To catch a wolf, you don’t unleash a tiger

While the racial issues that sparked the recent chaos seemed to be largely forgotten after the first night in the fury of looting and destruction, there were disturbing signs last night that a racial dimension may be rearing its head again. Prejudice and bigotry are undoubtedly part of the causes of this disorder, and it’s on all sides – looters, police and now the self-appointed vigilante mobs set up to defend their communities.

Vigilantism is a very understandable response to the situation. After three nights of seeing buildings and property destroyed or stolen with seemingly little intervention from a strained police force, it was an obvious response from communities desperate not to see a repeat of what was now filling the rolling news channels. On Tuesday, we saw groups of locals for the first time taking to the streets in defence of their homes and businesses, as a large group of Turkish shopowners massed in Dalston to hold off the looters.

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Similar groups in Stoke Newington and Haringey’s Green Lanes managed to hold off the looters there with, it seems, no excessive force or violence the likes of which the looters themselves displayed.

Police concerns about vigilantism aside, this did the job, and if nothing else was a perfect example of Call-Me-Dave’s Big Society at work. Last night though, other districts of London followed suit, and some more worrying elements began to creep in.

The most noticed in the national press were in Enfield and Eltham, and to a lesser extent Millwall. These are not areas renowned for their racial tolerance historically – Eltham was the site of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and Millwall was notoriously the first district to elect a BNP councillor, again in 1993. So it shouldn’t have been particularly surprising when Paul Lewis, on the Guardian’s live blog of events for Tuesday posted an apparent account of a large gang of ‘drunk’ white men chasing after local youths presuming that, because they were black, they were looters .

Lewis later posted a follow-up saying that he had been “shaken” and “there were no racist chants”. However, this seems not to jibe with other reports; the Telegraph had a piece this morning in which it quoted the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon as saying he’d been spending the day in Enfield, while the Guardian’s Matt Taylor quoted one of the Eltham group as saying “This is a white working class area and we’re here to protect the community”. While I don’t want to demonise anyone for simply describing their ethnicity as white, given the area’s history this has a worrying ring. Later a video showed a large mob of shaven-headed men ‘patrolling’ Eltham High Street chanting “E-D, E-D-L!” And however much Stephen Lennon shouts at Jeremy Paxman that the EDL is not a racist group, it was pretty noticeable that this entire group were white.

A later video showed another entirely white gang of young men running through the streets of Enfield – after what is unclear – who seem to be chanting “England! England!” While I’d never dream of criticising anyone for supporting our national football team, this seemed an odd time to be singing their praises. However, it is – dispiritingly – the traditional cry of our ‘beloved’ white supremacists in this country.

However, perhaps the most disturbing account I’ve heard of this trend is from my friend Matt Tobin, who lives in North London. Earlier today he posted on Facebook:

“I was in Enfield last night, and I have to say, it appeared that the backlash of the rioting seemed to create a race war. I actually heard a white woman scream to a black woman, ‘Get in your car! They are hunting black people!’, then I saw a mob of white people, marching down the street, chanting “Come on England!’”

As with so many other aspects of this trouble, it’s hard to generalise or to vouch for the perfect accuracy of the reports being received – though I know Matt well enough to trust his first hand eyewitness account. And I would like to stress that I doubt whether this element even makes up a majority of the people trying to defend their property, livelihoods and safety in these boroughs. But to judge by the reports and the videos, there are enough of these people out there for it to be a major worry. The Enfield group were notable for all wearing white shirts, which sounds disturbingly like a uniform of sorts. And given that several reports state the groups congregated initially in pubs in the mid-afternoon , it’s safe to say that sober restraint was unlikely to be much in evidence.

So do we really want justice to be served by a mob of half drunk white supremacists? Apart from anything else, they’ve got the wrong target. If any of them had bothered to look for even a second at the multiplicity of videos and photos all over the news and the internet, they might have noticed that the looters are a pretty ethnically disparate group. Or they might not – after all, it’s amazing how blind people can be about anything that might overturn their own convictions. This kind of actual evidence is unlikely to change the mind of any of the racists. Meanwhile, Stephen Lennon has promised that EDL members will “launch street patrols in Bristol, Manchester, Luton and Leicestershire over the coming days”. Given the sort of strife usually associated with any EDL gathering, do we really want that added to the current mix?

This chaos has brought out the small ‘c’ conservative in a lot of otherwise fairly liberal folk, again understandably. But I’ve been disturbed to see how many of my otherwise rational Facebook friends have been cheering these groups on. And one of the most cliched phrases I know keeps recurring in these postings. So a word of advice to anyone thinking of posting on the topic – if your enthusiastic support has to be qualified with “I’m not a racist, but…” maybe you should think twice about offering it.

I know people are vulnerable. I know people are frightened – I’m frightened too. And as someone who was beaten up by homophobes a couple of years ago (in Cambridge of all places) I totally understand the desire to hit back. But turning to a mob of uniformed xenophobes because they’re hard has never been a good idea. Don’t unleash the tiger to catch the wolf.