Nearly four years ago, I left South Africa for London. At the time, I saw bleak prospects for professional advancement in South Africa, and thought the future consequences of poor political leadership and the erosion in government services would make life increasingly tough. I also felt stale and needed a bit of adventure and a fresh outlook.
Since coming to London, I have witnessed the near collapse of financial systems, the onset of the Great Recession, the decline of the west’s power, and now might have a front row seat to the start of a British implosion.
In London, I ended up in the Notting Hill Gate area, close to Portobello Road. Thirty years ago this was a drug-infested area of squatters and overcrowded housing. Back in 1958 there were serious race riots in the area. The past 20 years have seen considerable gentrification, but parts remain rough. The area’s renown today is largely due to the movie “Notting Hill”, which was shot in the area, and the Portobello Saturday market.
This is a trendy, lively area with a good mix of ethnic groups and different economic classes. There are a few council estates, for those unable to afford housing, mixed among the homes of hedge fund managers, as well as a few pockets of entry level and family housing.
In the evenings the sound of Polish spoken by many builders is mixed on the streets with the clipped accents of London professionals, the Spanish and Italian of tourists, and the hoodie talk of the streets. The hoodies often go by swearing on their bikes and are sometimes to be seen walking vicious dog breeds in the streets.
While Notting Hill was spared the brunt of the violence earlier this week, there was trouble in this pleasant corner of England. Earlier this week a gang of hoodies entered a smart restaurant and demanded wallets, jewellery, and cellphones from the patrons. A gang bashed down the front door of a smart home and went on a thieving spree and managed to smash down the front door of another, but failed to gain entry. And many shop windows were smashed in the area. On the advice of police, a friend abandoned his home in the area and moved himself and his family to his mother in law’s house in a different part of town.
Days after the riots in other parts of town, this part of west London remains on edge.
On Tuesday I went on a recce around the neighbourhood and within minutes witnessed two police cars cut off a hoodie on a bike and an ensuing stop and search of the suspect. The hoodie protested, but was soon wrestled and hand-cuffed and the search of his pockets began. The stop-and-search took place right in front of a crowded pub on a busy corner. A crowd soon gathered around the police and began hurling abuse. A black lady screamed, “Why do you always stop blacks?”, and others in the middle-aged crowd hurled verbal abuse at the police as the search was underway. With nothing illegal in his pockets, the hoodie was soon released.
On Wednesday I visited a shopping centre in west London to do some chores. Soon after I arrived, I saw security guards in a state of high anxiety. Speaking into their handheld radios they rushed about and mobilised more guards and called the police. A guard had spotted suspicious youngsters in one of the clothes shops and feared that they were involved in a recce for a mob attack. Police were soon on all corners around the shopping centre and only a small door was left open through which shoppers could walk past security guards.
In west London the shops are open, but many shop and restaurant windows are boarded up, and some shopkeepers say they will not take down the boards until after the Notting Hill Carnival at the end of the month. Signs on the boards say “Open for Business as Usual”. London streets are usually quiet in August, which is when much of the upper middle-class head off to Provence or Tuscany, but this year the streets of west London seem eerily empty in parts.
Photo: Police and shoppers walk past a boarded up shop window of a shoe shop on Portobello Road. The sign reads Open for Business as Usual. (JC Katzenellenbogen)
The widespread fear is that the events in the earlier part of this week are only round one. Even with heavier policing and Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to “fight back”, the gangs of the alienated will have another shot. The rain and cold of autumn, which might put a dampener on hoodie gangs, are some weeks away and anyway having seen blood, they could go for another round.
The war against the hoodies is not something the country will be able to shrug off easily. It is not some passing episode, but could be a third front after Afghanistan and Libya. It is a war that will exact a far greater burden on government finances than the expeditionary conflicts.
“There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly, sick,” said Cameron earlier this week. There is nothing to disagree with in that statement, but the question is why and what is to be done now. For Cameron the riots and looting were about culture – not politics or poverty.
On TV the policy wonks interpret this as pointing to an underclass characterised by an absence of proper parenting, low levels of education, high unemployment, boredom and the lack of responsibility engendered from years of being members of often a third generation on benefits.
I doubt that government cuts are to blame for the riots as most have yet to take effect. Besides, government has insisted it will maintain and often increase the core services of health, education and social services. Cuts in police numbers are planned, but have yet to take place.
A more troubling explanation comes from David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham the area in which the riots started. He should know, as he was born and bred in Tottenham. Lammy said it was outsiders who started the problem and organised criminal gangs were behind the rioting and looting. It had nothing to do with protests over the police shooting of Mark Duggan, he insists.
A commentator on The Telegraph web site, Toby Young, writes that the riots were all about relations between the police and the African-Caribbean population. That’s difficult to tell at this stage as many of the rioters and looters were hooded and it was dark.
Prosecutions are rapidly taking place, but the precise demographics of those who took part in the rioting and looting remains unclear. But what is emerging is a wide and strange mixture of people and clearly not all were deprived.
“Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire’s daughter, chef and schoolboy (11)” was the headline of Thursday’s The Sun newspaper on the identity of those who had appeared in court in connection with the disturbances.
On Wednesday a 31-year-old teaching assistant was before a magistrate charged with burglary. And others have turned out to be university students. Children as young as 11 were seen on the streets and some have appeared in court. What is so frightening is that at least some of the rioters had jobs, were well beyond their twenties, hold respectable jobs and are certainly not misguided disrespectful youth.
As to the causes, listen to a group of girls interviewed by the BBC bragging about their involvement in the violence. One girl said, “It was good fun. It was madness, but it was good though.” If there was a political agenda, it was incoherent.
The girl said, “It’s the government’s fault. I don’t know. Conservatives.” Another claimed it was about, “showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
In the past, a feature of British street violence has been the appearance of activists voicing the deprivation and hopelessness their communities feel. This week this was hardly to be heard on TV and instead there were ordinary people demanding far tougher policing and calling the rioters and looters criminals.
If so, why now? One reason may well be seasonal. If there is a time for riots in the northern hemisphere this tends to be the season. Northern Ireland and Leicester have been hit in recent years in the summer time, although these incidents were fired by communal tensions.
Has the rioting this year across the globe sparked ideas in a generation glued to TV sets in the UK? The year began with the mass protests in Tunisia. Egypt followed, then Syria, Greece and then Chile. Clearly the cause of the Arab Spring is far nobler than the rioting and looting on UK streets, but nevertheless for a not too discerning audience intent on pillage such subtleties may fade.
What we do know is that those on the streets in riot-torn England this week watch a lot of television. The looting of large flat screen TV sets earlier this week was clearly a high priority. One unidentified hoodie said this week all he did is watch TV and eat.
It would also appear the police took their eye off the ball at exactly the wrong moment. When the trouble started in Tottenham there were too few police on the streets to contain the mayhem. The street-wise hoodies spotted the vacuum and seized the opportunity to start rioting and looting. And the TV-watching hoodies saw that across the land and began their copycat activities.
Whether the riots flare up again or have ended for this year, the coalition government is on the defensive. It has been unable to maintain law and order on England’s streets for however short a time, and must now prove that it’s able to do so.
In the two decades following World War II Britain had to choose between the National Health Service and an empire. It chose the National Health Service. This time it will have to choose between the high profile global role with wars in Afghanistan and Libya and perhaps future campaigns elsewhere and maintaining law and order at home. The UK is desperate to pull out of Afghanistan and maintain its global role in a far more intelligent way through cooperating with allies and exercising the soft power of cultural and diplomatic influence. The events this week will mean a far faster decline in the country’s global role than anything this government could ever have imagined.
Apart from law and order solutions such as a likely reversal of plans to cut the number of police, it is unclear what more the policy wonks can bring to bear on this problem. It is not clear how the state can really improve parenting. Like other European countries, there is still enormous support for liberal interventions to solve social problems. However, today there is simply no money to carry out any intervention that would be large and bold enough to have a chance of success.
That makes the message from the riots all the more frightening. It reinforces the writings of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was concerned about what life would be like when society breaks down. In brief, his conclusion was that it would be “poor, nasty, brutal, and short”. Britain caught a glimpse of that life this week. DM
Photo: Police stop and search a hoodie in Ladbroke Grove, west London. (JC Katzenellenbogen)
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