Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I don't consider myself an expert on Brixton, but I stayed there a couple of weeks a while back and have certain impressions. First of all, Brixton has its Caribbean pockets, but is a mostly white, working class section of town, not racially homogenous like many black sections of US cities. It is unlikely that these riots will result in significant "white flight" as seen in US cities for various reasons, such as less intense suburbia and the price of London real estate. In the whole of Brixton there was one "mixed pub" which we went to, which drew a sedate slightly older crowd of whites and blacks that generally didn't sit together. I never felt unsafe there, though on one occasion I photographed a colorful Caribbean van - back when I used to take pictures of things - which didn't seem to be selling anything, and had to withstand the angry insistance of its owner that I hand over my camera. I was never offered drugs on the street. The whites were very cordial to me, as I had the look of a regular punter looking for his next pint. I was hosted by a pair which included an openly gay "public" (private) school teacher, who grew up Catholic in Ulster and had been involved in the IRA. The homophobia directed at him by whites in Brixton was shocking to me - not a case of some hooligan remarks but a sustained, premeditated sequence of threats that had compelled him to contact the police on more than one occasion.

This is the fourth major race riot in Brixton in thirty years, and each of them has started when a black person was killed by police. The first one, in 1981, led to the conclusion by a government-sponsored inquiry that the police force was "institutionally racist." I recall witnessing while sitting in a bus an elderly black man in a suit, bowler, and overcoat entering the bus first and sitting in the front row, and then a white man next in line stopping to glare at him and the seat, causing the black man to say "mind me ahh-I'm a pensioner," which struck me as odd then, as in the US whether or not senior citizens have pensions is a more delicate and variable matter, and people do not refer to themselves as Social Security recipients, and, of course, American blacks don't feel compelled to justify their Rosa Parks move to other commuters, but more than anything Yanks feel less compelled to appeal to others for respect, and respect for elders is less commonly evoked here. One of the more pleasant by-products of the current strife in Britain is the televised appearances of veteran columnist Darcus Howe, and his retort to Fiona Armstrong at the BBC "Have some respect for an old West Indian negro instead of accusing me of being a rioter because you want me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic. Have some respect. I have grandchildren.." reminds me of that moment on the bus.

But the common British term "pensioner" also hit home a different observation at the time: that in America there was comparitavely much more openness to people from different classes and races among the weathy as long as they could help create wealth and look the part, while in Europe there was more working class solidarity, as more people were going to stay in the social class they were born in, resulting in more activism by and social services for the working class. Britain's current austerity cuts and the looting for retail consumer items both suggest an ascending Yankee influence.

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