Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bricks in the Wall

I don't normally write about politics or current events because, honestly, I sometimes don't keep up with my news feeds for days at a time and there are many other people on the Internetz who cover that role far better than I ever could. Why duplicate what you can't either replicate or improve on?

But the first thing I checked this morning was the Guardian's live news feed of riot coverage and I was checking last night's live feed until a few minutes before I went to bed last night and what the fuck, people.

The parallel that comes to mind for me, inevitably, is Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular (because I spent about 10 years studying the IRA and three years writing a master's thesis about nationalism and Bobby Sands). All I could think every time I read a news story coming out of England on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning was, "Now London knows what it feels like to be Belfast." And that's just awful.

Did we not see this happen in Belfast in the '70s often enough that we needed to rerun it for kicks in London in the '10s? David Cameron's statement from this morning is, like so much of what comes out of his mouth, Margaret Thatcher redux: We will put more police on the streets. We will arrest lots of people. We will speed up the criminal courts. We will protect the law-abiding. We will restore order.

Would you like to know how bad it can get while order is being restored? It can get pretty fucking bad. It can turn into a major fucking nightmare.If you'd like to know how bad it can get, google "Diplock courts" (non-jury courts with a single judge) and try reading some Tim Pat Coogan or Padraig O'Malley or Kevin J. Kelley on Ireland of the '60s and '70s (Coogan is probably the most readable but also the most biased of the three). If you'd prefer first person narratives, try Richard O'Rawe's Blanketmen. Young men and women were arrested, detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, and binned up sometimes for years at a time for nothing more meaningful than being on the wrong street at the wrong time. Or being in a group. Or being out at a pub. Or -- and this is my favorite -- having the wrong last name. That's a good one, isn't it?

Do we really need to do this all again to prove that it was a bad idea the first time? Let me say it the short way: Demonising People Is A Bad Idea. (It doesn't make a catchy acronym but you can't have everything.) All it does is make them demonise you right back. There are at least 225+ years of Irish history to make this point and lots and lots and lots of dead people along the way.

Violence meets violence and gets more violent. At the minute, it's smash and burn looting and, yes, that's awful; yes, it should stop; yes, anyone hurting someone else should be punished. But if you drop 16,000 police officers on the streets instead of 10,000, how will that help? More uniforms to resent, to be scared of, to hate, to be angry at because the young people in these communities -- and plenty of the older people, I imagine -- don't see them as protectors. They're the bad guys, the ones who come and break up your party, or take away your friends, or stop you on the street because you're the wrong color or wearing the wrong jacket or the wrong shoes or in the wrong place.

A whole generation of Irish young men -- no longer young now -- could explain precisely how this dance goes. It doesn't end with a pleasantly stolen midnight kiss. It ends with dead people and resentment being built into the next generation of historical narratives that define "us" against "them" and set the stage for the next go-round whenever the provocation occurs.

The terminology of battle is already being used in the reporting and the Tweeting and liveblogging coming out of the injured areas; the phrase "war zone" is being tossed around. Businesses are boarding up, shutting down, closing "for the day." Some terrible language is being tossed around about the rioters.

I don't think that this one set of events will turn London into a divided city or a city armed against itself (it already is that), but it could lead to some very, very nasty things. Using precedent as a guide, we could look at the "peace wall" in Belfast or the tradition of having a bowl of water and a towel in your front hall for anyone -- literally, anyone -- who had been tear-gassed by the armed forces (police or Army) and might need first aid.

The Met is to be commended for not having asked for more serious gear in the wake of must be three nightmarish nights; their admission that plastic bullets may be used tonight is not a confidence-inducing one. Plastic bullets kill people and more uniforms on the streets won't fix the problem; yes, it might sit on its head and squash it out of existence for the time being, long enough for Cameron to take the credit for having "restored order" and get out of office -- but it will only pop up again and again and again.

This is Thatcherism coming home to roost. This is 20+ years of willful blindness on the part of successive administrations to the real, live, angry problems out there.

There's a great short piece from Tariq Ali on the London Review blog this morning that makes all the points I want to make except better and in more measured English:
Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life? The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis. They made the mess.
They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters. They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990.
One of my friends referred to this blog post as being about my "disappointment." Surprisingly, I am disappointed. I am distressed and unhappy and I wish there was something more concrete I could do than sit here and write a blog post making elaborate historical parallels. So I'm going to take a lesson from Stephen Fry here; in response to the awfulness in England yesterday, he tweeted 10 charities in need of donations; here's the link to the #riotcleanup tag in Twitter and the Facebook group and a Wiki.

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