The first thing to go up is the 171. The bus is in flames by the time I get there, and the fumes are throwing up a smoke signal to young people all over Peckham. Hundreds of them are milling around along with local people trying to get home from work – the curious, the angry and those who are simply on the make. A ring of policemen wearing visors and shields have lined the breadth of Peckham High Street, and are engaging everyone in a kind of stare-off.
It doesn’t last long. The first shop to take a bashing is Payday Loans, the local loan shark. When that’s emptied a few hundred young people, most of them wearing hoodies or scarfs, races up road towards Peckham Rye and I follow. The excitement, it turns out, is because another group has forced its way into a fashion retailer, Blue Inc., and is making off with all of its stock. A few hundred of us stand back across the road waiting for something to happen while, a few yards away a few yards up the road in the mouth of Peckham Rye, another phalanx of baton-wielding visors stands guard over the rest of the shops. A sweet-looking boy of no more than about eight emerges from Blue Inc. beaming and holding a clutch of funky T-shirts, still in their hangers. As he makes it back to our side of the street, he gets a huge round of applause.
A few older boys wearing hoodies run forward from our group to hurl rocks and abuse at the line of policemen, who occasionally respond by charging in our direction, at which point everyone races back to the relative safety of Peckham Library. This goes on for several hours. At one point a convoy of strange little box-like vehicles arrives and races past the library in the direction of Peckham High Street, and everyone runs in panic. “Those are the feds, man”, a black girl of about ten tells her friend, as if she’s talking about the bogeyman. “The ones who really hurt you.” I’m chatting to an Irish gypsy woman and her family about what’s happening elsewhere when all of a sudden the police rush towards us and I lose her in the melee. In between the rock-throwing and baton charges, a chubby black man rushes back through the no-man’s land to pick up one last suitcase full of gear from Blue Inc. and raises another cheer. “There’s nothing in your size, mate”, the man beside me shouts, and everyone laughs.
The atmosphere is akin to school sports day, or a visit to a rowdy open-air cinema. A few of them try to set a fire outside Blue Inc. but they can’t get it going. When they move on to the pawnbrokers and spend twenty minutes trying to prise the grille open, they’re beginning to bore the girl who handed out the Haribos. “Why don’t they do the hair shop, have you seen the products they keep in the back of that hair shop?” Even if the younger ones find it funny, many of the older people I speak to despair of all this looting. At least half those here are gawkers like me; some young black men I talk to are shaking their heads at what happens, and one white guy wearing sportswear and tattoos complains that “I’m all in favour of people having a tear at the police, but they shouldn’t be doing their own shops, do you know what I mean?” When the hoodies finish with the loan sharks and pawnbrokers and start cleaning out a local fashion boutique, an angry young black woman berates one of them. “You’re taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she’s built that shop up from nothing. It’s like stealing from your mum.” A girl holding a looted wedding dress smiles sheepishly, stuck for anything to say. A EuroLines bus with French name-plates slow-coaches up Peckham high street and the tourists get more of London than they bargained for.
As I leave Peckham high street and walk back towards the Old Kent Road, a teenager carrying a boxed Nintendo Wii nearly knocks me over, and then apologises and goes on his way. He’s on his way back from the Argos just across the road from where I live. By the time I get there everything is being carried out – it’s like the generation game without the conveyor belt – and floods of young people are still arriving to claim their share. Eventually a police car arrives and an lucky pair of teenage girls drops a flat-screen TV and run off screaming. Across the road, the young professionals who moved in across the road from me are standing milling around looking on, one of them still in her socks. They’re enjoying the show as much as everyone else.
That’s the irony of all this. For years now, wonks and idea-entrepreneurs have been banging on about ‘social capital’ ‘community engagement’, ‘social networks’ and ‘transformative communities’. Only rarely do their schemes take hold; they’re prefer to talk amongst each other, and they’ve succeeded only in enhancing their own station. For all the senseless destruction, on Monday night I talked to more locals, and got more of an insight into my local community, than in the previous five years put together. In the dog days of August, it feels like an alternative summer festival, a sort of Big Chill for under-stimulated, under-employed urban youth. You don’t even have to get your feet muddy.
What the wonks and idea-hawkers forgot about was something as simple as politics – going out there and getting your message across rather than sitting in conference rooms bleating about health inequality. It doesn’t make much sense for politicians to bleat and tub-thump about ‘responsibility’ and invoke Victorian morality – they’ve been doing that for decades, it’s gotten us nowhere and it’s not really their job. What they need to too, especially those on the left, is to offer these young people a way of understanding their situation – without which politicians are part of the problem. New Labour felt, quite understandably, that it didn’t much need the loosely-employed poor anymore. In so far as it did address them, wonks talked about their ‘poverty of aspiration’. But that was in the boom years. Now, and for many of these young people, there’s not much much left to aspire to.
There’s much more than brute criminality here. This is pure inchoate rage and ennui. Given the lack of politics or direction, of course, there’s the danger that it might turn much uglier. In Peckham blacks and white were rubbing along quite nicely – just like in America, race is much less salient than it was thirty years ago. But, in the absence of any politics, the reaction to the riots might be different. In Eltham, there’s been a rise in vigilantism and some evidence that the EDL are muscling in on the disturbances. Next time the fires may be more difficult to put out.
James Harkin is the author of Niche, and Director of Flockwatching. An abbreviated version of this appeared on 10 August 2011 on the news pages of The Guardian (with Paul Lewis). Read the news story here