One image comes rushing back to me from 2011: a moment of profound contradiction, a wrenching disjuncture between two realities. It was the day of the Royal Wedding and as the sound of celebrities, ageing royals and contented politicians singing 'Jerusalem' in Westminster Abbey floated out of open windows, my neighbours and I stood outside and watched heavily armoured police clamber over the skyline towards the roof of a local squat. A helicopter hovered overhead, and on the walls and doorways of the lane where we stood were the graffiti tags of the riots the night before, along with the scrawled appeals to ‘fuck the police’. On my phone, the Twitter feed scrolled relentlessly down with news of arrests and raids of squats all over the UK that day; with appeals for legal and financial support for people caught up in the riots; with contradictory accounts from police, locals, anarchists and benign Bristol hippies of the causes of the troubles the day before.
As we stood there in the newfound collegiality forged post-riot, the contradiction between the urban narrative of the police on the roof of the squat and the fairytale of the princess in the Abbey felt like a searing challenge: if the world is splintering, which side will you join? If the world is splintering between two such different accounts of reality, which story are you going to choose to believe? Do you believe the story that says 'everything is fine, business as usual is great, look at the shiny pretty dress and the shiny pretty princess, look at the queen beaming as a proud grandmother, look at the Lancaster Bombers and think of Britain…'? Or do you believe the story that says 'everything is very far from fine, look at the police protecting supermarkets, enforcing the clearance of public streets, evicting people from homes when homelessness is rising, look at the riots that are the most visible example of the failure of public space, of politics, of accountability and democracy in our country'?
And the fear I’d felt the night before - as the battles raged up and down my street, as young men ripped up brick walls and lit fires, as ranks of policemen rode horses through and over those same young people - made me believe the truth of the second story even as the numbing allure of the first became more attractive.
Initially, I responded to those first Bristol riots by switching off, turning inwards, enclosing myself within the protective shell of the home I’d just moved into. And from there, I watched through my fingers as the competing accounts of the causes of the riots played out on Twitter, local media and conversations in the local pub. I remembered the insanely over-heavy presence of the police, the closing down of a screening of the quickly cobbled together local film of the events, the fifteen police vans parked up along the road. I also remembered the guy from out of town walking through our streets and spray-painting ‘RIOT– THIS WAY’ in neon pink on walls and bus stops, even as those of us who lived there hoped for peace. And through my fingers I watched as the riots spawned a flurry of ‘riot tourism’, as the city’s hipsters visited the cafes of Stokes Croft for a frisson of proximity to what passes for revolution in 2011, while the café owners themselves wearily cleared away the glass and the debris and got back to work. And watching through my fingers, it was clear that there was no simple way of figuring out the multiple, messy, contradictory and uncomfortable stories of what had happened that night.
And then, later in the summer, just as London caught drum’n’bass from Bristol, so it picked up rioting. And I watched the Twitter stream flow out again, with anger and fear. And from a distance, I saw the fear of my friends. I saw people I knew calling the rioters ‘feral scum’. I saw people I respected react with anger and anxiety as the cities burned. And from a distance, and having been inoculated to it earlier in the year, I saw what fear starts to do. I saw a wedge being driven between the seeming righteous and the seeming disruptive, between the angry mob and the soothing redeeming community that came out to fix it the next day. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be fearful of an angry mob or of a phalanx of police – too right we should, people get killed in those situations. But I was interested to witness what real, physical, visceral fear can do to erode human relationships, and to the ideas of commonality and solidarity, to the possibility of mutual support.
It was around this time that I watched an interview with a protester in Tahrir Square in Cairo. ‘What changed this year to make you all come out, and stay out here?’ asked a journalist. And the answer, from the young woman in the middle of a city in revolution, was simple: ‘We broke the fear barrier,’ she said. ‘We worked out that we didn’t need to be afraid of each other, we found out what we could learn from each other and what we had in common, and that we didn’t need to fear each other.’ They overcame fear and built a revolution. We had a riot (for whatever reasons) and fuelled fear.
And so I became even more interested in fear.
At around this time, a friend challenged me to write a paper on John Macmurray, the 20th century philosopher. I struggled with this; I didn’t want to write the paper – I found Macmurray too convinced of universal values, too unaware of today’s now familiar language of uncertainty, provisionality, relativity. But then I started reading what he had to say about about ‘learning to be human’ and the deep relationship that this process has with love and fear. His argument is that we become human only in relation to others, that we can only know agency in ourselves and become persons when we confront and acknowledge agency in others. He argues that we can only become people (rather than slaves) if we encounter other people as authors of their own ideas and intentions, rather than as objects. And yet it is from this source of our own agency, he suggests, that fear emerges. For, just as we know we are inescapably dependent upon other people – anyone mapping city dependencies, food supplies, civic systems today can attest to this – so we know we can only truly be ourselves if we recognise the inalienable ‘personhood’ of others, and their potential to resist us. So we need to know we can trust others, and at the same time, we need to know that they will resist us. And this dual recognition of our dependence on others and their reciprocal independence from us, fuels fear.
It seems to me that the riots, if nothing else, turned the mass of ‘others’ that make up the cities around us into people – the riots forced the city to confront the reality of these people as agents, as persons, able to resist, to challenge and to contradict others’ (our own?) desires and intentions.
And from this, as a first reaction, comes fear.
But then, over time, I slowly (later than many others, like some of the brilliant youth activism groups in London) realised that from these events came a real opportunity to rebuild and create a new public space from the newly forced recognition of each other not as objects, but as agents. If we have been forced, kicking and screaming, to confront each other as agents, then we can begin also to see each other as people with whom we can build relationships; as people who are no longer just the faceless, nameless mass of ‘other people’ who constitute the city. From here, we can start to work out what it means to live in a city of people. And if we can do this, the chances are, we can figure out how to be people ourselves at the same time.
And here, in this possibility, may lie the seeds of a response to the challenge I felt on the day of the royal wedding: the challenge of reconciling the splintered narratives that overlay, but do not intertwine, the different realities of life in the UK today. Is it possible to rewrite those contradictions, not as a moment of decision between different narratives, but as a challenge to recognize the multiple, competing intentions that make up the basis of agency? Is this an opportunity, in Ranciere’s terms, to remain ‘faithful to the disagreement’, or to build what Chantal Mouffe calls ‘agonistic democracy’? Is it an opportunity to create new ways to speak to each other as people again, a new basis for rebuilding public space?
As I wandered through these questions, my slightly detached academic meanderings hit reality with a crash: namely, the realisation that I had become an object rather than a person in cities myself. For the last three years, I’ve been living in one city and working in another. I’ve been without routine, without roots, without the sort of repeated, banal ongoing connections you get living in one place. And this meant that I had simply detached myself from both the city where my ‘home’ was and the city where I worked. I was one of those hyper-mobile 21st century nomads. The train was my office; two cities were simply suburbs of each other. I mistook streets in one for streets in another. Place had ceased to matter to me and, in reality, I had stopped to matter to place. For anyone in either of those cities, I couldn’t be essential, I couldn’t be a person, I couldn’t be anything other than a temporary part of their story. And reciprocally, nor could any of these people be a person to me.
In 2011, the riots in Bristol and London, the Arab uprisings, the unexpected encounter with Macmurray, a dead Scottish philosopher – all of these made me think that fear was what was most to be confronted, challenged and resisted in my life, and perhaps in that of others. And yet my own life was a life that was producing precisely those human relations – detached yet dependent – that were most conducive to fear.
So something had to change.
So I looked for another job. And I got bloody lucky.
As of March 2012, I’ll once again be working and living in the same city. And from that point on I’ll be trying to become a person to other people, and trying to figure out, from the ground up and with other people, how to stitch back together - at least in my own mind - the split stories of the city that I felt so strongly on the 29th April. I will be trying to figure out how to rebuild the public space, the accountability, the solidarity that we have seen splinter and shatter.
While I’ve been working away from Bristol, I have come to love it. I fully expect, once I am back there full time, to come to love it a little less, as I realise the many ways in which the people with whom I dream of working and learning won’t agree with me, will, quite rightly much of the time, resist my own intentions. But that’s the point. I need to live and work in the same place in order to really encounter a meaningful resistance from real people, rather than experiencing the banal negligence or compliance of ‘others’. I need to be in a place long enough first, to know what I disagree about with other people and then, to begin to talk and work through those differences. In so doing, I fully expect to be more regularly confronted by the reality and discomfort of other people’s personhood; but equally, I hope that this will allow me to confront and realise my own. No more hiding behind the sofa looking through my fingers at complexity. Lots more living with and working through messy reality. That’s the plan for 2012. Let’s see...