Grela: I burn London

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t all started with a slight, seemingly insignificant, occurrence of a definitely private nature. On one November evening, on the corner of Vivienne Street and Montmartre Boulevard, Jeannette declared to Pierre that she indispensably needed evening slippers.

This is how Bruno Jasienski started his story about the fall of Paris. Recalling the book, I burn Paris, it is hard to avoid an association with what happened recently on the streets of London. Obviously here the flash point was not so definitely private in its nature. Two policemen shot a black 29-year old man, Marc Duggan, who was said not to resist. This is undoubtedly a tragedy, but in a wider context, it is not something unprecedented, because fatalities have happened on London’s streets before. Yet for some reason this particular case caused the riots to spread through London, just like the plague through Paris in Jasienski’s book. Districts burst into flames one after the other: Tottenham, Edmonton, Hackney… After three days of unrest, it was hard to find a district where no fire happened or no damages were done. Soon the scenario was repeated in other cities: Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Nottingham, which are the biggest concentrations of people in the country.

These riots had one interesting characteristic; they revolved around goods, objects of consumption. Apart from Sunday’s protest, which lasted a few hours, the riots had nothing to do with Duggan’s death. The participants, mostly the youth, ran out on the streets and set buildings on fire not to stand against social inequalities and segregation policies, but to make some profits. Besides the fires, acts of vandalism and clashes with the police, the riots mostly consisted in looting of local shops. There were even well-organised groups, which drove up to a chosen shop with a van, filled it up fast and drove away. Just like those unfortunate Jeannette’s slippers, which destroyed Paris, now TV sets, video game consoles and brand name clothes were ruining London.

Cameron’s government has recently had their hands full. After mass protests of students and unionists, when hundreds of thousands of people were marching through London, now the excluded ones are taking the floor. They are, mostly unemployed, uneducated, from immigrant families, and taking part in riots doesn’t cost them much, when they don’t have much to lose. They are not afraid of losing their jobs or complication with finding one in the future, because they have no job and don’t expect to find any soon. They are not afraid of being expelled from school, because they go to none. Their most common sources of earnings are drugs and thefts, whose legal consequences are comparable to what they are threatened with participating in the riots. These people are excluded not only from social life, but also from general consumption; moreover they live in London, one of the most recognisable symbols of consumption in the world. The system ousted them to the fringes, but still tempts them with ubiquitous advertisements promising a better life.

Cameron, in his first speeches after he came back to London, didn’t even mention the wider context of the situation. He just talked about the methods of preventing riots, threatened looters with severe punishments and calmed down law-abiding citizens. In fact, this was probably the most favourable approach in PR terms, so no one should be surprised. Also everybody would agree that the key task for the government, in such a moment, is to stabilise the situation in the country.

Nevertheless Cameron, as well as the whole of British society, will have to resume this debate sooner or later. However the question is if this debate will be about increasing social stratification and exclusion of immigrants, or about the ‘plague’ from outside Europe, which invaded Britain, and tightening the immigration policy. This last scenario is not really hard to imagine, when we see those so-called ‘Europe rescuers’ springing up like mushrooms in the press and social networks.

Observing the events in London, one might have had an impression that in British society, which is often seen as quite conservative, there is some enormous strength, yet very scattered. For the last few months, London has witnessed many events, which resulted in enormous social mobilisation. Quite unusual was the reaction of London dwellers to the riots, organising themselves to clean the city after night-time unrest or setting up websites with the aim of identifying the looters. It seems as if British society is capable of destroying a half of the city first and then cleaning this mess itself. The government should be grateful that there was nobody to show this crowd any direction to march, because probably this is the reason why the Tower is still in its place, Buckingham Palace remains unconquered and none of London’s districts proclaimed itself an independent republic.


Traslated by  Magdalena Chojnowska


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.