When you walk down Tottenham High Road you don't see a dangerous, dodgy district; a grey and ugly suburb where criminals wait around every corner to threaten you. Tottenham High Road is, indeed, the main street of a North London neighbourhood. It could be the neighbouring Wood Green. It could also be Stratford, Mile End, Clapham or Hammersmith. It is a neutral place, dotted with small shops, call centres, groceries and so on. Even the part which faces Tottenham's Police Station, one of the hotspots during the riots, is completely normal.
Of course everything can happen and this neighbourhood can change from day to day and turn into a battlefield, as it was the case barely a month ago. But despite its bad reputation, Tottenham does not look like a pretty dangerous zone where to live.
I read in an article in The Economist that most of the faces captured by the CCTV cameras during the riots in Tottenham were those of black people. It, argues the article, does not mean that the riots were merely aroused by the problem of racism. However, as the article points out, most of the other ethnic groups were not involved in the riots. There is a much larger Bangladeshi community in Tottenham, but none of them looted any shop. The same with other Asian communities.
Then, reports the article, behind the riots and the involvement of black people in them, there are a few questions to bear in mind, a few explanations, such as the situation of the black community, which always arouses suspicion among the Police whenever a crime has been committed, whose children tend to be excluded from school and an important percentage of its adults ends up in jail.
The perception of racism among the black community is very sensible, as the article points out. Many people in the riots could have acted violently as a way to express their frustration and their exclusion of society driven by racism.
However, we should start thinking whether the important question is who took place in the Tottenham riots, who looted the shops, and start thinking about what did they loot.
A very basic way to understand the riots as a reaction against racism is pointing out that, if racism –or angst against it– drove the riots, people would have targeted those who are imposing racism. So far nobody at the riots targeted white communities or private houses owned by white people.
On the other hand, the rioters protested against something, of course, but they only targeted shops. And what they looted were goods. But not all kinds of goods they could reach. As a matter of curiosity, Waterstones, a famous bookshop franchise, was not even touched. If protests were driven by racism, rioters would have looted everything they found on their way. But they didn't. They carefully selected those shops with cool fashion brands, electronic goods, sports garment and the kind, and stormed them.
The fact that the rioters only looted this kind of shops shows to what extent what drove the protests was not an actual reaction against racism, but a reaction against the frustration caused by not being able to purchase all those goods advertised on TV. Looters did not touch a book, but they did loot Primark. They stole clothes and TVs, videogames and laptops. In other words, they "used" the tense and extraordinary situation to steal –and take vengeance on their disfavoured situation.
There is no justification for the riots, but they were definitely not caused by racism. They were not a public outcry against the racist Londoner society. Maybe we should rethink the cause of the riots, forget the easy explanation and analyse what really underlies these acts.
Saturday, 3 September 2011
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