Monday 29 August 2011

'Random' Security For Carnival Weekend

Over the weekend I have seen an extraordinary number of stop & search incidents around the borough. In East Ham, in Forest Gate, in front of Stratford shopping centre and outside the station - where yesterday, the British Transport Police had also set up an airport style security arch.

Why, asked one of my friends when I was taking the photos above, was a metal detector necessary? "Because of Carnival," said the senior officer on duty. And what was the criteria for choosing who to force through the arch, considering neither one of us had been pulled over? "It's random," came the reply.

Random? Everyone subjected to special security checks in the time we were hanging around the station was young and black. Indeed, everyone I've seen stopped and searched this weekend has been young and black. I'm just saying...

Friday 26 August 2011

Why Calls To Ban Demonstrations Are Dangerously Shortsighted

Yesterday the Metropolitan Police finally confirmed that it is seeking the authority of Home Secretary Theresa May to exercise powers, under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986, to impose a banning order on an EDL march in Tower Hamlets. Approval is almost inevitable and a ban will therefore last from 2 September to 2 October and affect five London boroughs - and seem likely to affect all marches in east London, including a protest by Unite Against Fascism on 3 September.

This was always the likely outcome of the concerned campaign organised by Searchlight / HOPE Not Hate and backed by London's municipal establishment. Previous attempts by the EDL to march in Bradford and in Leicester led to blanket restrictions on demonstrations, including those by anti-fascists. However, the wider ramification of what the Met is actually asking for hasn’t worried 'HOPE Not Hate' coordinator Nick Lowles, who called yesterday’s announcement "great news" and "a victory for common sense."

Nevertheless, it seem even the police recognise a month-long blanket ban is likely cause significant disruption to life in east London and as Dave Hill has pointed out, some exceptions are expected for, amongst other things, funerals and processions that are "deemed part of local cultural custom and practice".

Even without a banning order, the police already have considerable public order powers to limit and contain marches on Britain’s streets. However, a protracted banning order would represent something new: for the first time in decades, the state wouldn’t need to negotiate with protest organisers but instead can pick and choose whether to sanction or flatly deny the right to freedom of assembly, depending on how innocuous, low-risk and 'cultural' it decides an individual procession might be. Anything spontaneous, anything urgent, anything likely to involved raised voices - anything political, in other words - is far less likely to pass an arbitrary 'acceptability' test

As yet, the east London boroughs affected have not been named but a banning order could potentially disrupt protests against the DSEi arms fair on 13 September (although after a decade, these may fall under into the category of ‘local custom and practice'). Ironically considering its organisers support for a ban on the EDL, the East London Pride parade on 24 September could also be affected. As cuts in local services are only now starting to hit home in London, it could also prevent local people calling, for example, any march in September against the closure of their local library or other services.

There is nothing that 'HOPE Not Hate' has said about the EDL itself that I profoundly disagree with. It is undoubtedly a “violent racist organisation that seeks to vilify Muslim communities" and the EDL's marches and pickets are clearly intended to "embolden local racists and seek a violent reaction from local Muslim youths, which in turn creates a new cycle of violence." However, these are also good arguments for physically confronting the EDL instead of calling for a ban. Having spent almost twenty years as an anti-racist campaigner in east London, working with Newham Monitoring Project, I therefore think it's worth picking apart some of the arguments made by those favouring a ban and seeing how they stand up.

For at first glance, the position of those supporting a ban seems to place no value on public protest at all. Last month, a letter from the great and the good in Tower Hamlets dismissed the famous Battle of Cable Street - when Jewish working class anti-fascists stopped Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts from parading in the East End in 1936 - as a failure, one of the "mistakes of history". This is an astonishing claim, considering that Mosley was forced to abandon the march through Whitechapel and his thugs were dispersed towards Hyde Park. Cable Street represents an important working-class victory, not a failure, one that gave enormous confidence to the East End’s Jewish community.

In mid August, I know that at one Tower Hamlets community meeting, Bengali 'leaders' adopted a different tack, reasoning that a ban was vital to prevent 'their' young people from getting involved in confrontation that might lead to arrest and criminalisation by the police. This is an admission that the borough has less of a “cohesive atmosphere” than Mayor Lutfur Rahman and the local MPs like to pretend, particular in the relationship between Bengali youth and the police. It also mirrors similar attempts in other parts of the country to stop young people, ‘for their own good’, from engaging with political ideas and taking to the streets in opposition to the EDL. It’s a fear, too, of the militancy of the young. As a Network for Police Monitoring report [PDF] pointed out in March, police in Leicester “strongly promoted a ‘stay at home’ message “ and “issued leaflets to young people advising them they could be picked up at the demonstration, held by police and referred to social services under provisions in the Children Act”.

Then this week, a collective statement from London Labour council leaders argued that an EDL march would simply be too expensive, a "drain on resources" after the recent riots in the capital. Placing a monetary value on the freedom to assemble is an argument that could (and, in the minds of Labour politicians, probably does) apply to any street protest and treats political processions as little more than a costly public nuisance, rather than an essential part of democratic participation. It's a dangerously illiberal position to adopt.

It strikes me that none of these arguments are really about trying to halt the growth of the EDL or defeat the racist ideas they propagate, but are instead about shutting the gates of the village and desperately hoping the EDL will simply disappear. It's a strategy that is likely to fail in the longer term. It seems highly unlikely that a ban will stop the EDL from seeking a future march in Tower Hamlets and almost inevitable that we’ll be back with the same demands for a ban again next year.

Collecting 25,000 signatures, as 'HOPE Not Hate' has done, is an admirable achievement – but imagine 25,000 people, from every community, standing on Whitechapel Road and inspired by the anti-fascist slogan ‘¡No Pasarán! (They Shall Not Pass)’. Then ask yourself if proudly taking to the streets in collective opposition to the EDL, rather than a police ban, is more likely undermine the vilification of Muslim communities and terrify, rather than embolden, local racist sentiment.

Update: according to Defend The Right To Protest, the ban will cover "Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest + possibly the City too"

Thursday 25 August 2011

Tonight: Newham Monitoring Project Holds Tottenham Legal Training Session

This evening, Newham Monitoring Project has organised a training session in Tottenham from 7-9pm at North London Community House, Moorefield Road, London N17 6P (nearest station: Tottenham Hale).

The training will be facilitated by experienced lawyers and aims to cover core legal rights in relation to:

  • Stop & Search under the various and most relevant powers
  • Warrants for arrest
  • House raids and seizure of property
  • Arrest & Detention
  • Bail - what is is and how it works
  • Going to court, processes & appeals
The session will also touch on police complaints and accountability. It is aimed both at people who are trusted and well-positioned within the local community in Tottenham, such as youth and community workers, as well as those interested in volunteering to disseminate information about a planned Tottenham Defence Campaign. The intention is to ensure that participants are more aware of key legal issues so they can provide guidance if approached and ultimately advise people when and how to seek professional legal representation.

If you are interested please contact NMP on

Newham Monitoring Project has also produced an A6-sized Stop & Search Rights Card for groups and individuals working in Tottenham - see here

Friday 19 August 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - The Forces of Anarchy

Today's Friday lunchtime distraction is from the classic 1970s sitcom The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin. Just like Perrin's brother-in-law Jimmy, what little that goes on in the minds of grandstanding politicians, rabid right wing newspaper columnists and merciless magistrates benches in the aftermath of England's riots is a moral panic about the threat from the "forces of anarchy and wreckers of law and order." They're out there, you know...

Thursday 18 August 2011

London Riots - Aftershocks

At the start of last week, with sections of the nation’s youth deciding to break the unwritten social contract that maintains stability in some of our major cities, I was asked to write an article analysing the riots in London and why they had erupted. I had to decline, partly because I was back in hospital and partly because events were still unfolding (this was before disturbances had spread to Manchester and Birmingham and before six people had died). The main reason I couldn’t write anything, however, was that in truth, I had no more idea than everyone else about why riots erupted at the moment that they did and why they spread from their original incendiary source, the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham at the hands of the police.

A week on, the avalanche of commentary has hardly helped to make things clearer. The right blame poor parenting, although only 21% of those appearing in court are under 18. Much of the left directly blame cuts in services, especially for the young, which may be a vital factor in parts of the country but less so in areas they haven’t been implemented yet. I'm far from convinced by some of the rhetoric on the left: the claim by Socialist Worker that the riots are a "rising against Tory Britain" is simply too simplistic. However, its statement that the riots represent an "explosion of bitterness and rage" is probably closer to the truth.

Since the election of the Coalition government, commentators have been discussing the way that the gap between rich and poor, the widest in 40 years, has fuelled a general public resentment about the way the burden of government austerity measures have fallen on the country’s poorest. It's also possible too that our voraciously brand-obsessed consumer culture may have finally turned on itself. It can be no accident that brands like Footlocker, JD Sports and mobile phone retailers, whose aggressively 'urban and street' marketing is aimed squarely at the young, were the targets of looting last week, just as it's no accident that their goods are routinely ‘looted’ from young people every week, long after they have left the shops. As overall crime has fallen, young people now snarled at as 'feral rats' remain more likely to themselves become victims of street violence and theft.

With less money, fewer prospects of employment and (in London) the massive cost of private rented accommodation, it’s hardly a surprise that many, many people feel completely powerless. One of the dynamics behind the rioting that I haven’t seen addressed in the coverage I’ve read so far is how exhilarating a riot can make people feel, albeit for a short time. Ask anyone who has been on a protest that has kicked off (or, indeed, the advertising agency working for Levis, who tried to appropriate this energy to sell more jeans). Inevitably, as a means of handing people real long term power, that brief heady sense of freedom is illusionary – the state commands an overwhelming ability to exact vengeance, as we have seen from the way that court sentencing guidelines have been abandoned – but it may explain the number of the young, poor and unemployed in the courts. Far from representing 'sheer thuggery', it's just as likely that many of those who joined the looting did so because they were swept up in the excitement of the moment.

However, the fact that much of the rioting involved a direct, often targeted confrontation with the police should be far less of a surprise. Everyone who complains about the breakdown of respect for authority should listen more closely to what young people, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, have to say about their relationship with the police. In the numerous sessions run by Newham Monitoring Project in east London, everyone complains about stop & search, particularly since the government initiatives to reduce knife crime, and everyone has experienced it themselves or knows someone who has. It has become a part of growing up, some commonplace that it has become routine, but what angers the young is not just the stops and the searches but the way they say they are treated: not as citizens or as people but collectively as criminals. So often, we have heard that officers try and provoke a reaction that leads to an arrest and there was an example of this last week in Newham on Barking Road:

Where I live in Newham, like the vast majority of the country, the disturbances were nothing like the major flashpoints in Croydon, Woolwich or Enfield, which has made it more difficult to get a clearer sense of what triggered them. There were a few broken windows and theft targeted largely on the Currys and Argos stores in East Ham. This hasn’t stopped the Newham Recorder from announcing that “our communities will survive this”, as though the level of disturbance was on a par with east London’s famous endurance of the Blitz (itself mythologised: we rarely talk about widespread looting in 1940). Neither has it stopped the borough’s Mayor from joining in the calls for hardline retribution: in a special issue of the local free sheet ‘The Newham Mag’, the council promises to evict tenants convicted of riot-connected crimes, including people living with them who have committed no crime themselves. Anecdotally, there has also been a huge rise in the number of police stop & search incidents.

More than anything this reaction, mirrored across the country, looks like locking the stable after the horse has bolted. Having been surprised by the rioting - and humiliated by the rioters - police and politicians are lashing out in anger, apparently with little consideration of the potential problems they create in the future. Randomly disrupting the daily lives of huge numbers of young people isn't going to restore respect in the police, whilst the arbitrary punishment of parents whose children face imprisonment, by seeking to make them homeless, isn't likely to convince people in the long term that local government values fairness or justice. Equally, are those released from overcrowded prisons in a few months time, after wholly disproportionate sentences, likely to feel even more resentful or instead chastened - and if politicians really think incarceration makes people better citizens, how do they explain the higher rate of reoffending after short prison terms?

We've had moral panics before, a long history of them in fact, but always voices that have stood out against them. Thirty years ago, after the 1981 riots, the then Newham MP Ron Leighton warned Margaret Thatcher that "if society rejects those young people and says that it has no use for them, they are likely to reject society and act in an anti-social way." How times have changed. If the man whose name now adorns 'Ron Leighton Way', the road bypassing East Ham's damaged shopping area, was alive and a Labour Party member today, a comment like that would most likely lead to violent accusations that he was condemning too little and seeking to understand too much.

Normal Service Gradually Resuming

I haven't managed to write anything for over a week - and what a week it has been. Unfortunately on 8 August I found out that there is little prospect that my injuries from last year's cycle accident will ever fully recover - and that the Royal London hospital, which has been so good in proving care up to now, has decided I have to wait until the end of the year to find out whether I spend the next forty years in constant pain.

Understandably, it has been extremely difficult to come to terms with, hence my inability to think about the momentous events elsewhere in London. Many thanks to all my mates for their support in what has been a particularly tough fortnight.

Friday 5 August 2011

LAZY FRIDAY - Animated Debate

Today's Friday lunchtime distraction is a great little animation by Intelligence Squared of a debate between former MP turned dodgy reality TV star Ann Widdecombe and professional smug git Stephen Fry, who lock horns over the motion 'The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world'. For those who can't be arsed to see it through to the end, Fry wins on evidence-based points.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Access Newham Council's Accounts

The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brookes, whose dogged persistence led to the full disclosure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, has posted the following useful reminder on her website:

For 20 days in June, July or August, every council is legally required to open up its draft accounts for public inspection. Under the Audit Commission Act 1988 you have a legal right to see detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills, the right to make copies and the right to raise other points of interest with the auditor. This is one of the most powerful rights citizens in the UK have to uncover the nitty gritty details of how public bodies are spending public money.

Chances are if you rock up to your council office you may be the first one to do so in years. But don’t be put off. You have every right to be there and too few citizens make the effort to hold local councils accountable for the money they spend in the public’s name. Certainly as local newspapers disappear it could be that the local nosey parker is all that stands in the way of a corruption scandal continuing undetected for years.

The Orchard News Bureau has provided a helpful list of Public Access to Local Authority Financial Information in London boroughs and as yet, Newham has not published details on inspection dates, unlike neighbouring Barking & Dagenham, Hackney, Redbridge or Waltham Forest. Access for the previous financial year was between 13 July and 9 August 2010, so clearly there has been a delay. However, Newham's draft Statement of Accounts is available online.

So if you have a hankering to more closely inspect Newham's accounts and related documents (comprising books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts) I'll provide an update as soon as I hear when it plans to open its books.

Let's hope that the council remembers - poor old Richmond-upon-Thames council was forced to revise its inspection period because the original was illegal, as it had failed to comply with new regulations from March 2011 that required it to post a copy of the public notice on its website at least 14 days in advance of the commencement. Luckily that problem is now fixed.

In October 2010, the Court of Appeal ruled that voters are entitled to examine local authority contracts, including those relating to Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contractors, unless there is a there is a 'strong public interest' against disclosure.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

REVIEW - Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class

A edited version of this review appears in the next issue of Red Pepper

The stereotypical ‘chav’ may be a fairly recent phenomenon but it has become so pervasive that few would struggle to conjure up their own image of what it represents. In a thoughtful, polemical examination of the changing perceptions of working class culture, Owen Jones draws on testimony from extensive interviews to unravel how ‘chavs’ have become a byword for a vision of society that David Cameron calls ‘broken Britain’ and is used to blame the poor and dispossessed for ‘choosing’ their poverty and exclusion.

In part, Jones points the finger at websites such as the appalling ‘Chavscum’ and comedians like the creators of Little Britain, famous for picking on society’s most vulnerable, for the spread of the new chav caricature, as well as the kind of lazy journalism exposed in Nick Davies’ excellent Flat Earth News. However, he argues persuasively that the roots of renewed and vicious class hatred are found in the destruction of working class communities that began with rapid deindustrialisation under Thatcher and that led to a collapse in values like solidarity in favour of rampant, dog-eat-dog individualism. For thirty years, “to be working class was no longer something to be proud of, never mind to celebrate”, as first the Tories and then New Labour have tried to persuade us that we are now ‘all middle class’. Those who failed to prosper during the boom years have been written off and ridiculed as a ‘chav’ rump, a despised underclass.

Jones argues that in truth, “the myth of the classless society gained ground just as society became more rigged in favour of the middle class. Britain remains as divided by class as it ever was”. He makes a persuasive and at times exhaustive case, but it begins to lose its way when trying to explain support for the BNP in working class areas. He rightly condemns Labour for abandoning communities like Barking and criticises liberal multiculturalism for ignoring class by descending into identity politics. However, he is too quick to explain away the conscious racism that leads a minority to deliberately vote for the far-Right and at times embraces a simplistic economic reductionism that risks focusing on the legitimate grievances of the white working class at the expense of other, equally exploited and marginalised workers. The slogan ‘black and white, unite and fight’ has been around for years, but the problem has always been that achieving this laudable aim is impossible without black workers confronting the racism of many of their white counterparts.

Jones is also too ready to accept that the Labour Party remains the vehicle for a ‘new class politics’ that can mobilise the working class electorate, when the evidence suggests its only interest is in mild placation of its base. His sentimentality for Labour’s past, one that can be restored by "the first priority" of improving working class parliamentary representation, is rather at odds with the call for new ideas and new initiatives.

Nevertheless, Chavs is a useful and informative book: not least because the wider left is just as ill-prepared to confront the open class hostility of the wealthy and powerful when it has no sizable base in working class communities. Single issue campaigns are important, but only if they become a stepping stone to a broader class-conscious movement.

Chavs is published by Verso.

On Monday 19 September, Owen Jones will be discussing and signing his book at St John's Church in Stratford, at an event starting at 7pm and organised by Newham Bookshop and Newham Monitoring Project. Flyer here.

Tickets cost £5 and are available from the bookshop. Call 020 8552 9993 to reserve yours.

Monday 1 August 2011

Casing The Olympic Park

Leaving aside the possibility raised by yesterday's post that my actions might well be misconstrued as 'casing the joint', I headed over to Stratford yesterday to photograph the Olympic stadium, the tremendously ugly ArcelorMittal Orbit and the surrounding area.

Here are a couple of pictures: more are available on Flickr.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.