John Bird: Fashion has become a weapon on the streets of London

What you wear can be a matter of life and death – as last week's riots demonstrated

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:26

Many terrible images are thrown up by the rioting and looting: the Malaysian boy helped up and then robbed; the flowers left where three men were murdered on the streets of Birmingham; the police cars being pounded.

But for me one of the most significant is the shorter, weaker, white boy being made to strip while a bigger black boy, or man, watches. The uniform that the white boy, and many white boys wear, is being taken from him. He is no more a human being. He is no more one of the boys who run with the riot.

Supremacy on the street is a black supremacy. It is the uniform of the poor black inner city boldly adopting an identity to say "fuck you" – taking a social position of emptiness and nothingness and making it into a social power statement.

People make the point that the rioters were not all inner-city black kids wearing their sport suits and hoods. There were others who were not poor blacks from the inner city. They were white, maybe poor, from social housing and social security; but there are others who come from more prosperous or comfortable backgrounds.

A good point. But understand this: poor inner-city black people are fashion leaders. They are the style leaders. They are the leader. And you follow.

Much of what has happened over the last week is about fashion and style. It's about belonging, or not belonging. Often the boys who have been knifed on the streets of London have not just been members of other gangs; they have also been unfashionably attired.

They have not got the true stamp of originality. In the same way that youth culture of former times meant everyone had to have the mod look, or the Ted look, or even the new romantic look, now there is a new look. And you either adopt that garb or you are terribly vulnerable.

There is a fascism of fashion that is deadly and taking place on our streets and spilling over into our lives. A "life and deathness", and if you don't adhere to it you are likely to become a victim.

The Somalian boy, for example, threatened on a bus in south London, is so frightened he gets off the bus at a stop that is not his normal stop – and is stabbed at that bus stop. He dies a few feet from his disembarkation, in the cold light of day.

He will have stuck out as not from their gang, maybe, their postal code. But also he may well have stuck out because he was an African. He was not a part of the great number of young blacks who come from the African diaspora; from the West Indies. And because of that he may well have looked gauche and out of place.

Along the Walworth Road in south London live many black families that came from Africa. They were not a part of the displaced black culture of the West Indies and for the last 20 years the parents of Africa have been fighting a battle against the fashion and styles of West Indian youth. And they are losing.

Their African children are adopting the uniforms of West Indian youth: the language patterns, the patois. The style. So they are imitating them in order to become a part of this big mix. Often not deprived in the way that many West Indian children are, they nonetheless imitate depravation.

When someone says this is not an inner-city black thing, they are kidding themselves. The imagery of the inner-city young black kid, in his shell suit and hood, and his throwaway contempt for authority, is the bar, the standard by which many are judged. I saw this coming. Twenty-five years ago I was driving my son to school and we picked up one of his classmates. This 10-year-old boy came from a very solid middle-class family, but as soon as he got in the car he asked my son: "Guess how much these trainers cost?" My son disinterestedly replied: "£10, £20, £50?" Even then, trainers were big money.

In the end, the boy declared proudly that the trainers had cost £50. Disgusted, I turned around and said: "How the hell did you manage to con your parents into paying such a price?"

He was so proud that he had got the best. The best label. The best look. What he was saying was a precursor of later times when fashion, a new kind of fascism and social control, would be the decisive factor in determining one's position on the streets. That boy has become a man. Listen to him closely. He works in the city, yet he still has the traces in his accent of West Indian-kid patois.

That middle-class boy was a precursor, the shape of things to come. A whole generation of people imitating the street supremacy of the poor. Because the poor have got the style. But let us look below the surface of this shell-suit hoodedness. This also is not an original thing. In the same way that young black kids copy a kind of stumbling, mumbling patois – speaking in imitation of how many of their grandparents' Windrush generation may have spoken – they also take the garb of another.

That other is the inner city of New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles, where people die for their style. And style is a kind of dying anyway. Style wars mixed with oppression of a level that would make the black youth of England look anaemic.

Stop-and-search is not all that black people have to put up with in America. They have a police force geared up to prevent the use of water hydrants in the hot days of summer. The oppressiveness of the US political, social and racial system is the tinderbox that created the fashion you see on the streets of our riot-torn cities. This style, along with the music and the fashion and the attitude, has been exported and imitated down to a tee.

Even the way that young black people imitate the speech patterns and style of their elders who largely came over from Jamaica, the young inner-city blacks of the US imitate the Southern voices of their grandparents with their prosaic Dixie speak. All of this is style. All this is about identity. You need an identity.

What we have to realise is that this supreme style is a form of social control that wards off social development and keeps people subdued and unable to rise to the occasion.

The only people who do well out of this kind of style oppression are the white people on the edge: the imitating young middle classes who can use it as an identity and call each other "bruv" from morning until night in their advertising jobs.

They wear tattoos, taking another inspiration from another oppressed culture: Latino prison and street culture.

If we are to get to the bottom of what has happened in our damaged streets, we need to look below the surface and see the oppressive fashion. And we need to see how this self-defeating world of outsider's uniforms may suit the fashion industry and the record industry, but is not good for our kids – black or white, inner city or leafy suburb. We have to break the power of this disgusting form of social control.

The author is one of the founders of 'The Big Issue'

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