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Shopping With Violence: What I Learned From Watching the Riots

Posted: 06/04/2012 00:00

I live in Streatham, south London, near Brixton, famous for riots in the 1980s, but also on the edge of Clapham in an area affectionately nicknamed 'Nappy Valley' by the locals. Nappies and pushchairs there are aplenty. Violent disorder, not so much.

Yet that all changed in August last year, as the London riots spread to not only Brixton, but also 'Nappy Valley', Croydon... well the list quickly became endless and like many around the capital I was gripped by the rolling news footage of fires and lootings in neighbourhoods familiar to us.

As the commentary developed it became clear that the reporting was either black or white. Right wing commentators were quick to label all rioters as individual criminals, while more liberal factions tried to convince that there was a direct cause and effect relationship between recent youth centre closures and civil disorder.

I started looking for bystander footage on YouTube and came across a voiceover with two girls from Croydon. Young and energised, they weren't talking about angry protests. They were talking about drinking "rose wine at half nine in the morning" and the previous night being "good fun," before saying it's about "showing the police we can do what we want." They argued that even local people with small businesses were rich and that it was the rich people's fault. Suddenly a minute's worth of Youtube footage of a casual conversation between two teenage girls told me more about why the riots were happening than any news bulletin did.

The idea started to emerge that a more un-mediated version of events would help form a fuller picture of what happened last August. Together with Minnow Productions and BBC 3, we combed the internet for more footage. We expected to find films captured by those who revelled in the "spectacle" of the riots. Riot voyeurs if you like. There were plenty of those but what we also found was a surprisingly wide range of people with different takes on what happened away from the usual debates of crime and punishment.

We found the 'Hackney Heroine', Pauline Pearce, instantly famous for telling the rioters off, Chudd, a middle class university educated bystander fascinated by the people joining in, a young Pakistani couple, incredulous at people rioting for trainers and Luke, a teen from Croydon who saw a schoolmate steal a guitar but didn't join in because he wants to become a police officer. We didn't use a voiceover, so that everyone who was interviewed could tell their story plainly, straight to the camera, watching the footage they themselves created, directing the story we can now tell. Like the rosé drinking girls from Croydon we wanted raw, unfiltered voices.

What emerged was a more complex and human picture than the one presented on TV at the time. What began as a politically motivated protest in reaction to the shooting of Mark Duggan quickly turned into a free-for-all, where established rules of consumerism that guide our society were allowed to be broken.

Chudd, who filmed the first day in north London's Tottenham saw what he thought was a perfect example of how we live today as he witnessed one man dragging a huge flat-screen television out of a hardware shop. The man saw another leave with a bigger TV, so dumped his, and went back in for a bigger one. Karl in Brixton commented that it was "the day you could get the trainers you couldn't afford to." Aymen, from Hackney, describes how kids were stealing J20s, bottles of orange juice, as if they were diamonds, while Simon, from Croydon, who experienced his own moral sense of aversion to the looting as he filmed himself walking the streets described a party atmosphere, with people stealing alcohol to keep the party going.

Chudd, by this stage touring the riots, heard gang members in East London's Hackney chanting "no postcode beef, it's all against the police" and an anonymous interviewee said he took part to "give the police a boshing."

Sumaan and Sarrah, a young Pakistani couple who arrived in Barking shortly before the riots and filmed their footage on the same camera that captured their wedding only a few days later, were incredulous at what they saw. "In Pakistan, people took to the streets when one of our leaders was assassinated, in our country we riot for food, not trainers."

Yet for all the talk of greed and consumerism, the widespread looting carries an underlying logic. One of the girls talking about the riots in Clapham, on the street that is the main artery of 'Nappy Valley', expressed the motivation of "getting our taxes back from the rich." As misguided as that may seem, the perception of needing to get something back from the well off is very real.

The desire to show the police and "the rich" that "we can do what we want" stems from the genuine belief that the police and those with influence, including politicians who fiddled their expenses, can indeed do what they like. While the teens may not be paying taxes themselves, they do feel cheated. They do not feel like they have a stake in a society run by those who get to call the shots. They have been educated in the language of consumerism - what to buy, what to desire, how to use items marketed to them. It was the language of consumerism they chose to express their dissatisfaction.

One of the interviews that stuck with me was with Maciej, from Croydon. A recent immigrant from Poland, he was able to offer an outside perspective. He suggested that people "did not like the way they were being managed." And managed they are, even through the media, presenting the riots within existing political, social and legal debates. By offering some of the people who took part to comment on their own footage and give their own views in a more unmediated way, I hope we offered a chance, however small, for them to manage themselves.

John Dower is the director of 'RIOT' - part of 'Our Crime' series on BBC 3 at 9pm on Monday 9 April.

 

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