Repost: Paul Gilroy speaks on the riots, August 2011, Tottenham, North London
[Winston Silcott in his introduction, remarked that if London had a better welfare state like Sweden, the riots may not have occurred]
Gilroy: I don’t want us to get too romantic about Scandinavia…[applause]. The last time I was in Malmö there was a laser sniper shooting at people of colour in the streets.
I want to say a few things in solidarity with the people who have suffered, the families including the family of Mark Duggan who have lost so much. I was sitting in Highbury magistrate’s court this morning, watching the magistrate giving people who had no criminal record months and months before their case would even be heard. And those young people, some of whom were not with their families but were on their own, could not have been defended successfully even by someone like Michael Mansfield. It’s a sham what’s going on down there. For people who’ve been charged with violent disorder, 2 out of 3 of them have been remanded in custody, and that is a scandal, not justice.
We’ve heard a lot of surprise from our political leaders who say that they didn’t know this was coming. I use Twitter, and I hope you do too, because it’s a useful form of news now that we don’t watch TV so much. One person I follow on Twitter is the leader of the police federation. The leader of the police federation has been saying consistently that he went to see [Home Secretary] Theresa May in the spring of this year, but before the student protests started. He went to see her after the election and he told her there would be problems, and she dismissed him and said he was a scaremonger. So I think we should explore this question of what does it mean to pretend you didn’t know something was going to happen when you did know.
The question is supposed to be was there politics in this rioting, or was it just a cry for help or a cry for things. And I think the question shouldn’t be was there politics in this rioting and looting, but is there politics in this country? Because when you have three parties who are saying the same thing…[applause] there’s no politics in Britain. There’s a kind of entertainment, there’s a bit of theatre, which is delivered to people, in the face of what is a desperate situation, which can only get worse, and can’t just be understood from a local perspective. It can’t just be understood from what’s going on here–we need to think about what’s going on in other parts of the world which the crisis has touched.
Stafford Scott wrote a very lucid and a very brilliant analysis of what was going on in the paper, and he looked a variety of indicators to try to understand what’s going on around us here: unemployment numbers, school exclusion numbers, stop and search numbers…In terms of these things, the numbers are as bad as or worse than they were thirty years ago.
So the temptation is to say it’s the same game as it was thirty years ago, or twenty-five years ago, and it isn’t the same game. For instance, the police admitted that they’ve done a hundred thousand searches under the new terrorism legislation, and of those hundred thousand searches not one, not one, led to an arrest under the terrorism legislation! So I think we need to remember that the game has changed.
And in 1981 there was a sense that they knew there were particular areas of London that were places which could blow up at any time, and the solution was a very complex thing, which involved soft policing, and schools, etcetera. And what we’ve seen since 1981 is the militarization of that structure. The criminal justice system and places of incarceration have become blacker and browner places–the groups of people incarcerated in this country is a disproportionate phenomenon.
To me that data doesn’t show, doesn’t suggest, that the people, our people, are any more criminal than anyone else. What it suggests to me is that they’ve been subjected to processes of criminalization.
Now, in 1981, you could talk about racism. A judge was given the job of seeing how the events of 1981 [riots in Brixton, Handsworth, Leeds and Liverpool] developed. He said he had to discuss the question of racism in his report. Of course, he said “what institutional racism?”–I’m not a fan of his; I’m just saying, he had to address that question. And now we’re in a situation where everyone says, “oh, racism? That’s done with. That was before.” And I don’t think that that’s the case.
When you look at the layer of political leaders from our communities, the generation who came of age during that time thirty years ago, many of those people have accepted the logic of privatization. They’ve privatized that movement, and they’ve sold their services as consultants and managers and diversity trainers. They’ve sold their services to the police, they’ve sold them to the army, they’ve sold them to the corporate world…go to some of their websites and you’ll see how proud they are of their clients. And that means that, in many areas, the loss of experience, the loss of the imagination is a massive phenomenon. So that the young people in the courts today don’t have a defence campaign. They don’t have one yet, but I hope that one will develop.
So a lot of that leadership has been channeled into the local government, and has formed a kind of “consultariat.” And if you want to understand what that means, you have to look at places like South Africa, where, in the process after the end of apartheid, a whole layer of militants, a whole layer of people went over, and they got their pensions, and they sold this, and they sold that, because the government, in changing that society, thought that having a Black middle class was going to be the way to do it. Well, that’s not the way it’s going to work here. [applause]
That privatization is also a privatization of the mind. Because in 1981 there were no computers, there were no mobile phones, so people didn’t have all of that digital distraction. There was no porn saturating the world that young people move through, there was no place to upload your videos to. These are big changes. They point us to something that’s important in understanding the difference between then and now.
The difference between 1981 and now is that the relationship between information and power has been changed, and our tactics for understanding our defence of our communities have to take those changes into account. And that means that we have to think very carefully about how we engage with the media. I’m very happy that there are people here who are independent distributors of information and news, who are circulating what goes on here and circulating interpretations of what’s happened in this country. We have to get it to people outside of our country–we have to internationalize it. We have to think about how technology can work for us. And media is not something transparent.
Because what happens in the digitalization of media and privatization is the contraction and the impoverishment of our media. People talk about “dumbing down”–it’s not just about dumbing down–it’s something different than that. And that means that there’s a much tighter control over what can be said.
And that technology which is so different from in 1981 is also part of what I’d like to call, tonight, a securitocracy, ruling us through security. And that means the DNA in your bodies, in your mouths, in DNA swabs, the CCTV cameras that are all around us here…And, and this is another interesting feature of last week, the way the spin operation works. The media, owned by people like Murdoch, have a ‘golden hour’ after the story breaks, in which they can fix the story, and then that fixed story grows, like a snowball rolling downhill.
What we need to understand is that this doesn’t happen by accident. These things are techniques for making information meaningful, and we need to learn from them.
One of the other differences between now and 30 years ago, now and 25 years ago, is that the riots are no longer just a black-and-white story. It’s a story that’s complicated by all kinds of changes in our cities and our communities. It’s a story that’s been complicated by the development of political Islam in our communities–I mean, had it not been Ramadan, who knows what different kinds of events would have unfolded.
And it’s no longer a story which can be explained only by reference to a Caribbean history, because the majority of the Black population now in our country are people of African descent, with a range of different experiences, a range of different stories and reasons for being here. We have a number of small business owners, shopkeepers, many of whom are immigrants who have arrived from somewhere else, and they’re taking the position that people who own shops have always taken, and it’s no surprise for them to be calling for vigilantism and other things to protect their property.
Our situation is made complex in a different sense by the presence of people from Eastern Europe. I mean, the woman who jumped out of the window in Croydon–she’d come from Poland to work in Poundland, because that was a better life for her. Imagine what that means, to come from Poland to work in Poundland, for minimum wage, searching for a better life.
So we have to find some way to recognize those differences too.
The government wants to introduce new laws to criminalize the wearing of masks. The only people who really get away with wearing masks in our society right now is the territorial support group [of the Met police]. [applause] I don’t hear Jack Straw saying, “I can’t see their faces.” [laughter] So that suggests to me that there’s a double standard at work here, and we need to pressure that.
And sure, there are gangs around in London, but this is not about gangs. And I think Gary’s made a good point about the United States. We’ve been talking about poverty, and one of the worst forms of poverty that’s shaped our situation is poverty of the imagination. And what happens in this country, and this is something that many of us in our communities share with [Conservative Prime Minister] David Cameron, whether we like it or not. When we feel the impact of our poverty of the imagination, we reach for what we think is the future, and that’s always the United States of America.
I never thought that in a public forum I would agree with Sir Hugh Orde, the police chief of Northern Ireland, but he would say clearly that is not a situation that is going to be eliminated by the infiltration of American techniques. And I think he’s right. I think we should remember that before we think that the Coach Carter scenario is part of our future and the solution to the problems faced by our young people. [applause]
If we go down that road, we’re headed toward a society that’s run on the basis of mass imprisonment. And that’s not just about making the prisons bigger and fuller, making them engines for making money for private corporations, but it’s also about turning your schools into prisons, and turning your streets into prisons, and turning your community into something that’s much more like a prison. And we do not want that society based on mass imprisonment. That’s not our future. We are not Americans, we are not Americans.
Lastly, I’d suggest that I think we need to put David Lammy under some pressure. [applause] In the same way, we should put the media under some pressure for controlling our information, and not just go running to Sky News and BBC. We need to put our political representatives under some pressure. I live in Finsbury Park, not too far from Tottenham, so I know where David Lammy lives. He’s something of an outside agitator in your community. [laughter]
The last thing I want to say is that in 1981 and 1985 we knew we were dealing with a system. We understood the interconnecting parts. When I talk about the poverty of the imagination, I mean that we are thinking like people who approach these things through the lens of a privatized world. We only think of these things as individuals, and we don’t see them as connected. The last week has been an amazing class, a primer, to give us the opportunity to understand how these things function today. You remember that party they all had, in the Cotswolds…and they were all there, the Milibands were there, the Labour people were there, the TV people were there (not the ones from David Starkey-land but the ones from Channel Four News), and they were all there together, and they’re telling you something when they all congregate like that.
They’re telling you that they’re a class. And they think and act and conduct themselves like a class. They chat to each other, they marry each other, they go to the same places…And if we want to act as a body, if we want to act in concert, we have to learn something from the way they conduct themselves, even as we challenge what they do.
So the pieces I can see in this system, the role of information, of policing, of deprivation, of inequality…And we need to clarify that we have the resources we need in our community–we just need to use them in a different way. Thank you.