Cities, Riots, Maps, The Black Act & the 'new normal'. Pierce Penniless on the UK riots
We are in the phase of the new normal. Scarcely a week after widespread rioting, it’s easy to become overfed on opinion or anecdote, on the careful attempts to position the riots as the consequence of this-or-that policy, or social ill, or as ways – perhaps the only way left – of lodging grievance. Above all, however, the news-cycles veer back towards their standard groove, having wobbled inadequately in attempting to comprehend an event unmediated by press releases and PR statements, substituting for any understanding of those on the streets a vaguely ludicrous selection of ‘community leaders’, MPs and concerned white people. (The pressure of the 24 hour news cycle being what it is, unfortunate ruptures do occur, never to be replayed.)
While you ask yourself if you’ve ever met a ‘community leader’, and precisely how one attains so vaunted a position, our cameras refocus on the overstuffed prime minister rehearsing the public order playbook with all the moral conviction of a moldering fish; her majesty’s loyal opposition, in the meantime, twitches its adenoidal clichés, offering almost indistinguishable frowns and grimaces, softened only by the light drag of an election-conscious social concern. Second time as farce, perhaps, were it not for the sobering reality that a caffeine-crazed judiciary, gavel-bashing through the small hours, is belching out sentences so bleak and repressive as to make Draco of Athens unquiet in his grave. Swear at a police officer? TEN WEEKS! Take some bottled water? SIX MONTHS! Post on Facebook? FOUR YEARS!
The less gutsy of dystopian novelists might pause at this point, wondering if so precipitous a descent might stretch even the preternaturally elastic credulity of devotees of their genre; might pause, too, to wonder, was this really imaginable two weeks ago? A month? This is the paradox-ridden condition of the new normal: a widespread form of reality management continually suggesting that things remain exactly as they were a month ago, while also presenting a new state of alarm, of emergency or of diffuse anxiety which remains alongside and persists with the ‘normal’, thus apparently justifying the slowly-choking grip of the judiciary or the revanchist moralism of the government.
Imaginable? Maybe. The people currently being conveyor-belted into the cells are being convicted by virtue not of their actions, but because of the geographical context of those actions, making them effectively responsible for everything happening around them by a twist of legal logic so arcane as to be faintly ridiculous. But predictable: an extension of the legal manoeuvres that saw students sent to jail for throwing a couple of sticks in the presence of other people. Partly predictable, perhaps, but reaching increasingly deranged, grotesque proportions. Less predictable, perhaps, was the zombie revenant of Enoch Powell, marching again across the TV screen; the legion of half-closeted half-fascists taking the opportunity to wring their hands about Starkey’s confrontational approach and then ooze that, well, some of the issues he raises…
The new normal: wherein you can have the glass and dazzle of the Olympics, but be wary that their tin smiles and hollow luxury are now so precarious that their only guarantor is an ever more frenzied and powerful state; wherein the condition of even a tense and sickly order is a collective amnesia about police murder; wherein temporary events like riots are used to underwrite ever more permanent powers, like curfew, or arbitrary detention, or the broadening of stop-and-search. Here, in the phase of its anxious establishment as the new normal its authoritarian contours are obvious, terrifying to us, each day pummeling us with new messages about natural criminality, about dangerous forms of collectivity, with police bristling out of every corner, and unconcealed, gloating revenge plastered on the front pages of every newspaper: what happens when we stop noticing?
Looked at one way, cities are huge systems of redundancies, vastly parallel systems which route around any minor annoyance or trivial blockage; this is especially true in London, where there is always an elsewhere. This is visible most obviously in moments of popular unrest, where three streets away from lines of armoured police batoning dissenters, chain stores go about their business undisturbed; it accounts for the momentary nausea of stepping from a brutal situation into a street in which commerce continues mostly unabated and undisturbed; likewise, it is the reason for the broad, straight avenues and boulevards which allow for the easy roll-out of force around political centres. It accounts, too, for the immediate responses of MPs and local officials, which is to suggest that the very worst of the trouble in an area is usually the responsibility of organised or criminal elements from elsewhere, and certainly not those without a voice or any other recourse within their own area. One thing the widespread, city-wide rioting last Monday did was to torpedo that excuse: there wasn’t really any elsewhere left for them to come from.
But there are other maps of cities, too. There is the inconvenient map that plots deprivation indices over the rioting flashpoints, for instance. That alone doesn’t account for the unrest. One might also wonder how the collective memory of police murder and unaccountability maps over the unrest, what plotting instances of deaths in police custody might look like, for instance. But that too is not quite an explanation. Owen Hatherley has pointed out very clearly that there is an urban geography at work in London that, looked at with clear eyes, is an untethered, insane way to organise a city. Such geographies don’t exist simply on the page, but structure the way that people live in cities, the areas that they don’t look at, or avoid, or which simply unhappen for them. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Sky News on the evening of rioting in Clapham, where a prosperous, middle-class white man, baffled, simply mouthed at the camera that it was a nice area to live in, unaware of where deprivation or poverty could be found locally, presumably blind to the estates and high-rises at the end of his road.
Clapham is a case in point: an area much-gentrified, and indeed now quite swish, without having wiped away the less prosperous families who once lived there; the same process of gentrification is in place, though variously less advanced, in many of the areas that erupted in the secondary waves of riots. From Clapham, too, the morning after, came the endless photos of the smug, homogeneous army of well-meaning morons with brooms, providing endless fodder for a panoply of reactionary articles about the stiff upper lip, mucking-in, and, worst of all, the ‘Blitz spirit’. (Presumably a tacit admission that this is a war situation; a war in which, if you find yourself suddenly with Boris, Dave and their host of ex-Bullingdon mates, you might wonder if you’re on the right side.) The other side to this is not to argue that burnt-out buildings and broken shop-fronts are a pleasant sight, but instead to ask questions about what compelled people to travel to Clapham, in particular? What is it about an almost-exclusively white class of conscientious liberal activists that impels them to de dismayed by the sight of broken and looted businesses, and act on that above all else; what is it about the way their urban life is structured that they may live briefly and transiently in one-or-another area of a city for perhaps a year or two at a time, thus having to construct a deliberate, symbolic cleanup operation online?
That aside, there are other flows at work in a city, some more telling here. As some of us pointed out on a radio show shortly after the riots, much of the looting took place in retail parks, some of the most unpleasant extrusions on inner-city environments, because they are very rarely intended for anyone who lives there. They are large sheds containing luxury goods (often unaffordable to many in the local area), laid out around a vast car park: that is, they are destinations to which people drive, rather than walk, they are conduits of capital that simply escapes from the area in which it is exchanged. Sometimes they may provide a few jobs to people in the area, but even then, there’s little guarantee of local employment, and people often travel to them to work. Money flows through, but does not stay in, the area it’s expended.
One of the most telling ways to map a city, then, is in terms of capital flow. The great pioneer of radical cartographic analyses like this was Bill Bunge, whose maps of Detroit demonstrate how clearly maps are not simply neutral descriptors, but, depending on what they map, and how they chart, can become clear exposés and indictments of the secret and hidden movements of a city:
What might mapping London like this reveal? In a sense, it’s salutary that Bunge’s great cartographic project was Detroit: a city collapsing in on itself after the decline of its great industrial heritage. London is not Detroit: its historical and economic conditions are different. But it is a city whose urban geography is rapidly changing, having been loosed from the physical and geographical prerequisites of its past: the decline of the docks, and the vanishing of light industry, mean that the Rotherhithe where my grandfather found his first job looks very different today compared with the 1930s, overlaid with regeneration and new conversions, but without wiping away the different social and economic strata that preceded it. It is often the proud delusion of writers who live in London that it will decay from the top down, that it will burn in some kind of conflagration, but more unsettling, perhaps unnoticed, it might just be that we are drowning.
This may seem far from the riots we saw erupting in London, but the truth is that to speak about ‘causes’ of riots is only ever to speak about proximate causes. The shooting of Mark Duggan was a cause, but a proximate one: hundreds of the young people on those streets have dozens of stories each about police intimidation, power-tripping and injustice; unemployment, the cuts, the ever more abundant hypocrisy from the wealthy and privileged, causes, yes, but proximate ones. There were thousands of different, small causes, many from the same sources, but many from others. It is facile and crass in the extreme to draw comparisons between the ‘real’ looters, who get away with a slap on the wrist, even if it is true – because it is at best a slow-moving mimic of an explanation. Throwing a banker into jail alleviates no problem at all.
There is a deep conflict that has been visible in the riots over who the city belongs to, what people are entitled to do with it. It’s hard for me not to be reminded, by the raft of powers, harsh sentences and lust for punishment, of the punitive legislation of the 18th century. Many commentators have dilated upon the 1714 Riot Act and its establishment of offences against the King’s Peace, passed a few years after the religiously-motivated Sacehverell riots. Perhaps more interesting in these times is the ‘Black Act’ that followed it in 1723 (9 George I c.22), which created fifty new capital offences – becoming two hundred, when stretched. The law imposed a sentence of death for innumerable ‘offences’, such as poaching deer and fish, cutting down young trees, appearing hooded or with face blackened in any forest or chase, especially the king’s forests and many more. It was named after the Waltham Blacks, poachers with blackened and covered face. Central to the conflict was, in large part, an attempt by the Whiggish ascendancy to take more money out of the forests, and a conflict between the habitual users of the common, or wild spaces of the forest, and those who sought to render, by force of law, wild animals private game. The capital powers afforded by the Black Act were, through expansive legal interpretation, equally aggressively used to repress dissenting opinion, or exact retribution for damage to private property. Are we in an analogous situation today? After all, there’s very little in the way of ‘the common’ left in spatial, economic or geographical terms, but we are certainly seeing the eruptions of a conflict over who has the right to be in and use the city, and the political disjunctions that arise from that question, the legal crackdowns that follow such ‘emergencies’, suggest looking sharply at the brutality of the past to see where we’re heading now.
E.P. Thompson’s study of the Black Act (Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, New York, Pantheon Books, 1975) demonstrates how rapidly the law’s emergency provisions generalised out of a set of specific conditions to become a wide penal armament, used to generate new capital offences, executing turnpike rioters because they had disguised their faces. Such disguises were often deliberate, but so broad was the repressive power of the law that even having a dirty face, or, ludicrously, wearing your hair close-cropped, unpowdered and without a wig were held to be acts of disguise. It should also be telling that in prosecution, cases were moved from local Assizes to the King’s Bench, where the wavering sympathies of local juries could easily be disposed with. Most telling of all, however, is how the usefulness of the law transcended the ‘emergency’ conditions under which it was passed; how very rapidly its temporary powers became permanent tools, restructuring the very notions of crime and property that had existed beforehand (pp.207-12)
With the murmuring of curfew powers, water-cannon and baton rounds, the shedding of tears over ‘sheer criminality’, the imputation of moral injury to iPods and flatscreen televisions, the conjuring of hooded monsters, feral and subhuman, are we heading for a similar legal juncture? Maybe. The parallels are certainly disturbing, even as far as the insistence that the contestation over property, possession and public space is not a ‘political’ question, because the arguments don’t come with static crowds chanting slogans, or the voices and values aren’t immediately recognisable to us. Such powers are never temporary. We would do well to listen more clearly to those voices, hear the roots of those conflicts, resist the urge to trudge along, unresisting and docile under the grim, unblinking eye of the ‘new normal’.