Christina Patterson: A war that started with a single gunshot


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The Independent Online

August, historians will tell you, is a good time to start a war. And, boy, does this feel like a war. This feels, when you switch on the TV, and see footage of burning cars, and burning buildings, and of people jumping out of burning buildings, and of people too scared to walk down their street, and of dark silhouettes in helmets waving shields, and of dark silhouettes in hoodies waving iron bars, like the nearest to war most of us have been.

This feels, when you talk to friends, and find they're staying in with their children all day, because the area outside their front door looks as though a bomb has hit it, and when you talk to friends who do open their door, and find a looter in a balaclava hiding in their garden, like the end of something, and the start of something else. It feels like the end of getting up in the morning, and knowing you'll be able to go to work safely, and get home safely, and do your job safely when you're there.

For some of us, the only sign on our doorsteps was even more police cars screeching past than usual, and shops that closed early, and helicopters overhead. For my neighbours, in Dalston, and in Hackney, it wasn't. For the man, for example, who runs a pharmacy in Mare Street, and watched a group of teenagers try to trash his shop, which was, he said, "everything he had", and who pleaded with them not to, it must have felt like the end of everything he'd spent his whole life working to build up.

For the other shopkeepers in Mare Street, and in Dalston, and Tottenham, and Brixton, who watched teenagers smash glass and fill their pockets with mobile phones, or jewellery, or grab trainers, or tracksuits, or even stagger under the weight of giant TVs, it must have felt as if one of the central pillars of their life was under threat.

And for the people who lost their homes, and all their possessions, and every single photo of their children, which they will never, ever be able to get back, and who nearly lost their lives because someone thought it was a good laugh to throw a can of kerosene and a match, it must have felt as near as you get to losing your world, without losing your life.

This is what happens in a war. Wars start for a million different reasons, and the time to understand those reasons is not while the war is going on. They can start – even world wars can start – with a single gunshot. This one did. This one started with an old, old story, of a black man killed by police. It started when a woman wanted to know why four children would never see their father again. And when the police said nothing. And when frustration turned, as it often does, to anger, and anger turned, as it often does, to violence.

Race didn't cause these riots, but it played a part. Why else do you get three black men talking about them on Newsnight, when you almost never see a black man talking about anything on Newsnight? And why else do you get people talking, as they are on newspaper websites, and radio phone-ins, about "thieving black scum"?

The rioters weren't all black, of course. They were black, and mixed race, and white and wannabe black. They were people who are probably already in gangs, who usually keep their violence to other gangs, but who, over the past four days, discovered, perhaps for the first time outside their little world, the thrill of power.

There are 169 gangs in London. There are 22 in Hackney alone. These are people who have grown up on estates where almost nobody works, often without fathers, and often without any qualifications, skills, or ambitions, who feel the world has let them down. The guns and knives they carry make them feel there's a corner of the world they can control. And because of these boys – no more than 2,000 of them– you can hardly walk down a street, if you're black, without being stopped and searched.

Too many black men have been killed by the police. Too many black men and women have been treated like criminals when they're not. This is not the cause of these riots, but it's there in the mix, where the key ingredient is feeling powerless.

It wasn't these children who created the culture that told them what mattered was the brand of their trainers, or the glitter of their bling. It wasn't these children who created the culture that told them their one hope of escape was hip hop, or fame. It wasn't these children who created a country where all the black workers were in the canteens. We have, as a society, created this monster and, as a society, and like those people heading into the trouble spots with dustpans and brushes, we must pick up the pieces.