Some thoughts on the ‘unrest’, 11th Aug 2011
(this was given as a talk)
I want to say something about speech, authority and privilege and I’d like you to help me think about more deeply. Many people have quoted recently Martin Luther King’s observation that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’. Last week, distressed and sad, I thought of the radical theology/philosophy of Simone Weil. In her essay ‘Human Personality,’ she writes of dispossession from political discourse:
‘Many indispensable truths, which could save men, go unspoken… those who could utter them cannot formulate them, and those who could formulate them cannot utter them. If politics were taken seriously, finding a remedy for this would be one of its more urgent problems.’
A year or so back, I was asking not ‘how can I hear these thoughts, what she call ‘truths’?’ but ‘How can I help people to speak?’ I asked ‘who can’t I see in the streets?’ And whose voices can I not hear?’ – Well, last week I saw people I have never seen – I mean properly looked at – before. So now I have part of my answer. And now they have vanished again.
When something like this happens, everyone turns on the TV or radio to hear what’s happened – inevitably, though, leaders want to stake out the political territory.
The country’s leader says the behaviour shown is “purely criminal….we simply cannot condone violence as a way of changing the system … Mob brutality, the total loss of respect for human life was sickeningly sad … What we saw last night and the night before is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that we all must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple.” He describes the rioters as ‘gang members and terrorists in our cities.’
The leader of the opposition says: “more than a decade of urban decay” and recent spending cuts were the cause. Also that these people “are looting because … [t]hey do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighbourhood, without church, without support.”
A leading black commentator says that the riots are an inevitable result of the continuing patterns of racism, police brutality and economic despair suffered by inner-city residents.
Prominent journalists compare the lack of a ‘political’ motive for the riots; unlike civil unrest in the previous generation, these people were just greedy: ‘the mood this time was closer to a manic fiesta, a TV game show with every looter a winner.’ Another comments: “[h]ow is it possible to go on declaring that what will save [these] young men, and the young girls they impregnate, and the illegitimate babies they sire, is jobs? How is it possible to look at these boys of the underclass … and imagine that they either want or could hold on to jobs?”
This wasn’t last week in England. This was Los Angeles in 1992. The acquittal of 4 LA police officers, 3 white and one Hispanic, over the beating of a black man caused 6 days of civil unrest – destruction, looting, arson and murder. 53 people died.
The similarity between the reactions to the LA riots and what we have seen in England’s streets last week is not coincidental, I think. I also think that events like these can show all public political actors, all holders of authority, at their worst. Everyone – even the best-intentioned of us- sees a so-called ‘unprecedented’ event as an opportunity to reinforce their own political positions, their principles and sayings, because working them out, quietly, in your own life, is so much harder and without glory. Thus to the more conservatively inclined, this is a failure of social structures, even of society itself. To many on the left, it is a failure of the rich to redistribute wealth; a failure, indeed, of capitalism. Some have said it is about a failure to listen, to understand and to act earlier. Since the weekend before last, when a black man was killed by police, and peaceful protests gave way to physical confrontations, gave way to ‘riots’ and ‘looting’, a lot of people have generated a lot of words. Much of the time, the more I have talked, the less I felt I was saying.
Public figures and the establishment are capable of being articulate, but in their positions they are hamstrung by words. They cannot really speak, and ‘listening’, which usually only appears to be consultation, is seen as an exceptional exercise, rather than the norm; listening is what they offer in a crisis, or perhaps during elections. Their words are usually focus-grouped, streamlined and homogenised. Most of them can’t say what they think – they are not allowed a relationship with events which is not mediated by anxiety of what people will think about them, anxiety about defending established political positions, scrapping over abstract political ‘space’ (the centre, the left, the right). We, on the other hand can say what we think. We don’t need to say what they’re saying.
The reason we are all here at this meeting today is because we speak, and because we are allowed to. To listen is harder, much harder, but many of us understand that. I am going to guess that many of these people, these people who live right beside me, cannot speak, or that if they speak they cannot be heard, or (most probably) a combination of both.
‘Talking about it’ is not a substitute for action. It is a precondition for considered, meaningful action. It is an action in itself. What I’m most interested in is how we dispense with privilege and allow those who have not had the chance to speak, to do so. Of course, this goes beyond the events of last week, and it goes deeper than just saying ‘Go on then, we’re listening.’ I’d welcome any practical thoughts on how to do this.