Gabriel Gbadamosi on London’s riots
I’ve woken up in a riot – inside a London phone box. A brick has just smashed into the glass. There are four of us squashed in to get out of the rain of bottles and stones. I can’t get my arm up to protect my face, we’re all trying to crouch down, I can feel glass fall on my hair. But I’ve got a thick, springy Afro and I can still shake it. My friend’s got blood on his ear lobe; we look at each other and nod, instinctively – the two of us bursting out onto the road and legging it hard and low so the wind of the riot blows over us.
I’ve woken up and I’m fifteen, invulnerable, my heart thumping with adrenalin. I’ve never seen or felt this before and didn’t know it could happen: people squeezing under cars to get out of the rain of glass, pavements strewn with rubble and injured people and blood (there’s a deafness in my ears from the roar and screams of the crowd). I can smell petrol fires and I’m running past smashed up windows of cars and shops. I turn back to look at the pumped-up lines of policemen confronting us across the street, banging their truncheons on metal dustbin lids. I’m on the frontline because I want to see what’s going on – I can see the faces of the police, ashen, white – and before the next charge of boots and uniforms and the answering volley of stones and bottles, sticks and whistles, I can see people picking up and dropping broken slabs of paving stones from under our feet to hurl them over my head at the police.
The ground under my feet is being torn up. The basic social contract that I won’t break the law by being in a riot and that, in return, my society will keep me safe is being ripped apart in this confrontation with the hard reality of violence: we must break them or they will break us. I see a policemen get hit in the head with a brick; people are tearing down walls. Smoke from a police van on fire drifts into the spaces between us. And I’ve woken up because I know my colour and my class can’t be repressed anymore; there are too many of us, change has to come.
That was August thirty-five years ago, and this is August 2011. By my reckoning, the difference between then and now is that this generation of rioting looters and arsonists thinks we failed. Not only did we fail to end discrimination, create better outcomes in education, health, employment and social mobility, we failed to end the entrenchment of hopelessness and poverty in the young.