In the middle of last summer’s riots, Mash, a member of a South London gang I have befriended, phoned me. He was standing outside a shop that was being looted. ‘It’s the funniest thing, Harry man,’ he declared. ‘This day I can go anywhere in London and there is no beef.’ Mash is usually confined by gang rivalry to a few streets around his estate. More astonishing even than the opportunity to loot was mixing with other young men without fear of being stabbed or shot. For the majority of Londoners like me, the riots proved terrifying. For Mash, it was the first time he had felt safe in his city.
In his new book, Clive Bloom describes last year’s riots as a carnival for the disinherited. For those who think the events of last summer a new and shocking departure, Bloom is reassuring. Riots have littered London’s history. Indeed a chronology at the back sets in context protest and rebellion in the capital. He makes interesting points on 21st-century protest too — if clichés like ‘the police are still the active agents of state repression’ do not have you giving up in disgust.
For protest has moved on. Political power today is as much an illusion to the middle classes as to young men like Mash. For those who do vote, ‘their votes seem to evaporate as government is formed’ and their protests, such as the Countryside Alliance, end in ‘abject failure’. Instead the successful protester now uses social media, corporate jargon, staged events, entertainment and ‘carnivalesque situations’ to disarm authority and spread the message. To confuse increased monitoring by the state, they revel in anonymity. ‘Put on a mask and say, “We are not going to be famous,” ’, declare today’s protesters. These virtual communities of tweets and blogs come together at festivals, demos, the student riots of 2010 and the flash mobs of last summer to outsmart authority.
For in the last two events, authority embarrassingly lost control to youth — youth of different classes but essentially young people short-changed by the Baby Boom generation. ‘Where’s my future?’, one student banner poignantly asked on 10 November 2010.
Despite being sold as a ‘comprehensive analysis’, the book is less engrossing when it moves on to last summer’s riots. The voices of Londoners do not leap out as they do, for example, in Bloom’s description of the Gordon Riots of 1780. I yearned to hear from rioters like Mash with their tantalising snippets of information — mysterious, older men directing operations, just as in the Gordon Riots. Or confessions from the police as in Gillian Slovo’s excellent play, The Riots, and the result of over 250 interviews with Londoners. Or the insight of David Lammy, the black MP for Totteridge in his book Out of the Ashes.
Bloom quotes from press reports the judges’ reaction to the young people appearing before them, ‘Where were the parents?’ Lammy actually knows the parents of one girl castigated by a judge. They are his constituents and could not be in court because in order to survive each needs two low-paid jobs and dare not take time off. It is just this sort of telling detail of life in London today that is missing from Bloom’s account.
He is better on drawing parallels between earlier riots and our own (he is the author of the much acclaimed, Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts to which Riot City is a companion). In their ferocity and mode of operation, last summer’s riots most resemble those of the 17th and 18th century: the Bawdy House Riots of 1668 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. In both, unruly apprentices joined up with girl prostitutes along with religious fanatics and well-dressed agitators — all of whose modern equivalents we saw running riot last summer. Then as now authority failed to mobilise, and London was left looking, as one inhabitant recollected, ‘the picture of a city sacked and abandoned to a ferocious enemy.’.
And London will continue to see such scenes, Bloom points out, when moral indignation joins with political frustration and economic insecurity. Live protest, he assures us, is the heart of our democracy. For Mash, as for those apprentice boys storming the bawdy houses in search of girls, it is still just a great day out.