“London’s Burning!”

“Well, unlike Bob I do have somewhere to go … but it’s Peckham, so I’m staying.” In Richard Curtis’ pirate radio comedy, “The Boat that Rocked”, Harold, the young technician  (played nicely unhip and normal by Ike Hamilton) comes up with this line when, one by one, everyone votes to stay on board and boycott the government ban. If he lived in today’s Peckham, rather than back in 1966, he would probably even be ready to sign up for a season in Antarctica or a tour of duty in Helmand Province rather than go back there.

That some parts of London are becoming increasingly unliveable is no secret. That the general economic stagnation they suffer from is not made easier to bear by their proximity to the glittering prizes of Canary Wharf, Belgravia, Chelsea or St. John’s Wood is also understandable. But there is nothing particularly new to this. It was ever so: whether back in the 1960s, the 1920s, the 1840s or the 1780s, the city was always a place where “life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together” (Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby).

Dubious causes, dubious martyrs

Although there is arguably less starvation today, as those who used to starve now gorge themselves to obesity on cheap junk from ASDA, yet the wealth and the poverty are still there and the gap is not getting any smaller. An economic downturn that hits the poorest the hardest, paired with government cuts to the very services and facilities that make life in Brixton, Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield or Peckham more liveable have not improved the picture. Every summer these boroughs of London simmer and smoulder below their multicultural surfaces. Occasionally, as in 1981, it all turns very nasty and some important people have to come home early from Normandy or the Seychelles.

The August 6th shooting (by London Met detectives from the “Operation Trident” anti gun-crime unit) of a suspect resisting arrest was the spark that ignited the keg this time. Within hours the victim, one Mark Duggen, had morphed from being a notorious cocaine dealer and member of the well-armed and dangerously criminal “Star Gang”, into a “29-year-old father of four” whose girlfriend of the last thirteen years was “shocked” to learn that he carried a weapon. Every cause needs a martyr. Dubious causes get dubious ones. The martyr for the terrifying 1965 riots in Watts, Los Angeles, was a drunken driver who got pulled-over, ticketed and had his vehicle impounded – he didn’t even have to die! Mark Duggen would certainly do for starters. Twitter would do the rest. “The revolution will not be televised”? Yeah, right! By the time the first bottles were thrown, diverse tweets were already going out to “get your free TV here!”

Historical precedence obliges

One need not wonder then, that a bit of police-action-turned-fatal unleashed such a tide of violence. The climate, the scenery and the machinery were already set. Of course, various commentators were quick to point out that there was hardly a direct connection between the very specific nature of the police shooting (however controversial or disputed), and the mass looting of TVs, brand-name trainers, game consoles and cell phones that ensued. But the Gordon riots of 1780 and the Chartist movement of 1838-48 were much the same: their bad apples also took time off from their agenda to pillage honest shopkeepers of any persuasion and none, or drink local vintners dry of their wares without a penny changing hands. Every good rebel loves a blaze and both Dickens and Victor Hugo describe identical behaviour in the June 1832 uprising in Paris and the anti-catholic riots in London fifty years earlier. For sure, torching your own neighbourhood and destroying the very businesses that employ most of your mates’ mums is hardly a heroic or revolutionary gesture, but it is one that has credible historical antecedents.

Much has been made of the colour issue. OK, the rioters are mostly black. But in that area the property owners and business people are mostly black too, so the destruction and looting can hardly be seen as an act of enfranchisement or uprising. The simple truth is that you can only damage the targets you can actually reach. And since the UK police have become expert at containment actions, neither Buckingham Palace, Scotland Yard nor the Houses of Parliament were ever in any real danger. So instead you toss a cocktail into the very bus that takes your gran to Bingo on a Friday, and use a stack of wooden pallets to set fire to the very Aldi store where you actually can afford to shop, and where your girlfriend works as a cashier and your aunty is assistant manager. It’s dumb, but it gets the world’s attention.

Colour or gender division?

In today’s Britain, the person most likely to be unemployed (least employable, most troublesome) is black and male, while the person most likely to keep a job (most employable, most dependable) is black (yes, black, not white!) and female. This is a highly significant gender disconnect and not one that is easily explained in the normal jargon of socio-economics.  So, “is something wrong with young black men?” asks the BBC. Well, no more than is wrong with young men of any colour, particularly when they’ve got more sperm cells than brain cells and a lot more muscle than qualification. They’re not an easy lot to manage at the best of times. That’s why we have wars every now and then: to channel all that diffuse aggro. The distance between the beer can and the trash can is usually too far at that age, and trouble is usually too close.

However, blackness soon becomes an issue when the economic fault-line runs this clearly along the colour and the gender divide. Blackness is an issue when the calling card for social integration and advancement requires a stable, two-parent family, and more than half the kids you know don’t have a dad, at least not a dad they can go to for advice on how to get a leg up, rather than just a leg over. Blackness is an issue when those who do have dads have chronically unemployed ones. Then the answer to the question is, yes, there is something wrong with young black men in Britain. They’re rootless, feckless and morally ambivalent: they are without adult male guidance in the kind of harsh environment where they desperately need it and the only templates they will otherwise have available to model their careers on are criminal or fanatical.

Say it loud!

The oh-so-1970s idea of black pride has gradually given way to a dull aching knowledge that there is very little, these days, to be proud of. There is no easy answer to single-parent families, or to unequal employment chances. “Education, education, education” is an easy enough mantra, but one that is hard to chant for those who see no viable future, even with a school certificate, in an economy that best rewards those who are already rewarded from birth. London’s burning, and if something isn’t done soon to give young black men back their masculinity and respect, then we may as well all start planting potatoes to bake in the ashes, because this could become an annually recurring phenomenon, just like Wimbledon and changing hemlines, but a lot more serious.

Edwin Drood

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