Trying to make sense of Hackney’s riots

Local resident MATTHEW BROWN sifts through the context and consequences of the riots which erupted on Hackney’s streets and estates on 8 August.

The sound of helicopters is not uncommon over our part of east London. So it took a few minutes before we realised the whirring noise above our house on Monday afternoon was not just another Olympic Park surveillance chopper, nor the buzz of an air ambulance heading south over the Lea Valley towards Whitechapel and the Royal London Hospital.

This one was closer; hovering. Then a second arrived. It hovered too, almost overhead. “Something’s happening,” one of us said.

BBC News showed us what. Bird’s eye shots from one of those choppers revealed a familiar scene turned grotesque. Hackney’s main thoroughfare, less than a mile away, was strewn with police vans, stranded buses, rampaging young men, and thin lines of riot police.

Mare Street and the Narrow Way form the focus of local shopping in this part of the borough, the ‘heart of Hackney’ as the council try to brand it, streets now famous nationwide thanks to rolling footage of what was soon labelled ‘day three of the London riots’.

As Monday afternoon wore into evening, the helicopters’ hum grew closer still and a faint smell of burning drifted over the back garden fence. Some of the trouble pushed south towards London Fields and Bethnal Green; but most moved north to the Pembury estate just half a mile from us.

We wondered if it would all tumble our way en route to the council estate at the bottom of our road. The local high street was eerily quiet – shops which never close closed early, their shutters down and pavement wares dragged in for the night. Many residents moved their cars from the parking bays. Chatsworth Road has never been so empty, not even on Christmas day.

Thankfully, the immediate area survived the night’s violence largely unscathed, bar an early morning break-in at the local pub. But up on the Pembury young people were burning cars and trash bins, raiding shops and conducting running battles with mounted police and dogs.

Bigger fires soon burned in other parts of the capital, destroying properties in Croydon, Clapham and Peckham, while more extreme looting and mugging spread right across London that night, and then on to other cities.

Like millions of others we watched it all in astonishment and horror, trying to make sense. At 9.30 the next morning, we joined some 200 local people who’d answered Twitter feeds and internet calls to meet outside the town hall on Mare Street to help clear the aftermath.

Hackney posterArmed with brooms and bin bags, dust pans and brushes, this was David Cameron’s ‘big society’ in action, volunteers out to do our bit for our community … only to find the big state had got there first!

The local state, anyway – council workers had been out since 3am and virtually cleared the mess by 7.30. On Mare Street, bar a few cracked windows, some boarded shops, and an edgy sense of unease, you might not have known anything much had happened. Buses and cars were moving freely, many businesses re-opened early.

“Haven’t the council done a fantastic job?” people exclaimed, almost in disbelief, some clad in ‘I love Hackney’ badges and t-shirts.

Here was a group encapsulating another side of Hackney: racially mixed, but mostly white; some young, but mostly middle aged; not all, but mostly middle class (in the common sense of the term, at least). Many, no doubt, are feeling the pinch themselves, part of Ed Miliband’s infamous ‘squeezed middle’.

Reporters moved among us, trying to gauge reaction, finding a confusion of outrage, revulsion and bemusement, people struggling to understand.

Hackney’s always been a place with a strong sense of itself, proud of being the epitome of a mixed community. They say you could meet someone from any country in the world here – and it’s almost true. You could meet someone from almost any social class too. Unlike some other parts of London, people feel they have a stake in the place.

Angry and invisible

Not that there aren’t divides and differences, tensions and inequality, as the riots showed. Those doing the rioting are not in the squeezed middle; more at the crushed bottom.

Clearly, much of their anger is directed at police whose use of various dispersal orders and other anti-social behaviour tactics has been widespread on many estates in recent years, and reports suggest it was a mishandled stop and search that triggered the first wave of trouble close to Hackney Central. Just a week earlier, 300 officers had raided the Pembury estate for drugs and weapons. “We’re taking our estate back,” yelled one of the rioters.

But there’s a wider sense of resentment too, a feeling of disempowerment that is easy to miss if you spend your time laptopping in pavement cafes, opening pop-up galleries and delicatessens, or making arty films in one of the various farmers’ markets that have grown up, not quite organically, all over the borough over the last half a decade or so.

The area’s gone through huge changes in recent years, transformations that few local people have any say in, certainly not those identified by Kidscape’s Camilla Batmanghelidjh this week as the “ignored underclass”. Their estates now sit cheek-by-jowl with rapidly gentrifying rows of privately-owned town houses, modern blocks of what were once called ‘yuppie flats’, and converted factories branded as luxury apartments.

To some this is regeneration, while others call it gentrification. But the lived experience for some on the excluded margins is to find the streets and parks, pubs and squares where they once felt at home, had a sense of ownership if not control, virtually colonised by what an older man from the Pembury called “newcomers”.

“I’ve lived here for 43 years and it doesn’t feel like my home anymore,” he told 5 Live.

In the 15 years I’ve been here, the changes have been dramatic. Many community facilities have gone, including two clubs once famous as homes to black music, both replaced by private housing blocks beyond the pockets of many local people. Small, local businesses have been forced to close as new owners and developers bought leases from the local authority and pushed up rents. House prices have rocketed.

But there are enough people with enough money (more and more, in fact, as the area becomes increasingly desirable in estate agents’ terms) for trendy shops and cafes to flourish.

Much of this is welcome, of course it is. Hackney has long been one of the poorest boroughs in the country, if not in Europe, as well as one of the most vibrant and creative, famous for its artists’ communities, its writers and community theatre.

But it’s increasingly difficult for many people to afford to live here. The appearance of each new overpriced restaurant or block of flats signals a change in its social make-up that most of us have no control over, and many can’t afford to enjoy.

Walking wallets

If this is regeneration, it’s happening according to what one local youth worker called ‘the walking wallets theory’, whereby local authorities and developers create an environment that attracts more people with more income, so altering the social fabric by changing the population, rather than working long-term, at grassroots and in extremely difficult circumstances with the current population who are trying to change their lives.

It’s essentially a market-driven process, and change steered by market forces leaves us all feeling disenfranchised sometimes. But imagine if you grew up on the local estate with no means – economic, cultural or social – of being part of, let alone influencing or benefiting from the changes on your doorstep.

Throw into the mix an Olympic Games costing billions of pounds just down the road, a corporate affair which you were told was there for you, but in reality you have no say or stake in, and won’t be involved in. Then add the current economic and political environment which means jobs are unlikely, education unaffordable, and social security disappearing.

Of course, the Tories steadfastly refuse to countenance any connection between public spending cuts and the riots, as Michael Gove demonstrated so graphically (and comically) with his red-faced response to Harriet Harman on Tuesday’s Newsnight. But it can’t be insignificant that some youth services in Hackney have been cut by 75 per cent. In Haringey, home borough of the Tottenham riots two days earlier, eight of 11 youth centres have closed.

As ever, right wing politicians point their quivering fingers at the usual suspects – lack of discipline in families and schools; a failure of the liberal state. “It’s sheer criminality,” repeats Theresa May, over and over, insisting that any other explanation is just an excuse. “Over the last 20-30 years we’ve allowed young people an endless sense of entitlement,” bumbles London Mayor Boris Johnson to the BBC.

But values and education don’t just reside in families and schools. They come from our culture, and our social economy. The society we’ve created over the last 30 years rewards selfishness, and teaches us to value what we have and what we own, what we can get for ourselves, over all.

We live in what one radio punter, a social worker, called “a consumerist, avaricious culture”; it’s “a culture of instant gratification with an ethos of grab what you can by any means”, as another put it. After all, that’s what MPs have done with their expenses; bankers with their bonuses; tax-evading corporations, bribed police, and phone-hacking media.

Of course, there are no straight lines connecting any of this, and none of these factors, either singly or combined, provide an explanation in any simplistic cause-and-effect sense. But to suggest this context shouldn’t be part of the picture is wilful political blindness; and to insist it should be is not to offer an excuse for anyone’s behaviour, despite what our hapless home secretary might think.

Back on Mare Street, many shops closed early on Tuesday afternoon as a quiet, tense atmosphere settled over Hackney’s heart. Police, some apparently drafted in from Wales, stood guard outside the town hall. Officers in high visibility jackets walked up and down Clarence Road, scene of the worst of Monday’s trouble.

Rumours circulated that Chatsworth Road would be targeted next. But they were just rumours. We dropped in at the pub to offer support to the landlady and found her retelling the tale of how she’d chased off her intruders, swearing and cursing and hurling plant pots after them.

“I didn’t want to throw anything too valuable,” she laughed, exhausted by her sleepless night. “They grabbed a couple of bottles but not much. They were just kids heading home, taking their chances.

“I’m a bit worried about tonight, though,” she added. “We don’t have shutters here. I might have to stay up again.”

Thankfully, no helicopters hovered above us on Tuesday night, and we fell asleep to the distant whines of police sirens. But that’s not uncommon in this part of east London either.

2 Comments

  1. Alan Bevan
    27 August 2011

    The scale of the recent riots in London and else where has left me thinking about how could this happen.
    I am a mature student, and spent my childhood in the outer suburbs of London, betwen the mid nineteeen sixties, to the late nineteen seventies. Although I did not pass my Eleven Plus, it was possible to gain seven O Levels and find a job in an office. I also knew people who left school with few adacademic qualifications. I also know of people who were part of my peer group who have made their way in the world quite succesfully.

    I went to Work in The DHSS in Stokenewington, in London , and I think I found this was quite a big culture shock, as I came from the relatively affluant outer suburbs, and perhaps realised that I had been bought up in an area with a limited understanding of a multicultural community. I then went to work for The Greater London Council, which provided my political awakening, and confidence to go on to University.

    I subsequently did a degree in Modern Europan Studies, worked as a graduatye trainee librarian in a government library,. After qualifying, I worked in public and further education college libraries in London. This include parts of London with high numbers of different ethnic groups, such as Brent, Barnet, Lewisham, and Hackney. But I met very few qualified librarians from ethnic minorities. I am now training as an occupational therapist. While male occupational therapists are still a minority, in my time I have met even fewer male occupational therapists from Afro Carabian or Asian background, working in NHS settings. I do feel this should be addressed.

    Growing up I think from most I knew at school, friends of my parents and neighbours, that people had reasonable secure jobs, and incomes, and did not feel a sense in inequality in society. During our teenage years we always had things to do during the school holidays, such as going fishing, flying our kites, and going out with our fathers. We also knew that if we misbehaved we would have to face the consequences both at home and at school. I think we were brought up to value working hard in order to be able to gain nice things, and this was down to personal effort.

    We think we also respected ourselves and others. I remember one day on the way home from school, we were messing about on a friends motor bike, by riding it actross an open space. The police arrived and we apologisd like good little boys. We did not start throwing petrol bombs at local shops and looting them, being rude to the police. On one occassion I annoyed another boy in my class, and he challenged me to a fight, in the evening in a local park. A few other teenagers gathered round and we decided to abandon the fight. We did not stab or shoot each other, and nobody got hurt. A year ot two after leaving school, I even remember meeting a couple of people who I found annying while at school, and we had sensible adult conversations about what jobs we were doing. Indeed there was a sense of looking forward to the future, and moving on.

    I do remember the inner city riots in the inner cities at the beginnig of the nineteen eighties. I have since learnt that within parts of London with a second generation black population there was distrust between communities and the police. Following the riots, money was pumped in to youth projects in these areas to help address social exclusion among young people.

    But I belive the riots this time were not about a conflict with the police, despite, a significantly higher number of young black people being stopped by the police than young white people, leading up to the disurbances.
    It was about consumer consumption, selfeshnes, lack of avenue for expression, and getting away with gaining instant gratification.

    This seems so different from the society that I grew up in. I think over the last thity years a society has been created were some young people have lost the sense of hope, or feel part of a community. I shared several flats with friend g in an inner part of North London in the nineteen nineties. The stark contrast between relatively succesful midle class groups living in nice gentrified housing, surounded by people living in social housing was very noticable. How may of the young people living in the social housing areas went to the expensive restraunts and trendy boutiques along Upper Street in Islington? I think it can also be argued that over the past thirty years, that gentrification has pushed some of the problems of teenage gangs, and drug related crime towards the outer suburbs.

    Since leaving London I have meat people who do perhaps fit the criteria of succesful middle class professionals. Such people as part of the baby boomer generation were able to benefit though our tripartate education system, and meritocratic society. Having spent a few years living in Hackney, then after their first child climbed upwards in their career ladders, and moved to commuter towns beyond the M25. But they are now concerend about the values of their pensions when they retire, and possibly a fragmented NHS, and if there children will be able to find jobs aftet leaving university.

    I do not condone criminal behaviour of the recent riots in London and else where. It is terrible that people lost their homes, due to shops being burnt, and people seeingbusinesses ruined, and looting from shops. However I do feel we all need to consider what caused so many young and not so young people to assume they could get away with it. I was also slightly sceptical of the way the media covered the clean up operations the following day, suggesting that it take a social disturbance to create a sense of community, the photograph oppurtunity for the Mayor of London.

    I do think the riots were a wake up call to consider the kind of soiety we have created over the last thirty years. Polititions need to be accountable for their actions, as much as young people need to have a voice, and the right skills to be able to find jobs so they can think ahead. We all need to take this on board, to try and prevent this happening again, because I think can ruin the image of Britain as a country, or hope for the future.

  2. Jonathan
    29 August 2011

    Very interesting article. Thank you.

    Right, I think, to imply that the collapse of the family is not the cause of the riots – afterall, that’s a long term erosion, and the Right are hardly likely to suggest a sensible possible solution: the equal sharing of childcare and fulfilling well-paid work.

    As I recall, it all started when the police shot someone in an area where there is a disproportionate use of stop and search.

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