Monday, 8 August 2011
PANIC ON THE STREETS OF...
There is something strangely fitting about my last entry focusing on the idyllic mindlessness of suburbia. Perhaps that will serve the purpose of offering an even sharper contrast to what I'm about to write.
I had just turned 18 when I left my working class midlands town for the hypothetical bright lights of London. To me, it felt like home as soon as I stepped off the train at Euston. it truly was the golden city to me - I fit into place there in a way that I never had in Northampton. I met a lot of people that I still hold very close to my heart, I studied teenage alcoholism intensively, I started smoking cheap cigarettes and reading a lot and, as disgustingly cliche as it sounds, 'found myself', or as close as I'm ever gonna come to it. This is why the London riots that are currently taking place are completely breaking my heart.
I was actually in London when the riots first broke out; my sister was taking part in an art show on Saturday night, so we headed out to east London to drink a lot of beer and look at abstract art that I didn't really understand (but, hey! free beer!). After the art show we drank in a bar near kings cross until the early hours of the morning, when we finally decided to roll back to our hotel room. It really strikes me now how peaceful east London was. I've spent a lot of time there, and I didn't notice any tension brewing or any potential signs of unrest. And this is the point, I suppose: this tension, this unrest, it's always been there. Being white and young and an outsider, I've always viewed London as the golden city - I've never had any reason not to. It's been good to me. I may have lived in undesirable areas (one of them being Streatham, which is currently rioting), but I will never know how the locals feel, the people that have built their own communities, the people who haven't moved to London to escape but are instead trapped there.
This is what the politicians and the editors and the newsreaders calling the rioters "youths with a lack of respect for authority" don't understand. There is a context in which the riots and looting need to be viewed, and they are ignoring it. London was an escape for me, but for many others it is a frustrating cage which they cannot leave. The people of Hackney, Islington, Streatham, Brixton, the locals, the children who are born and raised there - to paraphrase a Scottish comedian who I've forgotten the name of, they can shoot and stab each other every day, but it takes a riot for the politicians and government to sit up and finally care about them. It takes the destruction of communities that have been painstakingly built, the anger and violence of those who have run out of ways to express themselves, the burning of buildings and buses and livelihoods, for them to notice what has been there all along - terrible unrest, terrible tension, terrible loss.
This is the context, the point, the capital-T truth (thanks, David Foster Wallace) - why does it take a riot and such a terrible loss for politicians to finally notice and give a name to something that has always existed? Why do these rioters feel the need to destroy a city that perhaps is the strongest symbolism for diversity and strength and fortune? I believe that at the heart of these problems lies the government. When people feel as though trashing their own community is the only way to be heard, then surely the problem is not solely within the individual, but instead within the society that the government has created for these individuals. When young people feel as though violence is the only thing that they have, that everything else is so hopeless, that this destruction is all that is worthwhile, then surely this is the fault of a society that is offering them nothing else of value. If they already think that the good life is out of their reach due to factors they cannot control, then this is what society has taught them to think. Wealth, race, and class divides still exist so strongly in London - it's easy to forget this sometimes. We expect everyone to flourish equally, even those who are given less opportunities than others. We won't give them a job in the city, and we won't give them an escape from the city, but we expect them to be grateful for living here. We won't offer them an adequate education, but still we expect them to express themselves with words instead of violence.
I'm not defending or excusing the behaviour of the rioters. Like most 20something liberal graduates, I think that violence is never the answer - in situations like this, no one wins. The point is that they don't feel as though any other option is available to them, and this is the problem. I feel terribly sorry for those who have spent their lives building a community, and are now watching it be destroyed not only by strangers but by members of their community. Hackney, Islington, Streatham, Brixton - these are not wealthy areas and they are losing so much. How are they going to recover from this? How are they going to afford to get through it?
As I'm writing this, news has just broken that the riots have spread to Birmingham and Leeds. The newscaster referred to the situation as "absolute lawlessness". No one can quite believe it. I think the realisation that England (and London, in particular) is not as progressive as we all believed it to be is hitting everyone very hard. We still have so far to go.
I posted a Facebook status about the issue, which kinda sickens me but welcome to the modern age, I guess. A friend commented on it, "well said! you should become a politician!". Ny first response should probably never see the light of day. My second response is that, in this situation, I pretty much fail to draw the line between politician and rioter. They have failed Hackney, they've failed Birmingham, they've failed Streatham. They've failed us.