Friday, 25 May 2012

This blog has moved!

This blog now updates at

It's been a fun four years at blogspot, but the new site is much shinier. Update your bookmarks! :)

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Men, sex, journalism, armageddon and radical papier-mâché: what I've been writing.

As you can see, I'm still in New York, I have a marvellous new hat, and here is another round-up post. This month I've been writing about, amongst other things, sex, politics, the future, nerd guns, protest policing and the mating rituals of the young and foolish in New York City. Here's the worst of the damage:


My guest post on about Journalism, Activism and Honest Reporting went viral - it's a piece that was very important to me, and was based on a speech I gave at Left Forum in March.

My review of William Gibson's new essay collection, 'Distrust That Particular Flavour', is up now at The New Inquiry. Almost certainly my favourite thing I've written this month:  The Future, Probably

Last week, I wrote for the Independent on men and their attitudes to sex, women and feminism - based on a survey I posted on this blog, which some of you were kind enough to help with. I'll be using those survey answers more in the future - stay tuned. 

The piece I wrote right here at this blog about Lena Dunham, Katie Roiphe, kink and the politics of oppression was widely read (and led to a very interesting discussion over at Metafilter!)

Two short pieces for the Independent's notebook section: one on Trenton Oldfield, the boat-race anarchist swimmer, and one on dating in New York, in which I am possibly slightly unfair to writers, Brooklynites and coffee-shop lurkers like myself. Please note that am not, nor have I ever aspired to be, Carrie fucking Bradshaw. 

And finally, this week's column on the run-up to Occupy Wall Street's planned May Day General Strike


Incidentally, this month, which has involved me starting an exciting new job at The Independent, has also been full of more than the usual catalogue of attacks, rapebombing, slut-shaming, death threats, professional slanders, right-wing trolls, libertarian trolls, soi-disant radical trolls and mad people with vendettas, including former comrades, trying to push false stories about me into the gossip press. I try not to let it get to me, but sometimes it does get difficult. Despite all this I've managed to keep producing, but that might not have been the case without the support of a lot of wonderful people, friends and colleagues and near-strangers. I am massively grateful to everyone who has offered me their solidarity over the past few weeks - you know who you are, and I hope you know that your efforts are more than appreciated. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I love you.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Chains of oppression: Katie Roiphe, Lena Dunham and the sexual counter-revolution.

(Image via The Daily Beast)

Things that Jean-Jacques Rousseau really liked included: the philosophy of universal liberty, and having young ladies spank him into a frenzy. In "The Confessions", he wrote: “To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments, and the more my blood was inflamed by the efforts of a lively imagination the more I acquired the appearance of a whining lover.”

Like a great many wealthy, important men throughout history, Rousseau was a humiliation slut. He loved to have women boss him around in bed. He was also a flasher, and liked to moon unsuspecting ladies in the street and then prostrate himself for punishment. Nobody has ever suggested that this meant that the great enlightement philosopher secretly wished men didn’t run the world. In fact, Rousseau had some very specific things to say about women’s place in the social order. “Woman was specifically made to please man," he wrote in "Emile." "If man ought to please her in turn, the necessity is less direct. His merit lies in his power...If woman is made to please and to be subjugated to man, she ought to make herself pleasing to him rather than to provoke him."

Kink has been part of the sexual menu for so long that it’s hard to pretend anyone is shocked anymore when it turns up on the table. The practice of male masochism, for example, has become almost idiomatic when one is discussing Wall Street workers, or the British aristocracy - despite Rousseau and De Sade, the French still refer to sadomasochism as ‘La Vice Anglais.’

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern 'working women' (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

In a cover story for Newsweek, noted rape apologist Katie Roiphe argues that the recent success of pop-porn bestseller ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ proves that even feminists secretly want to be shagged into submission by great, big, whip-wielding brutes. Not just in spite of our feminism, but because of our feminism. Roiphe argues that modern "working women" - I'm sorry, was there ever a time when women actually did no work? - find “the pressure of economic participation... all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world”...”exhausting.” Roiphe goes on to theorise, based on precisely one film, one tv show and one novel, that “for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.”

I’m not going to waste my time being mean to Roiphe, the unfortunate straw-lady who was encouraged to write this woeful piece of drivel. Suffice it to say that her piece says a lot more about the sadomasochistic relationship between female freelancers and their editors than it does about any other so-called ‘trend’. The article seems crafted to do one thing well, which is to make a lot of people angry, which, hella, it has: having supper with a dear friend and her girlfriend last night, I showed her the article on my phone, and was genuinely frightened for the device after she slammed it down and muttered, simply, "fuck you". But just because a piece of bait is obvious doesn’t mean it’s not worth a nibble. So let’s have a conversation - a real conversation - about what women want, and what that means.

The first thing to note is that sexual submission is is the acceptable face of female perversion: pliable, obedient and all about pleasing your man. Most of the available submissive fantasies that Roiphe and others have cited as part of a ‘trend’ insist on their protagonists’ initial unwillingness to be tied to enormous beds and rogered by wealthy professionals. In "Fifty Shades of Grey", the protagonist only acquiesces to the kink because she wants to please her dominant lover. In "The Story of O" - which, although hardly part of a ‘trend,’ having being written in the fifties, is still one of the only dirty books written for women that you can buy in respectable shops - ‘O’ agrees to be whipped and fucked by rich anonymous strangers to please her partner, Renee. These women may learn to love being spanked, but they certainly don’t seek it out: they are passive, rather than just submissive.

In real life, men and women enjoy being bossed around in bed for lots of reasons - sometimes it might be about being punished, sometimes it might be about working out personal baggage, sometimes it might be about taking the break from all the responsibilities you have outside the bedroom, and sometimes it might just be about wanting someone else to do the work. And sometimes, yes, it might be about wanting to experience sex without having to take responsibility for your own desires - it’s not as if we live in a culture where women who want to have sex are encouraged to have it in a shame-free way. Both Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, the teen series the adult erotic novel was based on, are fantasies of pursuit, of the responsibility for sexual agency being entirely in the hands of a man, who desires the point-of-view-protagonist completely.

In a culture where women who express sexual agency are punished, humiliated and threatened with real rather than ritualised violence, that sort of fantasy is entirely comprehensible. What is more significant is that submission - alongside, from time to time, sex work - is the only kind of female sexual ‘unorthodoxy’ that is currently deemed worthy of discussion - unorthodoxy trussed up tight by the bondage tape of patriarchal expectations. Unorthodoxy that happens to involve fantasies of being dominated by men. Unorthodoxy practiced exclusively, if we go by the ‘examples’ Roiphe’s investigation turns up, by women who are young, and white, and straight, and middle-class, and, most importantly, fucking fictional.  

INCIDENTALLY - why is it that young, white, straight, middle-class, fictional women are  the only type of women that routinely interest the trendmaking mainstream press? And why is it that women are not permitted to be creative without having to speak for the entire condition of womankind? The most exhaustively discussed new cultural artefacts in recent weeks - 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and Lena Dunham's new HBO show 'Girls' - are being treated as if they were straight memoirs, rather than, in one case, a piece of redrafted fan-fiction based around a story that was originally about vampires? Is it because we don't believe that a woman can truly create fiction or write meaningfully without drawing entirely on her own experience? Is it because mainstream culture still lacks a language to talk about women's issues and women's lives that is not at once confessional and riddled with lazy stereotypes? Is it because most 'fictional' women are still created, cast and directed by men? Is it because we don't believe women can actually be artists? DISCUSS.

Anyway. Fantasies about pretty young white women being controlled, hurt and dominated by men have always been the the part of kink that nobody ever really had a problem with. During the crackdowns on the fetish and kink communities in the 1980s and early 1990s, submissive heterosexual women and their play partners were rarely targeted for prosecution. Today, when you think of ‘fetish’, many people think of Jean Paul Gaultier models strutting the runway in elegant leathers, and arty snaps of willowy girls doing Japanese rope bondage in low-lit loft apartments . You might not be quite so quick to picture middle-aged gay couples in matching latex, or enormous, hairy men called Nigel waddling around fetish clubs with joysticks up their bottoms and big grins on their faces, but kink has always been as much about them as it has been about the beautiful young girls, breakable or pretending to break others, who tend anyway to have less disposable income to spend on rubber.

Here are some non-standard sexual trends that editors at Newsweek, Glamour and Cosmopolitan are less keen to make headlines out of: poor women fucking. Black women fucking. Queer women fucking. Old women fucking. Fat women fucking, ugly women fucking, bossy, arrogant women fucking. Women who are dominant in bed. Women who like to penetrate men with big pink strap-ons. Women who want multiple sexual partners at once or in succession. Women who just want to go to bed early with a cup of tea, an Anna Span DVD and a spiked dildo the size of an eggplant. Here are some more: sex workers who want to be treated like workers, rather than social pariahs. men who want to get fucked. Men who are gentle and submissive in bed. Men who don’t enjoy penetrative sex. Men for whom sex is an overwhelming emotional experience. I guarantee you that all of these things go on, but any of them might actually destabilise for a second our cultural narrative of sex, gender and power, so none of them are allowed to be ‘trends’.

In truth, there has never been anything controversial about the fantasy of female submission. These days, most of the ‘mainstream’ pornography readily available online involves some variation on the theme of outrages against young, prone, fuckable females. The rituals of whips, leather and safe-words are not part of the language of ‘normal’ porn, but otherwise the horny prospect of prone pretty girls having violent sex done to them and learning to love it is a dialect of desire everyone understands - so much so that lots of young men grow up knowing no other box to put their lust in. In Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’, the protagonist’s useless hipster quasi-boyfriend spouts ‘dirty talk’ that Katie Roiphe identifies as specifically sado-masochistic - but actually, it could be lifted off the commentary on any ‘vanilla’ porn site. Check it out on if you don’t believe me. Actually, don’t. Actually, do.

Female sexual submission has never really been shocking. Right now, we are in the middle of a sexual counter-revolution. The backlash is on against even the limited amount of erotic freedom women have won over fifty years of hard campaigning: abortion and birth control are under attack, sexual health clinics are kitted out with bomb detectors and staffed by doctors who come to work wearing bullet-proof vests, and a fully-grown woman is denounced as a slut and a whore by male commentators across America by suggesting as part of a congressional hearing that yes, she may once or twice have had intercourse for pleasure rather than procreation. And until very recently, Rick Santorum, a man who considers contraceptives morally wrong, was a semi-serious contender for leader of the free world.

The sexual heresies that truly upset the pearl-clutchers of middle America have nothing to do with whips and chains. That’s just faux-outrage, a bit of editorial baiting designed to upset feminists and titillate everyone else who likes to get cross and horny over the idea of dirty little girls tied up with tape.

No, what really gets social conservatives angry still happens not in swanky fetish clubs, but behind the closed doors of abortion clinics. It’s women who want to be able to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Women who want to control their own fertility. Women who want sexual autonomy, which is what any attack on abortion rights is fundamentally about. Women who want to live independently or raise children without the help of men. Women who want sex on its own merit, whether it comes wrapped in black bondage rope or scattered with rose petals.

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire - those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man's desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them...the appearance of correct behavior must be among women's duties.”

Saturday, 7 April 2012

In Syntagma Square....

The Tsolakoglou [a reference to a wartime Nazi collaborationist in Greece] government has literally wiped out my ability to survive, based on a decent pension which I paid for myself over 35 years with no help from the state.

If one Greek had taken a Kalashnikov into his hands, I might have followed him and done the same but because I am of an age that makes it impossible for me to take strong action on my own, I can find no other solution than to put an end to my life before I start sifting through garbage cans for my food.

I believe that young people with no future will one day take up and hang this country’s traitors in arms in Syntagma Square just as the Italians hanged Mussolini in 1945.

The suicide note of 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in Syntagma Square, in protest against the austerity policies hitting Greece.

Via Molly Crabs and everyone else. Not a lot to add, really.

ETA: The funeral of Dimitris Christoulas erupted into an anti-austerity rally, the Telegraph reports.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Women, activism, anger, and other things I've been up to..

I write and publish a great deal these days, and sometimes, like this week, there'll be a publication run where pieces I'm reasonably proud of will come out almost every day. Not only do I not want the hard work I put into these articles to go to waste, you can get a better sense of where my politics are and what I'm interested in right now from looking at what I'm writing all in one place. So here are this week's offerings, which appear to be about feminism, trolling, the state of the left, personal and political revolution and Rush Limbaugh's terrible face.

So, it turns out that feminism is a CIA plot to undermine the left - blog for New Statesman. In which I encounter the American dudeleft and pull some strange faces in a New York bookshop. Video editing by Willie Osterweil.

Eating disorders and the White Strike - when youthful dissidence cannibalises itself - column for New Statesman. This was quite a personal piece and harder to write than I thought it would be. I could write a whole book on the topic, so getting to the point in 600 words was a good exercise.

A report from Occupy AIPAC - for The Independent. In which I go to Washington DC and watch peace activists pretend to be doing something new, and learn more about lobbying.

Sugar Daddies - for A report on the trend of older, rich men looking to pay financially desperate, 'non professional' women for sex, affection and maybe a bit of tidying. In which I troll the hell out of some creeps on the internet for fun and feminism.

Rush Limbaugh, Sexist Shit and the Art of the Decoy - a blog for New Statesman. Written mostly in a rage-fuge in the back of a friend's play, having just drunk some absinthe by accident (I can't have absinthe since that night in 2005 of which we do not speak). Features a metaphor about arses I'm quite pleased with.

Deeds, not Words: a column for International Women's Day 2012 - For the Independent. The effervescent Molly Crabapple did an illustration to go with this piece, which I am stupendously excited about, and you should all go to her Kickstarter and get involved in redefining gallery art for the 99% or some aesthetic revolution or other, I don't know, I'm all tuckered out after this week and should probably have more coffee absolutely right this minute.

Ciao, L

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A love letter for London

In some ways it was the first place I ever knew. Seventeen, sick and living in a box-room belonging to an octogenarian friend of the family, every day once I was just about well enough not to have to sleep in hospital overnight I would wake up at five and tiptoe down the street and go underground. I've always thought of the London Underground as not quite of this world. It has its own newspapers and its own weather, its strange warm winds blowing from tunnels deep in the groaning belly of the city. Step out of the tube and you are older, by twenty minutes or a whole lifetime; you are different; you have left something of your old self, your anxious, night-time, dreaming self down in the racket and thunder of the trains and the harsh bright never-dawn of rolling rubbish and advertising hoardings.

I was born in London, and though my family moved away when I was small, I grew up longing for the city. Some of us do. The rabbit-bitten fields and sun-kissed cycle paths that my parents were so thrilled for their daughters to grow up with held no interest for me. I wanted the smell of diesel and the rain throwing up soot on the pavements. I wanted lights that never went out and streets to swagger down. I went to sleep in the owl-hooting dark, dreaming of the syphilitic rattle of urban pigeons.

More than anything, I wanted the tube. Every time we went to London for a visit, I could happily have ridden the underground all day. I wanted to lose myself in the dark and mouse-running scramble of crammed-together humanity and come up again in the light. I liked being one of the sardine people, even in rush hour, even at my height, which was and remains about armpit height on the average commuter. Late at night, the platforms echo with the memory of thousands of city dwellers huddled together for shelter with the bombs of the Blitz overhead. Catching the last Bakerloo line home, you can almost see them, out of the corner of your eye, through the cracks in history: propped against one another, mindlessly tired.

The tube is London's psychic sewer system. The somatic debris of life in a late capitalist megatropolis drifts through and drains away here down tunnels garish with adverts for car insurance and cosmetic surgery. Knackered commuters grip their seats or cling to the upright poles, avoiding one another's eyes. And yet it's also the one place in the whole county where the power of organised labour can and does bring a city juddering to a halt on a regular basis, the one place where workers, by and large, expect to be treated like dignified human beings. Tube strikes are as regular and marvellous and irritating as the yearly snowfall which turns London into a hushed, glittering white fairyland of treacherous ice and broken transport links and adults freaking out like excited toddlers, turning up their faces to catch the fat flakes before they soak into the grime.

London is a place of contradictions.

The process of living here is one big game of unseeing. I have not visited another world city where different lives mesh and interweave so intricately without ever touching, rich and poor. In China Mieville's novel 'The City and The City,' two cities occupy the same physical space, and citizens must avoid 'breaching' the psychic gap at all costs. When the book came out in 2010, there was much speculation as to what city it was supposed to represent - Belfast? Jerusalem? Berlin as was? - but for me it's clearly about London, consciously or unconsciously, the city of parts which breaks into all of Mieville's work, as it does with any writer who lives here for very long.

London is more than two cities. It is many cities. It is the city and the city and the city and the city, a delicate, dirty palimpsest of history layered on history. A city where kids with hoods and hopeless eyes can start burning police cars and looting the high streets and the question on the lips of the broadsheet writers and politicians who live and work a few streets away can still be: where the hell did these people come from?

They come from London, just like you.

I have been in love with this city all my life, and it has taken me on marvellous adventures and it has come close to crushing me. No lover has ever betrayed me like London. Being poor and homeless and despairing here is not like being poor and homeless and despairing anywhere else. I have seen this city swallow friends whole, chew down its young for the meat and life under the skin and spit them out old and traumatised. London does this. You plonk your youth like an offering on the steps of Liverpool Street Station and you just have to hope the city will leave you a life worth living as it slurps up the marrow of your dreams. I will never forgive it. I will never stop loving it.

But it's all got a bit much lately, what with the total policing and the hysterical run-up to the Olympics. I need a break, and I'm fucked if I'm going to the country. London and I need some time apart. I've saved up some money and I'm leaving today tooff to see other cities for a while, starting with New York, which is a great floozie of a town with a far inferior subway system. But I'll be back, because it'll take more than godawful tea and all-night cupcake shops to make me forget where I come from. I come from the best city in the world ever. I come from London.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

New website, new city, new post...

Well, I arrived in New York, where I'm staying for a month, just in time to see the Occupy Wall Street camp torn down by the NYPD. You can read what I wrote about it for the Guardian, here (comment) and for the Independent, here (news report). Both were filed from my phone whilst standing in the sterile zone, watching police tear the occupation apart. There was nothing we could do.

In other news, I have a shiny new professional website. If you want to contact me, all the details are on there. La lutta continua.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Dear Occupy Wall Street,

Mic check? Mic check! Ok...

Right now, I know that things are tense. I know that you're waiting for the word on whether or not you will be evicted from Liberty Plaza tomorrow, from the beautiful occupation you've built right in the the belly of the beast of global corporate power. I know that you are worried that there will be police violence, or another mass arrest. I know this because right now, I'm reading news reports about what you're doing from across the globe, and talking to people sitting in the square, even though I'm thousands of miles away. You see? The whole world is watching. You did that. Whatever happens tomorrow, the whole world will be watching the New York authorities try to clean the people of America off the sidewalks of Wall Street.

You knew this was coming. After realising that pepper spraying a few peaceful protesters wouldn't make you go away, they've been trying to evict you for weeks, and the pretext that Bloomberg and the NYPD have finally found is that Occupy Wall Street is 'unsanitary' - full of rubbish, attracting rodents. Anyone who has been to the Plaza and seen the water filtration system you've built and watched volunteers from across the city sweeping the sidewalks and handing round the antiseptic gel knows what nonsense that is.

We know what they really mean when they say 'Liberty Plaza is full of rubbish.' The trash they want to sweep out of their nice clean financial districts are the ordinary people of your country - the 99%. They are tired of seeing you on their way to work in the mornings, cluttering up the pavements with your uncomfortable little placards about grinding unemployment, a broken healthcare system and a feral business sector holding the party system to ransom. They are tired of seeing old women asking for medical attention, little children asking for education, young adults asking for work. They want those people tidied away. The question is: are you going to let them tidy you away?

You knew, deep down, that this was coming. If the occupation of Wall Street was ever going to succeed as it was meant to, there were always going to be crackdowns. And of course it's scary. It's always scary when you take a stand in the face of power, because power tends to fight back when it is threatened, and you have certainly become a threat. You are a threat because you are clever, and angry, and peaceful, and you refuse to stop asking difficult questions, and you refuse to go away. Hundreds of you have already been arrested. There is every chance that more of you will be arrested tomorrow, simply for daring to dream of a different future, simply for demanding the individual and collective human dignities that most Americans consider theirs by right. When the NYPD refused to let you march through Wall Street a week ago, you chanted, hundreds of you with one voice: "who are you protecting?" It is a question you must keep asking until you receive an answer you can bear to accept.

Your efforts at cleaning today prove that they aren't coming to scrub away actual dirt, but to sterilise the energy that this protest has inspired across America and around the world. Whether or not you let them is up to you. Whether or not you stand firm and resist, whether or not you come back to Liberty Plaza and to Wall Street, whether or not you take the fight through the winter and built a movement too big to kettle, is entirely up to you. It's up to you to stand firm or falter, and there are certainly good reasons for doing both. Being arrested in the United States is no joke.

But know this: what you decide to do tomorrow will touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

You could go home right now, and tell your kids in twenty years' time how wonderful it was when you were young and idealistic and you slept under tarpaulins in Liberty Plaza. Or you could take a risk, and see what happens next. Choose wisely, please, for all of us. With love, and greatest respect, but most importantly,

With solidarity,

Saturday, 8 October 2011

"This is Patriotic": marching on Wall Street

My third report from Occupy Wall Street, from yesterday's Independent.


They said it could never happen in America. At the foot of Wall Street, in the belly of the beast of aggressive market finance, two thousand mostly young protesters demonstrating against corporate greed are attempting to push through a police barrier and occupy the iconic street. The NYPD are beating them back with mace and batons, one white-shirted officer lashing into the crowd indiscriminately with his nightstick.

The air tastes of pepper spray, and there are screams from the crowd. “Who the fuck are you protecting?” they chant. The Obama generation is beginning to receive an ugly answer to that most basic of political inquiries.

These protesters are part of a breakout march from the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan’s Liberty Plaza, which has now been in place for almost three weeks. Copycat demonstrations against economic injustice are springing up in cities across the United States, and many thousands are involved. Two hours ago, under the glowing windows of Wall Street's palaces of finance, I’m standing in the middle of a crowd of twenty thousand students, labour members, activists and angry citizens chanting as one, over the sound of drums: 'the people, united, will never be defeated!' 'Thank god for unions, man,' says Lauri Faggoni, a filmmaker, standing next to me in the crush.
Labour unions, enthused by the energy of the protest, have been swift to come out in support of the occupiers, and have joined them for amarch and rally in Foley Square, taking up their mantra: “We are the 99 per cent” –the majority of the American people who have been cheated out of their share in the nation’s wealth by the remaining “1 per cent”.

As night falls, drums beat on the steps of Liberty Plaza, where it’s standing room only. 'We are here to thank you!" a worker involved in the strike against Verizon tells the excited crowd. 'We have to take back this city, we have to take back this state, and most important of all, we have to take back our democracy.”

The process of taking back democracy, however, is rarely painless. As the cry goes up to “march on Wall Street” and a group breaks away to do just that, the cops begin to move in. To date, twenty-three arrests of peaceful protesters have been recorded in New York. On Broadway, at the intersection of Wall Street, demonstrators are dragged out of the crowd or off the pavements, roughly cuffed and taken away by the police.

One of them is a young white woman on her own, who I see being hustled along the road by a number of police officers. “I was just standing on the sidewalk. Apparently that’s illegal now, just standing on the sidewalk,” she says, as the cops twist her hands behind her back and shove her into a car. I ask what her name is. “Troy Davis,” she says, naming the man who was controversially executed by the state of Georgia last week. “Troy Davis. Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Martin Luther King.”

Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain has denounced the protests as “un-American,” but in the crowd, a cardboard sign reads “this is patriotic”. As I watch the crowd of mostly young people pushed back from Wall Street by lines of police, an extraordinary thing happens. A young man begins to shout the text of the First Amendment of the constitution. ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” he begins. Instantly, using the ‘human mic’ technique that the occupiers have developed to carry their voices, a thousand others chant it back to him, condemning the NYPD for “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As protesters take to the streets in cities across the United States, they are right to understand themselves part of a global movement – but there is something curiously American about it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bringing down the wall: Occupy Wall Street and the Brooklyn Bridge arrests.

I'm in New York, reporting on the Occupy Wall Street protests. This was my first report for the New Statesman; you can also find my coverage at The Independent.


The big bronze bull is surrounded by metal fences and strategically placed members of NYPD's finest. The famous statue, the symbol of aggressive market optimism, is normally open for tourists to grope and fondle, but today, in part because of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest, it has been penned. Today, the Wall Street Bull looks amusingly like a panicked animal in a cage.

It might have been spooked by the couple of thousand activists, hippies, union members, laid-off workers and schoolkids camped out around the corner in Liberty Plaza. When I arrive at Occupy Wall Street, they've already been there for a fortnight, and have turned the square, which is normally scattered with City workers snatching lunch and chattering on their smartphones, into a little peace village, complete with a well-stocked library, free kitchen, professional childcare centre, sleeping areas, meeting spaces, and crowds of young people dancing and playing music.

The protest, which began on 17 September after a call-out by activist magazine Adbusters and the hacker collective Anonymous, has swelled from its original few hundred members after a weekend of police crackdowns. Images of New York police pepper-spraying young women in the face and arresting peaceful protesters spread around the world, which has been shocked not so much by the response of the police in a city where the term 'police brutality' was coined, but by the fact that here, in America, at the symbolic heart of global capitalism, ordinary people have turned off their televisions and come out to shout in the streets. "I never thought I'd live to see this in New York City," says my friend, a native New Yorker, as we watch a drum circle forming underneath the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district, speckled with rain.

Right now, as I write from the occupied Plaza, a mass arrest is taking place on Brooklyn Bridge, where 2,500 activists have marched to express their distaste for corporate greed. 'Banks got bailed out - we got sold out!' chanted the marchers, hesitantly at first, and then more confidently, keeping to the sidewalks, before they were led onto the car portion of the bridge by police - who promptly sealed the exits and began to arrest everybody.

The entrance to the Bridge is now completely sealed by a quadruple line of cops, as reports come in that a journalist from the New York Times has been arrested. Marchers on the other side yell angrily at the police to let their friends go. "Come join us!" they shout. "You are the ninety-nine percent!"

They mean that the police, like the protesters, are part of the "99 per cent' of the population whose livelihoods are threatened by the financial crisis, as opposed to the 1% of wealthy Americans still raking in profit. "We are the 99 percent," says the group on its Tumblr site. "We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent." It's a very polite way of saying 'class war.'

The '99 percent' statistic has become emblematic of the American wing of what is phrasing itself as a global protest movement, taking its inspiration from square occupations in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Great Britain. Another statistic you can see daubed on placards around the Plaza is that the wealthiest 400 Americans have more combined wealth than the poorest 150 million. Later in the day, the United Steelworkers union becomes the latest in a growing list of labour organisations and non-profit groups to throw its support behind Occupy Wall Street, ahead of a united march next Wednesday.

Economic inequality is a consistent undertone, but at times this occupation has the feel of a music festival; drifting through the square are young people who seem to have walked out of a wormhole from Woodstock, including a boy with dreads and tiedye scarves sitting on a skateboard next to a sign asking for 'donations for adopting puppies.'

I ask him what the puppies are for. 'Emotional support,' he tells me. Elsewhere, a young woman with long hair is handing out posies. "You're very beautiful," she says, smiling, "have a bottle of flowers." All of these people appear to be disturbingly sober: nobody wants to give the NYPD an excuse to crack down.

Not that they need an excuse. There can be no swifter political lesson than the first blast of pepper spray to the face received by a middle-class protester, and right now a lot of American activists are learning fast. "No Bulls, No Bears, just Pigs," reads one sign. As the light fades and the rain starts to come down hard, hundreds of protesters, reporters and members of the press are still trapped on the bridge. In the pouring drizzle, they strap their backpacks onto their fronts so the police can't take them, according to Kristen Gwynne, a New York writer. Gwynne tells Alternet that protesters are singing to keep morale up: 'this little light of mine.' Hundreds more are cuffed and on vans headed to jail. "I had a feeling as soon as we walked onto the bridge that this wasn't going to end well," says Michael, a member of the march. "The police allowed people to go on the car ramp on the bridge, and when they realised what was happening, people started jumping onto the pedestrian side, but then it was too late." Young teenagers are among the arrestees, in scenes extremely reminiscent of the Westminster Bridge kettle in London in December 2010. "You can't arrest an idea!" the protesters yell.

But what is the idea? The most consistent criticism laid against the occupiers is their lack of a central organising system or core message. Who are these people, and what do they want? The fact that the mainstream media is even asking this question can be considered a victory for the Occupy Wall Street.

Part of the point of this occupation, like the occupations in Greece, Spain and London, has been to create a different kind of political space, a temporary reality outside the lassitudes of mainstream politics where human beings are equal and respected. People have come from all over the country and all over the world to be here, and not all of them, contrary to most of the reports, are white and college-educated. I meet black high-schoolers from Brooklyn, young men from California, young women from St Louis, Maine and Wisconsin, older laid-off workers from Texas and Virginia, and activists from Spain who have come to see if America can really host the kind of revolutionary space that has been opening up across Europe and the Middle East. It seems that, in its own way, it can: copycat protests are opening up across the country, from Chicago to Denver to Los Angeles and Boston.

As night falls in New York, in a bright, busy space under some colourful tarpaulins, the media team is working flat out to deal with international press enquiries, as reports come in that 700 protesters have been arrested by the New York Police Department (NYPD). There is a tense, frenzied atmosphere, with laptops flung down in between knots of cables as volunteers scarf down donated pizza and field information coming in over the wires. Outside the media tent, thousands of people are taking part in a mass meeting, huddled inside plastic ponchos and under umbrellas. NYPD have forbidden amplification, so anything said at the front is immediately chanted back by three hundred voices so that the rest can hear, giving the meeting the call-and-response a feel of a sermon. Every evening, these large General Assemblies gather to debate the demands and direction of the group, and a loose statement is eventually agreed by consensus and published in the group's newspaper, the "Occupied Wall Street Journal."

So far, it's pick-your-own cause, with grievances ranging from bank bail-outs to animal testing, and yet what most of the mainstream media seems to have missed is the fact that the occupation itself is its own demand. It's a symbolic and practical reappropriation of space at the heart of the world's most financially powerful square mile, an alternative community opening up like a magic window on a fairer future.

Activists wandering back from the bridge are greeted by strangers with open arms, as members of the 'comfort' team dash around taking care of everyone. There is free coffee, free food, a young lady with a lip-ring offering free hugs, and painted signs saying "Freedom". Nobody expected the occupation at Liberty Plaza to last this long or to become this important, but the mass arrests today have ignited public anger and drawn the attention of the press across the world. Whatever happens next, Occupy Wall Street is sending a message to the American people: the 99 percent are still here, in the shadow of the glittering palaces of global finance, and they are beginning to dream dangerously, and they will not go away quietly.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

News from Nowhere 2

Well, I'm back.* I spent two weeks on a tiny, beautiful ship, pitching and tossing in the middle of the high Arctic. I met a polar bear, a whale, some reindeer, several fat seals, an arctic fox, many drunk Russians, a statue of Lenin, and a very dear and well-meaning collection of British academics, activists and journalists all of whom, after three days throwing up at sea, found ourselves rather unsure what we were doing standing on a bare mud island underneath a collapsing glacier, four thousand and three miles from Islington, shovelling nine tons of rocks into plastic sacks. You can read more about the journey on the NowhereIsland website, or in a longer writeup I'm working on.

Did I find Utopia? Well, your mileage may vary. My darling Pierce Penniless wrote me a beautiful letter which he's turned into a blog post here, and I'm trying to gather my thoughts on what I experienced, crammed on a ship trying to teach everyone consensus decision-making whilst we held down our lunches as the Noorderlicht dived through the waves, trying to group-write a theoretical constitution for a speculative nation.

I had, I admit, arrived with pre-conceptions about my shipmates, especially when I turned up at Heathrow on the 10th of September to find that every single one of us was white and middle-class. As we discussed our ideal society on the lower deck over delicious snacks served to us by an accommodating Dutch crew, it really did feel like the last colony ship off a burning planet - like we were the chosen, special ones strapped to a cosy life-shuttle, looking for a new world at the touching point of symbol and substance. This, surely, is how the privileged will experience the end times.

However, you can't spend two weeks on a boat with twenty strangers without realising that nobody is quite the class cliche you'd like them to be. Against my instincts, I found myself becoming more and more committed to our airy Utopia, as we talked and talked and talked about what this NowhereIsland society might look like. Well, it was that or lie in my bunk listening to Kanye West for a fortnight, trying not to vomit bits of ship's pasta out the window onto an iceberg.

For me, this trip was partly about what can and should be salvaged from the liberal project, as it rummages through what's left of its selfhood after decades of neo-liberal capitulation. I discovered, gradually, that just because people are fortunate and insulated doesn't mean that they can't have good, brave and noble instincts that are worth hearing. I discovered that the world is full of bright, decent people doing important, beautiful things, and because of that, it might not be too late to build a better one. I also discovered that Geography professors CAN dance to dubstep. On the latter point, sorry Tim, there's video evidence.

Of all the myriad problems with the Nowhere Island project, the press have inevitably focused on the most anodine and inconsequential: the money. The main criticism, raised by commentators from the Guardian to 'Lucy, 26' on page 3 of The Sun, was that the project is expensive: half a million of dedicated Arts Council funding over several years. This is paying for construction costs, transporting the island material from Svalbard, travel funding, publicity, building a website which involves thousands of people in an accessible philosophy project about citizenship and the failures of nation-states to solve financial and ecological disaster, and employing an entire staff team for two years. Given that there are many other projects receiving the same non-transferrable funding as part of the Cultural Olympiad, one of which is apparently a set of giant crocheted lions, attacking Nowhere Island on the basis of cost to the taxpayer might seem a little snippy - but in the end, it's an argument that, if you choose to engage with it, can't be won. Of course a speculative Utopia involving lots of schools projects is better than a crocheted lion, but so is re-employing twenty nurses, or stopping a library from being closed down.

Is this it, though? Is this what human progress has come to? Fighting over the scraps of money left as the markets crumble? If we're going to argue the balance, the money being spent on replenishing nuclear weapons stocks and subsidising the Royal Bank of Scotland is wasted far more massively and comprehensively than the money being spent on the Cultural Olympiad. This, however, is about something more important. I believe in art, and folly, and dreams. I believe that if we can't collectively subsidise artists to imagine new worlds for us, we have no business speaking of social progress. The question is not whether we can afford to imagine a culture beyond the control of capital and the nation state, but whether we can afford not to.

For me, I found something up there, in the cold and clean and quiet, something I'm struggling to unpack, along with two weeks of dirty washing, bits of rock and memories. It was something between an epiphany and a sense of perspective, something between a manifesto and a dream, and it's hard to put into words, and for the rest of my life I'll feel lucky for having been invited to see NowhereIsland. We went looking for Utopia. What we found was each other. What else do dreamers do?

*Yes, it IS a LOTR Reference. Well done you. Well done US. *geekbiscuits*.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

News from Nowhere

I've left London, and I am sailing to a new island that has appeared out of the ice in the Arctic circle. No, this is not a prank. I've been invited along with an eclectic collection of academics, artists, lawyers, activists, sixth-formers and scientists to sail to this small pitch of land, which has been named NowhereIsland, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Right now, I'm in Oslo, and tomorrow we travel to Svalbard, where we will board a ship, the Noorderlicht, which will take us to the island, where those of us who went to fee-paying schools will be devoured by bears.

Along the way, we're supposed to debate and discuss how to build a conceptual new nation, a model society in the wreck of late capitalism. There is a chance, given how many Guardian readers we seem to have on this trip, that we may just all turn pirate and start raiding the coastal towns of Norway and Finland and looting all the humous and complicated jam. Presuming we make it, however, we will have weeks stuck on a boat to debate utopianism, anarchism, feminism and environmental activism and try to avoid one another's eyes in the communal showers.

Anyone can become a citizen of Nowhere Island, just by signing up here. In fact, NowhereIsland already has more citizens than Vatican City* and we may soon outnumber Monaco, although you can't reroute your tax through Nowhere Island, because in this new nation the common wealth of humanity will be held above the pursuit of profit. Also, there isn't a bank.

I signed up for this journey because I was thoroughly enamoured with the possibility of going to the Polar circle, and by the human experiment of being crammed on a tiny ship with twenty strangers and no internet access for two weeks, a sort of Big Brother as imagined by Ian McEwan. As I've become more involved in the project, however, I've come to realise what a mad, brilliant idea it really is, and so, I need your help. I'd like you to write, in the comments here or in an email to me, and share your idea of Utopia - Nowhere, in Greek - of an ideal society, whatever that means to you. I don't care if your vision of Utopia is a zero-carbon society, a neo-libertarian dystopia, a world without gender, or a fantasy theocracy where everyone worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and matters of state are decided by competitive playoffs of Dance Dance Revolution . It can be as detailed as you like, or just a few lines. I'll be keeping a travel diary of this mad, weird fortnight and will post as and when I have web access, which will depend entirely on the satellite service. And the bears.

*and not ALL of them are Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. :S

Monday, 5 September 2011

One sunny September day: the EDL march in London

A drunk woman in a bright yellow tabard that marks her a right-wing organiser is crying on the pavement, as a yelling man is cuffed by the police inside a closed betting shop on Minories Street. Her face is red, and she is shouting incoherently at the officers.

It's unclear why her friend broke into the bookies, but on a hot Saturday afternoon, any semblance of order or purpose is disintegrating under the September sun. Behind her, a thousand tanked-up fellow members of far-right protest group the English Defence League are shoving and screaming as they try to break through the lines of police driving them away from Aldgate, where a thousand anti-fascists and local Muslim youths are waiting for them.

As marches go -- and despite the controversial police ban, this looks very much like a diverted march -- this one sends mixed messages as the crowd wrestles its way down the side-streets. Some of the EDL members are half-naked skinheads, some are wearing football shirts, and one sports a Yarmulke; even as other members at the front of the march gave Hitler salutes, according to a journalist who was embedded with the crowd.

At least one marcher is black, and there are many women, wrapped in England flags and looking curiously at the few journalists who have dared to stay with the march after a press photographer was attacked with burning lighter fluid.

By this point, the English Defence League have been on the streets of London for several hours, are tired, hot and frustrated and have been drinking since breakfast.

Almost exactly 75 years since the British Blackshirts were prevented from marching through the East End at the battle of Cable Street, Oswald Moseley would not have approved of the bedraggled, sweaty rabble that bunches and yells as the police divert them towards the river: some of them aren't wearing any shirts at all.

They had congregated at Liverpool Street after the RMT union obstructed their arrival by closing underground stations, and were met by thousands of police and prevented from clashing with anti-fascists by mounted officers and several lines of riot police. To prevent the EDL from marching, the Home Secretary had declared a 30-day ban on all marches in the London area, neatly curtailing several other less proto-fascist demonstrations in the process, and setting a worrying precedent for the prevention of future protests.

Given that London is a tinder-box of social tension, with nights of violence and looting and clashes between rival gangs and the police fresh in everyone's memory, the immediate concern, as is so often the case in this new state of exception, was to prevent more riots. On both sides of the police lines this Saturday, I see angry, disenfranchised social groups spoiling for a fight with people they see, with varying degrees of accuracy, as alien intruders threatening their way of life.

Two or three young Asian lads appear in the alley my friend and I have just ducked into. They are far enough away to be safe while they goggle at the EDL. As soon as the march catches sight of them, they start to jeer and holler, stabbing their fingers in unison like pikes.

The EDL claim to be opposed only to the "threat" posed to society by the Islamic faith, but there is nothing at all to identify these teenagers as Muslim, nothing at all that differentiates them from some of the teenagers in the crowd, apart from the fact that they have brown skin.

"Scum, scum, scum, scum!" yell the EDL, as the boys hang back, afraid. The street is narrow, the air still, and you can feel the force of the chant on your face [read the rest at New Statesman online].

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Book of the blog, and why I'm not going on Big Brother.

I don't normally like to do this sort of thing, but the good people at Pluto Press have reminded me that unless I get off my tiny backside and actually tell people about this book of columns we've got coming out, nobody will buy it, and then they won't get any money. Which would be sad, because they're wonderful people, and they made me two separate cups of tea when I went to see them at the office.

So, here it is: The Book of This Blog. Titled, after some wrangling and a great deal of imaginative endeavor, Penny Red. It has a stonking cover design by This is Star, a New York artist and model whose inkwork makes me moist and excited. Warren Ellis has written a lovely foreword, which makes my inner fangirl vibrate with glee. Some of the actual words inside don't make me cringe too much on re-reading, either, although they undoubtedly will in five years' time. You can pre-order it here, and if you do, as the good people at Pluto Press remind me, not only do you get it much cheaper, you get free stuff, like extra books.

From the website, it appears that I'm going to be signing some copies as well. That sort of thing makes me nervous; it's been very flattering when people have asked me to sign Meat Market in recent weeks, but it all feels rather ridiculous. I may swan around like some kind of proper writer, but my signature still looks like an eleven year old girl's - it has TWO stars in it, and it used to be a heart and a star until two years ago when I got laughed at by a bank clerk. Similarly, I may act all casual about being asked to go on the telly and give my opinion on things, but I can't watch the clips back afterwards without doing that thing where you half-close your eyes and bite down hard on the side of your fist. Despite what a miniature army of trolls seems to think, all I ever wanted was to write useful words for a living.

It is this that lay behind my decision not to go on Big Brother.

Yes, I was asked to audition for Celebrity Big Brother. It was a few months ago, now. It took me a whole twelve hours to decide no, partly because - coming clean for a moment - I've always loved that mad bloody show, and I've wondered for at least ten years what it would be like to be on it. Hell, of course, but then I'm the sort of person who'd wander around hell with recording equipment asking people how they felt about the whole thing. There's even a chance that weeks of constant public surveillance might not leave me curled weeping in the middle of a day-glo floor, muttering about the Society of the Spectacle and trying to peel myself like a satsuma.

After turning over in my mind every possible way in which going on Big Brother might not be the worst idea in the entire world, I finally hit on the insurmountable counter-argument: the one where this isn't all a fucking joke, and I'm not a fucking cartoon character, and I actually have some serious things to say. I don't like playing the media game. I don't like doing the self-publicising that every freelancer has, to some extent, to engage in. I actually believe in something bigger than myself, and I like to think that the people who read this blog do, too.

There is a banality at play in the British press - and I mean the entire glorious sweep of it, from the Observer Review to Big Brother - that makes me more uncomfortable the more of it I discover. It's a banality that's inimical to the sort of reasoned, sensible debate we desperately need in these nervous times. It's not about celebrity culture, and it's not about 24-hour news cycles, though it has something to do with both, and it infects everything. It's about speed of turnover, a dull hunger for comment, the privileging of celebrity above content when it comes to argument, a culture that would rather watch people unravel than listen to their ideas, a culture that would rather bitch and carp spitefully amongst itself than actually try to change the world. Millions of words have been expended on the riots that swept our cities two weeks ago, and almost none of that analysis has been measured or persuasive enough to prevent the enormous, frightening right-wing backlash that's been permitted to happen on this angsty little island. The best overviews so far have come from outside Britain, like yesterday's explosive New York Times editorial.

There's a fight going on for the soul of decency in this country, and it's a fight that's obscured by gossip and bogged down by banality, and when you're just a person sitting in her bedroom, letting cups of tea go cold whilst you try to write useful things, that banality can feel insurmountable. Fortunately, I have some complete bastards for friends who do things like yell "LOOK, it's TV's own Laurie Penny!" when I come back from the loo. One of the most dangerous things a person can ever do is take themselves seriously. As long as I have those reprobates around, it's not a danger over which I'm losing much sleep.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Panic on the streets of London.

I’m huddled in the front room with some shell-shocked friends, watching my city burn. The BBC is interchanging footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of roiling infernos that were once shops and houses in Croydon and in Peckham. Last night, Enfield, Walthamstow, Brixton and Wood Green were looted; there have been hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries, and it will be a miracle if nobody dies tonight. This is the third consecutive night of rioting in London, and the disorder has now spread to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Politicians and police officers who only hours ago were making stony-faced statements about criminality are now simply begging the young people of Britain’s inner cities to go home. Britain is a tinderbox, and on Friday, somebody lit a match. How the hell did this happen? And what are we going to do now?

In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every single commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence, as if it were in any doubt that arson, muggings and lootings are ugly occurrences. That much should be obvious to anyone who is watching Croydon burn down on the BBC right now. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder 'mindless, mindless'. Nick Clegg denounced it as 'needless, opportunistic theft and violence'. Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, Prime Minister David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge - declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was "utterly unacceptable." The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ‘pure criminality,’ as the work of a ‘violent minority’, as ‘opportunism.’ This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart.

Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

Noone expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

I’m stuck in the house, now, with rioting going on just down the road in Chalk Farm. Ealing and Clapham and Dalston are being trashed. Journalists are being mugged and beaten in the streets, and the riot cops are in retreat where they have appeared at all. Police stations are being set alight all over the country. This morning, as the smoke begins to clear, those of us who can sleep will wake up to a country in chaos. We will wake up to fear, and to racism, and to condemnation on left and right, none of which will stop this happening again, as the prospect of a second stock market clash teeters terrifyingly at the bottom of the news reports. Now is the time when we make our choices. Now is the time when we decide whether to descend into hate, or to put prejudice aside and work together. Now is the time when we decide what sort of country it is that we want to live in. Follow the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter. And take care of one another.