People Versus Politicians in Peckham
Compared with other areas, Peckham got off relatively easy last night. Today was a sunny August Peckham shopping day, but with an understandable edge, and people talking outside shops and through broken shop windows. Understandably, some businesses stayed shut, There was no guarantee that the nightmare banditry of yesterday, when the laws disappeared, wouldn't continue in daylight. One elderly shopkeeper was very vocal, scorning both the nervous nellies who had stayed at home and the people of the abyss. Her motto was very much Business as Usual. Just like everyone else I heard voice an opinion.
There were naturally lots of opinions, all of them sincere and urgent. people were afraid and angry and defiant, which is a volatile mix. But the people who confronted Ed Milliband when he showed up unannounced were surprisingly unfortunate for a politician hoping to placate nervous pensioners. This was a far more demanding and informed room.
From the start he was told that society was 'letting the children down', he was given a detailed breakdown of the decline in Southwark's youth budget over the last decade, he was treated to some fascinating home truths about the alienation and demonisation of young people worthy of a veteran social worker. Various people gave him harrowing and vivid accounts of their experiences. If he hadn't known before he found that the kids had now lost their fear, and were not part of the same world as the rest of us, he was told it in no uncertain terms. It was impressed on him that we had somehow created an vast underclass network of gangs with their own morality and their own rules, and that now they had come out into the open. They were not afraid of anything, he was told. Many didn't believe they would live to be thirty anyway, and have nothing to lose anymore.
He listened a lot, and sympathised well, but would not commit in any way, except to the routine explanation of Mass Criminality. In the end, his host Harriet Harman shepherded him into his car and away, before people forgot their manners and got irritated.
He left a Peckham which, like much of London, was very uncertain about tonight. Would the guns come out as desperate shopkeepers defended their property from desperate Berserkirs with no affiliation or affinity with the world of mortgages, qualifications, and laws?
Would this turn into a vicious backlash and open the door to alliances with the likes of the EDL? Sikhs have organised to defend Southall tonight, and there are numerous reports of shops acquiring large aggressive dogs, So presumably, much more weaponry is being stockpiled.
Given that the deep social and cultural sickness which creates such vast mob of desperadoes will not be cured overnight, we are now due for the greatest extension of police powers since 9/11. The fact is that the gangs have stopped killing each other for a few days, and decided to rampage collectively. And looking at this crisis another way, it is an act of unconscious terrorism. And one which, by totally crippling and undermining ordinary life works rather better than the histrionics of Al Qaida.
Leaving aside the deplorable reasons for this vast alienated medieval-scale underclass, their tactics, whether conscious or not, are a criminal masterstroke of stunning brilliance and simplicity. The assorted urban gangs all over the country have simply discovered strength in numbers, and the power of co-operation. After thousands of years of concealing their crimes in fear of prosecution, the criminal classes have completely lost their inferiority complex. So the more who commit crimes, the more will go unpunished. Schools of fish adopt a similar strategy. As a great Leap Forward in the history of Crime it overturns at a stroke all the old assumptions and conventions of secrecy and concealment. They know that they can, if they want, arrive in their longboats and pillage any settlement they choose.
How we prevent a complete slide into chaos is obviously beyond the capacity of any mainstream politicians, with their sadistic punitive fantasy solutions. The likes of Michael Gove and (guess who?) Kelvin McKenzie have already rejected the rational world by explicitly stating that we should not even try to understand the situation. And they sneer the word understand, as if if doing so makes the need for it go away, and makes their hopeless, barbaric remedies more effective. Which raises the question of whether we should we try to understand and explain Kelvin McKenzie and Michael Gove? Or is that to excuse and glorify them?
The task will be left to ordinary people, in the main, talking to each other and trying to find real solutions which can begin to repair the damage of the last 30 years, and trying to resurrect some hope for the next generation of teenagers. Not the futile, impotent demands that the past be re-written, and that hundred of thousands of young people be miraculously re-programmed into obedient, docile, debt-enchained members of the consumer society. As for the Floggers, they must try to remember that many of the kids rioting know exactly what the proverbial Clip Round the Earhole feels like, and the real one too. In fact, I would challenge any black teenager to testify that they had never been licked into shape by their parents.
So many people have warned of this schism for many years. Entire political ideologies have been built on the assumption that what we call civilisation does not stand on solid foundations, and is not sustainable. And that the crisis of its contradictions would invariably cause a mass rejection of its norms which would destroy it from within.
Even though tonight is relatively quiet in London, everyone knows this is now a different world, and that nothing will really be the same again.
all images © rob kenyon 2011