The killing of Leonard Deadwyler has once again brought it all into sharp focus; brought back long-standing pain, reminded everybody of how very often the cop does approach you with his revolver ready, so that nothing he does with it can then really be accidental, of how, especially at night, everything can suddenly reduce to a matter of reflexes: your life trembling in the crook of a cop’s finger because it is dark, and Watts, and the history of this place and these times makes it impossible for the cop to come on any different, or for you to hate him any less. Both of you are caught in something neither of you wants, and yet night after night, with casualties or without, these traditional scenes continue to be played out all over the South central part of this city. (Thomas Pynchon, Journey Into the Mind of Watts, 1966, New York Times.)
Not so long ago, writers like Pynchon talked of ‘race riots’. It’s a meaningful phrase! In 1966 a white policeman shot dead a black man, Leonard Deadwyler, and the Watts riots kicked off. In 1991, Rodney King lay on the ground within a ring of white LAPD officers, who beat him shitless with their batons. The LA riots followed. In the UK in the 1980s, tensions built up in various ‘black’ areas of the UK and similarly , fires were started, there were pitched battles on the streets between ‘youths’ and police. Black men, such as Benjamin Zephaniah, talked of an ‘uprising down town’. The BBC reported race riots, because there were race riots. In each case, there was a mutual distrust between ‘the black community’ and the police.
And now, in 2011, in London, a black drug dealer is shot dead in his car by a white policeman, followed by burning and looting on the streets. Again, there is the obvious mutual distrust between black people and the police. Again, neither are blameless. The pattern is essentially the same as Watts in 1966 and LA in 1991. Why did the policeman shoot Mark Duggan? That seems to be the big question right now. To find an answer to that, you can go back to 1966 and Pynchon: “these traditional scenes continue to be played out…” When an armed policeman approaches a known black drug dealer, a ritual scene is being played out. Both of them are compromised in more ways than many of us can understand. Normally the ritual goes smoothly, whatever that means. A lot rides on that ritual scenario, personal and political. And it’s fragile!
In the years to follow, people will no doubt refer to the London 2011 riots as race riots. People will do this because the photographs show young black men looting and burning. But right now, two or three days after the initial violence in Tottenham, the quality press are not daring to use the words ‘race’ or ‘black’. No doubt they are paranoid. No doubt they don’t want to incite further anger by pointing a finger. But to tell it how it is, isn’t to point a finger! That’s the rub. To work out what happened, and to then do something constructive about it, you have to face certain truths first. To brush it under the carpet? Well, that’s the current state of affairs. The Guardian and the BBC are the main offenders here. Their left-wing agenda sees us all as oppressed masses, a homogenised group. There can be no mention of racial and ethnic differences. Ultimately, there can be no mention of history, slavery, the 1960s. Just oppressed minorities, a shortage of jobs – blame the Tory cuts! The Guardian have been deleting any comments that mention race. Who does that serve? Well, it can serve Marxism and it can serve Empire, both of which are long gone. The message = to mention race is to be a racist!
This is scary! Where are the strong voices in our media? Someone needs to stand at the front and raise an honest and knowing voice. In the past, in the US, people spoke about these issues in sensible ways: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion…. Who do we have in the UK who can tell us what has happened in London? Maybe Benjamin Zephaniah could step forward. His voice would count right now, especially because he experienced the 80s riots first hand. But we’ve never had a Norman Mailer in the UK, more’s the pity. Norman seemed compelled to tell it how he saw it. I remember in 2002, he was speaking on a TV programme about the looming Iraq war. The interviewer was talking about a ‘moral imperative’, and Norman shrugged his shoulders: “we haven’t talked about oil yet!” The interviewer looked both scared and disappointed, not wanting to go down that road. Point being, Norman knew the war was about oil, and he couldn’t help cutting through all the crap. He had to talk about oil! So he talked about oil! Oil was a factor!
Were the London riots of 2011 about race? I don’t know. But race is a factor! Race is a big factor. If we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about what happened. Ultimately, the main losers here will be black people. They will be, as Ralph Ellison and Franz Fanon will tell you, INVISIBLE or just confused (who am I?). And when you can’t talk about things, you have the main Pynchon theme staring you in the face: PARANOIA. But it is seems pretty obvious here that the press and ‘the establishment’ are the most confused, and they are apt to take us all with them on this ride.
And do we believe Norman and his White Negro essay?! Do so many white people actually want to be black, or live out some kind of black fantasy life? There was that intriguing moment when Louis Theroux looked through Eugene Terre’Blanche’s (SA White supremacist) CD collection and found a Michael Jackson album.
Let’s end this with more Pynchon. After all, the ‘little man’ is getting his shop burned down as I write this, and David Cameron (The Man) is still on holiday:
The little man bugs these kids more than The Man ever bugged their parents. It is the little man who is standing on their feet and in their way; he’s all over the place, and there is not much they can do to change him or the way he feels about them. A Watts kid knows more of what goes on inside white heads than possibly whites do themselves. Knows how often the little man has looked at him and thought, “Bad credit risk” — or “Poor learner,” or “Sexual threat,” or “Welfare chisler” without knowing a thing about him personally.
The natural, normal thing to want to do is hit the little man. But what after all, has he done? Mild, respectable, possibly smiling, he has called you no names, shown no weapons. Only told you perhaps that the job was filled, the house rented. (Thomas Pynchon, Journey Into the Mind of Watts, 1966, New York Times.)
Later… Radio 5 are actually giving some sensible and serious coverage to the rioting. They’ve been interviewing various black people and community leaders in London, and asking the serious questions.