This short text was requested by German Wildcat magazine, amounting to a damage-limitation exercise for non-anglophone readers against the welter of German media disinformation on the riots in London and other English cities. (Prevailing line in the land of Culture and Solvency: ‘if things are really so bad there why don't they protest democratically?’). Mute readers who were here at the time and attentive to what happened may wish to skip the rudimentary chronology and/or supply a better one. The rest is a rant against all 'interpretation' of anything you weren't actually doing yourself
They are the culturally deprived of our time, and it would be unfair to mock them for their disabilities. – E.P. Thompson on the Association of Chief Police Officers, judges, Crown prosecutors etc.
Since 30 June, when a one-day strike caused mild additional disruption to parts of Britain's Public-Private administrative mash-up, trade unions have anxiously debated whether to risk another partial shut down of disciplinary machinery in schools and dole offices. But on Monday 8 August their agonising was made redundant (so to speak): a notice on the wall of Brixton JobCentrePlus announced that the interrogation rooms were 'closed due to unforeseen circumstances' and all benefits would be paid in full.
On Tuesday 9 August, hundreds of grinning young professionals (henceforth HNWI: High Net Worthlessness Individuals) appeared on the streets of Clapham Junction with brooms and rubber gloves to photograph themselves mimicking the clean-up of cleaned-out chain stores accomplished earlier that morning by outsourced municipal workers. One HNWI got herself into the national press by wearing a T-shirt bearing the hand-scrawled legend: LOOTERS ARE SCUM. Some of her fellow class clowns differed slightly on terminology, opting instead for the word TERRORISTS.
While anyone who lives in a riot zone and takes class contradictions seriously might hesitate to say what's happening, HNWIs of all kinds (thank you, 'user-generated media') are shrieking uninhibitedly for class war.
Provisional and Incomplete Chronology
Saturday evening. March from Broadwater Farm estate against the latest local killing by police, ending outside Tottenham police station.1 Four hours of what an organiser calls police ‘prevarication’ are followed by a baton attack on a 16-year old woman. Then: barricades set up, cop cars attacked, reported chants of ‘whose streets? our streets!’ (familiar from 'political' rioting since J18 1999) and ‘we want answers!’ (the immediate demand of the family and neighbourhood groups). ‘Local people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds standing together’, police ‘running and hiding’ and ‘unable to contain the crowds’. Police cars, a bus, an Aldi store and a job centre burn. But fire in a carpet showroom also destroys 30 flats above it: flats of a kind generally let by small-scale slumlords to poor and legally marginal tenants, often through the housing benefit/emergency accommodation system. Total, catastrophic ruin for the burned-out tenants. Public moralists (among whose usual targets are housing claimants and semi-legals) exalt in a ready-made emblem of the evil of rioting in general.
Late Saturday night. After a long standoff with police on Tottenham High Road (shop fronts smashed and small businesses wrecked, but limited local scope for high-value looting), some groups move on to big retail complexes (chain stores with electronic goods, clothes etc.) at Tottenham Hale (nearby) and Wood Green (a few kilometres away). Less confrontation with cops; more systematic appropriation of stuff.
Sunday afternoon. Brixton Splash (mini-Carnival event with sound systems etc.) policed heavily and nervously; 3 cops injured in one ‘incident’, but crowd mostly disperses.
Early evening. In Enfield (north of Tottenham) and across nearby suburbs: formation of groups for brief skirmishing with police; sporadic shop invasions.
Midnight-3am. Long after crowd-control cops have left Brixton, small groups from around the area (and a large one from the Moorlands estate) gradually converge for methodical attack on high-yielding shops.
Monday. Complete lockdown of Tottenham and Brixton; meanwhile, from afternoon onwards, ‘disorder’ spreads in all directions across London then outside it. Hackney (see below), Islington, Lewisham, Peckham (cops attacked with fireworks), Catford, Brent Cross, Croydon (shop fires destroy more low-income housing; retail chains looted; Sky News van attacked), Ealing (shop/housing fires on smaller scale than Tottenham/Croydon; one man beaten to death), Camden, Clapham Junction (retail looting; burning barricades but little direct police confrontation; kids reported shouting ‘you are rich, we are poor’ at HNWI), Notting Hill (raid on ‘Michelin-starred gastropub diners’, who are upset by ‘all that cheese ruined by broken glass’), Enfield (Sony media warehouse burned). Except in Hackney police are rarely pushed back as in Tottenham, but can't keep up with spread and speed of events. Outside London, one police station burns in Harmondsworth (Birmingham) and another is attacked in Nottingham; shop-smashing and ‘disturbances’ in West Bromwich, Bristol, Toxteth (Liverpool), Chapeltown (Leeds), and Medway.
Tuesday. Inner London held down by huge police mobilisation, with thousands of cops brought in from other areas; some ‘looting and vandalism’ in outer suburbs. ‘Running battles’ between police and crowds combined with smashing/looting of shops from afternoon onwards in Birmingham2, Manchester/Salford, West Bromwich, Liverpool/Birkenhead and Nottingham (three police stations targeted; another firebombed the next day); smaller outbreaks in other towns.
This chronology is extremely reductive and is skewed by uneven availability of first hand observation or trusted reports. (In particular, events outside London are under-represented: this definitely does NOT reflect lesser scale or importance.) But it should at least be clear that several distinct (though not neatly separable) practices have constituted what most media indifferently describe as ‘rioting’. The ‘riots’ have included some episodes of street fighting with police – or ‘reclaiming streets’ as some participants have risked describing it – with participation not restricted to tight networks of acquaintance (e.g. Tottenham, Hackney). There have also been instances of what seems to be tightly organised appropriation, often late at night, of expensive goods from large, closed retail outlets (e.g. Wood Green, Brixton, Clapham Junction). Then, with the explosion of events across London and England on Monday and Tuesday, there are far more cases where it's unclear from any distance how these tendencies combined. It’s worth insisting, though, that no sentimental story about good ‘political’ street fighting on one hand and nasty nihilistic looting on the other can be made to fit the actual distribution of various kinds of violence. The fires that created mass homelessness were lit during the most ‘political’ stage of confrontation in Tottenham, and then in Croydon in a situation that appears (from limited and dubious reports) to have combined street fighting and shop raiding. The Hackney events, about which there are multiple reports of an exuberant, unthreatening atmosphere on the streets and an explicit sense of class vindication, also involved the emptying and wrecking of small shops and threatening of workers and/or owners.3 Conversely the ‘mindless’ late-night looting in Brixton – more or less an invitation-only affair in which cops were eluded rather than fought with – was scrupulously targeted, hitting large or high-end retailers and the cash reserves (real or imagined) of betting shops and a ‘payday loan’ merchant charging 2000+% interest. This is not to say small and ‘local’ businesses were left alone out of any solidarity: just that they were ignored along with other low-yielding targets (yuppie niche retailers and bars; all but one of the area's countless real estate agents) in the course of getting the job done.
The various elements may have intersected in more complex ways elsewhere, but these cases roughly illustrate the range of activity elided under the label ‘rioting’ by cheerleaders for punishment and liberal empathisers alike.4(A very subjective impression from conversations in Brixton – mostly with older people, including potentially lootable shopworkers/keepers – is that failure to differentiate between the elements of ‘rioting’ is not the norm where things are seen from close up. Nobody wanted destruction of homes or small businesses; nobody wanted punitive police raids on their kids; some saw the whole thing as sad, frightening and counterproductive; others wanted the attack to shift to ‘deserving’ targets in the West End.) It's important to reject the elision of brick throwing, luxury looting, shop wrecking, house burning and personal assault into the single category of ‘rioting’ – and of all ‘rioters’ into a single collective subject – because this rhetorical device is also a matter of police (broad sense) procedure. Since the middle of the week armed units have been breaking down doors and courts have been running 24 hours in a round-up of anyone associated by surveillance technology or reputation with the events in general. ‘Riot’ involvement is officially an ‘aggravating factor’, so that any technical offence will do for any prisoner, as it can then be scaled up to serious criminal level: walking into a broken shop is 'burglary'; the mother of a child who brings home some looted clothing gets six months jail (which in practice means loss of job/benefits, housing and children, who will be taken into ‘care’).
This drive to isolate a sub-class and punish it indiscriminately is mentioned not because it's shocking or exceptional but because it is normal. The present policing spectacle draws temporary attention to a process going on for years, in which the working class in the broadest sense is divided into an ‘aspirational’ and ‘hard-to-reach’/‘antisocial’ components through concentrated use of punitive machinery against the latter.5 Thus Wandsworth (London) borough council is trying to evict a whole family on the grounds that one child has been charged with – not convicted of – ‘riot-related’ offences. This combination of wartime-style collective reprisal and disregard for the legal presumption of innocence would be struck down by any court, but it’s standard procedure across the outsourced ‘social’ housing and welfare systems. These agencies are perfectly suited to the work of class-specific extrajudicial punishment: they deal almost exclusively with the targeted sub-class, and are not subject to criminal standards of proof. Evictions for ‘antisocial behaviour’ based on unsubstantiated tip-offs happen all the time, but in the absence of a riot there’s nothing newsworthy about them, let alone about the fact that constantly being profiled, monitored and corrected as a human ‘risk factor’ is something you can only escape by buying your way out. Perpetual pre-emptive street policing of particular race, class and age groups is only the most visible aspect of a wider process of class decomposition.6
Comment on subjective factors should be left exclusively to the subjects in question, although this right has already been usurped by countless social ventriloquists. The most it's possible to say here is that some members of a class subjected to intensive and invasive management refused at specific times and in various ways to be managed or manageable. The collective work of rioting requires (and generates) intense solidarity at particular moments, but in this case neither the temporal duration of that solidarity nor its extent across a wider class was spelled out and submitted for the approval of those not present. For some reason no rioters were tempted to use forms of political protest they have seen defeated and redefeated throughout living memory.
1 Demonstrations of this kind – especially but not only at Tottenham, Stoke Newington and Brixton police stations – happen almost as regularly as deaths in custody. The campaigns are generally led by family and friends of those killed and by long-term local activists (quite distinct from 'community leaders'), with due suspicion of leftist political interference. But they are NEVER (at least in my experience back to the mid-1990s) ‘racially’ or otherwise socially exclusive. Some non-opportunist 'left' groups, e.g. Haringey Solidarity, have a long history of involvement.
2 Three men were killed here by a hit-and-run driver while guarding a family business: the relation between the killing and wider events is regarded by as uncertain by victims’ families, who urgently refused ‘retaliation’ and inter-community war.
3 Disputed Marxist doctrine on small shopkeepers etc. as capitalists and/or labourers-for-creditors is not unimportant, but is unlikely to have been consulted that evening.
4 The Guardian newspaper is full of comments to the effect that ‘I don't condone violence but...I told you this would happen if you defunded my paternalistic “mentoring” programme’.
5 See previous Wildcat reports e.g. Clinical Wasteman, ‘Unlimited Liability or Nothing to Lose?’, http://www.metamute.org/en/articles/unlimited_liability_or_nothing_to_lose
6 The sharp statistical increase in the ‘racially’ concentrated use of invasive, pre-emptive powers since the riots of 1981 and 1985 is documented but has largely gone unreported. Similar statistics regarding class are non-existent, as no such question is included in the ‘diversity’ questionnaire you're made to answer after being stopped and searched.