Swans Commentary » swans.com November 21, 2011  



Looters And Consumers


by Peter Byrne





"A great-grandfather has been named as the oldest looter to take part in the London riots. Thomas Hart, 69, of Forest Hill, who used a walking stick to attend Camberwell magistrates court, admitted looting with a group of teenagers in Lewisham on August 8. He pleaded guilty to stealing three jumpers from JD Sports. Outside court, he said: 'I was stupid. I'd had a good drink.' He was given unconditional bail and will be sentenced at Inner London Crown Court for burglary."

London Evening Standard, October 28, 2011.


(Swans - November 21, 2011)   I stretched out on a bed in London on the evening of August 8th. I was fully clothed and left a bright light burning. I had to leave for the airport at three-thirty a.m. and decided not to go to sleep at all. I paged through a pile of used books gathered from charity shops. Dawdling in these places took a shameful amount of my time. They attracted me as a sort of parallel world. There was shiny commercial London and there was this shabby copycat one.

The existence of charity shops had been explained to me as a rates dodge. Storeowners had to pay taxes on their premises even when empty. But they could reduce the amount by letting charities occupy the unused space. So you had the British Heart Foundation shop, the Cancer Research U.K. shop, the People's Pet Aid Charity shop, the Octavia Foundation shop, and the All Aboard Working for Charity shop. There were also Oxfam, Shelter, and many more. British charity was booming and the cute part was that some of it came back to property owners.

So charity here couldn't be understood biblically. It was gift giving kept well within the ramshackle framework of capitalism, which meant there was also some gift exploiting going on. There was no getting away from the grand old system in a city where Marx had put the finishing touches on its portrait. Even the four-footed inhabitants of London know about the class war. When a wayward alley cat wanders into a better neighborhood its whiskers twitch with trepidation. A leashed pet in Mayfair or South Kensington has the confident demeanor of a stroller on the right side of the status quo. But let's stay with the higher animals, the kind that center much of their life on shopping.

In the charity shops the poor can indulge in the same ritual as the affluent. They can go on shopping binges. They can spend too much. They can seek out bargains. They can exercise their guile by returning purchases to get their money back. They can also be as spikily determined as shoppers in an upmarket store like Harrods. The only difference is that they are buying junk, stuff that the better-off have thrown out. Still, the system has made a place for them. Democracy has stood the test. They haven't been left out.

Some of the books in my pile smelled of grandfather's money. Some of exotic tobacco. There were odd bookmarks of dead readers who gave up on their read mid-chapter. Inserted picture postcards popped out recalling calm days by the seaside. Then my musing ended with a bang. The big window in the bedroom shattered. A ceramic flower pot had come through bearing a couple of limp blooms. The London riots had started on Saturday, August 6th. Now on Monday night they caught up to me. I assumed that some pirate shopper had been driven off the nearby highroad and took it badly. He assumed wrongly that the moneyed folk of 1870 still lived behind the wide expanse of Victorian glazing. He couldn't have known that a fellow rebel daydreamed there.

I left my hosts to clean up the mess. They were not folks who fraternized with the police short of major calamity. The driver of the car to the airport sputtered with news. He was an East Asian born in London whose father had spent his life in the British Army, a kind of Gurkha. His upbringing had been severe but tonight he saw the sense of it. Earlier his car had been broken into and detachable items removed. His grievance was that the rioters threatened his livelihood, his job. That would be a recurring theme of "decent citizens" after the events. But like the driver they were still holding jobs. Most of the rioters, on the other hand, had no job. Many had never had one.

The driver also developed another theme that would circulate among the law abiding. Parents no longer raised their children with a firm hand. Prime Minister Cameron would insist on this explanation adding that in consequence children (the rioters) were mentally twisted or "sick." The healthy part of society was his own and its suburban fiefs. He called the other society, the one out there in the badlands, "broken." For a while it looked as though canes, the educational tool of bygone British schoolmasters, would be distributed nationally. One cane could go with each of the new garbage bins designed for recycling.

David Cameron's upbringing began at Heatherdown, then the most exclusive preparatory school in the realm and where the Queen sent two of her sons. Little fat David, properly launched, proceeded to Eton, current basic fees £31,000 yearly, and then to Brasenose College, Oxford, home of "the oldest boat club in the world." He wore a £1,200 tailcoat when cavorting in the socially elite Bullingdon Club. Clearly his family, bankers for generations, could afford a cane that didn't sting. An enquiry would find that half of the juveniles arrested in the riots were unable to read or write by the age of eleven. Was this because, as the Education Secretary said: "A culture of rootless hedonism had taken root in some parts of society"? (Conservatives have a surfeit of roots.) At eleven Cameron boarded a Concorde for America where he stayed with the billionaire Getty family in their San Francisco mansion.

My driver's idea of good parenting concurred with the Prime Minister's stern medicine for the plebes. The heir to the British military tradition had knocked his son into shape and kept his eighteen-year-old daughter under surveillance every hour of the day. He believed in corporal punishment, but in "not hitting too hard." For his part Cameron believed in inculcating morality in children, though it's not clear what morals meant to a stockbroker son of a stockbroker. The driver thought the army should be called in to quell the disorder. Cameron knew that such a move in Britain would signal his failure as a politician. The August riots began with a large party of armed police going to Tottenham and shooting dead a black man who brandished no weapon. It wasn't a surprise that the police managed to find the ritual illegal firearm, unfired, "at the scene" afterwards. The riots would be ended by the saturation of turbulent areas by more police. On Tuesday an extra 10,000 were brought into London from outlying places. With the traditional bobby gone trigger-happy, Cameron didn't need military enforcers.

The driver's campaign of opinion only touched a captive audience like myself and his long-suffering family. Cameron's spin twirled nationally. The government's response to what it called the "disturbances" -- the word "riots" had been quickly tabooed -- was to raise the sacred banner of private property. It whipped up the horror felt by a big segment of the population at the very thought of anyone helping himself to goods that the law said belonged to somebody else. Napoleon's "nation of shopkeepers" could put up with much, but not that. It could put up with the armed forces torturing overseas, it could initiate bombing in North Africa, and it could let its foreign policy cling like a leach to the back of the American hegemon. But it grappled its property to it with those "hoops of steel" recommended by Polonius.

The crapulous tabloids lost no time and handed the indignant householders a script. The Sun said the rioters were "part of a feckless criminal class," gang members down to the tiniest pre-teen. The Mail said they were foreigners from forty-four nations, which proved "the riots had nothing to do with political protest or civil unrest." The prime minister who had been lolling in the Tuscan sun returned to the mother of parliaments to confirm that the country he led was at one with itself, in love with austerity, and ready to crush the vermin that had slipped into its underpants.

Cameron's big noise post-riot speech insisted that the "disturbances" hadn't been about poverty, race, or government cuts. They were simply acts of bad behavior, "the product of a twisted moral code," not the unbent one taught at Heatherdown and Eton. He harped on the now immortal cliché of the "dysfunctional" family. He suggested by his thoughtful pauses how all that differed from the cozy stockbroker's nest of his own childhood and the family values of the Gettys on billionaires' row.

Repression served up with moral fervor is always stomach turning. Cameron labeled it "security fight-back" and despite his adman's unction brought to mind one of George W. Bush's stuttering post-9/11 performances. Were you with the Honorable Cameron or with what his colleagues termed the "mindless criminality" of the "feral underclass"? The Minister of Justice said the young rioters were "like child soldiers in the third world." Wild revenge schemes were hatched. The families of guilty sons and daughters should be expelled from public housing. One MP thought that "the courts should err on the side of severity." Cameron agreed and said magistrates now "sat through the night and dispensed swift, firm justice." He would be "beefing up the powers and presence of the police" and reassured the House of Commons: "I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who are out of work and receiving benefits." This was the only reference to unemployment in his syrupy, faux-butch recital where he stood tall (and plump), a white knight against the barbarian horde.

Somehow I couldn't fit a broken window and my driver's gripes into this big picture. I imagined my terrorist as a boy of sixteen who tagged along with his brother of twenty. The elder had finished middle school four years before. He was of mixed race with a Jamaican father that he couldn't remember. His mother had a steady job in an Oxford Street department store. That was just as well since he himself never had a real job yet. He got himself a proper suit when he finished school and went into a six-month training program at one of the big banks. But he hadn't done much math at school and had trouble keeping up. He was out of his depth in other ways too. He wasn't good with words and had the wrong accent in the bargain. When he found out there was no job guaranteed on finishing, he packed the course in. He missed the pay, which came from some deal between the government and the banks. A friend told him it was part of a political scam to keep the jobless figures down.

Older brother then devoted himself to his guitar and watching TV. He used to hang out at a community center set up to keep kids out of mischief. They would mess around there and play music. In the meantime his mother tried to get him work in her department store. But consumers were holding back and hiring had stopped. There might be something at Christmas, she was told. But that was two Christmases ago. At nineteen the boy began to feel foolish talking about celebrity musicians with teenagers. He gave the guitar up overnight, just like that.

The sixteen-year-old couldn't understand his brother's betrayal of the guitar, even if his playing was never much. It upset the younger boy. It cut short his own ambitions. It had been something meaningful to cling to. He pulled out of school without finishing. What good had school done his brother? Mother and elder son didn't even think of the younger boy as job material. If the twenty-year-old with a school certificate couldn't find work to do, what chance had the younger brother? Times were not getting better. Mother never missed a day's work but she suffered being on her feet all day. The boys were supposed to look after the apartment. They watched TV and got familiar with how men with jobs -- good jobs -- lived. The brothers didn't hang around the music center any more but nearby at a tea stall. They had buddies there, no gang.

Both boys knew about all the latest gear without having any. They would do a kind of shopping tour. They were cynical about youth fashion and turned thumbs down on much that was on offer as already passé. It wasn't that they had worn it in its break-through moment. But they had watched it closely come and go. They would prowl the big West End stores and fool with the stuff on display, laptops, cell phones, computer games. They never bought anything because their mother couldn't lay out the cash for inessentials. Yet they were knowledgeable enough to put informed questions to the sales people. They were not like the customers of charity shops. Having nothing in the way of spending money or possessions, there was no reason to settle for a shabby parallel world. Only dreaming, they might as well choose shiny commercial London to dream about.

Monday they found a little kid kicking a football hard against the back of the tea stall. The young Pakistani who tended it for his father came out to chase the kid away. He nodded them over to have a look at the minuscule TV perched on the drinks fridge. Looting was going on both sides of the Thames. Four guys turned up from the football pitch. Everybody got excited at the idea of picking up stuff like in a supermarket but with no cashier at the exit. They headed for the Kilburn High Road. They must have looked suspicious walking nervously too close together. When they got to the first cell phone store -- the area was full of them -- three cops abreast crossed the road toward them. Everyone ran in a different direction.

The two brothers stayed together and made it into a dark lane. "Fuck it," said the elder. "Nothing ever happens in Kilburn. We should have gone to Clapham or Ealing." "We didn't have the bus fare," said the younger. He picked something up from behind a hedge. "Hey, don't throw that!" said his brother who had already started to run.

On my next visit to London the window was as good as new, or anyway roughly like it was in 1870. Now when I lay on the bed musing, I turned the light off. I had been in Tottenham all day. It was where Mark Duggan, 29, father of three, had been shot on August 4th, bringing on the riots. As soon as I left the Underground station I got caught in the tentacles of a mall where all the familiar chain store signs blared. Beside it was a supermarket as big as a small town. Farther along there were stores in 19th century buildings. Many were West Indian or African run. The neighborhood was full of immigrants and British born of non-European parents. I didn't see any "child soldiers" that I read about in the press. There was a community college bustling with autumn activity. I checked out the residential streets and couldn't find any of the slums I had imagined.

Tottenham's problem wasn't that it was inner-city bleak. It was commercial London, simply a shade less shiny. Like the rest of the city it was peopled by voracious consumers. Tottenham's problem was that while it offered a daily barrage of gleaming objects for sale, it hadn't the money to buy them. The young people had no jobs. Why was anyone surprised that when they had the opportunity they went off with what they could carry?

I managed to find the notorious project where Mark Duggan had lived. It didn't look all that sinister to me. But I couldn't find anyone to ask whether the surviving Duggans would be put out of their public housing when the government threat to expel the families of rioters was implemented. There would be a knotty question for the law-and-order crowd to settle first. Was Mark, murdered by the police before the riots, a genuine rioter or only a spoilsport in Cameron's merry bankers' England?

It was October and decent folk were reassured. The law kept grinding villains in the defense of property. The Sun reported on the 9th: "A wheelchair-bound man caught helping a pal steal a television during the London riots has been jailed for a year." The culprit, 18, had a giant Alba TV dumped in his lap and did not resist being wheeled away with it.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 21, 2011