Hard News by Russell Brown


London's Burning

I have been caught up, as a spectator, in two full-scale riots in my life: one that exploded from a huge march against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax, and the one in Aotea Square, whose conditions were clumsily contrived by inept policing and, I think, a public sullenness cultivated in the Muldoon years. In both, violence was directed outwards: they were surprisingly safe places to be if you kept clear of the police.

In both, I recall the shock of seeing flames; a few licks in the old information centre on the edge of Aotea Square, a big blaze rushing up scaffolding overlooking Trafalgar Square. There's something primal about that sight -- both terrifying and, let's be honest, exhilarating. The kids on the streets of London, Birmingham and wherever else now are high as kites on it.

But there is something unprecedented about the British riots. Thanks to the same communications tools we lauded through the Arab Spring -- although it appears London's are the Blackberry Riots rather than the Twitter Revolution -- everywhere is localised. The looters are smashing into shops and taking more of the same, shiny tools.

They're also destroying their own neighbourhoods. I felt angry last night when I read about youth walking into Brixton and asking indignant locals for directions to the banks and the jewellers. Fuck you, I thought. That was where I lived, where I bought my vegetables from market barrows.

In Brixton and Peckham, gentrified terraces sit alongside some hard, hard council estates. Ten years ago, the last time I was back, it looked like a triumph of consumerism: black, white and brown people trailed out of the Ikea in Croydon with their kitchen units and shelving. Tonight in Croydon, a big furniture shop is burning like a hellmouth.

My old friend Stella Duffy, the novelist, kicked off the #NotLondonRiots hashtag on Twitter in an attempt to demonstrate that the vast majority of the city was simply going about its business on a summer evening -- thereby to deprive the Daily Mail of popular fuel. But the impression is that this could happen anywhere, and there are not enough police to stop it.

These are not, contrary to the ragings of any number of Twitter bigots, race riots. There are enough pictures of white kids smashing windows to show that. In Tottenham, there were Hassidim standing outside their houses jeering the cops.

I'm hardly qualified to speculate on which this has happened now, but it seems obvious that much of the property crime is simply opportunist. There is not the same sense of life under heavy manners as there was in the Thatcher years -- but youth unemployment is at record highs and social services have been slashed. It doesn't seem entirely accidental that people are helping themselves to the lifestyle goods they've been constantly urged to buy.

There may be -- as was the case in the Brixton riots of the early 1980s -- genuine grievances against the police. There is certainly, as various experts told The Guardian, a developing issue of long-term social exclusion. But the vast majority of Londoners, even in the blighted areas, are not smashing windows and setting fires.

Even if the violence stops now, it's going to take a long time to recover -- longer, probably, than London has before it hosts the Olympic Games. With the money markets up in their own kind of flames, it seems a long way from here to the world joining in peaceful, corporate-sponsored competition.

The major newspapers are, of course, all over events. You can also watch live BBC pictures here.

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