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Demonising the young won’t heal our cities, writes Laurie Penny

It's vital that we resist the easy story of "us" and "them".

The resilience of Londoners approaches cultural cliché. Just up from Camden Lock, on the morning after the worst night of civil unrest in living memory, people were going back and forth with brooms and bin bags, looking for something left to clean. The glass, debris and burning bins from the previous night's riots had already been swept away by the first eager Londoners to arrive. Five women, some white, some Asian, were holding large pink signs reading "free hugs". They had already been to Brixton.

I accepted a cuddle. It was that sort of morning.Across London, an enormous clean-up campaign swept through the shattered boroughs, organised over the same social networks that rioters had used to co-ordinate looting and arson. It quickly became clear that social media, contrary to initial panicked reports, was morally neutral in this crisis. In Clapham Junction, hundreds of people stood together and raised their brooms. Some had come from across the city to show support. The website that had been set up only hours earlier to bring together cleaning campaigns crashed due to a surge of traffic from volunteers.

Elsewhere, stories of solidarity were filtering through over the feeds: of local Jewish and Muslim youths banding together to protect a Stamford Hill synagogue from rioters, of anarchist groups in Hackney putting out fires where the emergency services were stretched. People called their friends to check that they were safe and opened their homes to strangers who had no way of crossing town. This, commentators began to assure each other, was the "real Britain". As I write, no member of the beleaguered cabinet has yet dared to use the term "Big Society".

The narrative being encouraged by most politicians is one of social division: of "us" and "them", of "real" British citizens mopping up after the "mindless" young hooligans.

Party leaders vow to punish looters who, they insist, are engaging in a “pure criminality" with no social precedent. Right-wing commentators pointed the finger at multiculturalism, single parents - anything except austerityand unemployment. Twitter was alight with racist indignation on Tuesday morning, and some people discussing the clean-up urged volunteers to "sweep away the scum". News outlets trying to explain the chaos focused on social media rather than social breakdown.

New broom needed

A clean-up operation is one thing, but vigilantism on the streets is quite another. The impulse to defend one's community is absolutely understandable, and citizens cannot be faulted for organising to patrol their neighbourhoods against arson attacks, but reports of gangs of EDL members yelling racist slogans at young black men in Eltham are extremely worrying. So are the professed liberals calling for water cannon and rubber bullets to be deployed.

Those using the various manifestations of this "fightback" to confirm their own prejudices would do well to remember how the Clapham broom brigade reacted when Boris Johnson arrived to congratulate them on their hard work. Shouts of "this is your fault" and "how was your holiday, Boris?" greeted the mayor, who had only just returned after three days of rioting to "take charge".

He did so by making helpers clear the area and pause their clean-up operation while he posed, broom in hand, for press photos. He then put down the broom and made a hasty exit from a crowd murmuring about closed community centres.

As panicked politicians with little understanding of social disorder fight to reclaim the narrative, it is vital that we resist the easy story of "us"
and "them".Because the truth is that it's all "us". The disorder will continue until we acknowledge that the young people who rampaged through Manchester, Liverpool, Brixton, Tottenham and 50 boroughs of London are as much a part of the "real Britain" as those who nobly came out the next morning to clear the debris from their trashed high streets. The language of "true Brits" defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots.

Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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