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The 2011 English riots revisited - August-05-12
Source: The Telegraph (David Starkey)
''Humankind cannot bear very much reality." T S Eliot's dictum might have been written for the riots of last summer, whose first anniversary falls this week.
Remember them? Remember those extraordinary scenes which, played out night after night on the news bulletins, transfixed the nation and the world? Of the police overwhelmed and fleeing from the rioters? Of mobs ransacking familiar high streets the length and breadth of England and even carrying the mayhem into the holy of holies of consumerism, Oxford Circus itself? Of buildings and whole blocks deliberately set on fire and burning furiously and unchecked, in scenes not seen in London since the worst days of the Blitz?
Remember them? At the time it seemed impossible that we should forget. Parliament was recalled. The Prime Minister proclaimed the "moral collapse" of society. And Iain Duncan Smith declared the riots would be as important a turning point for the Cameron Government as 9/11 had been for Tony Blair.
Remember? Well if you do, our leaders apparently don't. The last time anybody mentioned the disturbances was back in March, when the official inquiry into the riots submitted its final report. Known with hip inclusiveness as the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, it called for better parenting and character-building education in schools. Its recommendations were received with due solemnity by government and opposition and promptly filed in a box labelled "Too difficult: don't touch with a barge-pole".
Since then, silence. A blessed amnesia has swept over our political class, and now it's almost a case of "Riots? What riots?".
There is a perfectly innocent explanation, of course, if hardly an edifying one. We live in an age of multiple crises, with new problems cropping up at every turn. We are also enduring a regime of omnishambles, with a weak Government drifting at the mercy of events. In such circumstances, things, even big ones, do just get forgotten.
But I fear there is more to it than that. For something rather odd started to happen, even as events were unrolling: we were told, with increasing firmness, not to believe our own senses.
It was obvious from the beginning, to anybody with eyes to see, that these were riots in which the race of many of the participants played an important part. Black commentators were especially clear about this. "These riots were about race. Why ignore the fact?" declared Katharine Birbalsingh in her blog for The Daily Telegraph. Darcus Howe, the veteran black activist, was even more emphatic. "It's an insurrection," he told The Huffington Post, "of a generation of poor, primarily black people from the Caribbean and from Africa."
What could be clearer? Too clear, perhaps, for the political class and the mainstream media who, led by the Prime Minister, began an extraordinary exercise of what, with reference to George Orwell's Newspeak, we might call New Sight. Firmly donning his magic spectacles, which rendered him unshakeably colour blind, David Cameron proclaimed the new truth: "It wasn't race riots".
He was echoed from the other end of the political spectrum by Max Wind-Cowie of the Leftish think-tank Demos, who asserted even more confidently: "This is not about race at all." And so the chorus swelled.
There were of course a few obstinate souls who stuck to the old way of seeing. But they were firmly slapped down. The most egregious instance took place on Sky News. "Big Jim" was a shop owner who, disguised in a hoodie, had joined the crowd to find out the fate of one of his stores. "By 11 o'clock," he told the interviewer, Kay Burley, "there were at least 100… 200 black youths with hoodies and stuff just rampaging every shop."
Burley bridled at the forbidden Old Sight word "black". "You're not being stereotypical there?" she chided. "I'm sure they weren't all black, were they?" Worn down eventually, Big Jim conceded a sort of defeat: "OK then. Let me then say they weren't all black - I was the white guy there."
A stop should have been put to this nonsense by the publication of the official report into the riots. Instead, shamefully, it perpetuated it. The Riots Communities and Victims Panel subjected the 3,000-odd people brought before the courts to every sort of analysis: by age, previous criminal record, educational achievement, employment, family structure and so on. There was one glaring omission: there was no tabulation of ethnicity. Nevertheless, and having rehearsed no evidence whatever, their report still repeated the official mantra: "We do not believe that these were race riots."
Indeed, the only official document to present the proper, unvarnished picture is "The Statistical Bulletin of the Ministry of Justice on the Public Disorder of 6th-9th August 2011". And it is incontrovertible: 41 per cent of those charged were white, 50 per cent black or mixed race, 7 per cent Asian and 2 per cent Chinese or other. These figures must of course be read against the proportion of the various groups in the population as a whole: in London, to which some two thirds of the cases relate, some 12 per cent of the population is black and 69 per cent is white. Whites, in other words, were significantly under-represented among the rioters;
while blacks were four times over-represented.
Nor are the figures for the riots a fluke, as the Metropolitan Police statistics for 2009-10 show even more extreme disparities: 54 per cent of those proceeded against for street crimes were black; for robbery, 59 per cent; and for gun crimes, 67 per cent. This is also where the figures for previous criminality of the rioters come in: 76 per cent of the rioters brought before the courts were previous offenders; those convicted had committed a grand total of 16,000 offences between them and over a third had served time in jail.
The conclusion is inescapable and painful. Far from being merely opportunistic, the core of the rioters was formed of an already existing criminal class and that class is disproportionately black. This is the reality. But in our present society it is unbearable (in Eliot's formulation). And unsayable.
No wonder the Government and the media worked so hard to suppress it. And no wonder outraged media and public opinion came down like a ton of bricks on those naive or foolhardy enough to tell the truth, like Big Jim on Sky, or me in that now notorious Newsnight debate, when "racist" was among the least of the insults thrown at me.
Actually, I never mentioned race at all, since, in its proper sense, of a group with fixed hereditary characteristics, I regard it, as all sensible people do, as eugenicist nonsense. But I do believe in culture and I talked about that a lot. Not "black culture" of course, since such a uniform construct does not exist any more than a uniform "white culture".
Instead, I focused on "a particular sort" of black culture: the "violent, destructive, nihilistic, 'gangsta' culture" of the street. I mentioned and deplored its specific linguistic forms: the "Jaffaican" patois in which these street denizens speak, and the rap music they listen to, whose lyrics glorify violence (I could have added rape, bling and homophobia). I lamented the fact that "this sort of black male culture militates against education" and emphasised (in anti-racist terms) its insidious attractiveness to white youth.
For my pains I was denounced in intemperate language and with wilful misunderstanding. But, curiously, the strongest voices in my defence were black, like those of the educator Tony Sewell and the writer and youth mentor Lindsay Johns.
Even more curiously, a few months later Adolph Cameron, the head of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, made a speech in Bristol in which he analysed the reluctance of black boys to participate in formal education in terms identical to mine. "To speak in standard English," he said, "is considered a woman's activity." He even questioned whether the idea of academic achievement could co-exist at all with current notions of black masculinity. "Black boys," he pointed out, "are more interested in hustling, which is a quick way of making a living, rather than commitment to study."
"Something must be done," he concluded. It must indeed, otherwise we are doomed to repeat the riots in an ever-shortening cycle. But, my experience has taught me, only a black leader can do it.
None of our current crop of black politicians quite fits the bill. Chuka Umunna is too ambitious; David Lammy is too nice; while Diane Abbott, with her divisive comments about the need for blacks to stick together against white attempts at divide and rule, is herself part of the problem.
Only one person is of the necessary stature: Doreen Lawrence. Imagine if she turned her passion, energy, political skills, organisational drive and burning sense of moral righteousness into tackling head-on the destructive swamp of black street culture. She has already appeared, clothed in white, in the Olympic pantheon of greats; if she took on this task she would become great indeed.
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