Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Some observations on the riots

Last Saturday afternoon I took a stroll down Clarence Road in Hackney. Having travelled down from West Yorkshire we were en route into central London to show my three-year old son around the capital for the first time in his short life.

I have largely good memories of Clarence Road, it runs down the side of Pembury Estate and I worked on it for many years during the 1990s - even occasionally getting paid for my ‘co-ordinating’ efforts - at the Colin Roach Centre. [see
This was an unfunded radical centre that had originally opened after the council took away the funding at my workplace, the Hackney Trade Union Support Unit, and rather than see it close down it was merged with Hackney Community Defence Association [HCDA] that had been formed in 1988 to successfully oppose the criminal - including drug dealing - and brutal activities of the police. Prominent within HCDA was Celia Stubbs, the partner of Blair Peach who was killed by the police in Southall in 1979.

Colin was a young black man shot dead in Stoke Newington Police Station in January 1983, sparking a campaign that achieved much but has still failed to catch what most then and now believe are the cops who killed him. That’s the problem with cops who kill - they get away with it. In 1995 David Ewin, who wasn’t a nice man, was shot dead in Hammersmith. His wife, Sarah, a lovely woman and fresh with a little baby approached the centre to seek support. It’s a long story but for the first time ever a police officer was charged with murder in the execution of his duty. Patrick Hodgson was strange man; he’d been a firearms officer for many years and yet had failed to move up the ranks.

As Ewin, who was driving a stolen car, had clearly been blocked in on all sides by police officers in cars he could not possibly have escaped. Whereas his partner PC Patrick Kelly did not even take out his gun Hodgson felt it necessary to shoot the unarmed man. He died two weeks later.

Despite the evidence it was still something of a shock when Hodgson was charged with murder and plenty of people accompanied Sarah to witness proceedings at the highest court in the land, the Old Bailey, where as you’d imagine security was tight.

Hodgson was absolutely hopeless in the witness box, sweating profusely and constantly contradicting himself. It actually looked like the Jury would have no other option except to find him guilty when two people in the public gallery jumped up towards the end of the trial to accuse Hodgson of knowing beforehand who Ewin was. It all meant the trial was stopped and a re-trial was ordered, costing of course thousands of pounds. Those who caused this? They walked unopposed past security and out into the street. There were CCTV camera’s everywhere and it was clear that catching them wouldn’t have been that difficult - after all some people even knew who they were - but that never happened.

Even then Hodgson wasn’t off the hook, he did a little better the second time round but the majority of the Jury didn’t believe him and unable to reach a verdict it passed to another Old Bailey hearing, where the police officer got third time lucky. Watching Hodgson leave court he wore the grin of someone who had ‘got away with it’ and he had!

Now I have no way of knowing the exact circumstances in which Tottenham’s Mark Duggan was shot dead, but when I heard press reports that suggested police had been fired upon I instinctively knew this was a lie. And this might be difficult for those who have respect for the police, so did thousands of other people in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community. When less than 200 hundred turned out to demand answers and after standing outside Tottenham Police Station for five hours got none it was already clear that a cover-up was underway.

Now for most, the vast majority of people, that wouldn’t matter. After all the most popular paper in the UK remains The Sun newspaper with its celebrity glorification and constant condemnation of anything that might, even insignificantly, threaten the rights of the rich and powerful.

After all wasn’t Duggan another ‘bad un?’ Seems like it, and therefore so what if he was shot dead, whatever the circumstances? Let the family go away and spend years - perhaps like Celia Stubbs decades - trying to get to the truth? 

Duggan’s death now does matter to people. Of course not the actual death itself, but because of the looting and rioting that has gone on since - culminating it appears with the tragedy in which three Birmingham men from the Asian community, knocked over whilst defending their communities, have been killed. Let’s hope it doesn’t prevent others taking to the streets to defend themselves as clearly no one can support ordinary working people being terrorised by gangs that are now out of control.

None of which means it’s impossible to understand - at least, in part - why people are indulging in criminal behaviour and why the likes of Cameron, Clegg, the popular press or the establishment TV station, the BBC, and certainly not the police can provide the solutions as for them it simply means - at best - a return to the status quo in which inequalities across society continue to increase. [As an aside - one which is now in fact threatening the whole capitalist system as the logic is that eventually, even in developed countries, those at the very bottom won’t have the money to spend on goods which producers need to sell in order to exist. The banks going bust remains a possibility - see

So why did many people start by kicking things off in Tottenham? Especially when Duggan, and assuming it’s true, was a nasty piece of work who was involved in criminal activities? Clearly it wasn’t liberal people who wish to uphold people’s civil rights and feel it’s wrong for the police to go around shooting people dead. In part it had to be people outside his immediate family who identified with Duggan and his lifestyle. Like many, not all, I met from the Pembury Estate when I worked there and some of whom might have been amongst the rioters being shown in Hackney running down - guess where? Yes Clarence Road - on Monday night to fight with the police and loot the shop that’s next door to what used to be the Colin Roach Centre.

In the main they’re young, unemployed, poorly educated, black and male. Plenty have quit or been chucked out of school early. They’re streetwise because without much money or things to do in often-overcrowded accommodation they’re forced to spend much of their time outside with their mates. All of which means they can expect to receive the regular attention of the police, usually white and drawn from communities outside the area where black people are often not welcome.

These officers bring their attitudes with them. On Sunday mornings during the 90s I played regularly for a decent football team and our home ground was on Hackney Marshes that is now being - at least, in part - torn up to make space for car parking at the Olympic Stadium. Up front I formed a decent partnership with a black social worker, Sam. He had two cars. One was a battered old thing for work and the other a decent BMW. Choosing which one to drive to the game was a difficult choice, select the old one and he got there on time, choose the other and he was stopped virtually every time - even by the same officers on occasions. 

It could be, of course, that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen nowadays and yet the statistics continue to show that if you’re black or Asian you’re many more times likely to be stopped. Resentment builds up; it’s only natural especially when those doing the hassle are enjoying something that those being hassled can’t, unlike Sam, obtain - a well-paid job.

That’s because they’ve left school with few qualifications - the reasons for which I cannot hope to do justice to here, but a combination of class and colour, not forgetting a caution or two from the police, are important - but also because when they do seek work the stigma of living in a poor neighbourhood and also being black inevitably counts against them. Working at the Colin Roach Centre I lost count of the number of young, and old, people who told me of how hard they had sought without success to find work.

All of which makes people easy prey for the criminal gangs that do exist in places like Hackney. Being part of a gang gives status, or RESPECT as Tony Blair might say, and just as importantly money to be able to buy things that today everyone is told by advertisers they must have to be ‘normal’ including the latest range of mobile phones. 

In some of the especially well-organised gangs it can bring lots of money and power over the neighbourhood and like it - or not - that’s something a number of people look up to, especially when the alternative is a life of unending boredom and no money. More usually the gangs are not especially well organised and the takings from crime - including street robbery - are never going to be sufficient to allow someone to enjoy an easy life.

All of which means that when Duggan is killed there are plenty of people who can identify with him, a man who despite difficulties in his life has - and I am not defending him - made sort of ‘good’ by putting two fingers up to those - the police - who many feel are just the most visible example of those who are oppressing them. As such I’d hazard a guess that many of the people who - at least, initially - started things off hold, however imperfectly, such views.

Of course many more people have since joined in. From the looks of it that seems to be a case of when it gets a bit tasty on the streets then why not join in the general mayhem? And from my experience of riots - and I’ve seen I’d guess a good hundred or so at various locations including football grounds, demonstrations, rallies and pickets, including a number in which people died or were killed - they have a momentum of their own especially after drink gets involved. People get carried away and do things they had previously never even considered. None of which I am attempting to excuse, rather I am just trying to understand.

Of course it’s wrong when people then rob shop’s that working people have often worked their cotton socks off to get up and running. Asian shopkeepers that have been attacked are right to defend themselves, and in fact because the police are often reluctant to take seriously their complaints plenty are already used to doing so.

At the same time it’s the height of hypocrisy for Cameron, Clegg and rich Tories to condemn people for being criminals, not forgetting the Sun newspaper. The latter is part of a newspaper group that continues to hide much of its financial affairs in offshore accounts, thus avoiding paying much needed tax. Other rich people and organisations continue to do the same. Meanwhile virtually the whole political class inside Parliament has been exposed as dipping illegally into the taxpayers funds that make up their wages whilst making moves to decimate working people’s wages and future pensions.

Cameron and Clegg are best mates with many of Britain’s top paid bankers. These have helped decimate much of the country and yet despite the burning anger of many people the Con-Dem’s have refused to even contemplate restricting their future bonuses.

Then there’s that symbol of everything that’s good about this country - the Royal Family. They’re so good that they need thousands of acres of land on which to live on. Other aristocrats are the same and as such Britain has the most imbalanced pattern of land ownership in the World! Less people own more of the land than anywhere else on the planet. How did they get it? Whisper it quietly, or like the BBC and other ‘responsible’ outlets ignore it completely, but they stole it. 

Aagh you may say that was centuries ago - although not as it happens in every case - but what isn’t is the fact that these same landowners are actually paid millions each year in subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy. All whilst the people living in places like the Pembury are stuffed into unsuitable overcrowded accommodation in inner city areas where for young people finding a place to live is becoming almost impossible.

Yes those doing the thieving and the mugging are being criminals, but isn’t it more criminal to have taken away the pittance that working class students were getting under the Educational Maintenance Allowance whilst not hitting bankers, MP’s, rich tax dodgers and the Royal Family in the pocket? Who needs help the most? Get the money in and redistribute it and create a more equal world. [One in fact that doesn’t leave around a quarter of it in abject poverty with no possible means of escape.]

Doing the latter will also mean that the sorts of useless things that people have been out stealing would become of little value. A mobile phone or a television or a few fashion items don’t give someone a life, they’re being stolen because every single day highly paid advertisers are sadly, with success, ramming down people’s throats that without having this particular gadget or item then you’re no-one. A person’s value is tied up with what they own, when it should be about their relationships with other people, helping others in their community and struggling to improve the lot of everyone around them. Without which there is eventually only barbarism.

Graffiti on Clarence Road shows hostility towards police and Cameron as well
as demonstrating that gangs, [E5 - postcode area and LW - Lower Clapton Road]
which are often hostile towards one another, have combined their activities.
Of course the graffiti also demonstrates some poor spelling.

* This article has not touched on the decline of organisations such as the Colin Roach Centre in places like Hackney. Imperfect as it was it did give an opportunity for often dispossessed people to rally round and fight back against an uncaring system. 

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