A buzzword, a fiction, or a societal necessity? The idea of a “community” is something that has been hotly debated over the last two weeks. The unrest in Tottenham can point the way to a better understanding of this term in the modern age.
Many favourite political themes have resurfaced over the last couple of weeks in response to the “wake-up call” afforded by the recent riots. The Prime Minister has resurrected “the broken society”, “responsibility” and “right and wrong” in his keynote speech diagnosing the cause of one hundred hours of lawlessness. Ed Miliband, keenly aware that the aftershocks of the unrest have reshaped the political battleground, is both complementing and criticising the Coalition by flagging up social irresponsibility at both ends of the economic spectrum and demanding a closer scrutiny of “the culture of our society.”
However, the one word that is trending most popularly with politicians, pundits, and the public is one that continues to elude a simple definition: “community”.
What is a “community”? The term rests uncomfortably in a web of ideas, meanings and beliefs that are continually shifting to form new connections. The man on the street would probably describe a community as a close-knit collection of individuals, welded together by their shared residency in a particular neighbourhood or borough. He may add that a community is bound together by its members’ obligation to safeguard mutual interests and promote local improvements – be they social, economic or cultural.
However, that definition rings false in the ears of many whose neighbours are alien to them and who feel little attachment to their particular patch of concrete. Now more than ever, it seems nonsensical- why would individual members of a community effectively wage war on their fellows if they are bound together by such meaningful ties?
Perhaps our man on the street would expand to say that a community can also mean a collection of people united by an idea, or against a specific grievance. Such communities are not confined to localities, and can transcend racial and cultural differences. Under this definition, the number of communities in any one area greatly multiplies.
David Lammy MP may talk about his Tottenham constituency as being one community, but the behaviour of many there suggests that this singular entity has fractured into different parts, if it ever existed in the first place. The riots in Tottenham (I’m setting aside disturbances elsewhere in this post) can be perceived as a clash of communities, some long established, and some newly formed.
The rioters became an ad hoc community on 6 August, unbound by a shared motive but united in their anger towards the police and the intrusive authority they were seen to represent. They chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they attacked the police whose duty it is to protect them and destroyed the buildings that made up their local landscape. As Sam Leith rightly pointed out: “‘our streets’ is an answer that only begs another question: ‘Who’s us?’”
For several nights, ‘us’ was a spontaneous community of mainly young, local residents who, despite the divisions of postcode and ethnicity, shared many similarities. They shared a culture – a street culture unique to the ethnically diverse neighbourhoods of the capital, one which places a premium on the defence of a person’s ‘yard’ (home) and ‘end’ (local area). They shared a grievance with the police- who were seen to be a force of oppression and discrimination. They even shared a language, clumsily called “Multicultural London English” (MLE), from which terms like ‘Feds’, ‘gansta’ and ‘shank’ derive.
Another community that could rightly claim ‘our streets’ as their own include the residents of Tottenham who took part in the initial peaceful protest against the police’s bungled disclosure of Duggan’s shooting. They marched against the perceived injustice and jeered at the police, but did not take part in the riot or use the opportunity to loot and pillage. The members of this community were derived from a wider variety of social backgrounds and ages, yet clearly shared a sense that they had been misled or cheated by the police.
The other community involved were those who stayed at home, who sided with the police and condemned all those involved in the clash. These were the people who David Lammy was most likely referring to when he stated that the community was “anxious”.
Certainly, not everyone in Tottenham was. The first community was angry, violent and selfish. The second was angry, disillusioned and frustrated. The third was fearful, uneasy and threatened.
Tottenham is not one community. It is many. So are all the other communities torn apart by the recent violence. The way forward is to find a way to reconcile these different groups in peaceful coexistence.
It is time to junk the outdated logic that a “community” is something wedded to a specific place. A “community” is an idea that takes a different shape in the minds of different people. In Tottenham, one community is moved by the idea of police oppression, another by the havoc caused by “feral youths”. Attempting to meld them together will only cause tensions in the future.
What is needed is a new discourse on “community”, and a retreat from the idea that all our difference can be subsumed beneath a shared postcode.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabian Blog.