RIOTS IN BRITAIN IN THE EARLY 1990s
HOT TIME: SUMMER ON THE ESTATES
....together with a new Afterword….
Over the last year, from the summer of 1991 onwards, the UK has erupted in a fresh bout of urban rioting. This time it’s not only confined to England spreading to Wales and more recently, Scotland. Even the Republic of Ireland has had its troubles with disturbances on Dublin’s north side. It’s not the same as the last major outburst of rioting in 1985 nor is it anything like July 1981, which was an expression of the decaying inner cities and instigated by black youth. Solidarity among black youth - having the almost immediate effect of dragging whites in their wake - was again to the fore in 1985 but this time the most ferocious expression emanated from those estates built in the late 1960s/early 70s like the point block dominated, so-called “concrete jungles” such as the Loughborough estate in Brixton and especially Broadwater Farm in north London which in the 1970s even received some bullshit architectural award. Following on from this urban drift, by 1992 rioting has become largely an expression of the ubiquitous low-rise often-suburban modern estate but with one big difference: the vast majority of the protagonists are now white youth.
There’s been the same vandalistic spree with youth attacking police, hurling firebombs, looting and setting fire to shops. Derelict buildings have been torched; schools and council housing offices set ablaze and even law courts and police stations firebombed. Most have been occasioned by some incident - often a death - related to police pursuing joy riders so in that sense it’s been more like the bout of rioting in France in the early 1980s.
In some ways too, rioting has been more extensive than in 1985 with riots having taken place in cities like Cardiff, Oxford, Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds, Coventry and Bristol and in towns such as Burnley, North Shields, Blackburn, Salford, Carlisle, Huddersfield, Stockton and Middlesborough, Luton and Dunfermline. Even rather dreary county towns in leafy Shropshire such as Wellington and Telford have had their fair share. Indeed, during the first seven months of 1992, there have been countless heavy incidents almost everywhere involving brick and bottle throwing which are hardly reported, except locally. In fact the deliberate suppression of riot news over recent months had become the norm that is until the Hartcliffe estate exploded on the outskirts of Bristol in June 1992, despite being pitched low key. Previously Princess Di’s suicide attempts had been deemed far more newsworthy items but then the sudden explosion of fury simultaneously in West Yorkshire and Lancashire in early July brought the riots briefly to headline attention. Even so, disturbances involving fire-raising with Molotovs hurtled at police had been going on for days previously in Burnley and around the same time, extensive trouble had broken out on a Luton estate, 35 miles north of London, which wasn’t even mentioned until it had been quelled five days later. And so on, though finally, the eruption in Newcastle in September 1991 was so dramatic and big it seemed everybody knew something about what was going on there and the media was literally forced into abandoning its familiar “let’s blank it” mind-set.
During springtime, the huge Los Angeles urban uprising (of 1992) had had something of an influence in England and there were kind of ‘solidarity’ troubles in Bolton and elsewhere in Lancashire. Amusingly enough there was an outburst in Oulton Broad, Norfolk where youths in an idyllic pastoral scene of fen and bulrushes went on rampage shouting, “LA, LA” though the real nitty-gritty of renewed rioting was however to come from another direction and firmly grounded in day-to-day conditions here.
As stated - though this cannot be emphasized too much - recent rioting in general has taken place on estates rather different in character to the point block dominated estates at the centre of autumn 1985. Rather the renewed fulcrum has been on those dispersed estates where two up/two down semi-detached repetitively designed houses are interspersed with low rise flats which, more often than not, were built in the earlier post war period up to the late 1950s. In short, those estates which were part of a socially conceived plan whose diffuse aim was some kind of benign ‘abolition’ of the working class through the guidance of ‘benevolent’ social-democratic ideals which, even the now lapsed one nation Toryism of the 1950s/early 60s Macmillan era subscribed to. As heirs of the Garden Cities movement, the housing on these estates possessed better internal spaces, were well-lit and often looked out onto green countryside. Nearby would be a new school symbolising the increased educational opportunities for workers afforded by the 1944 education act. These schemes were much influenced by Lord Beveridge, the main ‘architect’ of the welfare estate and a social consensus whose ideal was that of a plumber or engineer living alongside a head teacher or personnel manager and all getting on well with each other firmly inter- laced with a mild temperance society Puritan ideal further garnished with lofty nonsense about workers sitting around listening to Bach, reading Dickens, or more appropriately (a concession to popular taste!) HG Wells - no doubt because his mixture of popular science fiction and democratic state ‘socialism’ - seemed to fit well with this new urbanism. Consequently there were - and are - few pubs on these estates. When built, workers needed little persuasion to move from their badly lit, often damp and crowded Victorian dwellings to these brightly painted, often red brick semi-detached, set inside a small garden and somewhat distant from the grime of old smokestack industries or chemical works.
So much for the ideal! Even when they were being built reality gave the lie to this unworldly, unworkable, social democratic crap. But reality now couldn't be farther from the ideal. Consensus, the benign and well-meaning end to the working classes had become a dry, cynical laugh and the only way the definition of working class could sensibly be viewed was simply because there was no work to be had! Moreover, these areas have now become very desolate. The red brick has faded frequently blighted by sporling and the paint has cracked-off years ago. Many houses are boarded up, usually to stop squatting, having become prey to damp and what have you. Many gardens have become abandoned and overgrown and the green sward nothing but bare, windswept clay on which a few blighted trees struggle to survive. Litter and refuse accumulate everywhere and, here and there, the odd junkie’s needle, which never seems to get cleared away. Diseases like dysentery, which were supposedly wiped-out, have returned. (This happened recently on Bradford’s Buttershaw estate). The new industry of small firms and warehousing which in some cases developed on the fringe of towns and often spread alongside these estates has for the last decade also suffered the drawn-out traumas of restructuring which so often in the UK is a coded word for gradual closure. As for middle class residents they’re nowhere to be seen. These estates have slowly but surely acquired a Bleak House ambience and though this aura is the norm for most, obviously there are variations. Some still look quite presentable and cared for and, for example, although Bristol’s Hartcliffe estate is noted for its pleasant disposition and amenities that disposition did not save the area from something of an uprising.
The changing and evolving face of rioting in Huddersfield over the last ten years pinpoints a similar linear displacement though here it also possesses a linear dimension. In 1981 it took place fairly near the city centre among the old style stone terraced housing down the Leeds road and right next to the ironically but appropriately named Red Doles heavy industry estate on the fringes of which there is an ICI plant. In 1985, it took place further out though pointing in the same direction to the modern, mainly low-rise small flat complex of the Sheepridge estate. In 1992 rioting has happened even farther away on the fairly hilly semi-detached Brackenhall estate on the edge of town. Coventry in May 1992 had a similar trajectory though moving in the opposite direction where in the space of ten days disorder spread from the peripheral Wood End estate to Willenhall, finally ending up in the inner-city district of Hillfields.
In describing just how broken down these estates are now, what with the closure of Direct Labour, building maintenance departments, competitive tendering and sheer government imposed cash starvation with a virtually non-existent council maintenance, there’s a danger of falling into indignation of neglect fairly typical of the intellectuals’ The Guardian newspaper or Channel 4 News. Put simply it’s just too surface because behind the decrepit facade there is nonetheless still a real community spirit totally unlike the prissy community envisaged by the planners and far richer in life than the usual oceans of pretty suburbia, which so often, surrounds them and which, invariably is the genuine Desolation Row. It’s rich in the sense of time-honoured working class values of neighbourliness, friendship and simply helping each other out - which usually means most of the time. You’ve only to chance on one of these many ‘lost’ estates on a bus ride on a hot summers day and you’re immediately struck by the wealth of street life. Doors are open; kids are all over the place with the backdrop of parents and adults hanging over their garden gates talking to each other. Then the bus moves on and on in no time back into typical suburbia where, an occasional ghost appears at the window and cars drive by empty of occupants save a faceless driver rather like some internal form of class oriented passport control.
This sense of separation, of islands of desolation in a sea of anodyne urban middle class, managerial hypocrisy and conformity undoubtedly has strengthened among estate residents the feeling of a discriminated against togetherness the more these estates have physically fallen apart. Recently our building gang worked on the Elgin estate in west London (supposedly, according to the newspapers we were ‘experts’. If only!) sealing in the dangerous blue and brown asbestos which seemed to be concealed everywhere in the structure. Such cosmetic remedy was Westminster City Council’s cheapo way of getting round the costly problem after The Daily Mirror tabloid had recently headlined the estate on its front page as The Point Blocks of Death. In fighting the council, the multi-cultural poor tenants - some of who are surely going to die from asbestosis - had broken out of their isolation and had gotten friendly with each other. We found out, as a happy by-product of this new bond of togetherness against a hostile council that mugging, which the estate was notorious for, had simply disappeared. Although this is still an utter rarity on big city housing complexes, it does seem that something similar is happening on those estates lost in a suburban wasteland.
In the recent rioting on these estates solidarity has been palpable. Although it’s only a couple of hundred or more youths involved possibly a majority of the people on the estates have been sympathetic towards them. It’s even been said that some parents have encouraged their kids - young women among them - to join in the rioting and it would appear that hostility between older residents and wild noisy kids seems to have lessened somewhat for it was a gap that was very nearly a chasm in the last round of urban uprisings in 1985 when most tenants committees on the estates wanted more policing to curb vandalistic youth. This more official response presently seems to have had a much lower profile possibly because the police presence has gone over the top though perhaps it has more to with something simpler and more direct. There’s a dawning realisation that cops aren’t there to clear up small-time crime - or much crime at all come to that - on housing estates where crime, especially burglary can be devastating to poor residents. You know the familiar complaints:“The police are never there when you need them” etc. Consequently, a form of self-organized patrolling or ‘vigilantism’ (though you must be careful about the way the term has been deployed by the media), has come to existence whereby special patrols made up of male adults - young dads as it were - hand out their own more enlightened rough justice and in so doing, by-pass police procedural punishments like fines and jail sentences etc. The estates in the South Yorkshire mining village of Grimethorpe were possibly among the first to initiate such moves whereby local burglars who rob their own were publicly denounced and given a good going over and the subsequent shame involved in such a thrashing was usually enough to stop the culprit. Since then these direct action tenants’ initiatives have spread to many other northern estates and the latest we know of is on the Bierley estate in south Bradford. So far such a presence doesn’t seem to have interfered in the rioting process although quite frankly, more information is needed before being really clear on this matter. Surely there must be some patrols all too keen on helping out the police? Let’s hope generally though that rough justice like the former 17th-18th century community punishment of “rough music” is heading in the right direction i.e. down on petty pilfering of poor people but up with the great crime of revolution.
Also, particularly in the north attitudes among older residents have changed the more they realise that there’s nothing for youth any longer that they are, as the Americans term them, “the Mac jobs” and, at times, you can even discern a sense of pity out there for the rioters. Equally youth have opened themselves up somewhat recognizing the plight of others next to them. For instance, there have been reported incidents immediately after riots on Stockton-on-Tees Ragworth estate and in Burnley of youths beating up opportunistic burglars caught trying to rob old people. A word of warning: you have to be careful about emphasizing this too much as perhaps it’s probably nothing more than a welcome but dwindling counter tendency which could rapidly be snuffed out because let’s face it, the backdrop to caring responses is bleak and getting ever bleaker within the context of a capitalist mode of production tending towards sociopathy where each and everyone desires to maim everyone and each. Moreover in the UK there is an increasingly specific nasty psycho atmosphere beginning to pervade; one perhaps summed up with reference to the lack of national ideological phrases like “liberty, equality, fraternity” is to France which in Britain is substituted with a God Save the Queen, replete with two fingers up augmented with a loud“fuck-off” spat out and spliced together with a mad glint in the eyes!
It’s therefore something of a pleasant surprise to note that the present bout of riots, unlike those of 1985 have been remarkably free of nasty incidents - with the exception of Newcastle - which will be dealt with later. During rioting on the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford in the summer of 1991 incidents related to a random but bloody stabbing were much highlighted in the tabloid press. Later it was confirmed by some residents on the estate that these incidents had nothing to do with the riots. They also pointed out that some joy-riding stunts had been deliberately set-up, even paid for by TV companies out to produce saleable footage. Similarly the brutal murder of a child took place around the same time rioting was taking place in Willenhall, Coventry in May 1992. The media played on subliminal suggestion placing the murder somewhat in the riot context even though it was miles from the place - and the truth.
Whatever and in whatever way - optimistic or pessimistic- one may interpret the indications present in these renewed riots, one thing’s for certain, a permanent police swamp operation is now underway often finding its most focused manifestation on the far-flung estates. In the 1980s such urban swamp operations were the exception rather than rule and although today there’s a large police presence on big inner-city estates, lucrative gains from drug dealing have possibly kept things calm as well as diffusing solidarity among the black community, though maybe this is momentary. Maybe too, the cops are deploying a more softly, softly approach swiftly having recently defused stone throwing incidents on the huge Stonebridge estate in north London as well as in Peckham, south London. It is however haphazard because the cops can equally do a quick about turn dropping social workery gestures and re-applying heavy metal tactics yet again.
Within this context too rioting has returned to the mining areas but sadly minus any strikes. I know of a fair number of incidents recently in small towns in the Yorkshire coalfield. In Maltby in the summer of 1991 there were four nights of skirmishes amounting to riot and in June 1992 there was considerable trouble in Knottingly and considering there’s a virtual media black-out regarding such things in this obviously ‘sensitive’ area, you wonder where else. Here, memories of the yearlong miners’ strike of 1984-5 haven’t been remotely forgotten and in some respects the police occupation of mining towns hasn’t really been lifted, merely its focus has changed with a clampdown on all town youth.
Moreover, to some degree intensification of a police presence everywhere can be related to the after effects of the miners’ strike. In 1984, the old Public Order Act of 1936 was deployed against the miners preventing them from freely travelling to various hot spots throughout the country. Two years later the original act was toughened up becoming the 1986 Public Order Act whereby the cops were able to arrest anybody deemed to be a threat to law ‘n’ order and a meeting of more than two people construed as “public demonstration” liable to a fine. Contained within this new act is a new charge of“violent disorder” which could entail a prison sentence of up to five years and another charge of rioting, which could result in a life sentence! It means that anything deemed a crowd from assemblies of soccer hooligans, free music festival goers, acid house ravers or too many partying tourists could be interpreted as a threat to authority.
The outcome for the moment is that there’s a permanent stop and search police occupation in the suburbs that's often worse than what takes place in the inner cities. Everywhere, from pubs to city estates, police CCTV cameras have been installed and there’s a kind of unofficial curfew of youth. After each troublesome incident this new form of surveillance is stepped up. Thus plush and boring Bournemouth beach on the south coast is now covered in police surveillance cameras and no doubt it all came about in response to soccer hooligan disturbances in 1990 when in one beautiful episode, youths took over the pier occupying the pleasure dome.
In an atmosphere like this it is hardly surprising things have got really heavy. Following on from what happened in north London’s Broadwater Farm in 1985 and the killing of a police officer, guns have been used against police and fire fighters during the riots on inner city estates in Ordsall in the Manchester conurbation and in Leeds in June 1992. Some of the guns have come into these areas as the stock-in-trade accessory of the competitive nastiness inherent in a drug-pushing gang structure and which are now occasionally being turned against the state’s thin blue line (but please, not fire fighters). It probably means that at some point in the future there’s going to be some shoot-out in a riot resulting in a fair number of deaths. You might well ask what it might mean. A Rubicon crossed followed by community polarization with workers falling in line behind the uprising or resulting in nothing at all??? One development so far: Although the police everywhere are really tooled up, a lot of police chiefs, unlike summer 198l, are now sounding like the liberally minded professors of the Sociology of Deviancy condemning the spiralling militarism blaming economic and social factors for all the trouble they’re supposed to be able to deal with. Does it mean a weakening of resolve come a real crunch?
There’s a further twist. Unlike their chiefs, the police on the beat - at least on the estates - may perhaps be coming down heavy as a way of de-railing the government’s privatization plans which are oriented towards scuppering a “jobs for life” police force, bringing in contract work, merit wages and greater emphasis on deploying private agencies like Securicor or even the American firm, Pinkertons of wild west fame who are cheaper because their employees work on much lower rates of pay. Thus in response, the beat copper provoking incidents is a way of saying to the Whitehall mandarins that you can’t do without us.
But what marks the content of the present rioting? There’s nothing remotely ideological to it - not even some ill-fitting black consciousness movement - that was there in 1981 or 1985. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and anarchist Class War have handed out leaflets on the estates, often while events were taking place or in the process of dying down but its pointless making much out of it. The newspapers, particularly some of the intellectuals’ gutter press, pick-up on Class War but as for the actual resident’s responses well that’s pretty difficult to fathom. It’s the local Labour party councillor and community worker cadres who condemn Class War possibly because they drink in the same pubs receiving a ritualistic slagging-off from Class War types every now and again. Well, if London’s Notting Hill is anything to go by.
What’s taking place though is a rioting almost without any vision, things becoming just so bad that ‘the vision thing’ almost is for those with some kind of privilege. Connecting links even to other estates aren’t really existent; each is going up in isolation from another in time and distance with no solidaristic thread between them and strangely at odds with the solidarity expressed within the estate. It’s like as though the parameter of the rioters’ world ends where the estate ends. This is to be expected seeing that many of them are miles from the town centre and where de-regulated bus fares are an utter rip-off. Youth are often penniless unable to go anywhere with people on the estate having often been denied all benefits, welfare relief or training places. Contrary to all the “feather-bedded” welfare claptrap, the UK has the lowest level of welfare payouts in the highly developed world; even Spain and America have surprisingly higher payouts although more limited and harder to obtain. In such an infinitely closed down situation in comparison to ten years ago it therefore becomes clearer as to why localism is so pronounced, incapacitating though it may be in terms of generalized perspectives?
In fact localism is now so inhibiting it’s become much more of a problem than racism. The media has made something out of increasing racism in the UK (like the Trotskyist SWP who’ve revived the Anti-Nazi league prominent in the late 1970s) but whereas the real evidence for spreading racism? There hasn’t been a fascist revival of any significance and racial tolerance, especially within England, is still a far stronger current. In some ways too there’s even been a decline in anti-Asian racism since the mid-80s, although that’s still palpably there. Occasional brutal murders of Asians take place by white racists but young Asians for sometime have refused to take these incidences lying down and have even resorted to indiscriminately beating up whites in response to such horrors. It’s been said recently that the St John’s ward of Halifax, West Yorkshire is a “no-go area” for whites, though St John’s Asian community has hotly denied it. All depending, this type of racism is fluid, changing all the while, thus blacks often prefer whites to other ethnics etc. Indeed, some very unpleasant anti-Asian responses can come from Blacks and there’s by no means any longer a simplistic unity to be conjured up. Unity over the last eleven years has tended to come through action; the action of rioting against the police, the state and the commodity and now that’s on the wane, complications are becoming apparent. Today the prevalent white racism that’s viciously deployed is directed mainly against isolated individuals, largely refugees cut-off from any entrenched community support network (e.g. against Afghanis, Iranians, Kurds etc) and of course, seeing it’s something of a horrible trend - what with the massive movement of world populations underway - could increase. Equally if it does happen it has to be strongly resisted.
An argument could be put forward (though one has to be careful about making this into too much of an over-statement) that the one on-going nasty racism in the UK - and it does so often involve lighter versus darker skin - is an inter-Asian racism: Bengali against Punjabi, Sikh against Indian, Muslim against Hindu - just to give it an extra religious dimension - within the context of this new phenomenon. It’s also often really bloody and in towns in West Yorkshire, street fights, which can last half an hour, erupt when warring factions armed with knives and machetes end up literally fighting each other to the death In industrial Keighley, a violent town once noted for the right wing British Movement, the real heaviness now is between Pakistani and Bangladeshi. Today, a teacher can leave a classroom for a brief moment and Asians square up to each other. Villages transplanted wholesale to Keighley (the area is noted for its municipal sensitivity to the problems of immigration for more than a century having dealt with Germans, Jews, Poles, Italians, Slavs and Ukrainians etc) continue their battles as if they still lived in the Khyber Pass. It’s a long story involving the brutal Pakistani Mafia where people are bumped-off or disappear - particularly dissident Pakistani women - which cannot be gone into in these brief notes. It’s a story at any rate that should be told by a liberated Pakistani revolutionary and those who could come out with such stories are rather afraid to do so. However it’s enough to conclude that UK racism has now a very complicated veneer quite unlike mainstream European racism.
In the riots of the last year, it’s been said that there’s been an occasional anti-Asian edge emanating from the predominately white participants, as many of the shops attacked by rioters were owned by Pakistanis. True, Pakistanis - or Chinese - owned most but they were the only shops on the estates. Perhaps one of the incidents in the Cardiff “bread riots”, as they’ve been called, could have had more substance but the Pakistani who owned the shop which sparked the trouble was a particularly nasty piece of work who’d regularly handed over shop lifters, even senior citizens, to the police. In any case rioters of mixed race descent in both Cardiff and Newcastle clearly stated there was no racial motivation in their attacks. Amazingly the left has tended to go along with this - one would at least have expected some politically correct finger wagging - though interestingly those that have emphasised a possibly murky area have often come from the right, particularly judges in Newcastle courts, accusing rioters of racism when handing down heavy sentences.
As per usual stereotypical racism, with the difference that this time it’s described as white racism, has come from the police, which means it’s probably not really stereotypical at all. In the summer of 1991 in Wellington in rural Shropshire, the cops killed a black teenager who’d been in and out of lunatic asylum after flaunting a toy pistol. The police knew about his record also knowing he was harmless as did the local population. The black youth of the town rebelled for a few nights even molotoving the police station as rioting spread to the nearby warehousing, business park locations and small factory new town of Telford where black, white and Asian youth acting harmoniously, then went on a rampage for three consecutive nights.
To further pinpoint the complex character of UK racism you need only consider the Blackburn riot of July 1992 and centred in the Whalley Range area of the town where previously submissive Indians attacked a Pakistani store cum cafe, which they reckoned discriminated against them. Fighting ensued between Pakistani and Indian youth. The cops then arrived on the scene with the pleasant result the warring sides joined forces and together fought the forces of law ‘n’ order.
Add to this the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne uprising of September 1991 and you’ve got an even odder mix. It was the biggest citywide rebellion since Liverpool in 1981 though it lacked the splendour and on-going character of that great event on the Mersey. Many Newcastle suburbs erupted with schools, council offices, housing departments and law courts attacked and in Blaydon-on-Tyne even a police station was firebombed.
Newcastle is predominantly white unlike most other English cities. Like the rest of the northeast, Newcastle hardly considers itself a part of England but equally doesn’t know if it belongs anywhere else neither. Its outcome is an identity crisis that goes back centuries to pre-industrial days when the terrain was bandit country between England and Scotland when you never knew who was friend or foe. It’s a disposition, which has gone on and on - even when there was no necessity for it - morphing into an identity loss resulting into something like heightened paranoia. Just who is having a go at you; is that tree or lamppost about to attack and whose rub-off list in any case are you on? Ask any resident or long-term visitor and they’ll quickly tell you about some ludicrous, Geordie-psycho cum childlike incident directed against them by some youth who’s attacked them for no reason at all other than that they are there. And true to type in the Newcastle riots, there were some savage psycho happenings like people getting bottled, chipped with razors and women getting thumped etc. Perhaps the Geordie nutting/head banger response was even intensified in the riot. The media loved all this providing of course no explanation was proffered their basic aim being to terrify people into keeping away from the uproar.
Add to this complicated picture a further dimension in the Newcastle riots. It seems blacks and ‘immigrant’ on the street weren’t attacked but people speaking with southern English accents were. There was a report from a friend residing in Newcastle that a nurse from the south of England who worked in the local RVI hospital was horrendously burnt out of house and home. Whether this is true or not it’s difficult to get a handle on as no one else has verified it but if true, that anti-southern hostility that’s always been strong in the northeast in the 20th century has now been given a frightening twist. Of course its basis is a hatred of the brutal, free market Toryism centred in the southeast around London but attacks like this are completely useless and counter-productive. We’ve even heard of northern Asian gangs going around (imitating football hooliganism?) attacking people with southern accents. Fact or lurid phantasm? Whatever, it does further pinpoint the complex character of UK racism. Finally, it must be clearly said, that one hopes the psycho-slob moments in the Newcastle uprising aren’t going to be repeated in other future city wide rebellions and that the ‘reason’ behind these incidents relate purely to the locality. However, what optimism about the solidarity experienced spasmodically on the far-flung estates must, it seems, be severely tempered when considering the changing face of the inner cities.
But what impact have the new riots had on the rest of alienated society? Their actions must ricochet all right but it’s not as clear as before. The urban rioting of 1981 did have an effect on subsequent strikes in an immediate willingness to resort to violence, and looting (the printers, miners, Silentnight workers etc) although this must also be placed in the context of the bosses growing sheer brutal intransigence at the time - an intransigence which in many respects is even more unyielding now - but which hasn’t as yet been put to the test. One hopeful sign; immediately after the deaths of the two joy riders killed in a high speed cop car race and which sparked the violence on the Meadow Well estate in North Shields in September 1991, there was a call from some of the areas youth for a work stay-a-way as a mark of respect. North Shields is right at the centre of what’s left of the engineering and shipbuilding industries on the river Tyne and whether individual workers obeyed the call or not, it’s difficult to say.
In some ways, it wasn’t such an unrealistic thing to call for. A lot of the youth, it must be remembered, have no money at all. In many ways they are forced into such activities like the Newcastle invention (at least in the British context) of ram-raiding whereby vans moving at speed are rammed into security shutters spread across storefronts thus smashing them open facilitating a quick hit-and-run with the goodies, merely in order to survive. The backdrop to all this is self-evident: Tyneside has never climbed out of the recession, which started in the early 1970s, and where off the cards scrounging whilst signing on the dole has become more and more difficult to come by. Ram raiding has consequently become damned hard work, a substitute for grafting in the heavy industry, which the area, not so long ago, was noted for. The more playful aspects of joy riding tend to go by the board and has to be put in the context of the work-a-day world: a police chase; a car crash; several injured; a death - it's viewed more as an industrial accident in an engineering plant like Reyrolles close by, or a pit disaster at Easington Colliery. To call for a sympathy strike in such a situation is therefore perfectly logical, even if it did fall on deaf ears.
That said a lot of fully employed workers and unemployed aren’t very keen on joy riders. Sometimes, it’s their car that gets nicked, or they worry they might be next and would they even be able to afford another old banger? And mums tend to hate the activity as little children can get run over. Indeed, the only demonstration in the Newcastle area was a counter-demonstration, when working class mums blocked the Scotswood Road in protest at a child’s death blamed on joy riders, just days before the adjacent Elswick area exploded. People generally are a bit lacklustre about the rioting - glad it’s happening but not getting the same lift from it as before. Without sounding narrowly leftist, most would prefer to see a really hard hitting successful strike which might begin to put a stop to the passing of ever more fearsome laws aimed at subduing ever more subdued workers. This gradual attrition of worker’ rights is part of a wider process of softening-up, so that people finally will accept catastrophe without a murmur - even be glad of it because death brings to an end a vain struggle against hopeless odds. Bit by bit, the UK state is abandoning all forms of corporatist state control. Even formal logic has to be done in. The government is committed to zero inflation, yet at the same time it wants to see house price inflation back once more, even though that would figure as inflation! And this is one of the reasons it is mercilessly persecuting travellers (new age hippies etc) and their growing, often unwelcome entourage of footloose youth, some from the estates. In the state's eyes, this form of homelessness is not helping the housing market to recover. The poor must be made to purchase, even though they have nothing to purchase with. The perversity is epic in scale, recalling the lunatic demands of biblical tyrants.
To end on a sombre note: Despite the present bout of urban rioting in the UK, the general feeling is that it’s not going to make that much difference to anything because the growing ‘Monster State’ characterized by a free market totalitarianism just isn’t going to budge. The riots of 1981 were an exhilarating breakthrough, 1985 less so but with a tremendous ferocity compensating for other failings. But now, after such intense confrontation having failed just where can these blow-outs go and how can they possibly impact on the workplace when the laws against fully employed workers taking any kind of aggressive, challenging action are so hemmed-in by the most draconian anti-worker legislation in Europe, east or west? Instigating wildcat strikes can result in you having to pay up for profits lost to the company, council department or whatever during the time of the dispute, which can mean a poor worker having to fork-out millions of pounds! This recent vicious act by the state was in response to the rank ‘n’ file union coordination movement of 1988 which seemed to mark a welcome and innovative return of the wildcat strike on these shores. (C/F a letter of ours translated in German Wildcat 88 magazine). So far the law hasn’t been used against workers but it was deployed against some Bradford students who went on a rent strike. The courts took everything off them minus the clothes on their backs. In short, it’s a climate of money terrorism far worse than even the inflexible monetarism of ten years ago.
People generally are more subdued about the rioting, glad it’s happening but not getting the same lift out of it as before. Without sounding leftist, most would prefer to see a long and tough strike - something that might begin to prize apart those ever-extending laws deployed against those at the sharp end in terms of both work and leisure - a process of attrition that slowly but surely destroys all hope of ever entering a new world. In this moment in the UK all modern forms of intelligent, corporatist control have been abandoned and great swathes of recuperation (recuperation is a more precise form of co-optation of vital tendencies emanating from below) have been stamped on. The government sponsored inner cities initiative following the 1981 riots, which was an important factor in the yuppification of many inner-city neighbourhoods and an object lesson in how state intervention helps the ‘free’ market, was the last large scale effort of its kind. Sure, there are minor examples. Some government money has gone to riot-torn estates. One wonders what effect this might have on tenants’ committees landed with the job of getting untrained estate youth into doing building work on wrecked housing stock, as has just happened on Stockton’s Ragworth Estate.
On another cultural (ugh) level, Amber Films in Newcastle tried to break into the major cinema circuits with their sub-Meyerhold film Dream On about the Meadow Well Estate, which mixed residents and actors. Made before the riot, the grand opening in the Odeon, Newcastle was attended by chain-wearing dignitaries and the footballer, Gazza. Despite the nimble footwork, the film has bombed leaving Amber Films with massive debts. So, at least this attempt to capitalize has failed. The Amber Film collective has also been involved in getting the estate’s residents to write poems, plays, etc, to combat severe cases of depression and alleviate a more general sense of hopelessness. Drowning people will clutch at anything, and some of the residents doubtless are grateful because at least they are being shown some attention, proving to the unfeeling world outside they are worthy, deserving citizens. However, given the grim facts, it is about as unfortunately believable as discussing the texture of Bonnard’s paintings when the trumpets of doom are sounding, and this effort to attract charitable attention must turn against the hard questions involved in any overthrow of the status quo. Class War, having no critique of art, praised Dream On as working-class culture instead of savaging it as the miserable bit of recuperative junk it is. (On a more positive note, women from the estate formed a group to deal with depression: it would be interesting to know what, without professional help, came of it.)
Despite the economy being in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, “a contained depression” one bordering on slump (interesting how psychiatric jargon is now being applied to the economy) free market triumphalism continues unabated oblivious to the fact that the economy has all but ground to a halt. The enterprise economy is dead, long live the enterprise culture! We recently got talking to a British Telecom engineer originally from the Caribbean. He reckoned that BT’s recently announced redundancy programme was a covert way of casualising the workforce by buying out job security. He then made the astonishing claim that now was the best time to set-up in business. The prevalent ideology is however everything that moves still has to be turned into a business initiative.
English pragmatism belongs to the threadbare ideology of privatization still tunes most pulpits as we descend ever deeper into a privatized hell. The breach opened by the great poll tax protest largely responsible for PM Thatcher’s dismissal has, for the moment, been patched over. For how long? But for that to change, a lot more will be needed than sporadic and continuous urban explosions - welcome though they are - and even if one still hopes they portend something a lot more dramatic.
Dave Wise and BM Blob: Late Summer 1992.
New postscripts to Toytown and Hot Times: 2008
What follows is a postscript describing time and place together with some explanation of the huge and appalling distance and difference in atmosphere between then and now even if it wasn’t so long ago though it feels like light years. Written in the early 1990s both are clearly inter-linked as both concern riots in the UK; one in the formal context of the centre of London which got magnificently out of control, the other about an increasingly marred form of spontaneous youth revolt set within the context of housing estates.
On re-reading The Destruction of Toytown UK after well over twelve years you couldn’t help but feel something of a subliminal relationship with the King Mob days of the late 1960s especially the emphasis we then placed on the joy and necessity of transcending the growing consumer lifestyle as an expression of false needs as opposed to real needs and therefore somewhat at odds with the critique of wasteful, unsustainable excess that had been part of the backbone of recent American sociology like Vance Packard etc. Our emphasis though was rather different pointing to the society of consumption, of the manufacturing of denial and boredom counter posed to the liberation of desire. At that time our most pointed expression was to be the invasion of Selfridges store in Oxford St around Christmas 1968. Although some people have since disparaged such an exemplary action as“gesture politics” - as if there was such a thing as serious politics - its vision and example was to live on and on becoming something of a beacon. Nonetheless, some twenty-two years later we saw its fulfilment, or rather better milestone along the same path of anti-spectacular consumption in the great London poll tax riot of March 31st, 1990 in which we participated along with countless thousands of others. The text published here surely is notable for its high profile and persistent emphasis on such consumption; a consumption having in the meantime lost its earlier relative innocence becoming a choking, all-embracing lynch pin and nightmare of the economy we all hated with a centrality and purpose geared towards fashion, lights, celebrity and sheer surface appearances essentially encouraged by the ever-rising tide of neoliberalism. For certain the general ambience of The Destruction of Toytown UK was very different to other, more traditionally leftist or anarchist texts circulated around the same time on the great poll tax riot and which, have been available for sometime on the World Wide Web.
It’s obviously easy to say in retrospect that the whole pamphlet was clearly OTT suggesting in a wild, though also considered and precise way that we were heading for an upsurge of revolutionary trouble in the UK, one which could even bear comparison with the period prior to the English civil war of the 1640s when what was immediately upfront was possibly the most horrendous reaction in the history of the UK, if not the entire world. This latter outcome is intimated all right but then almost immediately far too hastily dismissed more a hoping against hope that this wouldn’t be the dreaded outcome, which in all our depressed soul of souls everywhere we knew, would probably unfurl. One paragraph clearly points to this end of the world scenario regarding over-production rapidly heading towards an unstoppable ecological disaster, so, for good measure we may as well repeat these words:
“The actuality of the great potlatch of the temple of consumption was qualitatively different from earlier millenarian anarchist currents with a destructive edge. Then it was still possible to regard commodity production as having a latent use value and incendiarism, leaving aside the exemplary burning of churches and the like, as more a method of struggle than an end in itself - e.g. the sabotaging of machinery, railway engines etc. But in a world hurtling towards extinction like ours, because of the raving over-development of the capitalist mode of production reflected in this and every other Toytown, any class motivated attack on it that leaves nothing but waste for waste behind it, is both life-enhancing and life-saving.”
If you like these words bring together Vance Packard insights on the rape of the earth’s resources with the critique of real and false needs but also minus the liberal obfuscation which marred Packard’s writings, as Packard always refused to deploy the dread, generalised word “capitalism”.
It can also be said about the Toytown pamphlet that the random meeting of immediacy and abstract theorising of general historical tendencies set within the emerging brave new world of UK plc was taut and strained. Re-reading the theoretical parts it cannot be doubted that the over-all grasp is prescient in having analysed reasonably well the major forces at play; forces which are still working their way out and still pointing to cataclysmic collapse in the UK. In the original pamphlet merely the timing was too concertinaed.
At that time in the early 1990s there was still active revolt from below in the UK and no matter how beaten down and broken was still capable of primordial, creative, breath-taking spontaneity so there was still hope - just to say - that big things could happen apres the defeats of the 1980s. Alas it was not to be so as everything that even faintly suggested living, breathing life was to be trampled underfoot to the point where the subject of mass or even minority revolt was virtually extinguished. Is this now the time as the whole pack of neo-liberal cards collapse around our ears the moment of re-birth? Let’s hope so.
With a lot of past texts particularly those which present - though frozen in time - a moment of a fluid, on-going situation it’s always useful to review them many years later in the light of what’s happened since if only to point out errors and/or what was perceptive.
In a sense Hot Time: Summer on the Estates marks the real beginnings of the growing loss at the heart of spontaneous urban rioting in the UK, more or less beginning on a mass scale with a brilliant festive edge in the great uprising of July 1981 (see Like A Summer with a Thousand Julys) then, sadly throughout the rest of the 1980s, slowly losing its sense of direction. The big trouble on the estates throughout 1991-2 was the last such genuine outburst though by then much that was counter-productive was showing an ugly face preparing the ground for all the aimless, fuckead/chav activity which was to slowly gain control in the years to follow and reaching some sort of apogee post millennium. Gaining more and more prominence on the estates it was to become a sad and desperate phenomenon, which was to subdue and terrify the majority of poor, though mainly older people, forced to live there. Again referring back to King Mob days and to the time when we naively hoped for sustained riot everywhere as an expression of surplus potlatch and harbinger of a new creative life - which some years later was briefly and beautifully glimpsed in the summer of 1981 - it was a depressing outcome which Hot Times picked up on in some ground-breaking detail. Little did we realise way back then these maimed responses would mushroom everywhere capsizing the very essence of genuine revolt on these very estates.
Could this demoralising trajectory have been stopped in its tracks? There was some hope of this in the growth of self-organised “social vigilantism” (for want of a better coinage) and resistance to growing fuckhead - a self-organised something that was to appear quickly and disappear even faster as total irresponsibility completely took over. This probably would not have been the outcome if the police immediately after 1992 hadn’t asserted their powers over such initiatives clamping down on them even more abruptly than the rioters. All of a sudden time-honoured local though generally fair and informal self-administration of those in the community who got too much out of their prams causing too much misery especially to vulnerable inhabitants and dealt with in brusque ways, were marginalised. Now such rough justice was to morph into a police matter as virtually every aspect of everyday life on the streets became their provenance in theory and law at least. The deployment of euphemisms like “empowerment” took off everywhere and like the deployment of a word like “reform” meant the exact opposite of what was once intend by reform as language lost all veracity. The stark fact was the latest buzz word “empowerment” from then on could only mean consumer empowerment which meant the right to make choices regarding saleable commodities at the moment when all other rights, particularly, in this instance, the right to stand up for community spirit, was slowly made into a stance liable to court action. In reality it was the exact opposite as the police were to do nothing at all in keeping the woof and warp of community ties together and how could they, as they neither had the money or man/woman power to do so. It did mean though that whole areas in our cities and towns succumbed to gang control with drug dealing, wildcard capitalisation at its very heart. Hot Times also notes though tentatively the counterpart to this in the increasing intervention of politically correct sociologists in guiding police and judicial training and though it was said in passing, it was simply too early an hour on this new sad morn to make more substantial comment.
Overall in these two texts there is also an increasingly despairing edge to the writing marking the on-set of real defeat as neoliberal economics gained a supreme stranglehold not only in crushing the last vestiges of employed workers’ rebellion but acts of liberating spontaneous rioting too. From thence on the great, great hell was to unfold...
Hot Time: Summer on the Estates was initially published by German Wildcat - an open-minded ultra leftist outfit - and then in an edited version by the Here and Now collective in Leeds becoming in the process: Hot Time on Desolation Row. Acknowledging the edit one of the Here and Now guys involved in the presentation process said the missing paragraphs would be published in their next magazine which, however maybe well intentioned, never came about. Be that as it may, the missing paragraphs were also contentious and might have created offence in some PC quarters. One referred to musings related to personal experiences of a certain Newcastle ‘Geordie’ historical/personal psyche which can be disquieting at times, though such comments weren’t meant to denigrate the character of that remarkable area we originally hailed from. However this disposition also related to certain unpleasant incidents in the Newcastle riots, which we’d gleaned from a very close and reliable friend who was a resident of that city. The other contentious paragraphs contained reflections on a kind of developing ‘new’ inter-ethnic racism especially as personally experienced in West Yorkshire at the time. These reflections dwelt on the fact that it was no longer simply a white versus black racism you were dealing with but something that was becoming far more complex. It was also something of a future portent as occasional, violent urban disturbances over the last few years testify to; e.g. the Lozell’s Rd, Handsworth riot in Birmingham three or so years ago and Lidget Green in Bradford around the same time, though since then there have been many other much smaller incidents. This therefore is the first time the unexpurgated version of Hot Time - indeed there were three unexpurgated variations - has seen the light of day though a few wooden and clumsy expressions have been cleaned up in this web presentation. Having said that it is a great pity that there still isn’t a web devoted to Here and Now’s efforts plus some account of their actions together with personal reminiscences.
Whether deliberate or simply accidentally over-looked, the problem of censorship for us throughout the past decades - usually by way of editing - has been acute involving say, an unseemly line; an overtly dramatic condemnation; a provocative un-PC drift; extreme argument or indeed simple bile, has regularly been earmarked for erasure because finally it didn’t fit into the accepted mores pertaining in the particular milieu who had taken the trouble to publish the stuff in the first place. (That’s always the trouble with milieus and why you must keep your distance). Around the same time Toytown and Hot Time were produced, our front cover of a pin-up beach tourist gal for the Yugoslavery pamphlet and put together by Unpopular Books in thanks for all the Motherfucker/Black Mask original and often unknown material we’d gifted them, was given the chop most likely because it was offensive to feminism. The pin-up was substituted for an anodyne Adriatic coastal scene and the whole point was lost illustrated via a sexually commodified graphic fronting a critically informed pamphlet on a stupid, nationalistic war.
Nonetheless, Hot Time on Desolation Row even in its edited form succeeded in drawing a rather furious reply from Tom Jennings in Newcastle who was extremely upset about the attack we’d launched on Amber Films, a locally based media collective who along with other pursuits was hosted by Murray Martin, a guy we’d crossed swords with in the 1960s. (Recently MM died and seeing he was a cultural fink received a big obituary in The Guardian). The reply was published in the following Here and Now magazine dragging a fair number of slurs up which Stewart Home had put about claiming we were well-off entrepreneurs and the like though this was suggestively morphed into “managerial types” arrogant and contemptuous towards those at the sharp end. The problem with this was simple: our social position was the sharp end for, after a few marginal episodes early in our twenties precariously employed part time on the fringes of academia, our survival scene has always been the dole and/or as building trades personnel (note well: and not subcontractors). And - just for good measure - there was also no money in the family background! So when condemning the cultural nonsense at the very centre of Amber Films and claiming that Class War hadn’t got a critique of culture (all true) it wasn’t some patronising insult coming from on high but simply auto-critique in action. What we had done yet again, was stoke up the ire of a cadre ensconced in some cultural niche who, as per usual, had gone ballistic with a response which even today, surrounded by the hideous reality of aesthetic capitalism, simply has no end in sight. Indeed the critique of art applied with all necessary and urgent rigour has become so central that literally nobody can see it!
Dave Wise: January 2008