Too mad to be insane: looting, marches and the reaction in Deptford High Street

In what has been an extraordinary week for Londoners, I can’t help but reflect on the significance of events in Deptford.

On the night of Monday (7th), Deptford High Street was hit several times by looters from local gangs.  Fortunately, the damage was relatively minor, as they focused on lucrative targets such as the bookmakers, banks and Tesco, before gathering outside of a pawnbrokers and jewellers.  Word is that they couldn’t crack the safe in the jewellers and thus only made off with cheap rings, but the pawnbrokers was emptied.  Residents – including those living in the flats above the targeted businesses – looked on in disbelief, some jamming 999 incessantly into their phones.  While not many folk shed tears for the economic losses sustained by the shops, the fact that these recognised gang kids had free reign of the High Street struck fear into the heart of normal people, acutely aware – as they were -of the risk of fire on the narrow, cramped street.  Eventually, after around two hours, a sole TSG van arrived and six cops jumped out to chase the looters off.

The following day, with intense paranoia on the streets of all London, a group of residents decided to act.  We’d found ourselves shakily preparing emergency bags and water buckets the night before, but we realised we had no hoses or foam extinguishers.  An impromptu fire safety meeting was organised on a street corner between around 30 people, who then agreed to meet again in the evening to reclaim the streets from fear and misinformation.  We were all sick of barricading ourselves in and relying on the false rumours and hysteria of mainstream news and social media.  At 8.30pm, almost 100 people met outside and started chatting about what had happened and why, while a banner was painted with the slogan “DEPTFORD UNITED, YOU’RE INVITED”.

As the night wore on, it quickly became apparent that London had become a mini-police state, with Deptford High Street – usually something of a no go area for cops – witnessing patrol after patrol of imported, provincial men stopping to stare suspiciously at us from the windows of rental vans.  The abundance of police served to empty Deptford’s streets, with only the hardiest of street drinkers daring to surface.  At one point, six cops encircled two black lads walking nonchalantly up the High Street. The street assembly in turn surrounded them, in scenes similar to those seen in Hackney before the anti-police riot the previous day.  The cops, drunk on their own sense of power, mumbled something about a report of “kids starting petrol bombs”.  So where’s the petrol then?  A tense situation was defused by them giving up and letting the youths walk on.  “Is it any wonder they hate you, officer?”

We crossed the road and detached the banner from the front of a Ladbrokes, because we weren’t interested in defending them or any other business from looting.  As we did so, a discussion began about the motives of the riots and the problems we find ourselves in.  It quickly became clear that most people understood the youth’s rage and desperation: no EMA, no accessible university education, no real jobs, no future.  What we questioned was their response: we needed to work together to really change our society, to really fuck power up, but for good.

It was at this point that divisions started to occur amongst the assembled.  The “#riotcleanup” wannabes seemed to resent the ‘politicisation’ of the assembly, although they largely rejected the opportunity to argue their case.  Did they consider themselves above debating with the motley crue, which included a number of dishevelled, dysfunctional High Street regulars?  Either way, their refusal to participate meant that their arrogantly-muttered complaints were quickly lost in the wind as they returned to their trendy flats and impotent fear, their Twittering consumption of mainstream news hysteria and misinformation being every bit as vacuously materialist and shallow as the looters they so avidly derided.  For its part, the assembly missed their exits, distracted as it was by rumours of an imminent EDL march on Lewisham (they were stopped in Eltham in the end).

The prospect of an emergency demonstration reared its head amongst the assembly.  It would be an attempt to highlight the social and political causes of the riots, as well as the despair that the current working class feels.  A vote of all the assembly produced a near-unanimous result in favour, with just one person against. “But what if it turns violent?” the sole detractor insisted. “So what? At least then it’ll be for something!” was the response from the floor.  But the frankly bizarre gathering of residents, activists and local drunks suddenly descended into a plethora of individual discussions, with participants unable to agree on whether the threat of violence (from that great big Other, the rioters!) was sufficient cause with which to cancel a public demonstration.  During the confusion, two more votes were called, with the same result each time: all in favour bar one.  Eventually, the individual was silenced, the march ratified, and we all went to bed, drunk and exhausted.

The demonstration itself was an unbelievably tense affair, flanked by an inordinate number of police and attended by a disproportionate number of left-wing activists.  I had to keep reminding myself that the idea had arisen out of a neighbourhood assembly the night before, and that despite its last minute nature, it had been promoted avidly during the High Street market on the day itself.  However, in the end, local residents were outnumbered by bandwagon jumpers from the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Party, and so on, who patronised young people (chanting about “THE KIDS”) and Muslims (the vintage “FREE PALESTINE” slogan coinciding with us passing a mosque), while attempting to amass political capital out of genuine social discord.  The handful of concerned residents who did come (including a crew of rollerblading lads from Brookmill Road) were swamped and neutralised by the hyper-organised PR machines of the contemporary parliamentary left, jostling to get their banners at the march’s front, inviting themselves onto TV news interviews and distributing their crap, didactic leaflets, which offered comfortingly simplistic ‘explanations’ for the complex social phenomenon which we were facing.

Indeed, talking to the local residents on Deptford High Street in the hours leading up to the demonstration, it had become evident that the High Street was not about to revolt, not over poverty nor insecurity.  The High Street has long been targeted by leafletters, so the sort of chugger etiquette – where you either stare into middle distance and ignore the leafletter in order to indicate refusal, or alternatively, you choose the path of least resistance and accept the slip of paper, only to then ignore it yourself – reigns supreme.  The minority of individuals who we were able to engage in conversation tended to begin with rapid, irate condemnation, only to pause and then accept the deeper-lying social problems behind the week’s disturbances, before finally underlining their non-attendance, usually on the grounds of trepidation.  One man anxiously shouted at us about the threat of the EDL in Lewisham; our insistence that the best way of driving out the racist filth was by standing shoulder to shoulder, rather than retreating indoors and awaiting the apocalypse, fell on deaf ears (in the end, other black men chose to mobilise for him).  Another ejected us from his shop, claiming that all “the kids” needed was “a good kicking”, as if they weren’t already sufficiently brutalised and angry!

Afterwards, sat in a shit hipster pub which had unbelievably survived unscathed, I could only rue the atomised, fragmented city, and the contradictory, confused nature of our young rioters.  We had seen anti-police riots evolve into mass looting and then brazen, misanthropic criminality.  The experience had been at once liberatory and terrifying before becoming depressing, as the government, the state, the police force and the self-obsessed middle class slowly start to clamber to their feet and dust themselves off.  They’re talking tough now, fist-banging soundbites, I’ll show you who’s boss, and so on.  For their part, the rioters have also talked tough, offering two fingers to law, order, wealth and routine in a crazed orgy of conspicuous consumption and unfettered excess.

But now, as the hangover – the post-coital shame and discomfort – begins, Deptford High Street stutters back into reality, weaving its tangled web of multiple, coexistent realities, realities which have denied themselves the chance to converge.  The individual, immediate problems of its residents still hold court here, and the brief window in which our chief concerns could be seen to coalesce (as illustrated by the neighbourhood assembly) was smashed through, not by a rioter, but by the aching weight of our own isolation. Just as the white, employed middle class abandoned the assembly in order to service their own consumption habits in front of mass media and the political mainstream, so did the chorus of street drinker depressives, gambling addicts and wizen-faced crackheads leave it to drift back into their own lives of street corner high jinx, miserable shop door rows and pained screams which we all try to ignore while we lie in our beds.