It is amazing how much you realise your love for a place when it is threatened. I have lived in Hackney on and off for 12 years, sometimes experimenting with other parts of London but always returning and finally settling here.
My flat borders three areas which were targeted on Monday night: Mare Street, the Pembury estate on Clarence Road and Kingsland Road. A long night spent glued to the news, Facebook, Twitter and the view from my window for the best part of 12 hours, while fielding calls and messages from concerned family and friends in other parts of the world and down the road. My very own situation room. While I couldn’t see much from the window and could only hear sirens and helicopters, footage from Twitter and YouTube showed a bus on fire round the corner, major clashes on Clarence Road and Turkish shopkeepers defending Kingsland Road. Even the brand new library was attacked. It was like I had my own satellites focused on the area.
Information was easy to find but hard to digest. There was up to the minute reporting from Paul Lewis of The Guardian on the ground, regularly using Twitter to ask where he should report from next (although he repeatedly misspelt Pembury as ‘Penbury’), footage of an inspiring woman giving the rioters a massive telling off, depressing footage of an injured man being mugged and aphotograph of a woman jumping from a burning building. Those rioting didn’t have a lot to say so everyone else said it for them. Not to ever justify looting, but if they had been stealing food instead of TVs and trainers, the root cause could not have been ignored. So much is to be written on the cause and effects, heroes and villans, but this article is very good (thank you to Dom for sending it to me).
On Tuesday morning, information kept coming, opinions were formed and I noticed all the bins had disappeared from the street. We were treated to an embarrassing display from Fiona Armstrong interviewing Darcus Howe on the BBC. Just watch, it’s awful. The anarchist group Solfed released the most comprehensive comment on the situation and don’t get me started on Nick Griffin’s insights into the situation. Clarence Road seemed to be the only place not yet scrubbed of any trace of the night before. The road was scorched, reporters were still out in force, people were watching shop windows being replaced and when a van crushed the back of a car while turning into the road it was barely noticed.
Theresa May held the fort while Cameron and Boris decided whether or not to come back from holiday. She said “we don’t do water cannons” and I agree. After water cannons are sent in, then what? My feeling is that the use of these would have aggravated and prolonged the situation by days as there is suddenly a legitimate reason to riot against police brutality at that moment, which until now appears to have been restrained. But most importantly, despite Cameron stating there is free rein on “whatever tactics police feel they need to employ”, England does not possess any water cannons. They could be shipped over from Ireland, but due to recent unrest there I doubt the request would be accommodated. Bring in the army? Instead, they brought the Northumbria police. Coming from Newcastle myself, I would advise anyone still bent on trouble to run away fast. Joking aside, the threat of rubber bullets and an extra 10,000 police officers, swelling the numbers from 6,000 on Monday night to 16,000 on Tuesday night, seems to have calmed London but other areas of the country are suffering. It will be interesting to calculate the monetary cost of the policing and clean up compared to the amount of cuts to services in each borough. We may be right back where we started.
This year we have seen Twitter and Facebook praised for helping to mobilise protests in the Middle East and companies falling over themselves to be associated with revolutions (yes you, Vodaphone). In London, Blackberry’s marketing department must be deep in its own COBRA meeting over how to avoid the “Blackberry Riots” tag after reports its BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) app was used extensively to organise looting. BBM quickly allows the user to instantly message groups (one-to-many) even when there is no mobile phone signal and all for free, unlike PAYG texting. Using BBM is not like posting to social networks as it is encrypted, a feature which appealed to the original target consumer: business. Lots of young people now own Blackberry’s because they are cheaper than IPhones, heavily endorsed by celebrities and come in lots of shiny colours. 37% of British teens prefer Blackberry over other smartphones according to a recent OFCOM survey.
Whether Blackberry owner Research In Motion (RIM) will hand over details of encrypted messages to police or not is yet to be seen, although making public that it would cooperate with authorities led to its blog being hacked and a message being posted including :
“Dear Rim; You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all…”
British authorities are not alone in this request, Indian authorities requested access to BBM messages last year citing “security fears”. These are some familiar tactics more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, along with facial recognition technology which was used to identify protesters during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and is now being used to identify looters and calls to cut the BBM service altogether, as Egypt did with its internet. While British authorities are not using this technology to arrest legitimate protesters but those who committed crimes, they need to be careful of what they condemn in other countries and condone at home.
I’ve written nearly a thousand words here, but one tweet I read today sums up both the role of technology and the riots themselves in under 140 characters: You can’t close Pandora’s box.