In April 1979, I was ten years old.
This is a short essay about vectors. It’s about Brueghel’s Icarus. It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment that her neighbor laces up his Doc Marten’s, tight. It’s about a partial and irrelevant nudity. It’s about the novel as a form that processes the part of a scene that doesn’t function as an image, but as the depleted, yet still livid mixture of materials that a race riot is made from. Think of the sky. Think of the clear April day with its cardigans and late afternoon rainshower. Think of the indigo sky lowering over London like a lid. Think of Blair Peach, the anti-racism campaigner and recent emigrant from New Zealand, who will die before this day is out. Think through the cyborg to the immigrant. Think of a colony. Think of the red and white daikon radishes in a tilted box on the pavement outside Dokal and Sons, on the corner of the Uxbridge Road and Lansbury Drive. Think of the road, which here we call asphalt: there, it is bitty. It is a dark silver with milky oil seams. A patch up job, Labour still in power, but not for long. It’s 1979, it’s St-George’s Day, and the Far Right has decided to have its annual meeting in a council-run meeting hall in Southall, Middlesex, a London suburb in which it would be rare — nauseating — to see a white face.
To see anyone, actually. Everyone’s indoors. Everyone knows what’s coming. It’s not a riot, at this point, but a simple protest in an outlying area of London, an immigrant suburb: a banlieue. Everyone knows to stay in a back room and board the glass up, or draw the curtains, and lie down. Lie down between the hand-sewn quilts shipped from India in a crate then covered in an outer cotton case stitched to the padding with a fine pink thread. The quilts smell of an antiseptic powder, an anti-fungal, Mars. We lie down beneath the blankets in front of the fire. It’s 1979, so there’s a small gas fire and a waist-high fridge, where we keep our milk and our eggs and our cheese, right there, in the living room. It’s 1979, and so I live in Hayes, though in two months, after the riot, we’ll sell our house and move.
Move away. As would you.”
Richard Seymour, “Tottenham Calling”:
“The Metropolitan Police shot dead a young man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham on Thursday. As soon as the news emerged, albeit in the rather coy presentation of the television media, it was obvious that something would kick off. The circumstances of the killing are not entirely clear. It is known that the police were from an Operation Trident unit, which deals with gun crime ‘in the black community’ (because black people need extra special policing, you know). It is known that they pursued Mark Duggan while he was a passenger in a cab, stopped the cab and, during the arrest, shot him dead on the scene. From what I can gather, they seem to have pulled him out of the cab and shot him four times on the spot.
“The police seem to have let it be known that they were shot at first, and that a police officer was injured. The impression was thus given in the early media reports that they killed the young man in self-defence. Whatever the officer’s injury, he was only kept in hospital overnight. Later, the police claimed that the bullet miraculously struck the officer’s police radio which, like a bible or a piece of the true cross, absorbed the shot. They say that in the seconds following this they opened fire in self-defence. An eyewitness, however, claimed that the young man was already restrained on the ground when the shots were fired. If true, this would bear the hallmarks of an extra-legal execution. Suffice to say, anyone who takes the police’s version of events at face value at this point must either be a fool, or enjoy being made a fool of.
“In Tottenham today, a group of local residents set out to march in anger against the killing. The police allege that ‘clashes’ began when some marchers threw missiles at cop cars. For what it’s worth, some of those present appear to believe these cars were left there as bait. However it began, though, it has certainly become a riot. This is not just a black community response to racist policing - several reports say that local Hasidic Jews have joined the protesters in force. Police cars have been set on fire. Numerous Twitter reports from people at the scene say the high street cop station itself is ablaze, though I have not yet seen this mentioned on the news. Buses are ablaze, as are shops and banks. Eyewitnesses say that locals have set up burning barricades to stop the police from advancing. This has posed a serious problem for riot cops attempting to charge at the crowds on horseback, as the horses can’t penetrate the barriers. Meanwhile, the police’s own attempt at setting up roadblocks have apparently faced difficulties as one roadblock south of the cop shop was ‘taken out’. There are reports of the crowd being ‘on the offensive’. But, importantly, the police have manpower, technology, and the advantage of having fully expected this to happen. They may well have lost control, especially as the protests appear to have swollen throughout the evening, but it would short-sighted not to anticipate a sophisticated operation to trap the main body of protesters.
“There are rumours - just rumours for now - of deaths at the riots already. Frankly, I think we would have heard a bit more detail if that was true. But given that the police are sending dozens of vans full of riot squad to the scene, and given that at least one was witnessed speeding toward the riot with ‘Knight Rider’ music playing at top volume, I would not rule out the possibility of another killing. There are also rumours, which BBC Radio 5 Live appears to have fuelled, that riots have also spread to Brixton, Peckham and Croydon. I have seen no confirmation of this anywhere. And in fact, the overall thrust of the BBC’s approach has been to play down the ‘disturbances’ and abort coverage for some stirring patriotic insight into Britain’s Olympic aspirations. “Keep Calm and Carry On”, as the irritatingly smug, not-quite-ironic, retro poster has it.
“Tottenham is ablaze. Not for the first time in its history. Not for the first time over police violence and killing either. But nor is this is the first major riot since the Tories took office. It may well be the first to make a serious impact on national politics, but remember the riots in Bristol and Lewisham. The party of order expected this. That is why the police handling of protests has been so provocative and brutal. That is why ‘exemplary’ sentences have been handed out for minor protest offenses, with even Murdoch’s pie-man being given a custodial sentence. The intention has been to show that the party of order can keep control throughout the coming battles. I hope, with every fibre in my being, that they cannot.”