One of my earliest memories is riot-related. Back in 1981, the last time London was ablaze on a scale as we’ve seen in the last week I remember being sent home from my primary school in Ealing early. Trouble was brewing in Southall — three point something miles down the road — and the police advice was that it was coming to leafy Ealing next.
Thirty years on when I was phoned up on Monday evening by a friend warning me that the word from Twitter was that Ealing would be next I assumed the same would happen again and scoffed at the idea. Of course we all know the rest. As everyone struggles to work out why it’s also worth looking at what exactly happened and whether/why it was different to anything previously before coming to rash conclusions.
“My brothers you are doing your Eid shopping early”, I saw one tweet go from a source with a comedy hijabed lady as her avatar. I think it was a joke and Twitter allows the cloak of anonymity just as the cowardly looters were all masked up. Beyond the masks, however, there are several faces of the week: the Malaysian student who was robbed by people masquerading as coming to his aid; the grieving father in Birmingham eloquently pleading for people to get a grip and stop the madness on the streets: the guy posing gangsta style with a Tesco value big-sized bag of basmati rice.
All this illustrates how — rather than the Powellite “them” versus “us” rantings of David Starkey — multiculturalism is a given. Minorities have been victims as well as perpetrators. Black and white youths have been charged so far. Remember the late Robin Cook declaring that chicken tikka masala was the national dish? Basmati is similarly normalised now along with the usual meat and two veg which is all good.
We were treated to another memorable image from Southall: hundreds of Sikhs guarding their gurdawara hearing that trouble might be heading their way from Ealing. It seems the topology of 1981 has reversed entirely.
Ethnic resistance was on display elsewhere: in Tower Hamlets men coming out of communal prayers at the Whitechapel mosque chased away the would-be marauders. There were reports of Turkish shopkeepers in Stoke Newington repelling potential pillagers. Three young men in Birmingham were not so lucky.
In all this the original motive, justice for Mark Duggan was forgotten long ago. I doubt many of the looters were keeping up to date with the latest IPCC developments in case that filtered out in the week. I have argued elsewhere this was more of a shopping spree than a riot.
On Monday night I had “Ealing” in the Twitter search engine and at one point 200 new tweets were appearing every refresh. “It’s the level of analysis I can’t handle,” one academic friend told me as we compared riot stories in the week.
Yes, 140 characters will never compete with a 90,000 word PhD thesis and the quality control/veracity factor is also doubtful. “Shopping centre on fire”, “local university in flames”, “Nandos burned down”, “mystery man dead” were all bogus — sadly the last one came true eventually though. But the instantaneous reaction plus News24 and Sky News made this an oddly compelling modern moral panic akin to what Stanley Cohen had described in his seminal book on how 1960s seaside mods and rockers bust-ups mushroomed via media coverage. Instead of the Frinton Echo spreading the word we got Facebook updates to feed the flashmob.
As I finally retired at 3am on Monday all I could hear overhead were helicopter chopper blades although one person tweeted “those aren’t the police, it’s the BBC aerial camera crew”!
Dr Rupa Huq is senior lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University