Tag Archives: riot

Steel bars and shutters

I had visited Brazil a few times before I moved here to live, so I was aware that they take security pretty seriously. Supermarkets and banks have armed guards, apartment blocks are surrounded by impenetrable steel cages, and all the police are armed – even the humblest traffic cop.

But when I moved into my house, a few things struck me as unusual. Every window has steel bars – like a jail – and both the front and back doors are protected by big steel bars too.

When I moved in, it was unnerving and unusual. My front door in Muswell Hill opened onto the street, my front door in Ealing was not facing the street, but there was nothing to stop anyone walking up to the door. The open spaces at the front of houses, gardens for example, just don’t really exist here. If a house or apartment black has a garden then it is behind bars so only the residents can possibly access it.

Walking down a main street late at night is also strange. Every shop, bar or restaurant will have steel shutters. I know there are some shops in London that pull shutters down at night, but not every single shop. It’s quite normal to walk past shops late at night where only a pane of glass stands between you and their stock.

This sense of security makes me think of when I have visited Luxembourg. The head of state lives in a palace in the city centre that any member of the public can approach. You can walk up and have a look through the window. They don’t feel any need to erect barriers.

Quite a contrast to the average apartment-dweller in Brazil who only feels safe living inside a cage.

But, with the riots in London and across the UK over the past week, will this fear of the unknown and underclass pervade society so bars go up and steel shutters become essential?

I hope not, but I’m expecting the worst.

Palaisde Luxembourg

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Reclaim Ealing

When the Arab spring took place, earlier this year, it was because millions of ordinary people had finally grown tired of dictators plundering their national resource and ruling over their lives. It was an ideological uprising to create fairer societies across the Middle East and North Africa.

When the Greek people took to the streets this year, it was over a sense of outrage at the mismanagement of their national economy – the government forcing austerity measures on working people that resulted in enormous job losses and pay cuts for public workers.

When the Metropolitan police shot Mark Duggan dead last week without him being in a position to attack them with a firearm (all the facts are still to come out in the inquiry, but it appears he posed no threat), they made a grave error. It led to protests from the family and then the local community – ending up in the localised rioting in Tottenham.

There has not been any rioting in London for a long time. Sure, there were a lot of student protests recently – one resulting in a jail term for the son of a rock star – and some anti-war protests like the big march in 2003, but nothing like this. The nearest I can remember to this was the 1990 poll tax rioting and even that was concentrated around a single area rather than spreading across the whole of London, like we have seen this week.

It seems just something burst in the collective consciousness of the criminal underclass this week. Seeing the riots in Tottenham galvanised a sense of injustice – especially against the police – and soon riots were taking place all over the capital, though they were particularly nasty in Hackney, Croydon, and Ealing.

Being a resident of Ealing until recently, all I could do was sit here in São Paulo watching the BBC news live updates and following the discussion on Twitter. Watching Ealing go up in flames without being there to actively do something was a very strange – and emotional – experience.

Of course, there is not much I could personally have done if I was there – what does anyone do if thugs are rampaging down the street setting cars on fire? But, I could see people I know from the local community – including many councillors and the council leader – getting messages online, warning of trouble, calling the fire brigade… actively helping their neighbours.

The tragic thing about this violence is that it has no objective, it’s just the violent outrage of frustration. If these kids really wanted to change the way companies like McDonald’s operate then getting the staff into a union or campaigning for fair wages and conditions would lead to a better outcome for everyone – rather than just bashing in the window of every branch they see.

And by looting, any sense of outrage or protest has been destroyed. London has been taken over by thugs who don’t even have a political message. Some are claiming it’s because of youth club cuts and youth unemployment. Nonsense – it’s just the criminal destruction of property by those who don’t even understand what they want or why.

At least the class warriors of the left, who used to cause trouble for business owners, had some form of objective – even if it was as simply stated as ‘smashing capitalism’ (even though the smashers were often educated property-owners).

The threat of Irish nationalist terrorism that only ceased recently, and also caused chaos in Ealing in the past decade, was also more understandable. There was a political debate to be had, even if it was always impossible to debate issues when one side used bombs.

But these riots are meaningless. They have no objective or planned outcome. And perhaps this is the most dangerous thing of all for a government that is now implementing possibly the largest ever cut-back in public sector jobs. If the disaffected youth think they have it bad right now, then just wait for another year… our trading partners in Europe are struggling and hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs are about to vanish.

I am visiting Ealing soon – later this month. And I had arranged a large local community event that will be on September 1st. I hope many more local residents come along to it now than were going to before these terrible riots – there will be many of those local councillors who were doing such a great job at the event, and at least one of the local MPs.

The tweetup may in some ways just be about having a pint and listening to some great live music, but since I started arranging these nights in early 2009, I met many local people and found new friends in my local community.

Ealing needs the local community right now and if social media is going to take some of the blame for helping rioters to focus on new targets then it should also be used to bring the community closer together.

Click here to register for the Ealing Tweetup…

Red Lion Ealing

The Met get their men, at last…

To say that justice was not done back in 1993 when black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in London is an understatement. It is to the credit of the Metropolitan police – written off as institutionally racist during the investigation into this case – that they have now charged two suspects with the murder.

It’s eighteen years since the crime and Stephen Lawrence was just 18 when he died. The suspects in the 1996 trial were obviously guilty as far as the general public were concerned – their criminal families were even caught trying to nobble the jury – but the judge could not sentence them without reasonable doubt.

In short, the scientific evidence at that time was just not good enough for a safe conviction even if every copper in London knew in their bones that they had caught the right guys. So it’s pleasing to hear that the boffins have improved their analysis of the evidence and found compelling new evidence that should be heard in court – leading to the arrest of these two suspects, one of whom has already stood trial for the murder back in the 90s.

Because the double jeopardy rules have changed – it used to be impossible to be tried again for a crime you were previously acquitted of – they are now going to have to stand trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Lawrence, with the CPS presenting fresh new evidence even after all this time. These sweeping changes to the criminal justice system in the UK were made largely because of the Stephen Lawrence case.

This reopened case is important, not least because it may finally achieve justice for the Lawrence family, but also because the reputation of the police service in London was dragged through the mud after this case collapsed. The police were accused of being racist Neanderthals, not much better than the murderers, and certainly not bothered about the loss of a black kid from a rough neighbourhood.

It took a long time for anyone to acknowledge that Stephen Lawrence was a talented kid with a good school record and no criminal record and he was working hard to become an architect. The Royal Institute of British Architects now holds an annual prize in his name and memory.

Justice won’t bring back a murdered individual, but in this case it can remove the bitterness the family – and nation – feels that these thugs got away with it for so long. It also goes some way towards rehabilitating the reputation of the Metropolitan police, who have never quite got beyond the ‘Gene Hunt’ school of policing in the opinion of most middle-class Londoners.

I wont forget this case myself because I was at the 1998 inquiry in person as the London representative of Amnesty International. As the five accused men left the inquiry, a sea of hundreds of – mostly black – Londoners closed in and pelted them. Being close to the front of the crowd, half the missiles were raining down on me and the people nearby!

At one point, I looked up and a steel ladder was flying overhead… Some of the accused men actually traded punches with the crowd, with the police desperately trying to prevent a full-scale riot in Elephant and Castle.

Let’s hope that this time, the Met get their men. It’s been a long time coming.

The Old Bailey

Common Sense in Egypt

In ‘Common Sense’ his (anonymously published) pamphlet on the creation of government and society, Thomas Paine described how a ramshackle group of people might form a government:

“Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which, the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man, by natural right will have a seat.”

Paine published this in 1776, in the midst of the American revolution. It aimed to remind the American people of the kind of government they should be creating – representative and democratic – with every voice heard. An organisation that remembers it is representative of the people, and not that the people are subjagated by it.

Governments today are often not like this. Politicians are power-hungry and fly around the world in private jets, enjoy limousines to ferry them from one meeting to the next, and far from representing the people of their country, they often become an untouchable elite answerable only to themselves.

Not every politician is like this. It still pleases me to see political representatives in ‘normal’ situations, such as on the bus or underground. I met (until recently shadow chancellor) Alan Johnson on the tube once and he explained to me that it is the best way to get around London. This is the kind of pragmatic ‘normal’ behaviour that keeps elected officials closer to the people they are supposed to represent.

But away from England and America, there are far more despotic regimes where leaders suck wealth from their people and enjoy a life most can only dream of. Often the people on the streets don’t even get a real chance to elect or choose those leaders, and if they do get an election, it’s rigged anyway.

Revolution has been the historic answer, sweeping away a corrupt regime and introducing a fairer society. However revolution is hard to control and even harder to create – it doesn’t just happen because people are fed up.

But look at what is now happening in north Africa. The people of Tunisia rose up and removed their corrupt government. It’s overstating the power of the Internet to suggest that this was a social media revolution, but the fact is that 1 in 5 Tunisians is on Facebook – and this was a major contributory factor in spreading the news of the initial suicide that sparked the protests.

The Tunisian leaders failed to block the Internet in time. Egypt has seen protests all week now and the protestors have used the Internet (#j25) to promote the idea of a mass protest by the entire nation today after prayers. The police chiefs have already warned the government that if the protesting crowds swell to anything greater than 70,000 people then the police will be overwhelmed and can offer the government no protection.

Naturally, the government has banned access to the Internet.

Whatever happens today in Egypt, revolution or not, it will be reported on and spread throughout the world. A light will spark in the mind of every person dissatisfied with the way their leaders fail to represent the people – especially those leaders who sit in power for decades, only to hand the riches of office to their own children. Since when could a government leader believe that they own the right to hand power to their child? It’s surprising just how many leaders still behave this way.

Not for much longer.

Julian Assange may have been vilified by the USA for his Wikileaks website, but what he showed the world is that any government – even one that proclaims to be democratic – needs to answer to the people who elected them.

And the Internet is now handing power, and freedom, back to the people.
Big Ben in front of the sun

Students smashing shop windows in London

Students are tearing up London today. There are riots as a reaction to the government plans to triple the maximum annual tuition fee, from £3,000 to £9,000.

I can understand the depth of feeling. I think that as we face increased global competition, a country like the UK has to educate our young people if they are to compete. We can’t compete internationally with an uneducated workforce – low-cost skills can easily be sourced elsewhere for much less than they cost locally in the UK.

And I was recently working in Malta, the smallest EU nation, where they still pay students to study. Course fees are all covered by the government and the students receive a stipend… cash straight into their pocket. It used to be like that when I was a student in the 1980s, though I was studying right towards the end of the glory days when it was free to study and you got a grant just for being a student.

Tripling the cost of education when we need more educated young people is outrageous, but I don’t think any students have helped their cause today by smashing up London. Most people in the UK are more concerned about the 500,000 public-sector jobs that are about to vanish – and probably a similar number in the private sector that were supporting those public-sector people. That’s a million people on the dole soon.

Do the students really think that their desire to study for free is considered more urgent or important than millions of workers being cast out to the wilderness of unemployment?

The NUS can’t demand that Lib Dem politicians keep their pledges. Our electoral system created a coalition. That meant the two parties agreed to compromise and one of the pledges made by the Lib Dems was lost in the agreement. End of story. Do they really think that smashing up the city is going to get Nick Clegg to change his mind on this? And much as I sympathise with them, I’m afraid most people won’t be sympathetic… students tearing up the city and breaking windows while others lose their jobs.

Where do you think public sympathy is going to go?

Lse library