Class War. It is a visceral battle raging. It is a group of mouthy, self-conscious anarchists. The choice is yours. It is tempting to confine the phrase to those Poll Tax Riots (that bit when the guy put the scaffold pole through the police car’s window was EPIC, eh?). The words may evoke spotty uni kids in Crass T-shirts selling copies of Socialist Worker.
All this smash-the-state stuff as processed by the mainstream media as either demonic or vaguely anachronistic, misguided, almost quaint. The solid shutterings of the British Class system are supposed to have melted into air a long time ago – and visceral protest confined to romanticised – or vilified, memory.
But in reality, Britain, from this London window, appears to be awakening from the trance into which the cult created by Margaret Thatcher took hold. The riposte to the economic violence inflicted upon the poor is too often soft, sad and ineffectual. But physical anger is rising again. Some responses remain quiet and concise. Others just want to smash shit up. Here are four snapshots harvested from the last few days on the streets of England.
The Killing Of Moses
On Chatsworth Road in Hackney, E5, there’s still a Percy Ingles bakery. You can get a milky coffee and a cheese and pickle roll there for a couple of quid. L’Epicierie down the road sells flat whites for three pounds, and you can get Cretan olive oil there the colour of emeralds from a big porcelain vat. It looks lovely. But fuck knows what you’re supposed to do with it.
A couple of doors away from the bakery, at around 1PM last Saturday 26 September a young black man is surrounded by three men. He runs. He’s trapped outside the chemist’s. Shots ring out. Locals dive for cover. The three assailants run off into the crowd. 25 year old Moses Fadairo dies after staggering 50 yards along the road and into the Butchers’ shop.
The right wing press talks of gangland slayings and shocked ‘City Workers’ who have occupied this notoriously crime-ridden manor. Locals are used to having their carbon fibre push bikes and their kids’ scooters knicked from their back gardens, and many of them have woken up at 3AM to a dark shuffling in the hallways downstairs. But this sort of thing is not supposed to happen around here. Not since the coming of the brasseries and artisan coffee houses. Not since the bugaboos and the top-knots. Not since the pop-up photo studios and killer Japanese crêpe stalls.
Ok, we know. Hipster hate is always a little distasteful, a bit predictable and self defeating. But when your social feeds are flooded by the emergence of the less estate agent-friendly aspect of old London, one that you know, feel, remember – then it’s difficult not to feel the tug of a twisted sort of schadenfreude.
Chatsworth Road always traded off the ‘up-and-coming’ aesthetic. Wealthy wannabe bohos have always dug a bit of local colour in an area. But the tragic death of Moses – in broad daylight and on a sunny saturday afternoon – is for the new Hackneyites taking the local colour a bit far. This murder might seem to belong firmly to the world of Percy Ingles. It doesn’t seem to fit in the same universe as Cretan olive oil. But this is the reality of contemporary London. Grinding poverty next to ludicrously inflated wealth and privilege. Where these twin poles articulate there is a violent tension. But the thing is that it won’t affect the property prices. It might even push them up even further. The economics of the London property market really are that perverse.
Meanwhile in the Country: Class Profiling at the Rugby
“I am an Army Officer who is now a Police Inspector”. The guy is tall, tough looking. Mid fifties. Chinos. Hunters. Green quilted gilet. He’s standing beside me on the touchline of the local rugby match. My class hackles were up – and I had prejudicially bracketed him as one of THEM.
A team from Bath are trouncing the local side, who hail from this old pit town nestling deep in the valleys of the North Somerset Coalfields. Turns out the copper’s son plays for the valley side. And he’s got a chip on his shoulder even bigger than the one on mine. “I should be the most conservative of anyone you know,” he says. “But as I get older, and I see the way we’re going back in time, it just makes me angry.”
We watch as the haughty six-foot, fourteen-year-old Centre for the Bath team streaks by and touches down another try against the miners’ grandsons. The last of the pits closed around here in 1973, in the wake of then Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s war on the miners. (He lost, resigned and lost the election to Labour. The episode had a big hand in creating the anger that Thatcher was heir to).
The kids from the valleys are noticeably smaller, less well-fed than the kids from Bath. They are well coached, highly skilled and committed and tough as little old boots. But the the vast majority of the Bath kids are schooled at one of the many expensive private schools that surround this verdant Spa town in the West of England. The valley kids go to a number of huge comprehensives and newly-rendered academies in the area. And the thing is, you can see their class backgrounds, just from the way these kids look.
“These kids get eight hours a week of sport at school,” the copper tells me. “My kid gets two on a good week. As long as so many of the teachers, so much of the focus, is put on private education there’ll always be inequality. And you can see it in the physicality of these kids” he says. Britain was more egalitarian in 1958, he tells me. “It’s disgusting that we’ve moved backwards after so many years.” When a Police Inspector, a senior member of an organisation that has time and again been used as a coercive arm of the state feels like this – you know it is time for change.
Cereal Killing at the FUCK Parade
A few hours after Moses Fadairo bled to death in Chatsworth Road, a gathering was beginning a couple of miles away in Shoreditch. The third FUCK Parade may have been a rave that turned into a protest, or may have been a protest that turned into a rave. The truth is probably that it was a bit of both.
Class War, who make the event happen, bill the FUCK Parades as direct action with sound, pyrotechnics and fuck-all permission from the authorities. “These protests are the only alternative to the toothless A-B marches put on by the left and the trade unions,” said a Class War spokesman. But whether or not people were there to party, or to show their distaste for the gentrification of the East End – what ended up being reported was the tragicomic destruction of the Cereal Killer Café on Brick Lane.
Yes, dependent on your perspective it’s either a ridiculous piece of soft-target bullying, or a rage against a hipster machine that sells bowls of post-ironic cereal to the top-knots for £4 – and this in a borough where it is estimated that around the half the children live below the poverty line and are eligible for free school meals. There’s another FUCK Parade scheduled for this weekend – this time protesting against the Jack The Ripper museum, which, they claim – trades off the aesthetics of violence against women.
The Cereal Killer Café has become a lightning-rod for anti-gentrification angst in East London – in no small part thanks to its sickeningly smug owners. However, the new Pret and Subway chain food outlets (which better represent the big money moving into the area) just yards further down Brick Lane – which is celebrated for its independent business and until recently had no chain presence whatsoever – avoided being hurled with paint and were left ignored.
Predictably, the press tore into to the ravers-cum-protestors. The Daily Mail seized on the presence of LSE research fellow and leading Class War activist Dr Lisa McKenzie. Their journalists proudly Facebook stalked her and put everything they had learned into a sidebar entitled: ‘Dr Lisa Mckenzie: The Class Warrior Who Holidays In Vegas, Ibiza, Jamaica And Barbados.’ Fulfilling their self-appointed role of policing what can and can’t be protested by whom, they spat: “The class warriors who staged an anti-gentrification protest at a London cafe included middle-class academics, it was reported last night.” (emphasis added)
Of course they missed the fact that McKenzie grew up on a poor Nottingham estate and is one of the few working class academics left these days, with much of her research focussing on the Notts community in which she used to live. But they labelled her ‘middle class’ – as if that immediately disqualifies you from protesting issues like poverty, social exclusion or gentrification. Even if we accept these are solely working class issues – which they’re not – all it takes to get angry and get active is a little imagination, to look down the rungs of the ladder and see that life isn’t all that pleasant for those below.
Useless Eaters: Advocating the Impossible
Sheffield-based Justine Dixon used to work as an advice worker and advocate for mental health service users, assisting with applications for benefits, housing, social care funds and challenging decisions made by the authorities. That was, until the stress and the glaring injustice she faced each working day began to take its toll on her own mental health. She quit her job a while ago. I ask her why. “By the time the coalition got in”, she says, “the polarising narrative of scroungers vs strivers, deserving vs undeserving poor was on steroids. With the help of the rightwing press and even the mainstream media (think Channel 4’s Benefits Streets and the BBC’s Saints and Scroungers!), the public were co-opted into a war on the ‘work-shy’”. That category of ‘parasites’ that disproportionately included the disabled and in particular the mentally ill – the ‘useless eaters’.
“On at least three occasions during my last year in advocacy,” she says, “I was called by clients expressing their intent to take their own lives – usually as a response to the severe hardship imposed by cuts to their already diminished incomes. Most of them had been given short-shrift by other services or, as was increasingly common, had been sent spinning through the rabbit warren of endless ‘sign-posting’ otherwise known as ‘ passing the buck’”
One of the first egregious assaults made on Social Care by the newly elected Conservative government was to cut the Independent Living Fund, which was basically a pot of money allocated to local authorities which vulnerable people could access. Once their needs had been identified they could then choose to purchase relevant goods and services which would enable them to participate more actively in society with a degree of dignity and independence. “Part of my job towards the end was to help clients with applications,” she says. “What was clear was that one of the many upsides of the ILF was that most of the funds allocated to vulnerable people went directly to local businesses.”
“I had one client with an eating disorder,” she says, “who was able to pay a local cafe to bring a meal round at the end of the day and stay with her while she ate. Another client with Aspergers and severe social anxiety got funds for music lessons and was eventually confident enough to join a local brass-band.” But that, she says, is all over now. “The woman with the eating disorder will likely be pushing cold peas around the plate in her solitary hell. The trumpet player may still be going but not with the support of her music tutor. I shouldn’t imagine she could afford that £40 from her own pocket.” Iain Duncan Smith, meanwhile – the Tory overlord of this calculated deprivation – claims just that in expenses for a single breakfast.