Facing London areas and facing up to perspectives
When I was asked to write this piece, I wasn’t quite sure how I would put pen to paper to discuss the mix of emotions I feel over what has happened in London, or the complexities of the situation at hand.
There is a lot I could say and there’s a lot we have all been saying over the last few days. Instead, I will only ask this; are we really listening to what is happening on the streets of London and beyond? And I’m not only talking about the looting.
On Monday evening during the height of the unrest, after stopping in Shepherd’s Bush and Harlesden, I made my way down to my main post for the evening: Hackney in East London. I’d been told that there were riots in the Clarence Road area. As we drove by I could tell instantly that the situation was not one where I could take my camera out in to the crowd.
So my cameraman and I, with our IPhones in hand, made our way into the estate. We passed a burning police car and a bike. There were lots of people standing around, perhaps a 100 on first sight. They paid no attention to us. I didn’t feel scared. They were black, Asian, and white of all ages, and mostly male.
We turned right and there were another 100 people standing around the estate. Another burning car and police bike. Where were the police? We walked down and to the road on my left I witnessed a riot van on fire in the street. Ah, there’s the police – riot police – at the end of the side road, waiting.
“These dickheads killed another one of us like it’s nothing”, a black boy tells his white friend standing next to me. “Watch what we do to them this time, you ready?”
Trying to blend in to the crowd I asked a girl in the large balcony area of the ground floor of the estate whether I can jump over. “Sure love, give me your hand. Do you believe these dickheads come here like it’s nothing, they really think it’s nothing?” she laughs.
“Everyone hold your ground, hold your ground!” I heard from the side street as I jumped over the fence. And so it started. A stand-off between these people gathered in Clarence Road and the police. We turned the corner and the riot police were running down the road. The group retreated.
There wasn’t a lot of talking over the next half an hour, just a lot of bottles and a lot of batons. Sometimes actions say it all. Often a facial expression is as descriptive as an in-depth analysis. Not only here, but across the city, I saw rage that words cannot describe. There were no shops on Clarence Road and no smashing of windows. There was no looting going on. This was the streets. This was a face-off. There was pure anger, rage and bitterness towards the police.
“Fuck the feds, fuck you, we hate you, fuck off, get out of here”, a young boy screamed.
But it wasn’t just young boys. An Asian family including a mother in a shalwar kameez, was standing next to me. “They just don’t get it, they just don’t understand it round here,” she says to me.
There were many people in their 30s as well, a group of five smartly dressed Rastafarian men probably in their 40s, and many white people too. This was not a racial divide and these were not only 15 year olds – make of that what you will.
At one point an elderly man went straight up to the riot police saying, “don’t you come back here until you stop with your lies. You think we don’t see what you’re doing. Kill another black man and turn it on us. Get out. Get out. Or tomorrow there will be 3,000 of us.”
By this time, we had been kettled in by dozens of riot police at the end of each of the three roads that led to where we were standing. The police on horseback were arriving, but after a while, they began to turn back. The police were not winning the stand-off this evening.
As we walked back to the car graffiti on the wall said: “Fuck Cameron, fuck the feds”.
Driving back to West London we heard that Ealing was flaring up. As we got there half the Broadway was cordoned off and there were many young, black boys – all under 18 – walking towards the centre. This time we took our camera out.
We weren’t allowed to walk down the main road so we took a detour and fell flat bang in the middle of the action. A hundred boys, aged 17 at the most, had clearly attempted to break into the shopping centre to get to TK Maxx. They said nothing to us as we walked past them. But the police wouldn’t let us out. We had to walk back up.
“Get the camera out of my fucking face, fucking liars, get it out of my face” a young boy of 15 said running up to me.
“I’m not recording, I’m passing through” I replied.
About 15 of them followed us up the road. “They want our camera don’t they?” whispered my cameraman, Jean-Pierre. “These lot are different from Hackney aren’t they?”
“Yes they are Jean-Pierre” I said. “Yes they are”.
Many people won’t see a difference between the unrest I saw in Hackney and the looting I saw in Ealing. But I believe there is a difference. If for no other reason than the fact that one is being shown on the news and the other is not. One is being talked about and the other is not. In fact, there is a lot being said that is not being heard. Whether we agree with it or not, only a dialogue that includes all sides of the story and all sections of society will really solve any real problem.
Even if we can’t have dialogue based on understanding, or dialogue based on respect, just plain dialogue will do. Or how about even just talking about having a dialogue? That would have sufficed in the past few days, where again, we have talked at each other, above and down on each other. And completely missed the point.
There was looting going on across London, but there was also civil unrest specifically targeting the police. But to those of you, especially within the community, who have been criticizing these “watless rats”, “dunce breed children”, “scum” and “chavs” from the comfort of your TV, please take a moment to ask yourself this; would there have been a difference in your reactions if you thought the looting was a minority and a majority action was brewing? If you thought the civil unrest was because of the killing of Mark Duggan? If you thought the aggression wasn’t mindless? If the answer could be yes, is this not sufficient reason for the media, police and politicians to make sure you don’t think it is anymore than “idiot yobs robbing footlocker”?
Unfortunately, the events of this week have highlighted the deep-seeded prejudices that we, as a society, still hold across race and, especially, class lines, as demonstrated by what I heard the next morning:
Kay Burley, Sky News, on location in Ealing said: “You expect it in Lambeth, Brixton, Tottenham and Hackney, but why in the leafy suburb of Ealing!”
A guest on LBC radio: “I mean I just don’t believe, the police are doing nothing! I am walking down Westfield, I see these 14 black boys walking down the road, and the police do nothing!”
I also heard a white woman in Ealing telling three black boys to put away their camera. They were recording the police man-handling a black boy riding his bike: “You people need to leave the police to their job, put the camera down now- I’ve been to Africa, I’m not racist – but you people need to stop this now”.
The boy with the camera replied, “I’m from America”.
A friend of mine who has the view that so many do, the type of views now dominating Facebook and Twitter and suddenly reflecting what tabloids like The Sun have been saying all along, asked me why I try and justify the behavior of these kids? My answer? I’m not saying “they” are justified. I’m saying neither are “you”.
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