Saturday, May 25, 2013

Woolwich Killing

Is there anything useful left to say about the killing of soldier Lee Rigby his week? Writing a South East London blog with occasional pretensions to a critical political perspective I feel like I should, and the local connections to the story are not limited to the scene of the killing in Woolwich's John Wilson Street. It seems that the two suspects arrested at the scene had both attended Greenwich University, and one of them grew up locally,  attending Kidbrooke School and living in a flat in Macey House, in Thames Street, Greenwich.

But when I think about a young man being hacked to death in the street by two other young men I just have a sense of horror and futility. It can be reassuring to try and find moments of 'bravery' and 'heroism' amidst the carnage, to offer some meaning or redemption. We've seen plenty of that this week, and of course it was remarkable that people comforted a dying man while his killers stood nearby. But the fact is that the victim had no opportunity to display any 'bravery' or 'heroism' as he was cut down in the street, and those who stood to talk to the killers did not alter the course of events in any way: the assailants seemed glad of an audience by which to relay their self-mythologising accounts to the world.

Another reassuring narrative is to put the events in a wider context, to see the killing as a moment in an international story of imperialist warfare and its impact, or of 'global terrorism'. And sure what happened in Woolwich plainly has a connection to the fact of British forces waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade, and to the violent fringe of the wider Islamist movement.

But I think Lee Jasper is right to pose the real question as 'how can a seemingly ordinary couple of black British guys from South East London end up committing such an act?' The issue might be less Al-Qaeda and more home grown issues of alienated, marginalised young men growing up amidst desensitising experiences of  violence. The same culture that leads to (mainly) black young men killing each other year in year out on the streets of London. As Jasper notes, 'Horrific, and symbolic as the killing of this young soldier was, there were similarities in its barbarity of the recent murder of Daniel Graham [in East Dulwich], who was chased by a gang and stabbed multiple times on a London bus or that of Andrew Jaipual of Islington stabbed between 20-40 times. Both in broad daylight'.

Still making such comparisons shouldn't be used to detract from the specific horror of Woolwich. F*cked up blokes killing another bloke might not be so unusual, but standing around explaining it to passers-by, getting photographed and waiting for the police to turn up, perhaps in hope of some 'martyrdom' terminal exit - that is hardly typical. It felt like the assailants had written themselves a dramatic script with themselves as the key actors, and didn't know quite what to do when the other actors didn't turn up on time. So it seems naive to complain that the media have treated it as such a big story - it was a media event par excellence.


The racist clowns of the English Defence League were out on the streets of Woolwich on Wednesday night, gathering outside The Queen’s Arms pub on Burrage Grove and attempting to get to the Greenwich Islamic Centre. There have been attacks on Mosques and Muslims, and the British National Party are mobilising for a protest in Woolwich next Saturday (their fast fading leader Nick Griffin was in the area yesterday).

EDL 'Bexley Division' in Woolwich on Wednesday - laughing and clearly enjoying themselves.
- I'm sure Lee Rigby's family weren't laughing that night
South London Anti-Fascists and others are already planning community defence, and this is necessary. But it is also the fabric of daily life in London that will undermine the racists' effort to provoke inter-communal violence on the back of the Woolwich killing.  Les Back of Goldsmiths University is surely right that:  'The violence and the reactions to it will damage the social choreography of London’s multiculture but not fatally... We’ve seen this all before but the reality of life in the city is paradoxical. For London is both the stage for divisions and violence and also a meeting place where those differences are routinely bridged and made banal. “I was just thinking today, there was a woman fully veiled walking through the market buying her shopping. It was just ordinary I didn’t even notice her,” said a white neighbour. This captures something about the reality of an everyday, unspectacular co-existence. The blood-stained headlines will not be easily forgotten but they will inevitably become yesterday’s news. The rhythm of multicultural life in South East London will re-establish itself and find its balance again'.

Small march by Nigerians in Woolwich today (photo by Helen Donohue via twitter)


monkeyboy said...

massively ironic isn't it? Groups of young men with a taste for violence latching on to a simplistic black and white ideology, both claiming to be defending their communities. The EDL and the holy warriors out to sit down and chat, they'd get on.

Anonymous said...

'South London Anti Fascits are planning community defence, and this is necessary'.

I'd argue not, I think the police will do a much better job, and, importantly, be less antagonistic.

Isn't it true that opposing marches almost always end up throwing bottles at each other?

I'd rather SLAF and the NUT deny EDL the attention they crave.