Broken Britain and the new age of anarchy

As civil unrest continues to rage throughout our country, wider questions need to be answered about the backdrop against which ordinary citizens have resorted to mob, and yob-rule.

For the past week I, like many other Britons, have watched in horror as my capital city has burned and countless other cities across this once green and pleasant land have turned into war zones. Images of young people adorned in hoodies, faces covered, pelting police with stones, packing their cars with goods looted from local shops, throwing Molotov cocktails onto centuries’ worth of heritage have been broadcast across the world.

The wanton savagery has taken my breath away, other nations watching the destruction from afar, must surely wonder what has gone so wrong in British society, what is so rotten here, that our citizens would be incited to revolt in such a nihilistic way. But amidst the carnage one thing seems startlingly resonant to me, the fact that I am not surprised by the depths that my countrymen have sunk to. Disgusted, yes, but surprised, sadly, no.

The trouble started on Thursday night when in a 29-year-old black man, and father of four, from Tottenham in north London was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident team. I mention Mr Duggan’s race because I believe it is paramount to understanding the violence that his death provoked.

Mr Duggan had allegedly been under surveillance by the police for some time, he has widely been touted in the more right-wing British press as a “gangster” and a prominent “elder” from the notorious Broadwater Farm estate. Known by the nickname “Starrish Mark” it is alleged he had links to infamous north London gangs such as the Broadwater Farm Posse and Tottenham Mandem. A claim that his girlfriend, Simone Wilson, vehemently denies.

Initial reports following Mr Duggan’s death stated that he had been shot by the police after opening fire on an officer from Scotland Yard’s elite firearms squad, the bullet from his firearm having been lodged in the police radio.

This week the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that Mr Duggan had not opened fire on police. In a statement released on Tuesday the IPCC said that the bullet lodged in the radio was, in fact, a police issue bullet “consistent with having been fired from a [police] Heckler and Koch MP5”. It transpired that during events last Thursday two shots were fired, both by police. An inquest into Mr Duggan’s death was opened on Tuesday but has now been adjourned until December.

Following this fatal shooting last Thursday night a peaceful protest began in Tottenham, around 100 people marched from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham police station and held a vigil there, demanding answers, and justice for the death of a popular member of their community. The significance of this cannot be underestimated.

London’s ethnic communities have a bloody history with the Metropolitan Police; many have compared the scenes of the last few days with the riots that swept the capital in the eighties, which also erupted during a recession. The 1981 Brixton riots were sparked when Michael Bailey, a young black man who had been stabbed, was perceived not to have received adequate medical attention from police officers on the scene.

In 1985 more riots raged in Brixton when Dorothy “Cherry” Groce was left paralysed after being shot in her bed by police as they searched her house in relation to offences they suspected her son, Michael Groce, of committing. Days later tensions flared between the black community and the police north of the river  when, following the arrest of  a young black man, Floyd Jarret, over a suspected motoring offence the police raided the home of his 49-year-old mother, Cynthia Jarrett on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, during which she suffered a stroke and died.

The topography of events precipitating such outbreaks of violence is pivotal. Areas such as Brixton, Hackney and Tottenham, are high density inner-city areas with large Afro-Caribbean populations, what permeates these streets is the long-running resentment between the authorities and local communities who feel that they are constantly harassed by police using stop and search powers and unreasonable force without just cause.

Unemployment is high, opportunities are few, the stench of poverty is all around. The London borough that houses Tottenham has an unemployment rate double the national average, resources are thin on the ground, child poverty and deprivation is rife.

Twenty years on from the Brixton riots the black and ethnic community’s relationship with police has not changed. As Nina Power of The Guardian commented this week “when you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people”.

But of course the 2011 UK riots are not just a case of race clashes between ethnic communities and the establishment, over a decade in to this new millennium; it is more complex than that. It is about a whole sector of our society so disillusioned with their lives, and their lack of prospects, that they feel they no longer have a viable stake in that society, and are therefore, not governed by its laws.

Britain in 2011 is a bleak place for all but the privileged minority. The gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, it has been reported that the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest. Why are we surprised that a cultural and financial backdrop such as this would eventually provoke hostility? Social mobility in the UK is one of the lowest of any other developed nation. For many it is not just about where they are now, it is the heartbreaking realisation that no matter what legitimate efforts they make, there is no room to manoeuvre themselves to a better life. It is the total absence of hope.

In the last year we have seen numerous protests amidst the toughest austerity measures since World War Two, students have taken to the streets as university tuition fees have been hiked, teachers have walked out on strike after cuts to their pensions and a proposed raising of the retirement age means they will be working longer and paying increased contributions, to receive less upon retirement.

Over 450,000 public sector jobs are to be axed; the Child Trust Fund has been discontinued. The social housing budget has been slashed by 50%, and housing associations will now be able to charge 80% of the market rent rate, rather than their formerly subsided rents. In March this year Chancellor George Osbourne presented his budget to the nation and unveiled plans to cut the Winter Fuel Allowance for pensioners, reducing it by £50 for the over 60s and £100 for the over 80s.

Meanwhile, the cost of living has soared as energy suppliers have hiked their tariffs, just last month, Scottish and Southern Energy increased their fuel for electricity and gas by 11 and 18% respectively. This, following a price hike by British Gas of 16 and 18%, and Scottish Power’s early-June price increase of 10% and 19%.

Across the country maternity wards have been closed down, funding for “non-essential” services, such as youth clubs, withdrawn, in March this year £5.7 million was cut from the budget in the London borough of Southwark from children’s social care and safeguarding services (a trend that continued throughout other London boroughs and county councils across the country).

Working Tax Credits, a top-up for families on low incomes and a lifeline to many, is due to be slashed in 2012 to be replaced with a “universal credit”, for which the qualifying criteria has been kept a closely guarded secret amidst fear of further protests, VAT has risen to 20%, whilst proposed cuts to police numbers could mean over 16,000 police officers (ironically the same number deployed to London in recent days), 1800 community support officers and 16,100 police staff jobs are axed.

According to recent figures from the International Labour Organisation there are now 2.45 million unemployed in Britain, which is over 7% of the workforce, there are 1.52 million claiming benefits, and yet somehow the rich still seem to be getting richer, the bankers are still receiving their bonuses while the bakers are no longer able to put bread on their own tables.

The mood of the country is black, so many have lost heart in the agencies that are meant to help them as under-resourced Social Services teams struggle to cope with crippling caseloads and more children in need go unchecked (as the horrific death of baby Peter Connolly in Haringey so grotesquely demonstrated in 2007 when authorities failed to detect the 50 injuries, including a broken back, that the 17-month-old infant had sustained over an 8-month period).

Hospitals have fewer beds and chronic staff shortages, local mental health teams increasingly overstretched with the number of people in distress can offer only the paltriest of help to their most vulnerable residents. Even in my own leafy enclave of East Sussex, a far cry from the ghettos of London, community crisis teams have been instructed that they are only to respond to the “actively suicidal”, which by anyone’s standards seems a little late.

And amidst this increasingly fractured backdrop a disturbing culture of social exclusion has been nurtured, alienated from a society that can’t and won’t offer any other option to the crushing poverty of so many, new, self-governing communities have been fostered. Communities where teenage gangs take the place of disintegrating family units, gang leaders or “elders” offer crime as a viable alternative to countless applications for the few available menial jobs. Relationships with the authorities have broken down as the discourse between the powerful and the powerless becomes increasingly fractious.

Whilst working in South Africa in 2005 I witnessed something similar among that country’s poorest residents, speaking to me then about the loss of youngsters to criminal gangs Inspector Bernadine Steyn of the South African Police Service (SAPS) said: “The high unemployment rate is a factor. Drug lords and gang leaders create job opportunities for individuals seeking a means to support their families financially. Gangsterism is in fact a very lucrative business”.

Over the last few days I have seen dozens of comments across social networking sites about the “sheer criminality” of what has transpired in the UK this week, people lamenting the fact that looters have chosen to smash up “their own backyard without cause” as reasoning that these riots are not politically motivated, that it is just mob-rule at its most base.

But to take this stand is surely to miss the point, across the world, it is the poorest, most socially excluded societies that are the most dangerous, from the townships of South Africa to the favelas of Brazil, it is the most deprived conurbations that fall victim to the highest crime rates and social dysfunction. Scratch the surface of any unequal society and you will find almost endemic lawlessness within the pockets of poverty.

London, of course, is not Cape Town or Brazil, but poverty is poverty, whether it is Peckham or Pretoria. There is also another difference between the trouble-spots of the developing world and Britain, in South Africa the problems are not just racial segregation, they are also spacial. The townships sprawl on the outskirts of the cities, a far cry from the salubrious suburbs inhabited by the (predominantly) wealthy whites.

In London the haves live side-by-side with the have-nots as more and more gritty working class areas such as Clapham and Hoxton are gentrified by the Cappuccino Set. In the case of Hoxton, in the London borough of Hackney, the arrival of trendy highflyers from the city’s west priced many local people out of their home borough, it was not unusual in the nineties to see local residents  wandering around with tee-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Fu*k off back to Notting Hill” across them.

The polarities of rich and poor in these areas are everywhere, and it is not difficult to understand the simmering resentment that this causes when people who already feel disengaged from society begin to feel they do not even belong where they were born and raised.  As Camila Batmanghelidjh wrote in her searingly moving piece for The Independent this week: “It’s not one occasional attack on dignity, it’s a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped. Savagery is a possibility within us all. Some of us have been lucky enough not to have to call upon it for survival; others, exhausted from failure, can justify resorting to it.”

We have fostered a society for the last three decades driven by an insatiable desire for ever-greater consumption, we have been encouraged to attribute our self-worth to our brand of TV or mobile phone, to dig ourselves further into debt to finance aspirational lifestyles way beyond our means. What we have witnessed in our country over the past week has been a distortion of those ideals, grisly tableaux of a consumer society at its most savage.

Looters perusing the aisles of smashed up department stores holding items of clothing up to themselves to see if they fit before stealing them, rifling through the rubble of merchandise for their favourite brand, to call it “criminal opportunism”, as it has been branded by so many this week, is exactly right, it is opportunism in the face of a society where precious little opportunities exist.

Where people are tired of being bottom of the food chain in a suffocating class structure that enables only the very few to succeed and where the young are so disaffected with a community that appears to care very little about them that they have ceased to care about it. To coin Oliver James’ phrase, it is “affluenza” at its most ugly.

And as the clean-up of our major cities gets under way, it is not just the smashed in windows and burnt out buildings that we need to worry about, those things can be fixed, and soon it will be business as usual as the tills start ringing again. In the early nineties indie band Carter USM wrote widely about what it felt like to live on the breadline in London.

When I was 16 I watched them play to a packed crowd in Finsbury Park, three miles away from Tottenham: “All of my unworldly goods, the bailiffs took them too”, they sang, “for all the ducked bills and silly sods from Brian Mills’ catalogue, something borrowed, bartered and blew.

“You win some and you lose some and you save nothing for a rainy day, you need your NutraSweet daddy, some peppermint paddy or just a hackneyed old cabbie, who can drive you and your babby away”. Not much has changed since then for the likes of Britain’s poor. It is not just our cities that have been broken, it is also our people.

 © Laury Jeanneret, 2011.

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