Slowly, they surrounded us. Clad in black North Face jackets, hoods pulled tightly over their heads, they quietly looked my friend and I over. Judging from their body language, these young men — six, possibly seven — were absolutely bewildered. They spoke softly amongst themselves, revealing what sounded like French African accents, perhaps Senegalese, or from the Ivory Coast. Just as quickly, they mounted their American mountain bikes, and pedaled away, across London Fields, into the twilight.
“They probably were wondering if we were cops,” I declared once they were out of earshot. “No,” replied my companion, “we’re dressed like anarchists. They probably thought we were rioters.” She was right. We were both wearing hooded black jackets, faded jeans, and surplus Germany army camos. Police, we were definitely not.
What was I thinking? These kids’ unmistakable otherness, the simmering fear I surmised from their stares, how deeply they took us in, somehow made me feel like a functionary of the State. Perhaps it was the sense of privilege I felt, as a visiting foreign journalist, with an expensive Japanese camera strung around his neck and a digital field recorder in his pocket. Perhaps it was because I was in the company of a Dutch law professor, about to file the final draft of her dissertation at one of Europe’s best law schools, discussing the looting of the local Carhartt store. There was something about this chance meeting, in a Hackney park, at the height of the riots, that made me assume I was on the wrong side.
With a week’s hindsight, back in the safety of northern Italy, I’m convinced that I was just reeling from the shock of what I’d just witnessed. In London for five days, to talk about Israeli politics, I found it impossible to not imagine myself in the all-too-familiar position of a Jewish Israeli. The kids I ran into may have been from central Africa. But judging from my reaction, they might as well have been Palestinian. It certainly didn’t help that the person in my company was someone I’d originally met through Israeli connections, a person who had both lived and worked in the occupied territories.
Spying the police helicopters gathering over Hackney, we had the kinds of conversations I’d only ever had in Israel. “How long can they loiter over the crowd like this?” “Do they have enough fuel?” “They probably are trading them out.” “I bet those things are packed with sensors and imaging equipment.” Not unfamiliar statements at any demonstration, especially of this kind. But, certainly ones which anyone who has ever lived or spent time in Israel or the occupied territories tends to be more familiar with then your average British black bloc anarchist. “They’re French helicopters,” I remember saying, as though it were significant they were made by EADS and not Bell.
Hooking up with a British-Israeli journalist on the high street — a reporter who had done distinguished work covering Israeli politics for UK papers — did little to diminish the sense of same-old, same-old I was feeling. Even though the uprisings in London and other British cities was not an explicitly anti-colonial struggle, it certainly was its own intifada. The ethnic divide between the rioters I encountered and the journalists who were there to witness it, like my friend, made it feel as though we were all back on a familiar assignment, covering the same struggle, only this time, in Europe. Instead of suicide bombings to discredit their politics, the British had looting instead.
David Cameron did my sense of dÃ©ja vu a favor when, discussing the kinds of punishments that would be meted out to rioters, he disclosed that any families of those determined to have looted who happened to live in public housing would lose their homes. Shades of house demolitions? Though synonymous with the Israeli habit of punishing the families of suicide bombers for their relative’s actions, the practice of being denied one’s home originated with the Mandate authorities when Britain ruled Palestine, between 1917 and 1948 and was first implemented during the 1936 Arab uprising, when 5000 Palestinian homes are estimated to have been demolished.
Having one’s home destroyed is not the same thing as being evicted. But it amounts to the same thing. Dispossession is an act of collective punishment that leaves entire families homeless. Its effectiveness is debatable. Betraying his distance from Britain’s Palestinian experience, Cameron obviously believes this touch policy to be a deterrent to criminality. Considering how critical his government is of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, to prosecute similar policies towards British civilians smacks of the kind of worst hypocrisy. However, considering the Prime Minister’s hostility towards multiculturalism, it makes sense. Cameron is nostalgic for the colonial era, its disciplinary practices included.
This is why when historian David Starkey shocked British TV viewers by saying that the English had become ‘black’ (referring to the surprisingly multiethnic composition of Britain’s rioters) it shouldn’t have caused such upset. He was simply reiterating Cameron’s worldview, which sees social difference through an immigration lens, rather than a domestic one. When it comes to inequality, British conservatives play the foreign card — now, including when confronting difficulties faced by their ‘own’ — because they are used to ascribing poverty to non-white ethnics and their cultural traits. To admit that their sources are local, rather than ‘foreign’ would mean to assume responsibility.
The proclivity to see the British as black, as foreign, as colonial subjects, and to want to discipline them as such, betrays a profound sense of alienation. Conservatives can’t recognize anything of their country anymore, except, perhaps, themselves. What they do manage to see is largely a function of memory — specifically that of aristocrats, of moneyed white Europeans, stuck somewhere in between the Victorian era, and Hitler’s Blitz. Discomfited by their myopia, they reduce everything unrecognizable to race. Factor in their fundamental disregard of the role of the welfare state in maintaining social stability, and the escalating crises of their political power are that much more transparent.
This is why, as much as I berate myself for seeing too much of everywhere else in Europe, it’s something of an advantage these days. When I count the number of kebab parlors, of sari shops, of synagogues, it’s not because I am unconsciously reacting to their alleged foreignness. It’s because they allow me to acknowledge difference — my own, specifically — as well as that of others. It’s also because there is safety in numbers. This is an awkward form of solidarity ‘foreigners’ instinctively appeal to precisely because of the instabilities fostered in us by conservatives like David Cameron. Not the rioters. Especially if you go by the kids I ran into. Perhaps if Europeans made inventory like this, they might understand how fragile the limitations of their vision make all of us feel.
How else might I explain the utility of calling on my Israeli background to understand the complexity of being caught in a riot in east London? It is unfortunately very helpful, because I was confronted with aspects of British politics that I was raised to associate with Israel. If London feels more like the Middle East, it is not just because we are here. It is also because the British political establishment is relating to us, and everyone else, in many of the same ways they did in Mandate Palestine. I’m sure if you asked immigrants from other ex-colonies the same questions, they’d return with similarly distressing answers. Talk to them. There are lots of newly ‘black’ Britons who might get something out of the exchange.
Photograph by Joel Schalit. Article title courtesy of Linton Kwesi Johnson