjective statement, and no single person’s statement will be able to capture what happened in those days. There was no unified group that acted and therefore no single social group can be held responsible for every act that was committed. To speak about the rioters having no programme – in fact to name “the rioters” as if they were a coherent group is a flaw in itself, but nevertheless Žižek’s point about a “blind acting out” as the “only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus” describes well the liberating feeling I had when I went out: This was a (re)action that made no demands and asked for no dialogue with a system that would not change regardless. Žižek speaks of a society that celebrates choice, but one can add to that, a society that marvels in its democratic openness refusing any flaws, repressing anyone who dares critique its framework or reveal their suffering within this supposedly reasonable and rational system. One can freely demonstrate in this country, but only in the designated areas, at the designated time and in an orderly fashion. Because in that way, traffic can be redirected so as not to inconvenience to anyone, health and safety and public order can be upheld, commerce can continue unhindered and society can generally go on, ignorant and unchanged by any protest or event. The boundaries of legitimate action are heavily guarded. And when broken, there will be public moral hysteria resulting in severe punishments [13].

I overheard a discussion on the streets between one guy and a priest next to a burning car that went something like this: “Do you think that when the slaves rose up in Haiti that it was done peacefully?” This is not to say that riots is the one thing that can change everything, but rather that, sometimes, it is the only thing that signifies a refusal to communicate on the terms which are forced upon us. While inequality is a blatant and irrefutable fact, only increasing, people nevertheless refuse to make any connection between that and the riots. Instead, there are calls for higher punishments, increased security, and my housemate even suggested we put bars in front of our ground floor windows. I was reminded of a text written in the days after the riots by a friend who had recently moved back to Brazil:

…why is it that what is crystal clear for people in the global North when talking about the global South seems so difficult to process when it happens ‘at home’? Ask any relatively well-informed British citizen about violence in Brazil, and they are likely to tell you something about unequal wealth distribution, lack of opportunities, or even how the drug traffic goes to places where the state has never been, how many young men see carrying a gun as the only way to earn a sense of worth and respect, how the police make matters worse by being widely perceived as corrupt and prejudiced, and how the political system mostly reproduces this situation.

Orangoquango, 2011 [14]

In the meantime, back in London, police patrol the streets, helicopters and chinuks hover above the city, and parents in the borough of Hackney are receiving letters and text messages from the council, urging them to keep control of their children. The police have gathered every single piece of CCTV camera footage from both council and private security cameras and comparing with mainstream media and youtube video footage [15]. They are backtracking the steps of each individual involved in those days, tracing them back to any moment in which they are unmasked in order to register their identities. Thousands have been arrested. Convictions have been unprecedented in severity[16]. The space for discussion is shut tight. Like the thousands who took to the streets, whether arrested or not, I therefore say I was “never there”, I “didn’t see anything” and you will not know my name.

 

[1] Darcus Howe, speaking about the London riots at the anarchist book fair 22nd October 2011

[2] Slavoy Zizek http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite (Accessed 09.10.2011)

[3] See for example:

Mohammed Abbas and Kate Holton http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/08/09/uk-britain-riot-contrast-idUKTRE7785XQ20110809 (Accessed 18.10.2011)

George Ciccariello-Maher http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/08/12/planet-of-slums-age-of-riots/ (Accessed 17.10.2011)

Paul Gilroy on the riots, August 2011, Tottenham, North London, August 16, 2011

http://dreamofsafety.blogspot.com/2011/08/paul-gilroy-speaks-on-riots-august-2011.html (Accessed 18.10.2011)

BBC interview with Darcus Howe, for which BBC had to apologies for after for their accusations of Darcus Howe for being a rioter http://youtu.be/biJgILxGK0o

And for a relatively comprehensive list of reporting and analysis see: http://www.metamute.org/en/news_and_analysis/riot_round_up

(Accessed 10.10.2011)

[4] George Ciccariello-Maher http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/08/12/planet-of-slums-age-of-riots/ (Accessed 10.10.2011)

[5] See for example http://inquest.gn.apc.org/website/statistics/deaths-in-police-custody (Accessed 18.10.2011)

http://www.minorityperspective.co.uk/2011/04/13/black-deaths-in-police-custody-we-should-never-forget/ (Accessed 15.10.2011)

http://www.obv.org.uk/news-blogs/demetre-fraser-outrage-new-death-police-custody

http://www.injusticefilm.co.uk/ (Accessed 18.10.2011)

[6] See for example

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/video/2011/sep/05/why-i-rioted-video

(Accessed 18.10.2011)

http://youtu.be/Zmo8DG1gno4 (Accessed 18.10.2011)

http://youtu.be/gYvc0B9QY-c (Accessed 18.09.2011)

[7] George Ciccariello-Maher http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/08/12/planet-of-slums-age-of-riots/ (Accessed 10.10.2011)

[8] This was the general discourse of mainstream media. David Cameron stated: “This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8691034/London-riots-Prime-Ministers-statement-in-full.html (Accessed 20.10.2011)

“These riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores, not parliament. And these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this. No, this was about behaviour.” David Cameron

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/15/david-cameron-riots-broken-society (Accessed 20.10.2011)

The usual story that was reported in those days was that a small demonstration about Mark Duggans death was hijacked by looters and thugs when they took advantage of the situation.

http://uk.tv.ibtimes.com/london-riots-are-opportunistic-not-political-journalist/1561.html (Accessed 20.10.2011)

http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3291677.htm (Accessed 20.10.2011)

[9] Zygmundt Bauman http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/ (Accessed 09.10.2011)

[10] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/video/2011/jul/31/haringey-youth-club-closures-video (Accessed 18.10.2011)

[11] Filippidis, C. (2011) The polis-jungle, magical densities and the survival guide of the enemy within. In Dalakoglou, D. and Vradis, A. (Ed.) Revolt and Crisis in Greece. Athens and Baltimore: AK press

[12] Slavoy Zizek http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite (Accessed 09.09.2011)

[13] See for example:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024605/UK-riots-Daniel-Sartain-Clarkes-family-evicted-Wandsworth-Council.html (Accessed 17.10.2011)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/12/london-riots-wandsworth-council-eviction (Accessed 17.10.2011)

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/facebook-rioters-who-incited-disorder-have-appeals-rejected-2372578.html (Accessed 17.10.2011)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/18/riots-lengthy-sentences-upheld-appeal-court?newsfeed=true (Accessed 17.10.2011)

[14] Orangoquango http://orangoquango.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/the-other-side-of-%E2%80%98we%E2%80%99re-all-in-it-together%E2%80%99/ (Accessed 09.10.2011)

[15] My housemate had his camera stolen during the riots. He reported it in order to claim his insurance money, and since then has been rung up by the police on a weekly basis who told him the progress they were making in gathering CCTV footage and tracing the movements of each individual during the riots.

[16] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/18/editorial-sentencing-rioters-alarming-benchmark (Accessed 17.10.2011)

 

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