Demonizing the Young Won’t Heal Our Cities
The resilience of Londoners approaches cultural cliché. Just up from Camden Lock, on the morning after the worst night of civil unrest in living memory, people were going back and forth with brooms and bin bags, looking for something left to clean. The glass, debris and burning bins from the previous night's riots had already been swept away by the first eager Londoners to arrive. Five women, some white, some Asian, were holding large pink signs reading "free hugs". They had already been to Brixton.
I accepted a cuddle. It was that sort of morning. Across London, an enormous clean-up campaign swept through the shattered boroughs, organised over the same social networks that rioters had used to co-ordinate looting and arson. It quickly became clear that social media, contrary to initial panicked reports, was morally neutral in this crisis. In Clapham Junction, hundreds of people stood together and raised their brooms. Some had come from across the city to show support. The website that had been set up only hours earlier to bring together cleaning campaigns crashed due to a surge of traffic from volunteers.
Elsewhere, stories of solidarity were filtering through over the feeds: of local Jewish and Muslim youths banding together to protect a Stamford Hill synagogue from rioters, of anarchist groups in Hackney putting out fires where the emergency services were stretched. People called their friends to check that they were safe and opened their homes to strangers who had no way of crossing town. This, commentators began to assure each other, was the "real Britain". As I write, no member of the beleaguered cabinet has yet dared to use the term "Big Society".
The narrative being encouraged by most politicians is one of social division: of "us" and "them", of "real" British citizens mopping up after the "mindless" young hooligans.
Party leaders vow to punish looters who, they insist, are engaging in a “pure criminality" with no social precedent. Right-wing commentators pointed the finger at multiculturalism, single parents - anything except austerity and unemployment. Twitter was alight with racist indignation on Tuesday morning, and some people discussing the clean-up urged volunteers to "sweep away the scum". News outlets trying to explain the chaos focused on social media rather than social breakdown.
New broom needed
A clean-up operation is one thing, but vigilantism on the streets is quite another. The impulse to defend one's community is absolutely understandable, and citizens cannot be faulted for organising to patrol their neighbourhoods against arson attacks, but reports of gangs of EDL members yelling racist slogans at young black men in Eltham are extremely worrying. So are the professed liberals calling for water cannon and rubber bullets to be deployed.
Those using the various manifestations of this "fight back" to confirm their own prejudices would do well to remember how the Clapham broom brigade reacted when Boris Johnson arrived to congratulate them on their hard work. Shouts of "this is your fault" and "how was your holiday, Boris?" greeted the mayor, who had only just returned after three days of rioting to "take charge".
He did so by making helpers clear the area and pause their clean-up operation while he posed, broom in hand, for press photos. He then put down the broom and made a hasty exit from a crowd murmuring about closed community centres.
As panicked politicians with little understanding of social disorder fight to reclaim the narrative, it is vital that we resist the easy story of "us" and "them". Because the truth is that it's all "us". The disorder will continue until we acknowledge that the young people who rampaged through Manchester, Liverpool, Brixton, Tottenham and 50 boroughs of London are as much a part of the "real Britain" as those who nobly came out the next morning to clear the debris from their trashed high streets. The language of "true Brits" defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots.
Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.