Gonzo Meets the Press #19 August 11, 2011
The riots in London this week reminded Tom Krause of unrest in America’s
black communities in the sixties. The difference this time is that the
protesters are targeting the rich and pocketing luxury goods in an opportunistic
spree of looting.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it
The famous African-American writer, Langston Hughes wrote that
poem, Harlem, in 1951 about the seething anger in the famous black
community in one of the richest cities in the world.
The capital of Black America, Harlem, erupted into race riots in 1964 after an off-duty policeman
shot dead an African-American teenager. Shops were looted, cars and buildings
were set on fire and six thousand police were called in to quell the unrest.
On April 4, 1968, the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jnr, was
assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee by a white man, James Earl Ray, and black
communities around the country broke out in spontaneous violence … 110 cities
burned, and 39 people died, most of them black Americans. The worst hit was
Washington DC, where 711 fires were lit and 10 people killed, including a white
man dragged from his car and stabbed to death.
In Harlem, where I was teaching at the time, the streets were strewn with rubble and shops and
buildings damaged. A knife fight was going on between two men in the school
foyer as a security guard watched.
It could have been worse. The then Mayor John Lindsay went to 125th Street, the cultural centre of Harlem that night, and
walked the streets urging people not to burn down their neighbourhoods.
Television coverage sparked some of the riots across America, but the white
Mayor took to the streets of Harlem and other black communities in New York, and
calmed things down. As Lindsay’s deputy press secretary, Robert Laird, told New
York magazine in 1993: “No other mayor could have gone to the neighbourhoods and
said: ‘Cool it,’ Lindsay could because he’d been there before and that made all
This is not happening in Britain today, where despite the
broom brigades, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, was heckled by residents of
Clapham for taking so long to get there from his holiday. And the unrest has
been fuelled by the social media and live television coverage of the riots,
which started in Tottenham on Saturday night and have continued for the past
five nights. Here’s a video of London burning: http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/08/09/video-london-riots-fires/
The cause of the original protest was the police shooting of Mark Duggan, who was
travelling in a taxi in Tottenham in north London. In a pre-planned operation,
police stopped the taxi, shots were fired and Duggan died at the scene. Although
police claimed Duggan shot first, Britain’s police watchdog said there was no
evidence that he had fired a gun at officers.
I was watching the vision of the riots and a bus and shop and police cars being torched by the protesters,
coming in live to Channel Ten studios on Sunday morning, and it reminded me of
the riots in US ghettos in the sixties. But their “dream deferred” was civil
rights, long promised but still a dream beyond their grasp, despite the Civil
Rights Act of 1964.
In 2011, the have-nots of Britain are the disenfranchised teenagers who see the exclusive shops, well stocked with plasma
TVs and Louis Vuitton luxury leather goods – and want to burn them and see them
explode. The haves are the David Camerons of this world, who can
holiday in Tuscany, and the shop owners, who are perceived as rich. As one of
the have-nots, a teenaged girl in the London suburb of Croydon, told the BBC
this week on AM, it’s the rich the looters are targeting: “It’s the
rich people, the people that have got businesses and that’s why all of this has
happened, because of the rich people. So we’re just showing the rich people we
can do what we want.” http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2011/s3289676.htm
Of course, it’s also criminal behaviour and a mindless mob mentality, but for young
people who see no future, it’s understandable when they tell the media: “And
they wonder why you’ve gone mad. We’re going mad for the simple fact that you …
you’re not respecting us. When you respect us, we’ll respect you back.” And
another said: “This is the way that the youths of nowadays express themselves,
yeah? And you can see that there’s a real problem with the youths right
I remember when a colleague in Harlem asked one of his students if he
wanted to go to college, and the teenager replied: “Mr Jones, ain’t no way I’m
going to get to college. You know that.” And my fellow teacher told me: “You
know he’s right. I didn’t tell him that, but he doesn’t have much hope of going
to college, no matter how much help we give him.”
But at my school, IS 88, there was also a teacher named Ed Plummer, a friend of the writer James Baldwin,
who started a program to put his students into exclusive prep schools in the
area. While chaos reigned around and in the school, Ed had his male students
dressed in blazers and ties and his female students in skirts lined up quietly
outside his classroom until the bell rang. And he was not afraid to criticise
his fellow teachers – many of them white escaping being sent to Vietnam by
teaching in a disadvantaged area: “They need to lead by example and show the
same sort of discipline they want to see in their pupils.” Parents and teachers
in Britain could learn a lesson there. But it is difficult for African Americans
and Britons to break the cycle of generations of poverty … and raise the low
expectations placed upon them by teachers and their own families. Ed Plummer
expected the best of his students, and in most cases, he got it. Many of his
students went on to prep school and college.
When you see 8 and 9-year-old children rioting in London, you have to ask where their parents are. In Harlem,
the welfare system often meant that fathers who couldn’t get jobs no matter how
hard they tried, couldn’t stay with their families, otherwise the mother
couldn’t get any money. So many young African-Americans missed out on a male
role model and that’s why mothers ruled in black communities. When I told a
misbehaving student I was going to call his mother, he’d plead: “You’re not
going to do that, are you, Mr Krause. Please don’t.” And when you did call, or
visit the home, he would suddenly become a model pupil.
It’s summer in Britain, and kids are out on the street and caught up in mob behaviour. As those
two teen-aged girls in Croydon said, everyone was going mad, “breaking into
stuff, breaking into shops.” The other said: “It was good though.” The first
replied: “It was madness (and laughed).” And her partner in crime added: “Yeah,
it was good though.” The first asked: “It was good fun?” And her friend
admitted: “Yeah, of course it is.”
The police will take a law and order approach to the riots and stop them for a while. But months or years down the
track another Mark Duggan incident will occur and it will be on again for young
My solution: get the haves – the corporations, the exclusive shops,
the department stores, the Metropolitan Police, etc – to hire some of the young
have-nots. Respect them, and watch them respect you back. It’s worth a try –
everywhere, not just in Britain.
Finally, on a much lighter note, a milestone in my war against clichés. A rugby league player for Manly, Glenn
Stewart, was talking about his team’s victory over the Sydney Roosters at the
weekend and said: “There’s still another month to go before we start getting to
the [finals]. But I’m sure Dessy (Coach Des Hasler) will keep our feet firmly on
the ground and it’s very cliché but it’ll be week to week until we get there.”
Yes, you read that correctly, a rugby league star admitting what he was about to
say was a cliché. Perhaps there is hope for the English language after
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always have been.