Looking back on comments I made in 1999 about racism in Eltham…..
Reports of looting and riots in North London (UK) in August 2011 came as no surprise to me. In July ’11 I had left a country that was economically in recession, with rising youth unemployment, and led by a government that looked to be finding its way with Thatcherite and pro-business policies. Cutbacks to public services were severe and unemployment rising.
The scale of the ensuing looting and urban mayhem across England was shocking. It instantly made me think; when is trouble going to kick off in the flashpoint of Eltham, on the other side of the Thames in South East London? It did not take long. Between 9th-11th August, a motley assortment of football supporters and members of political groups (largely the nasty English Defence League) descended on Eltham, apparently to “protect” the town from looters. This led to a rather confusing scenario of police and citizens ostensibly trying to do the same job, but resulting in street clashes. The media reported this widely, camera crews were sent, and there are many videos on the web of youths and middle aged men swearing at the police and at supporters of rival soccer clubs, and uttering racist epithets. Looting did not happen, although there has been some of that nearby.
There is not yet enough evidence to say whether the risk of looting was real and that these “vigilantes” were actually there for a genuine reason. To my knowledge Eltham High Street is in a pretty sorry state these days, decimated by falling retail trade and the closure of anchor chains like Woolworths and the department store. I am not sure what a loot would really yield. It seems, instead, as though the EDL was making a political point – this is a largely working class, largely white suburb, infamous for unfortunate reasons and bound to attract major media attention.
I grew up there from the 1960s until my parents sold up in the late 1990s. I knew generations of Elthamians. Early in the c20th my grandmother had survived diphtheria in a flat above a shop in the High Street, and a family house was bombed in WWII a mile away in Mottingham. The town has some impressive historic buildings and a Palace, a few famous residents past and present (Jude Law, Kate Bush, Bob Hope, Boy George, Edith Nesbit) and a proud local society. Although it contains three roads with multi-million pound homes, much of Eltham is relatively poor, particularly to the north and west. It is home to several council estates (public housing), many built to re-house inner London residents, both sides of WWII (the later Ferrier Estate was demolished by 2013). Not that this necessarily breeds racist views – but as I showed in 1999, these were quite prevalent. Don’t forget SE London hosted the British National Party hq in Welling as well, a short distance away. A march on it by anti-racist campaigners in 1993 may [possibly] have had up to 40,000 participants, and was repressed by police resulting in violence. (2)
Its more recent notoriety came from the murder of Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993. He was a black teenager killed in the town by a gang of racist white youths, most from Eltham. This followed a string of stabbings and altercations in and around Eltham in the preceding 2 years, some racially motivated. The official Inquiry into the Lawrence murder made the accusation that the police suffered ‘institutional racism’ because they failed to to bring successful prosecution, and bungled evidence. This, plus the murder itself, gave Eltham a very bad name. The characters of the accused youths is discussed in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, specifically here. As of 2011 they are still not in jail but prosecution is again being made against two of the suspects. [in Jan 2012 they were found guilty and sentenced to 14 and 15 years]
Looking back, in 1999 I wrote a listserv posting on the Critical Geography Forum that described conditions in the town just after the publication of the Inquiry. A lot of comments were made on that text. I think many of the questions that I raised there about Eltham are still unanswered. Specifically – the geographical issue – why Eltham? It seemed likely that this town would somehow become involved in the rapid spread of rioting, because unemployment and disenfranchised younger people on the estates always made it a bit ‘edgy’, but I had not imagined instead seeing the EDL turning up, and a racist image dominating the media once again. I feel very sorry for those subjected to this once again – South East London has always had to work harder than the rest of the city to embrace multiculturalism and ‘connection’ to the rest of London. Some like it that way, while others (like me) regret it deeply.
The claim is often made that the Lawrence murder was a random event, and could have occurred anywhere. But I am not so sure.
The Lawrence murder tuned out to be watershed movement for UK race relations. On 23 April 2018, 25 years after the murder, the British government announced an annual Stephen Lawrence Day, with the first one being on 22 April 2019. Britain has in many respects moved on from the event of 1993 – I moved back to the UK in 2017 and noticed changes, not only in public life, but in acceptable discourse and everyday engagement on race issues. Very different from my childhood and teenage years. But in other ways it has not. There have been further harrowing examples of a country still ill at ease with its multi-ethnic population – the debate on immigration, in particular, continues to take a nasty tone. Distrust of immigration drove a part of the disastrous Brexit referendum vote in 2016. The appalling treatment of elderly Caribbean British citizens denied their rights, the Windrush scandal, has resulted in the government issuing an an apology and a climbdown on the same day as the Lawrence Day announcement in 2018.
On the day after the Lawrence murder in 1993, I was in West Africa. I saw the event reported on the French news, aired via satellite to francophone Africa and reported in the newspapers. I was sitting in a bar in a small hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of post-socialist Burkina Faso. Looking around me I felt a great deal of shame, but I did not know what to do. The faces of the accused killers haunt me still – I have fuzzy, unclear memories of some of them from the Eltham snooker club where I used to play. I had to leave the bar, but that moment will stay with me forever, and has influenced a lot of subsequent life choices. I stayed in Burkina Faso for another year and a half, but I have not been back to Eltham for about 20 years.