“Whatever ends your from put your ballys on link up and cause havic.”
— Blackberry message from a London rioter
I’m a veteran rioter. My first, at 15, was when – for racial solidarity and sheer adrenalin rush – I jumped aboard a motorized cavalcade of Jewish tough guys roaring off my Chicago turf into a nearby Italian-American neighborhood to beat up ethnic enemies who, it was rumored, had dissed ‘our’ women and bust up our hangout joints.
Later, when I arrived in England, broke and illegal, in the late Fifties it took about five minutes of sleeping rough under Charing Cross bridge to wipe out any illusions I had about peaceful, bucolic, consensual, nonviolent London derived from films like ‘Mrs Miniver’ and ‘Passport to Pimlico’. On my second day drunken yobs, in pre-Doc Marten steeltipped boots, tried kicking my head in Trafalgar Square. In Earls Court, Mosleyite fascists, whom I’d lightly heckled, chased and cornered me in full sight of Dixon-of-Dock-Green bobbies who just short of cheering them on let them bang away without interfering.
Since I felt inadequate around serious writers and intellectuals – at 30, I was a late starter – I found my métier and first friends among Teddy Boys and ‘juvenile delinquents’ on the same London streets that have now erupted. They loved my crazy Hollywood tales, and that I’d known their idol James Dean. With them I relapsed into a sort of delayed adolescence. All the boys and girls were eleven-plus failures from Paddington and Hammersmith ‘sink estates’. One or two of the girls were on the game, and the boys loved a punchup to break up the boredom. Up the Seven Sisters Road in Islington they brought me along for a dance hall ruction where a boy was knifed to death in front of me. (I was stabbed, too, but not seriously only to test if I had the bottle to keep shtum to the police.)
If you were an American reporter in the UK insatiably curious about, and wanting to understand, what was really happening below stairs, you had to have a taste for violence or you’d miss the whole story, of who did what to whom and why in, essentially, a class war. Thus, I found myself on the wrong side of the Notting Hill race riots when black folks around Elgin Crescent were attacked – by my white teenage friends – with broken bottles and bricks. At that time the difference between the neo-Nazi National Front and seemingly average Teds and greasers was not always visible. At the Old Bailey I gave character references from the dock to no avail; Mr Justice Salmon handed down “salutary” prison sentences which immediately stopped the riots.
It depends which side you find yourself on.
As a friend of the mob, I got involved in the 1980s with rebel ‘half castes’ of Liverpool 8’s Toxteth and Moss Side when it was “us” against the police, Black Power vs The Man, an angry, violent, semi-political statement about sus laws and ghettoisation. My best Liverpool friend got sent for affray to Wakefield prison.
Then I got a house in Kentish Town and suddenly was on the other side.
I’d leave my house for a stroll around the neighborhood by the nearby graffiti-and-piss-in-the-lift–shaft estate, a prison compound in all but name, where the kids, all white and some as young as six or seven, would set upon and try to rob me. If I kicked one in self-defense, he’d run home and tell his da’ or big brother, and I had to bunk off fast. On my own street, in my own neighborhood.
And then, on re-emigrating to California, I ran into the 1992 Los Angeles riots – or “people’s uprising” or “civil unrest” depending on how you “contextualize” 53 dead and $1 billion damage. Rioters, tooled up and in cars, came very close to where I live, destroying and shooting. They halted only a few streets away, shying off at the invisible class wall that divides black-and-brown LA from the more tightly policed, richer,white-ish Bel Air, Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Noticeably, today’s London erupters didn’t trash Belgravia or Knightsbridge either.
The Los Angeles police department, like its current London counterpart, despite plenty of advance warning, had been caught leaderless and incompetent, its chief a known racist. Order was not restored until the military, the National Guard, came in with bayonets fixed.
The British police are in a pickle. Historically, hoodie violence – this also goes for the 2005 Paris banlieue riots – touches off when cops kill or maim a young civilian usually of colour. But then, in a classic Catch-22, comes the demand that these very same police “crack down” harder when it was their behavior that triggered it all in the first place. (The LA riots exploded when white policemen were videod beating crap out of a black petty criminal, Rodney King, and cleared by a mostly white jury.)
I hated Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’. Way over the top, vindictive, anti-youth, I thought on first viewing. But that was before Blackberry and Tweet condensed tribal patois into this current electronic language at once creative, illiterate, and terrifying. Hip hop meets J.G. Ballard.
It depends on whether you’re up looking down or down looking up.
The overture to the present riots, in the midst of huge youth unemployment, was a Royal wedding enjoyed by many as a morale-boosting spectacle or perhaps felt by some as a wet fish smacked across the face. All that finery! Kate’s $400,000 dress, the $800,000 flower display, $78,000 cake – and 5000 policemen to guard the royals when only a fraction of that number were sent to the Tottenham trouble. The message was unmistakable. As also was the Piccadilly incident, a few weeks before the wedding, when cuts-protesting students attacked Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in their Rolls Royce.
During the 1984 miners’ strike the police, truncheons drawn and mounted on horses, ran over the strikers in the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in south Yorkshire in what was really a police riot. They had learned entirely new battle tactics from the Toxteth and Brixton riots. Mrs Thatcher whipped the miners in ’84 by creating – ominously – a centralized, computerized, military-style British police organization that is also currently leaderless but if rushed out now in panic with Robocops armed with heavier weapons, will turn out to be a real Frankenstein monster which to many people on the streets it already is.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org