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Black Sky Thinking

Uncivil Disorder: The Quietus' Personal View Of The Hackney Riots
Luke Turner , August 9th, 2011 08:56

Last night's rioting took place at the end of and along Luke Turner's street. Here is his view on the trouble

At about six o'clock last night Abdullah, the owner of the Clapton Palm, was to be seen wearing a crash helmet as he brought his stock inside and shuttered up his business. The Clapton Palm is something of a Hackney success story. A large general store situated on the corner of Lower Clapton Road (formerly Murder Mile), Abdullah and his Turkish family have made a roaring success of their business, even as Tesco opened yet another branch right next door. As the donning of his crash helmet suggested, Abdullah is something of a showman, but also a man who cares deeply about his local area, and his people. "I cannot fail and let Tesco win," he told me once, "I would have to send so many people from my family back home."

Half an hour earlier, I'd walked up from Hackney Downs Station through the Pembury Estate to my house. Upturned wheelie bins burned in the middle of the road surrounded by broken glass, and kids, their faces covered, were stockpiling bricks. The atmosphere was extremely tense, claustrophobic, and heavy, but I must state that at no time did I feel personally threatened despite being, in my white linen-jacketed way, an obvious target for muggers.

As the evening went on, the neighbourhood sat under a cacophony of helicopters, sirens, shouts, crashes, burglar alarms. Leaning out of the window, I could see youths ripping up paving stones, and pulling a bollard from its foundations. As the police finally seemed to take control of the situation, vans thundering past the end of my road, the kids poured down between the houses. What was remarkable was how young they were, all in their early to mid-teens, the girls necking Lambrini, goading the boys. On my train from Seven Sisters to Hackney Downs shortly beforehand were three girls heading down to join the fun and discussing the boys they fancied who were joining in the rioting. There were also, sadly, a lot of older people egging the younger ones on.

The BBC helicopter, hovering overhead, showed the police and rioters going back and forth, cars being set on fire and, most infuriatingly of all, a local convenience shop owned and run by people from our local area, being ransacked. Because if there's something that has struck me about this four days of rioting, and seeing the laughing faces of those who were perpetrating it, was its nihilism. This was community self-harm mixed with a peculiar brand of materialism, as kids smashed in windows to acquire trainers, sportswear and high-end electrical goods. It is worth noting that the ones I'd seen preparing for confrontation on my walk through Hackney were not exactly lacking in the accoutrements of street style.

But that is only part of the story. The area of Hackney where I live is no longer the bleak, prostitution and drug-riddled sinkhole that it was ten years ago. I spoke to one taxi driver who had lived on the Pembury Estate (from where most of the trouble seems to have come) describing how drug gangs would force him to drive around London, pay his fare, then pull a gun on him and demand it back. He moved out to Leyton, and told me he would not bring his black son up in Hackney. He was full of praise for the massive changes - and yes, gentrification - that has happened in the Borough over the past ten years. The Pembury Estate has recently undergone a massive refurbishment programme.

The nearest secondary school to Clarence Road, where most of the violence took place, is the Mossbourne Academy. This was built on the site of the Hackney Downs School (former pupil, Harold Pinter) that in the 1990s was described as "the worst school in Britain". Earlier this year, Mossbourne Academy was praised as "a spectacular breakthrough" by Ofstead. And it's important to note, for fear of this being hijacked by the racists of the BNP and the English Defence League, that just across Hackney Downs in Dalston, groups of Turkish men were rallying around and defending their businesses and local residents.

But for all these positives, Hackney is a divided place. Last Wednesday at 5am I was awakened by yet another police helicopter, operating as part of a huge drug bust against local postcode gangs, of which there are three within a one minute walk from my house. When I lived one street over, in a failed 1990 social housing estate called Mother's Square (which has its own gang, the Mother's Square Boys), I wasn't surprised to awake one morning and find one of the flats locked down under metal grill, with a notice on the door saying that a crack den had been closed. Everyone knew it was a crack den, youths hanging around at all hours, the occasional nocturnal shout ("he merked me man", "get in the fucking car") or intimidating, revving circuits by sports car. You know who the gang members are. You walk home from the pub behind three youths, see one of them pull a knife from his back pocket, and twirl it round his head. But you do nothing. The gangs don't bother you, you don't bother the gangs.

From the look of things last night, it was the members of, or 'apprentices' to, these groups who were carrying out most of the core violence, while an excitable and impressionable group of younger kids stood just behind their lines. And this is what is most worrying. If, as the Catch A Looter website suggests, these people are so idiotic as to post pictures of themselves brandishing stolen goods (including a bag of rice) online, what is the mentality that led them to steal in the first place? Yes, government cuts in local services, Sure Start and the Educational Maintenance Allowance are undoubtedly part of the problem, but there are also tough and uncomfortable truths that stretch back way beyond the 2010 general election.

Perhaps some of these issues are those that the left sometimes feels uncomfortable discussing: a lack of discipline in schools, for instance, the impact of the breakdown on the family structure, a disconnect between police and community combined with hardly any regular patrols. Where were the parents of the children rioting last night? What would they say when their offspring come home with a new telly or armful of clothes? We live in a society where the capital expended at the top end rarely filters downwards, and the harsh reality is that we do seem to have a generation growing up, some of whom appear to have minimal intellect or social awareness, and zero interest in anything save materialism. This morning, when I walked to work down remarkably clean streets (only the burned out vehicles remained) there were groups of kids hanging around, angry that "they'll" be closing down BBM and Facebook. Other local people just stood in the street, looking worried and depressed.

It's hard to know how we can have better community integration in areas like Hackney, to create a situation where it doesn't feel as if we're different groups orbiting around each other and never communicating. Someone on Twitter described this situation well: "a multiracial monoculture". Abdullah and his family at the Clapton Palm, along with the Turkish restaurant across the road who recommend music from their homeland when I go in for a lahmacun, are evidence that this is happening. These riots are two steps back. As I type, the internet suggests that we're in for another night of it. Who knows where it will all end. But the last word ought to belong to the woman who made a defiant speech next to the post box that sits pretty much opposite the end of my street. Let's hope that among the over one million people who have listened to her words are some of those intent on rioting tonight.