I had moved to the United States after dropping out of a university media degree in 2001 – my visa expired in September of that year, at which point I was expected to fly from Pittsburgh and/or New York City back to Britain before returning. I never did return (though I plan to, soon) – and luckily for me, my stay was cut short at the time, and I departed a few weeks earlier than originally planned.
I was in my parents’ house in England on September 11th when I watched New York’s Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre eerily fall into their own footprint after being hit by hijacked planes just days after I’d landed back in the UK. For days afterwards – even while hanging an American flag from my window – I wrote on my website at the time that people ought to stop for a moment and contemplate the reasons for such atrocities rather than race towards international incidents and conflicts.
Few of my friends back in the States at the time seemed to want to listen: their web pages featured slogans such as “kill ’em all – let God sort ’em out” meaning, essentially, that then-President George W. Bush had support for aggressive actions in retaliation. This led to the UK-assisted invasions of not just Afghanistan but also Iraq (which wasn’t even connected to the 9/11 attacks) – a legally questionable act that contributed to Tony Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister of Britain and Bush’s popularity plummeting to levels unseen since Harry Truman. Few now look back and feel that the world was a better place for such bombing campaigns.
In 2005, the UK experienced its own 9/11 – the London attacks on 7/7 – and again things were exacerbated. In my film Escape from Doncatraz, I warned how, after the attacks, the surveillance state and fear of foreigners were both boosted, while British politicians were heading for a billion pound expenses scandal after looting from the public purse even as their media baron buddies were running front-page newspaper stories of immigrants coming into the country to supposedly drain resources from their respective poor, working class readerships. It’s an old game of distraction designed so that people at the bottom remain at the bottom – and instead of rocking the boat, simply blame others in the same boat.
As a knee-jerk response to the Blairite “New Labour” position, the British public failed to solidly award any party – including that one – majority of power in parliament, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a Con-Dem coalition to govern the UK. They scrapped the ID card plan, but only because it was a populist maneuver heading into power, not because of ideological opposition to the concept – they were very much about reactive approaches to crime, not proactive ones. No, this was not a coalition about to deal with poverty, or Britain’s pay gap reaching Victorian era levels. After all, between them, the ConDems offered twenty-three millionaires in their cabinet.
Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had, as recently as 2008, supported Labour’s levels of government spending – then, after the staggering eight hundred and fifty billion pound bail-out of the banks, went into the election claiming the country was now in debt because of Britain’s public services that would need to be wiped-out or sold-off to private interests. As Margaret Thatcher-on-steroids, Cameron was essentially the head of the millionaires club, a Victorian-style Social Darwinist project beyond Thatcher’s wildest dreams.
Of course, to be able to sustain all this in front of the British public would, as always, require propaganda – so Cameron hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson for this responsibility that he handled well, even as it was emerging that he oversaw a regime that hacked into people’s phones to dig for dirt. The London Metropolitan Police that you’d expect would go after such morally depraved criminals as these did not do very much, clearly too busy stopping and searching predominantly black youths in communities being devastated by some of the massive eighty billion pounds worth of Tory cuts.
People from poorer parts of London are no strangers to injustice and conflict.
- In 1985, Brixton exploded with riots after The Met killed black woman Cherry Groce and a week later searched the home of another black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, who died of a heart attack as a result.
- In 1993, black immigrant Joy Gardner died of a brain haemorrhage during a raid on her flat, with three Met officers tried for manslaughter but later acquitted.
- No charges were brought after a 1994 Met police assault on black asylum seeker Oluwashijibomi “Shiji” Lapite, who consequently died.
- In 1995, The Met fractured the skull of Brian Douglas, killing him, and Wayne Douglas died in police custody, prompting more riots in Brixton.
- In Tottenham in 1999, mentally ill Roger Sylvester died while being “restrained” by members of The Met.
The list could go on and on. Scotland Yard seemed utterly untouchable throughout all of these incidents and inquests – rarely are The Met ever held accountable for killing black people like these.
A riot is the language of the unheard.– Dr Martin Luther King, Jr
Then of course, just weeks ago, Mark Duggan was shot dead by The Met. Two days later, about two hundred of Duggan’s relatives and residents of Tottenham’s impoverished Broadwater Farm social housing area marched peacefully on Scotland Yard to request explanations over the circumstances of Duggan’s death. They waited hours to speak to a higher-ranking member of The Met who yet again showed no regard for such life or any desire to be held accountable for their actions. Ignored and enraged, some of the groups of people erupted, and set police cars on fire. Word of the outrage spread like wildfire and other areas in London experienced anger and violence as well. Then, it spread to other cities, too.
Inevitably, innocent people got caught in the devastation wreaked by these disenfranchised, despondent people from depressed areas where anger spread across housing estates. Having been told – despite the billion pounds of expenses fiddled into the pockets of rich politicians in sharp suits preaching consumerism – that they would be the ones having to sacrifice such “luxuries” as local services to repay a bill created by the billionaire banks, hundreds of people finally exploded, smashed stores, burnt buildings, stole goods…and hundreds of them have been given disproportionate sentences that filled the prisons to the brim. Two young men who expressed support for the riots and looting via Facebook (despite reversing their opinions and apologising afterwards) were thrown in prison for four years because of it.
In Escape from Doncatraz, I pointed out the profits to be made – per head – from privatised prison populations rising, the UK’s now, since the riots, reaching 85,931 (dangerously close to the country’s “maximum capacity” of 88,093). Perhaps now more reactive methods can be put in place for more prisons to be built, and filled – for more profits to be posted.
Interestingly, the Tories had a stroke of good fortune with the timing of all this, too, as they pushed for tighter restrictions on social networking websites, and a return of capital punishment. They were also demonising anarchist political thinkers as “terrorists” as newspaper headlines screamed “Anarchy in the UK” above images of London burning behind hoodie-wearing youths.
In the film Bowling for Columbine, Flint county prosecutor Arthur Busch told documentarian Michael Moore how – after a black six year-old boy had shot a classmate with a handgun he found at his uncle’s house while his mother was dozens of miles away daily, working for her welfare – his office received so much pressure from everyday people to prosecute the six year-old: “They wanted this boy hung from the highest tree…there was such an undercurrent of racism and hate; it was ugly.” What struck me with this similarity was that some of the London rioters were as young as 11 – and met with the same merciless disgust that the TV population have always had towards black “savages.” What was evident were the undercurrents of racism weaved into our social fabric for years by the likes of the Conservative Party, who of course secured a surprise electoral victory in Birmingham Smethwick in 1964 with the slogan “If you want a n***er for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
The establishment media wheeled out the victims, always being careful to avoid looking at the conditions that caused all this. Human interest stories of individual cases were focused on, stirring emotion through carefully selected incidents to focus on individuals rather than the society they exist within. Just as racism was stoked by media coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, yet again black people were pasted across news pages beside the word “looters.” It was like Bush’s line after 9/11: “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists” – everything had to be framed in black-and-white binary perspectives so that people feeling bad for the victims could not possibly begin to also feel bad for the angry.
If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.– Malcolm X
Few people from the poor communities where the anger ignited were ever given airtime. When civil liberties campaigner Darcus Howe actually received an interview from the BBC’s Fiona Armstrong (aka “Lady MacGregor of MacGregor”), she simply called him a rioter when he tried to explain the reasons behind the riots.
The BBC apologised – the “Lady” did not, nor was she obliged to.
The elite remain in power – of party politics, and of the press – and while they are still escaping with billions and taking away the few libraries, youth centres, and opportunities poorer people had left, the poor people themselves not only have to carry that burden, but also the blame for this latest wave of violence. Ordinary people at home have been cleverly shown yet more images of scary-looking poor people – “chavs,” people of colour, other demonised groups – and all it does is further fuel the ConDem coalition’s quest to transfer power and wealth from the majority to the elite minority. The looting of hundreds of billions of pounds has been carried out by this elite, and, remarkably, we are being punished for it, not them.
We have to act, before it’s too late. I’ll be attending a meeting in my city of Sheffield this week around the themes of defending young people and giving them a future. We can all make moves to prevent – not aid and abet – this frighteningly right-wing government agenda.