Dalston: A Worm’s Eye View

(…cheers…) Please welcome, in your traditional way, the latest in the expanding list of Disorder-ed contributors. Rahul Rao, currently Lecturer in International Security at SOAS, author most recently of the fascinating Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, as well as a number of articles on cosmopolitanism, world order and empire. He is currently working on projects aimed at provincialising Westphalia and introducing queer theory to IR.

There is a great deal that I don’t understand about the world, but I do know a little about that part of it where the Kingsland Road becomes Stoke Newington Road (London N16/E8, if that’s how you work). As the dust clears from what BBC Panorama recently called The August Riots – as if to distinguish them from those to come in September, October, November and December – it is difficult to walk around without wondering whether everyone is judging everyone else on the basis of age, race, class and sartorial preference. Multiculturalism in Dalston can sometimes feel like a polite version of separate-but-equal with the hipsters (mostly white, but equal opportunity for those with the right facial hair, skinny jeans, loafers with no socks, university education, fixie bikes and Apple accoutrements) patronising hipster cafés, the Turks hanging out in members-only social clubs, the Caribbeans in venues such as Open the Gate. Everyone goes to the Turkish restaurants, but gastronomy has always been the least challenging site for racial mixing. As gentrification has proceeded apace – a phenomenon driven by middle class professionals like myself – I cannot help but notice that Dalston Superstore is always full and the Caribbean restaurant in Centerprise (East London’s oldest and most famous black bookshop) often empty. (Oddly, the spell check on this blog thinks that the word ‘gentrifying’ does not exist and suggests replacing it with ‘petrifying’. There might be something to that.)

On August 8 when the riots reached Hackney, Dalston hit the headlines as the place where the riots caused little damage, its Turkish and Kurdish business owners much feted for their role in beating back the rioters. I have to confess to an immediate reaction (always a betrayal of one’s class identification) of gratitude to a local community of people who trusted and knew each other well enough to work together at a moment’s notice – a community to which I do not belong, but on whose efforts I was able to free-ride (like Zoe Williams, I watched these events on a live feed, it never having occurred to me that I could have gone on to my high street to defend anything). In the cold light of dawn, second thoughts: when the facade of the Leviathan had cracked, security had become a function of ethnic solidarity. Welcome to Sarajevo.

The reaction of the local business owners in Dalston poses two questions. The first concerns the meaning of their actions in the context of the riots. In a recent comment, Slavoj Žižek – referring specifically to the Turkish, Caribbean and Sikh communities that organised vigilante groups to protect their properties asks: ‘Are the shopkeepers a small bourgeoisie defending their property against a genuine, if violent, protest against the system; or are they representatives of the working class, fighting the forces of social disintegration?’ Disavowing both possibilities, Žižek argues that ‘the truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying.’ Žižek’s musings need to be complicated by what some of the actors in Dalston’s drama actually saw themselves as doing. Issuing a press release on behalf of nine Turkish and Kurdish community organisations at a meeting in front of Stoke Newington police station a few days after the events of August 8, one activist declared:

We are not here to condemn the rioters. We are not here to ask the police forces to be beefed up. We are here to expose the biggest gang that is roaming on the streets of London. And that is the Metropolitan Police. This is the police that has given a message loud and clear. The message says the following: “We can go, we can blow the brains out. And we can lie. And there is nothing you can do about it.” And this is the reason why people are standing up across cities in Britain today. The fact that small shops have been looted, the fact that ordinary people have been attacked is something that cannot possibly be defended. But let’s make one thing clear…the target of this revolt has been, from the very beginning, and continues to be, the repressive state apparatus of the British imperialist state. And the fact that this moment is spontaneous, the fact that it does not have leadership that has been educated at Oxford and Cambridge, resulted in the case that their demands have not been explained in the media. What we are here also to expose is the ongoing attempt on the part of the Metropolitan Police and all other forces of racism to try and create inter-ethnic violence on the streets of this country between Turkish and Kurdish people and the Blacks and people from other ethnic minorities. Turkish and Kurdish shop owners, in an attempt to defend their livelihood, were totally right to prevent looting from taking place. But this does not give an excuse to form vigilante groups and start engaging in street fights with the black youth who are rising up and fighting the cops…We are here to tell all the oppressed people of this country, to unite and to stand up and to expose the repressive state apparatus and to expose the Metropolitan murderers who go around gunning down people simply because of the colour of their skin.

The statement is not without its problems, not least the striking neglect of any account of the market, commodification and consumerism in its analysis of the riots and its insistence on seeing these purely as a reaction to the state and police. Yet it clearly evinces a determination to pre-empt invidious and insidious distinctions between good ‘model minority’ immigrants and the bad undeserving poor (immigrant or not).

The second question posed by the reaction of the Dalston shop keepers concerns the forms of communitarianism that are thought to be needed and/or wanting in contemporary British life, a topic that has been the subject of lively debate in recent months. Turkish and Kurdish men rushing out of their kitchens with doner knives or breaking off their billiard cues to use as makeshift bayonets may be a slightly more enthusiastic response to community policing than Minister of Police Nick Herbert bargained for when he recently suggested that police forces dealing with savage 20% cuts should consider using volunteers to man station front desks. But it seems to resonate with the spirit of David Cameron’s Big Society in which people would take a more active role in the governance of their communities. Or am I confusing this with Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour vision of ‘citizens com[ing] together to protect the people and places that they love from danger’? (Might Paul Gilroy be on to something when he says that ‘the question shouldn’t be was there politics in this rioting and looting, but is there politics in this country? Because when you have three parties who are saying the same thing there’s no politics in Britain.’)

I am not one of those people who thinks that Blue Labour converges seamlessly with Big Society. The latter (which we may conveniently abbreviate as BS) is unashamedly an alibi for a small state and more importantly ideological cover for a Big Market. Blue Labour, while demonstrating a possibly ill-judged antipathy to Fabian statism, is nonetheless driven by a search for forms of politics that will resist the commodification of everything by the market. In describing where this politics will emanate from, Glasman has tended to reference an eclectic mixture of forms of community, some harking back to a nineteenth century tradition of guild socialism with its cooperatives and friendly societies, but also mutual banks, German-style corporatist management practices, and above all faith communities. In a sympathetic critique, Alan Finlayson has noted that ‘Glasman’s politics, although shaped by realities of class, are not necessarily class politics: for him every community is threatened by the market and thus any community – national, regional or religious – has the potential to be part of the struggle against it.’

This open-endedness about the forms of community that might generate a progressive politics, whilst refreshing in its willingness to engage with difference, is also troubling on some levels. In the heat of the August riots, a host of communitarianisms came crawling out of the woodwork, none of them straightforwardly heartwarming. In one reading, the rioters themselves exemplified a communitarian resistance to commodification, although both aspects of that characterisation are contestable even from a perspective that does not rush to condemn. One equally plausible reading is that these were individuated but simultaneous (not collective) acts of looting, reminiscent of the large-scale but individual and uncoordinated strategies of resistance such as foot-dragging that James Scott describes in an entirely different context in Weapons of the Weak. The particular targets of the rioters suggested not so much resistance to commodification as rage at being unable to participate in the rampant consumerism engendered by capitalism, a rage that might express itself as resistance at some future date if we – its intended audience – choose to read these events as the logical outcome of a capitalism that urges people to consume as a means of self-realisation whilst simultaneously denying them the means of doing so. And decide to do something about it.

In addition to the communitarianism, such as it was, of the rioters, there were the communitarianisms of the ethnic minority business owners, of white English Defence League supporters claiming to protect the streets of Eltham, of the largely white middle-class ‘broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Clapham’ with their ‘looters are scum’ T shirts and their frightening determination to cleanse their streets of debris, both human and material. The valorisation of communitarianism in both Big Society and Blue Labour overlooks the fact that moral judgements of community cannot be made in a vacuum without reference to the material contexts within which they are inscribed: as Immanuel Wallerstein once put it, the communitarianism of Mandela is different from that of Afrikaner nationalists.

Which brings us to race – a very particular kind of community that predictably became implicated in discussion of the riots. At least since Edward Said’s Orientalism, we have been aware of a certain Western tendency to construct the world through binary oppositions – civilised/savage, rational/emotional, sane/mad – in which the negative term comes to be displaced on to an Other: the Orient. The resilience of this discursive strategy became clear when – in the face of evidence that the rioters came from many different racial backgrounds – historian David Starkey ingeniously remarked that ‘the whites have become black’. This he neatly complemented with the observation that ‘archetypical successful’ black men such as the Rt. Hon. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, sounded – if you were to hear but not see him – white. The reaction to Starkey’s outrageous comments has rightly been ballistic, but did anyone notice the moment in the discussion when Owen Jones, searching for black people’s ‘huge contribution to British culture’, could only come up with music? The debate then segues into a discussion of rap music, so that this becomes the entirety of the terrain on which we are supposed to judge the worth of ‘black culture’. There is something infuriating about the reiteration of black people’s contribution to music and sport – undeniable as that is – as if those are the only things they have ever done, a tendency that is itself redolent of an Orientalist stereotype that locates emotionality and physicality in some peoples (noble savages, martial races) and rationality in others. It is almost as if we have not moved much beyond the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where blacks are a sub-human race but boy can Jesse Owens run. I do not want to be too hard on Jones because I don’t underestimate the difficulties of confronting an ogre like Starkey on national television, but I do want to suggest that the moment revealed a profound ignorance of ‘black culture’ even amongst progressives.

In The Location Of Culture, Homi Bhabha suggests that

…it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history – subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement – that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking. There is even a growing conviction that the affective experience of social marginality – as it emerges in non-canonical cultural forms – transforms our critical strategies. It forces us to confront the concept of culture outside objets d’art or beyond the canonization of the ‘idea’ of aesthetics, to engage with culture as an uneven, incomplete production of meaning and value, often composed of incommensurable demands and practices, produced in the act of social survival.

It’s difficult to think about ‘black culture’ (and I will drop the scare quotes now because this feels like a moment of struggle in which such essentialisations may be helpful and even necessary, notwithstanding Dreda Say Mitchell’s valuable reminder in the Newsnight debate about the plurality of black cultures) without recalling its political, intellectual and material contributions to struggles for justice, to the end of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, to the meaning, in short, of what it is to be more fully human. The problem is that white people seem to think of these achievements as black achievements for black people rather than for the whole world, forgetting Fanon’s exhortation: ‘Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.’

The question of what black culture has done for world culture brings me to a figure who did more than anyone else to demonstrate these linkages. It also brings me back, rather unexpectedly, to where I began: Dalston. I remember that the very first thing I noticed the very first time I ever stepped out of Dalston Kingsland station, was a sign pointing in the direction of the CLR James Library. (I had intended to write an entirely different post on this blog about a roundtable discussion in which I was recently a participant, where I suggested that we would not be asking outrageous questions such as ‘Is there a future for human rights in a non-Western world?’ if our genealogies of human rights began with, say, the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti – of which CLR James’s The Black Jacobins is the classic account – rather than with the American and French revolutions. But the riots have presented a more urgent context in which to remember CLR.) In 2010, word got around that Hackney Council had, at exactly the moment that it was preparing to celebrate Black History Month, inexplicably decided to drop CLR James from the name of the library when it moved to its new premises in a shiny new ‘development’ at Dalston Square, where it would be called simply the Dalston Library and Archives. The announcement provoked a campaign to preserve the use of CLR’s name, spearheaded by the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts Network, featuring a petition supported by nearly 2,500 signatories and attracting support from local MP Diane Abbott. CLR’s widow Selma weighed in, remarking that

Keeping that name off the front of the new building is a retrograde step at best…At worst it is an insult to those who are trying to build a better, an anti-racist world. The library was named after CLR James to commemorate the contribution of one man, but also the contribution of labour, thought, education, sport, music, community, of Caribbean people generally, and in fact of all anti-racists – like CLR himself. Has this changed? If it has not, then the name should stay. If it has changed, we must know what has changed, and why…[Noting that the current name commended CLR James’ values and actions to all who use and know about the library, she said that] this is particularly true of the young who, as is well known, see few prominent people they feel they can respect and aim to emulate.

The campaign was ultimately successful at preserving the name, which is now emblazoned in bold letters on the new building – although a friend reminded me recently that librarians’ jobs were still far from secure. But the controversy is instructive because it makes a nonsense of the tiresome and oft-repeated claim that young people of colour lack appropriate role models. Instead it suggests that such role models as might exist are actively effaced from the local history of rapidly gentrifying (petrifying?) areas such as Dalston because their names, lives and achievements mean nothing to those moving into these places. It is also a sign that the broader culture has not found a way to relate to minority life and thought, much less to claim and embrace it. Beyond, that is, by eating its food and remixing its music. CLR would have wanted us to do better.


5 thoughts on “Dalston: A Worm’s Eye View

  1. I find this very interesting and I think there is more to talk about that you indicate. Please contqct if you wish,


    Maurice Glasman


  2. I don’t know which obscure lefty intelligentsia I have stumbled into following a link to this blog, but I would suggest that this contribution / analyse of the recent riots (civil disorder?) says more about the writer than those who took part or suffered the consequence.

    It is interesting that most commentators who feel entitled to have a view have mainly concentrated on the actions that happened on the streets. Very little has been said about the violent incidents in more affluent areas eg Nottinghill where crowds / gangs / rioters broke into restaurants and threatened staff and customers. I think this reflects a head in the sand mentality that is as much about protecting the image of London’s tourists spots as well as the place where media pundits live, from even thinking that their own life style is in itself a provocative statement.

    It’s easier to make up theories about places that are traditionally seen as places of “bad behaviour”. But explaining it in terms of the perception of a recent arrival is no more helpful, and treating it in isolation, from the whole not very useful.

    It maybe that areas like Hackney are the valves of the pressure cooker of an urban sprawl that is over crowded, over priced, and deeply divided between those who can afford to enjoy living in it and those who can at best survive it.

    It could as easily be said the Hackney like any part of the country unknown to the chattering classes is a victim of colonisation ie a place where members of the white middle class, over educated through privilege to assume they can think because they are educated, have persisted in applying ways of life that may be “normal” to their quaintly English county life, but has little to do with life as lived by most other people.

    When I first arrived in Hackney, vast numbers of public housing were either boarded up because they were unfit, or because there were Asian families cowering inside darkened rooms because of the daily threat of NF violence (before it split over allegations of homosexuality and so on). After these families were eventually bused into Tower Hamlets (for there own safety of course) the colonial administration (ie Hackney Town Hall) then embarked of a period of corruption most of which was around the shortage of affordable and liveable housing.

    Much of the “lawlessness” that is attributed to people on the street in fact comes from and in reaction to their experience of bureaucracies. Apart from the large number of squatters (many who came with white middle class hippy aspirations) into this vacuum also came anyone with an ounce of initiative to turn a quick deal.

    The complacency of being a never ending Labour administration meant that the local indigenous people (a self description I have heard often used with resigned irony) the white working class, had their “traditions” ignored eg not only housing but local markets neglected. (Another strand is the resentment of the slightly older Irish community who felt that the more recent Afro Caribbean community were being given preferential treatment.)

    In other words a divide and rule policy kept Labour happily in power, whilst those who knew how to work the system got ahead as token successes (eg Enterprise) or as the supposed voice of their community. eg the statement from the Turkish community which is about those who come together round a shared but minority political strand. Most local shopkeepers, without political affiliations, are more likely to think we are all dirty, free loading layabouts, whether we live in social housing, are on welfare or slumming it in recently converted “loft” apartments, irrespective of our racial identity.

    What Hackney represents is the failure of Labour’s much vaunted public spending policy, which didn’t benefit those it was theoretically designed to help, but allowed those who administered it, or who were prepared to line up on platforms as token representatives, to get a niche in which to be one step above the rest of us.

    Has anyone tallied up the cost of the Olympics to the east of London? First of all the theft of lottery money that meant many genuine local community groups who could offer help and support have had to close ie fewer youth clubs etc., the gentrification which means that London Fields now prioritises the right of white outsiders to come in and burn their barbecues at the expense of the still unbuilt sports facilities. The pricing out of local people from local shopping as street markets become sources of obscene consumerism, and of course housing. And all the time the message is you can succeed if you become like us.

    Walk down Brick Lane and see how white colonisation has degraded a community and made it little more than Ibiza at home. A playground for the spoilt children of colonials who persist in thinking the world exists to provide them with a way of life that is sustained through the exploitation of others.


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