I’ve just walked to work through the centre of Birmingham, littered and scarred by last night’s rioting. Amidst the damage to banks, mobile phone shops and, bizarrely, a branch of Supercuts*, one thing that stood out for me was the small newsagents at the top of what will become Spiceal Street, contents strewn across the path, windows boarded up. I sometimes stop there on the way to work, nodding hello to one of the two men who run the shop as I fumble for change. Protesting against a corporation avoiding £6bn in tax is one thing, smashing up a small business trying to stay afloat in a recession something entirely different. A reminder, if one was needed, of how senseless this all is.
There’s much worse, of course. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. A Tottenham resident on BBC News told how he’d lost all the photographs of his children in the fire that devastated their home. It’s lucky lives haven’t been lost. If things continue as they are, I’m not sure how long that luck will hold.
A riot’s always always a self inflicted wound, always senseless, never justified as a political act. Mark Fisher has it right, I think, any political dimension to this is in the absence of politics, the utter abandonment of politics as the solution to anything. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t political factors which allowed this to happen. Is there anyone who honestly didn’t see this coming? Any idiot could have predicted that cut after cut to living standards, job losses, negative equity and the looming double dip, would prove a toxic mix when set alongside the constant drip of stories of bankers bonuses and corporate tax evasion. It was bound to lead eventually to something like this.
To understand something isn’t the same as to justify it. Reading the twitter reaction last night it astonished me how many people seem not to realise this. The demonisation of the rioters was such that at one stage the #birminghamriots hashtag was awash with speculation that the Birmingham Children’s Hospital was under attack – clearly someone noticed the large police presence in this area and forgot that Birmingham’s main police station faces the hospital. A couple of hundred disaffected kids out to smash some windows, throw things at the police and steal some of the consumer goods that are held up by society as the only measure of worth available to them, turned into a murderous zombie horde before our very eyes. At one stage a commentator I like and respect was condemning the rioters for not exhibiting proper working class values, on the basis of a blog post from some bloke in Middlesbrough being more-working-class-than-thou – like Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen by proxy. The number of otherwise sane people calling for the army to be brought in was unbelievable. It might help if they actually deployed all the police available before we trip over ourselves to declare martial law – 1,500 police were used in London last night, as opposed to 5,000 for the Royal Wedding.
I don’t live in Tottenham, Wood Green, Hackney or Ealing, so I’ve no idea what really caused the riots there. Similarly, while things were kicking off in Birmingham last night I was trying to get my two-week old daughter to go to sleep. What I will say is this. The Tottenham riots happened against a backdrop of recession, with the perceived injustice of a death in which the police were involved acting as the trigger. Similarly, the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots happened against a backdrop of a long recovery from recession, with the perceived injustice of a death in which the police were involved acting as the trigger. Closer to home for me, the 1991 Meadow Well riots on Tyneside happened against a backdrop of…
My mam has worked on the Meadow Well for 30 years and, when I was a kid, she used to pick me up from school and take me to work with her. These days it’s still unlikely to trouble any of the ‘best places to live’ lists, but it was really rough then. Buses stopped running there after 7 at night and there was a sense of barely contained lawlessness. My mam collects money for Provident – the Provvy – a loan company with rates only the desperate will sign up to. The Meadow Well is where most of her customers live – always has been. People deny any link between class, poverty and rioting, but it’s funny how they always start in places like this. It’d certainly be interesting to map the places with the highest concentration of Provvy loans and Cash Converters onto the the sites that have seen the most trouble.
Amidst the twitter outrage, handwringing and exhortations to #prayforlondon and #prayforbirmingham, perhaps thebestnameshavegone’s post on the East Dulwich Forum expressing concern as to the whereabouts of the writer’s Ocado delivery is more representative than we’d like to think. I read people condemning the rioters as scum and calling for rubber bullets and water cannons to be used, and I can’t help think they’re the same people who laugh at the ridiculous rates charged by people like the provvy and wonder why those who use them don’t just get a normal loan. Or the girl I overheard on a bus wondering why the homeless don’t just go and live off the land or, failing that, kill themselves. Empathy and understanding don’t necessarily imply support. It is actually possible to be against the riots without turning yourself into a Daily Mail editorial. Just a thought.
People talk about alternatives, the obvious one being peaceful protest, but when the political class are so adept at ignoring us is it any wonder when people don’t bother? Well over a million people marched against the Iraq War. Blair ignored them and took us to war anyway. After the Meadow Well riots £66m was spent on the estate – doea anyone think that would have happened if the protest had been peaceful? If we seriously want people to use ‘the proper channels’ it would help if they actually worked.
I should probably get some sort of design comment in here – this is a design blog after all – so, on a totally unrelated note, what an unbelievable fuck-up Five have made of Daniel Eatock’s Big Brother logo. It makes me so angry I could smash something.
*During the early 90s epidemic on Tyneside, an estate agents in Whitley Bay was ram-raided. I’ve no idea what they thought they were going to steal.