There have been a growing number of anti-gentrification protests in and around London lately. They’ve also been getting louder, angrier, and in the case of the recent #fuckparade riots, more violent.
Hundreds of protesters targeted the Cereal Killer Cafe in the trendy east London neighbourhood of Shoreditch. The cafe had previously attracted media attention (good and bad) for selling bowls of cereal for £3 or more. Aiming to incite a “class war”, the protesters threw paint at the cafe, scrawled “scum” on its windows and intimidated those inside.
Twitter sprang into action, with people denouncing the protesters as “morons”, “middle-class” and “faux rebel idiots”. Others, perhaps more sympathetic to the cause, have maintained that picking on small-business owners when there are chain stores nearby was ill-judged.
Some commentators continued to lament the protesters’ lack of action against bankers, property developers and the Mayor of London, for their role in the process of gentrification. The problem is, of course, that all of these responses fail to grasp the full complexity of the issue.
Whether we decide on a definition or not, the gentrification of London is happening because of a complex, layered suite of intersecting measures. People are being evicted from their homes because powerful real estate companies see land in terms of profit margins. The vital support networks that these evictees rely on for help are having to cut their services, at a time when demand is increasing.
Meanwhile, politicians are working around planning laws, rental costs have spiralled beyond the reach of the majority of Londoners and homelessness is at record levels. Worst of all, lives are being lost as disability, housing and welfare benefits are reduced in the name of austerity.
Rightly or wrongly, Shoreditch has become the poster-child of this process – “Shoreditchification” is the latest crass term to be bandied around. The area has a vibrant cultural, social and multi-racial history and has always been seen as an “edgy” place. With towering street art murals, grungy bars and clubs, and the boom of nearby Tech City, the area has become synonymous with bohemia.
Of course, these factors don’t automatically lead to a rampant influx of financial capital. But throw the global popularity of the “creative city” policy into the mix, and suddenly the area becomes the pinnacle of dynamic and flexible (but also precarious and culturally superficial) urbanism.
So Shoreditch has long been the media’s go-to place when discussing, parodying, satirising or critiquing contemporary urban processes. And earlier criticism for serving dishes that local residents wouldn’t be able to afford had a role in casting the Cereal Killer Cafe as the consumerised embodiment of London’s gentrification process.
It represents the perfect gentrifying storm – a potent cocktail of hipster culture, vacuous elite consumption, shameless self-promotion and neoliberal entrepreneurialism. Lashing out at the owners and customers of this establishment scratches an itch caused by the myriad other forces that fuel gentrification. But as many other commentators have noted, it doesn’t really cut to the heart of the problem.
I predict a riot
In our society, we’re told that consumption is the only way we can measure our self-worth. As a result, specific sites of material consumption become the beacons of how our society constructs itself. We are relentlessly told to consume conspicuously, so when we’re angry, we lash out at those who promote these practices.
Indeed, the post-mortem of the 2011 London riots (the intellectual ones, not the reactionary spin from “official” government mouthpieces) argued that the rioters were aping the “profit-at-all-costs” attitude of the bankers and entrepreneurs who triggered the financial crisis in the first place.
Fast-forward four years: the tangible outcome of the financial crisis has been a swelling of bankers’ coffers (via bailouts and privatisation deals) and the continued shrinking of security for those who already lived precarious lives.
When we consider these factors, it’s hardly surprising that the “class war” rhetoric is gaining more support. The Fuck Parade was part of the Class War organisation, and while the accusation that many of the protesters were in fact “middle class” may hold some truth, in some ways this observation seems irrelevant. Given crippling student debt, rental costs that even those on “average salaries” can’t afford and the hyper-gentrification of previously affordable urban areas, even middle-class people have a right to be angry at an urban capitalism that is pricing them (and their children) out of the city.
Faced with the acceleration of the gentrification process and despite the explosion of anti-gentrification campaigns, the protesters’ feeling of helplessness is understandable, and the desire to respond angrily inevitable. But there’s more than one way of countering the political and economic powers responsible. You can strike out tactically, or even violently, in an effort to cause maximum damage and gain maximum exposure. But there are also those who work tirelessly within the “official” systems they are looking to oppose, and negotiate compromises and truces.
For a campaign to be successful, a workable medium between the two needs to be found. But this will not be an easy task, and it will be fraught with violent instances like the Fuck Parade.