monday night in hackney

GP Jonathan Tomlinson reflects on the riots in Hackney, and their social context.  Please note that this is a different version of the article originally published in this post.  The original article is published below.

On Monday night one of my patients was attacked by a gang of youths barely a hundred yards from my surgery. He was held up against a wall by two of them while another cut his neck with a knife, not deep enough to do any serious physical damage, but more than enough to add another psychological scar to the multitude he already has.

A light-hearted moment during the riots on Mare St: but there was also a darker side

The attack had nothing to do with the riots which were going on a couple of miles away right outside my front door on Mare Street. His attack was part of a sustained campaign of intimidation by bored, sadistic kids on young gay men in Hoxton. Violence is endemic around here. The receptionists explained that they cannot get pizza deliveries because the kids on their estates keep nicking the mopeds. In the winter months our elderly patients will not book appointments after dark for fear of being mugged. There is a memorial on Hoxton Street to 16 year old Agnes Sina-Okoju who was shot dead outside a takeaway last year. Last month a patient found a gun hidden in his garage and put it back where he found it in case the owner returned.

What little I know of life on the estates of Hackney I know from what my patients tell me. I’ve lived in Hackney since I was a medical student nearly 20 years ago and I’ve worked here as a GP on and off since I was a registrar in 2000-1 with a break to go to Afghanistan as a volunteer. Even at the worst of times Hackney doesn’t remotely resemble Afghanistan, from where I was evacuated in 2004 after five of my colleagues were murdered.

I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney. At 4.15 on Monday afternoon I came home from work very briefly because I had to get back for a surgery from 5-8pm. There were hundreds of police in front of our house and kids were running around everywhere clutching mobile phones and pieces of wood or stones.

By 4.30pm after 15 nervous minutes indoors, I could tell from the rising sounds outside that there was a riot about to start. The police had formed rows and held shields up ready to protect themselves. There were more kids running through the churchyard and up the street and others on bikes. There were several adults, mostly male and hooded, but there were very few of the usual shopping mums with prams and pushchairs. The atmosphere was very tense and excitable. The police hurried me through their barricade, from their side to that of the potential rioters. They were mostly kids, and mostly holding phones rather than weapons. They were not career criminals or habitual rioters, but the air was thick with electric potential just waiting for the spark of a missile from the crowd or a shove from a policeman to light the flame. I had to get back to work for my evening clinic and rode down Mare Street as the traffic ground to a halt and hordes of youngsters came up the road heading to within less than 100 yards from where my family were.

My wife had to go out to my son’s nursery by bicycle to collect him at 5pm and cycle home without being caught in the cross fire, or even real fire if it came to that. I called home between appointments to check they were all safe. It was very hard to hear because there were helicopters just above the house and there was shouting and fighting outside.

On the way home at about 9pm there was glass all over the road, bins were overturned, smoke was blowing over from Clarence Road and shop windows were smashed. Back at home I saw a lot of kids, some really young, carrying sticks and bricks all evening until about 1am. They were throwing them at police vans and intimidating people who live locally. There was no thinking about the cars they burned in nearby streets, nor the risks they posed to residents. Residents on the Narrow Way have very good reason to be terrified of being burned in their homes just because they live above the shops.

From my perspective this was brutal street capitalism, the violent appropriation of goods to be sold for a quick profit combined with nihilistic vandalism and intimidation. Gang leaders stood back while the younger ones ran into the shops.

The overwhelming pressure on the young these days is not to work hard for social change, neither is it fight the system, get an education or do something for their community. It is get rich, consume, get bling, get laid. They are told that we are hiking up the price of higher education, privatising the NHS and there will be no money to pay for pensions or care for them when they old. They see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. They see the new extrovert, profligate Hackney bourgeois hedonists sipping cocktails and playing with their ipads on the streets that were until recently theirs. They think they will make more money dealing drugs (to the bourgeois if they’re lucky) than flipping burgers and get more out of life living fast and dying young. What reason do they have to believe the western democratic dream of equal opportunities if we do not?

The effect of the mob should not be underestimated. The mob attracts like a black hole, dissolves individuality and identity and suddenly for a night the kids realise that they can achieve more together than they ever could alone or in their individual gangs and nothing and no-one can do anything about it. The mob fans its own flames. That is why it was so empowering for the kids and so terrifying for the rest of us. The lesson of Plato’s Ring of Gyges which grants the wearer the power of invisibility, is that power assumed so suddenly is always destructive, even to a king.

Ultimately, though we were not rioting, we are all mobsters. They are dispossessed because our mob refuses to challenge a system that ensures we can buy Macbooks online from the safety of our gated communities while we ignore them while they harass homosexuals on the streets outside and we do nothing about the dismantling of the welfare state and the export of labour. Unless we see our mob, fixated on our own hedonistic pleasures as part of the problem, we will not be part of the solution.  We need to see our destiny as inextricably linked with those we are so quick to condemn, the solutions we propose, solutions for us all, the pressures to consume and be defined by consumption our shared problem, and their future security our own.

We also republish this piece by Jonathon Tomlinson as a further contribution to the continuing debate we’ve been having about the riots.

I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney. At 4.15 I came home from work very briefly because I had to get back for a surgery from 5-8pm. There were hundreds of police in front of our house and kids running around everywhere with mobile phones and sticks and stones.

By 4.30pm on Monday night, after 15 nervous minutes at home, there was a riot about to start on the Narrow Way and the police had formed rows with shields held up ready to protect themselves. There were more kids coming from all directions on foot and on bikes and several adults, mostly male, not the usual shopping mums. These were not career criminals or habitual rioters. They were kids swept up in the rush of adrenaline-fueled excitement, mixed with and egged on by [ir]responsible adults. Back on the Narrow Way I had to squeeze past the police and through the crowds to get onto Mare street where the traffic had ground to a halt and there were people for hundreds of yards around all heading for the Narrow Way.

On the way home at about 9pm there was glass all over the road, bins were overturned, smoke was blowing over from Clarence Road and shop windows were smashed. I was warned to avoid London Fields because of gangs of kids mugging people. Back at home I saw a lot of kids, some really young, carrying sticks and bricks all evening until about 1am. They were throwing them at police vans and intimidating people who live locally. There was no thinking about the cars they burned in nearby streets, nor the risks they posed to residents. Residents on the Narrow Way have very good reason to be terrified of being burned in their homes just because they live over the shops.This was brutal street capitalism, the violent appropriation of goods to be sold for a quick profit combined with nihilistic vandalism and intimidation. This West Indian matriarch filmed only 200 yards up from our house sums up the intense frustration of locals.

What is equally terrifying is the brutal racist response from the right. I went to the Holocaust museum in Berlin last year. There was a poster pointing out that in 1929 Germany was heavily indebted with massive unemployment, the world was on the brink of a financial crisis and people were looking for someone to blame. The parallels are frightening. The actions of the rioters, fighting for cash, not for rights, or justice or social change, will fan the flames of the racists who are baying for blood. Few people imagined in 1929 what would come. None of us knows what lies ahead now …

The potential for extraordinary violence by seemingly ordinary people has been explored at length by many others better qualified than I and it is essential that we reflect on what we have in common. Events in Nazi Germany described in Hans Fallada’s book, Alone in Berlin, the Milgram experiment in which volunteers tortured others under instruction from ‘scientist observers’, the massacre of women and children in My Lai, Vietnam described by moral philosopher Jonathan Glover and the chilling description of Joseph Fritzel who kept his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books all give profound examples of the capacity for violence that each and every one of us have given the right mixture of genes, family and environment. Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company, in an article for the Independent today, Caring costs – but so do riots, gives a clear description of the toxic mix of contemporary pressures affecting excluded urban youths. Those commentators who are so proud that they have escaped the same estates the rioters have come from, need to think deeper than the estate, consider their genetic heritage, their family make up and the potential effect of an excitable crowd on violence and looting at a time of intense economic and consumer pressure.

Ultimately we need to see our destiny as inextricably linked with those we are so quick to condemn, the solutions we propose, solutions for us all, the pressures to consume and be defined by consumption our shared problem, and their future security our own.