Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Riots: In Their Own Words

BBC Two, 13th August 2012

To not much fanfare, the BBC finally showed The Riots: In Their Own Words last night. This, if you remember, was the docu-drama which was suspended a month ago, by an unknown judge, in an unknown court, presiding over an unknown case. But watching it, the reasons for the postponement became obvious - the powers that be clearly couldn't stand the idea of such an accurate portrait of resentment towards the state and status quo being shown in the run-up to the corporate/nationalistic nightmare that was the Olympics.

Though their words are spoken by actors, the interviewees here - all participants in last year's rioting - gave a brutally honest and hard-hitting assessment of everyday life as it is faced by growing numbers of the young working class. The motivations they gave were many, but in their own way, each was a searing indictment of ruling class politics.

The immediate spark - lest we forget - was the police killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. In the hours that followed this shooting, the cops did their usual dirty work, lying about both victim and incident in the media. Over a year on, the highly complicit and misnamed "Independent Police Complaints Commission" has failed to put forward any coherent explanation of that day's events.

The film describes how large groups of people from Duggan's estate and neighbouring areas gathered outside Tottenham Police Station, where they were promised answers if they waited a few hours. After that time, an announcement was made that the commissioner wasn't ready to make any statement, and anger erupted. Demonstrators blocked the road, barricades were erected, then set on fire, and the summer riots of 2011 had begun.

Those most involved in Tottenham insist this was a political act, in as much as it was against the police. One man claimed that "We're used to being roughed up by the police, we're used to being stopped by the police and harassed, abused by them [...] but it's like they've taken foul play to a whole new level." For another, people were "chuffed to throw a brick at a police van and nothing happened [...] A little bit like fight back at the system. It's not just a riot, it was a statement."

As we all know, word spread quickly, and the next night others took their chance, sensing weakness in the police response. "This is our chance to fuck up feds [police] and do our thing. It felt like we'd been on a leash for years", and "that day, we had the power".

In the chaos - some might say anarchy - many saw a window of opportunity to get rich quick, and take electrical goods, trainers, and other expensive items from unguarded shops. One interviewee insisted that for him, it was all about "easy money", and getting as much as he could. A school age girl described being swept up in the moment, eventually going along with the crowd and lifting goods from various outlets.

For one Tottenham woman in particular, this was a distraction from the serious business of the Mark Duggan "cause". As she put it: "...if they were out there pelting the police and not looting the shops I would say 'Yes, this is a good war to have with the police'." Some condemned the lack of honour among the "thieves", while others were angered by the torching of various buildings (though the possibility of a conscious defence against DNA testing was put forward by someone).

But even with the looting, in the words of one man: "We're normal people trying to make a life for ourselves and there's no opportunities out there." Turn of the millennium capitalism preaches that to consume is to live, and yet for many, it provides less and less opportunities to do so legally. The programme manages to convey a real sense that in Tottenham with Duggan, around London with the Metropolitan Police, and with the deprivation increasingly prevalent around the country, the riots were a long time in the making. In perhaps the most crucial words of the whole hour, a man asks: "How many protests have we had, and nothing's gone our way? And then when we turn to violence...what else are we meant to turn to?"

In the closing minutes, the narration almost falls over itself in an attempt to underplay the significance of its own findings, perhaps out of self-censorship. But the radical truth about the UK under the coalition has now been broadcast. For me personally, it was almost shocking to finally see some reality on TV.

The Riots: In Their Own Words will be available to view on iPlayer until 27th August 2012.
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