Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The riots and after

Too much has happened in the last ten days to document here, let alone make any kind of analysis. But I will try to get down a few notable things from the Deptford and Lewisham area.

As reported here previously, last Monday night there was some rioting and looting in Deptford and New Cross, as well as in Lewisham. As it happened, the worse damage suffered on Deptford High Street was to premises that many people have been campaigning against in recent months - the proliferating betting shops. But for people living in this street with its old buildings there was a fear of fire in particular.

As Caiman del Barrio reports:

'Residents – including those living in the flats above the targeted businesses – looked on in disbelief, some jamming 999 incessantly into their phones. While not many folk shed tears for the economic losses sustained by the shops, the fact that these recognised gang kids had free reign of the High Street struck fear into the heart of normal people, acutely aware – as they were -of the risk of fire on the narrow, cramped street. Eventually, after around two hours, a sole TSG van arrived and six cops jumped out to chase the looters off'.

On Tuesday some of the people previously involved in Deptford Social Centre Plus put out a call to meet up on Deptford High Street for a 'peaceful congregation to reclaim our streets from fear'. Caiman again:

'We’d found ourselves shakily preparing emergency bags and water buckets the night before, but we realised we had no hoses or foam extinguishers. An impromptu fire safety meeting was organised on a street corner between around 30 people, who then agreed to meet again in the evening to reclaim the streets from fear and misinformation. We were all sick of barricading ourselves in and relying on the false rumours and hysteria of mainstream news and social media. At 8.30pm, almost 100 people met outside and started chatting about what had happened and why, while a banner was painted with the slogan “DEPTFORD UNITED, YOU’RE INVITED”'.

There's also a report by Ewa here:

'A 100 of us ended up congregating outside the Ladbrookes, some with flasks of tea and biscuits, others with beer. All of us were local. Some ‘Street Pastors’ stopped by, walking the talk, calm and gracious, protected by nothing but fleeces with ‘Street Pastor’ written on the back. Some local folk used to spending a lot of time in the streets also joined us, dead skeptical at first, challenging us, and quizzing us on what we were doing and what we really thought about the riots...

We held a flash consultation shout-out for what a banner should say? Consensus produced in rainbow Goldsmiths art student lettering ‘DEPTFORD UNITED – YOURE INVITED’. We hung it on some metal shop shutters. The police cruised by and concluded ‘you’re the nice people’ whatever that meant...'

There was a street meeting with people talking about was going on, and there seem to have been some disagreements including between people with more of a radical political perspective and others solely concerned with discouraging further damage.

SolFed has put up some sound recordings of the meeting, here's one of them with a woman urging people 'now is the time when we can go and protest... meaningless riots aren't going to get us anywhere, we are only going to get somewhere if we are doing it in the name of something'.

Deptfordassembly2 by sifa_1

From that meeting came a call for a demonstration the next night from Deptford to Lewisham Town Hall in Catford. I caught the beginning of it by the anchor at the end of Deptford High Street, from where people set off behind a Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance banner. There was over 100 people at the start, and numbers apparently swelled to about 200, a respectable turn out at such short notice though not mobilising that many beyond the Lewisham radical left (there were people there from Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Permanent Revolution, Solidarity Federation and LACA, as well as various non-aligned radicals).

Ewa reports that people were chanting "‘No Ifs, No Buts, No Public Sector Cuts’, ‘No Justice, No Peace’, ‘Blame the Government, Not Our Kids’ (the most popular one), ‘No War On The Poor’". South London Solidarity Federation concluded:

'the demonstration was a mitigated success. Not as many locals attended as was hoped, while the local left’s attempts to blame the riots on “the cuts” was shallow and ill-conceived. Clearly the motivations behind this week’s disturbances are more fundamental than the recent budget cuts, appearing to hint at whole lives of atomisation, disengagement and anger on our estates. The efforts of Deptford residents to talk to each other and collectivise their problems can only be positive. Together we can fight to improve our lives and our neighbourhoods'.

Amidst the rumours flying round that night was that the English Defence League, or even the National Front, were marching to Lewisham from Eltham. It is true that the police contained a white crowd in Eltham, and that this included some EDL supporters (though that doesn't mean that everybody there was EDL or racist, some might just have turned out to prevent looting). But none of them got anywhere near Lewisham, if that was ever their intention.

There was some confusion as the anti-cuts march passed Lewisham Islamic Centre, where some people may have initially been concerned that it was the EDL on the way. There are some interesting reflections on the demonstration at the Third Estate blog in an article, South London: United, or Divided? An Account of Two Unity Demonstrations, First White, Then Black:

'Only at one point was there any tension with the police; they seemed to be holding the march up for no reason outside the Islam centre. After talking with a policeman, I found out that they believed there was tension between our demonstration and the Muslims outside the centre, and that we had been ‘squaring up to them’. In truth, many people on the demo were calling to the centre’s members to ‘join us’, to become part of the unity demonstration. To show that solidarity, a few people (I believe misguidedly, though not wrong) began chanting ‘Free free Palestine!’. The local coppers, however, didn’t realise that this was an attempt at solidarity. In fact, on questioning, I found that the policeman believed the chant to be a racist jibe of some kind. The police, clearly, had no idea who we were, what our politics were, or why we were demonstrating.

Actually, I can’t blame them. It was extremely difficult to answer this question – even though it seemed like an obvious march in which to participate... Only later did I realise quite how white we must have looked, marching through Lewisham centre, so eerily quiet in the quasi-lock down that has swept through London these past couple of nights'.

The author of this piece then stumbled across a second demonstration in Lewisham - a group of 30 young black people who had turned out to oppose the EDL and who were being escorted through the streets under heavy police escort. To make it clear that they weren't there to riot, they were chanting 'Peaceful march, peaceful march; We’re protecting our community, we’re protecting our community' (photograph of this below by Darryl at 853).

Last Saturday, there was a street meeting about the riots by the Lewisham clock tower with people having a good old rant mostly from various socialist perspectives. It wasn't particularly lively, but did include a veteran of the 1977 'Battle of Lewisham' just a few yards from where riot shields had been deployed for the first time in England during the anti-National Front protests exactly 34 years previously (Saturday August 13th 1977).

Other people had called for shoppers to come out and show their support for the market traders, not sure if this had an effect or not but it seemed to be as busy as any other Saturday. There was still some signs of the trouble earlier in the week, with a few boarded up windows at McDonalds and elsewhere.

There are different views locally not just on the riots, but on the 'Deptford United' demonstration on Wednesday and other local responses (see for instance negative comments to a post at Crosswhatfields). Maybe Deptford isn't really united. But where is? Like it or not, tens of thousands of rioters have just destroyed the notion that 'we're all in it together' in some kind of harmonious big society. And faced with events of this magnitude it's good that people are arguing about how to respond rather than falling in line with some fake consensus.

More on Lewisham

There's some interesting data on Lewisham in an article in Public Finance journal by Heather Wakefield, 'Why there were riots in Lewisham':

'Ours weren’t the worst of yesterday’s riots, but it would have come as no surprise if they had been. A long-time net exporter of labour, with a diminishing number of local jobs, Lewisham tops the UK’s league table for youth unemployment . According to the Office of National Statistics, almost 36% of Lewisham’s 16 – 24 year olds were out of work last year, compared to a UK average of 19.5%: alarming figures by any standards. Meanwhile, Croydon and Hackney – also under siege last night – were almost as bad – with youth unemployment levels of 33%.

In 2010, a TUC report showed that Job Seekers Allowance claimants in my ‘hood outnumbered overall job vacancies by almost 14:1. Compare this to to a national average of 5:1. This made Lewisham the third worst centre of unemployment in England, after Haringey and Hackney. In 2010, it was the 31st most deprived council in England – up from 52nd in 2004.

Grandparents and parents from the Caribbean, Africa, India and Pakistan – as well as the white working class – once worked hard for a living in local hospitals, transport, the council and low paid jobs in the private service sector. They now see their children and grandchildren facing the interminable prospect of lives without even low paid work, as the great law of the welfare of the people unravels in the haze of George Osborne’s deficit reduction strategy and a global economy in crisis. That means lives without money and all those things that turbo capitalism has made us think we need – even if we could only afford them in the ‘boom’ times on the sort of credit that helped bring the global economy close to its knees. Most live out a ground down existence on the dole and the margins of London’s consumer society'.

Here's some footage of the Lewisham riot last Monday. A lot of the coverage has focused on the looting, but there were clearly some quite intense clashes between youths and riot police..


Sue said...

Hi Neil,
You say you saw negative comments on Crosswhatfields, so I had to jump in. We don't get many comments so that was pretty unusual. The only time we've had a really massive response (over 100) was when we posted about Social Centre Plus and a load of quite nasty people wanted to put the boot in to the train carriage.
It got a bit out of control so I was afraid our post about the march would too when the first comment was so critical. Thankfully due to our low readership it wasn't as read and replied to as rabidly as. say, Brockley Central (or other forums), but weirdly I thought our comments were, considering the subject, on the whole were quite thoughtful, pertinent and courageous so early on in the blame game. I suspect that for those who wanted to commentate that evening the debate may have been taken some place else (a more prominent stage).

Anyway I note you report without bias and include a statement from Solidarity Federation which disses 'the local left’s attempts to blame the riots on “the cuts”' – er, that would be the Anti-Cuts Alliance, whose members the march was supposedly made up of....

. said...

Thanks Sue, I thought I should link to those comments on your blog because I didn't want to give the impression that everybody had the same views about what went on last week. I was broadly supportive of the aims of the march, but I tend to be sceptical about claims to speak on behalf of 'local residents' or the 'community' as if everybody is unproblematically united.

As my post makes clear there were also a range of perspectives from those taking part including some quite thoughtful self-criticism. Personally I do think that cuts have added to the existing poverty and may be a contributing factor, but I tend to agree with the SolFed comment that it would be simplistic to focus solely on that. I also think it was a bit crass for some people to start chanting about Palestine outside the Islamic Centre, as if Muslims should automatically identify with that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the 3 worst places for unemployment were Haringey (including Tottenham), Hackney and Lewisham - the three first places to riot along with Peckham and Brixotn. But of course the riots have got nothing to do with poverty!