Saturday, 20 August 2011

My rambling thoughts on them there rioty things...

I’ve been away on my holidays to Canada and while I’ve been away some riots have happened. So I thought I should jump on the bandwagon, now it has passed completely, and blog about them.

Firstly, I always speak about riots in a personal way. In 2001 I had a job at a bookshop on the edge of Bradford city centre. That fateful Saturday in July I was leaving work in the evening. Customers have been suggesting that something might have been about to kick-off all day. I had to cross the city centre to get to Forster Square train station to get home. I walked down towards Centenary Square and my way was blocked, so I ducked around the back of the City Hall through Norfolk Gardens and as I again tried to turn towards Market Street I was faced by a charging crowd with a lot of riot police and horses pushing the crowd towards Broadway. I fled in panic across Hall Ings up to the Interchange and jumped on a bus to my dad’s house on the other side of the city. It was a truly terrifying event.

But the broader context says a lot about what happened that weekend. I was going to get the train to escape to the broadly white suburb of Baildon, which my parents have chosen to move to, to get out of inner-city Manningham. The bus I got to my dad’s house would have ordinarily gone through Manningham, down Lumb Lane where a lot of the rioting took place. It was diverted around the edge of the area through decidedly working class peripheral housing estates. The suburb my dad lives in was/is slowly becoming more culturally mixed. A house around the corner has a Pakistani flag flying from it. And the affluent white workers who originally bought the houses in the 1960s are dying or moving further out of the city.  So, there was a major incident of mindless violence, and a broad context of 50 years of difficult socio-economic change in a city with a lot of inequality, spatially reflected and exacerbated by racism.

As a result of this personal experience, I found the disconnect of being 5,000 miles away while the present riots were going on particularly weird and difficult. I wanted to know more. I eventually gave up on Twitter as my Twitterstream matched the joke tweet that was doing the rounds along the lines of “[insert political view in here] caused the riots”. I ended up relying on the BBC to filter my information, using their old school skill of “editing”. But, the impact of rolling news and social media are the two things I do want to know more about and wished I could have been in the UK (or at least not eight time zones away) where I could have experienced these “live”, so to speak.

Linking to my experiences of Bradford, probably what caused the riots was the mindless violence in and amongst broader context. As a social democrat, I actually put the blame for the mindless violence at the very Conservatives who espouse moral values. It’s their selfish liberalism that has led to a decay in civic virtue, in my humble opinion.

A couple of extra thoughts for. Comments on geography and the riots have confused. People have commented that it’s not surprise that people in London rioted when they live cheek-by-jowl with such obvious affluence. I don’t necessarily disagree with the statement. But others have gone onto suggest, for example, that the riots didn’t happen in Scotland because we’ve been more successful at shifting people out to peripheral social housing estates. That doesn’t really explain what happened in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham. I wonder how “included” in the fabric of the city people in Wythenshawe or The Meadows feel? And I think this overlooks something I’ve always found very striking in London – yes you may live next door to those experiencing poverty and social exclusion, but in terms of planning and design, these are still quite “peripheral”. Many of these estates literally look like castles – turning their backs on the (now) luxury Georgian and Victorian houses in the rest of the neighbourhood. The main reason London doesn’t have peripheral estates is Abercrombie’s County of London Plan. This put the affluent worker out in the New Towns and rebuilt the inner city, so that before the gentrifiers came in, the grand houses of Notting Hill and the like, were the Rachman slums and the new Council estates were the luxury new housing for the “respectable” working class. Sixty years later and the places have swapped. So, all-in-all, not entirely convinced by the geographical proximity argument.

I want to say something more controversial and I think I’ll get trolled for this. I’ve only ever seen one blog that has also broached this issue. The one thing that really troubled me about the riots was the treatment of the clean-up afterwards – specifically all the broom-wielding people. I remember after the Bradford riots the many interviews on the local and national news with local businesses and homeowners clearing up with their “brooms”. The questions in these interviews with predominantly Asian community members were searching for “the answer”; it was almost implicit that they were partly to blame. There was no valorising of their brave “British”. They were part of the problem population. They were as much to blame as the rioters and barely deserved sympathy or support. They should be more like “us” (in our safe white suburbs). (Following added after a tweet pointed out I'd not made my point) On the other hand, the broom brigade (arguably local gentrifiers) were portrayed as the vanguard of community in the face of the riots. Communities will have to clean up after riots. This difference in media presentation troubled me. After the dust has settled I'd like to see some content and discourse analysis carried out on how these different events have been portrayed over time.

And I write all this as someone who was brought up in a safe, white suburb and is now a gentrifier, who finds the anti-social behaviour of local kids and the methadone ‘scrip queue in the local Boots very difficult to deal with. I have some thoughts about “solutions”, inequality and the Moving to Opportunity programme linked to that. But I’ll save them for now.