The Continual Violence of Newport City Council

Riot police, arson, looting and general dissent were the defining images of the summer of 2011. It started in London and spread like a rash to other major cities in the UK. At the time I was in Hull and, despite expectations, nothing happened. At first I was almost surprised. Hull does not have the greatest reputation as a nice place to live. I found myself in my usual haunts almost defending the rioters with a classical leftist stance along the lines of “they have a great deal to be angry about: I don’t condone their actions but their actions don’t surprise me either.”

The Guardian undertook a large-scale investigation of the events that summer, resulting in Reading the Riots, which outlined poverty, anger at the police over the death of Mark Duggan (essentially the straw that broke a community’s back), and general disenfranchisement as the catalysts. David Cameron, in the immediate aftermath, said that it was “completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.” The blame, in Cameron’s eyes, lay squarely at the feet of the rioters. Addressing those involved he said, “You are not only wrecking the lives of others, you’re not only wrecking your own communities – you are potentially wrecking your own life too.” By their actions being so unjustifiable, the supposed reasons for their actions were not even worth investigating. “Serves them right,” he might as well have said.

This was not an uncommon opinion in the UK at the time. The sheer spectacle of what the rioters did allowed for the reasons they were angry to be brushed aside. Images of gutted building and detritus in the streets are much more shocking when you can also see images of the explosive events that caused them only a few nights previously.

I looked around me as I walked through Hull one day soon after to see that there were some areas that looked very similar to those affected by the riots. When I moved back to Newport in South Wales a few weeks later I saw even more of the same thing. How could David Cameron say that rioters were wrecking communities when, in many respects, their communities were already wrecked?

I presented a half-baked idea at a pub in Newport once I returned to university and a lecturer in the audience mentioned a book by Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, that he thought might be of use to me. In the book, Nixon argues that so much activism and charity is driven by spectacle – the violence of natural disasters, deforestation, oil spills, war – that the more attritional types of violence that occur every day are often ignored.

Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.

We urgently need to rethink – politically, imaginatively, and theoretically – what I call ‘slow violence’: a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.

Nixon’s concern is on a global scale, but I decided to take his idea and focus it onto more local issues.

The street was just a short walk from where I was living in Newport at the time. The more time I spent on the street, the more interactions I had with those living there. Initially I just had to stand and video until eventually someone would approach me and ask what I was doing. Some were threatening, obviously ashamed of the state their street was in and angry that I was stood there gawping at it. Others came and told me how much they hated Newport City Council over their refusal to do anything about it on a technicality. The comment that stuck with me most was one man’s admittance to the fact that having to wake up to such a sight every day had led him to develop clinical depression. Legally, no one was responsible for the fire that wrecked this community, but it is Newport City Council’s fault that it remains in such a state. 

The accompanying text to the video ends as follows:

Newport – and Maindee in particular – has a large working-class population and, as is shown by the case of Marlborough Road, they have been abandoned to their fate; disenfranchised and ignored. Their situation is specific, but by no means unique. There are communities in similar situations throughout the UK.

Areas like this that are left to deteriorate out of control start to reflect the attitudes towards these communities, and through no fault of their own. As a result of “working-class” stereotypes, we expect these areas to be decrepit and so we choose to ignore them. Living in these environments provokes resentment and anger within communities to the point of residents lashing out. 

The Marlborough Road fire and its aftermath have been out of the news since 2009, but problems on the street continue to progress and worsen. 

This is “slow violence” as neglect.

The residents of Newport haven’t lashed out yet, but I remember thinking back in 2011, perhaps cynically, that is was only a matter of time. That time might very well be now. Two days ago Newport City Council’s attritional destruction of a community’s spirit lurched into a new gear when they destroyed a much-loved mural depicting the Chartist uprising in the city in 1839 to make way for a new shopping centre. This was not the first attack on culture in Newport. The closing of the city’s only art gallery and public library led to public outrage also, but not on this scale. This was an act of violence “immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility.”

The video below causes me genuine upset. The anger and sadness that it provokes in me is also palpable, I can only imagine how those who have lived in Newport their entire lives must feel. The video also makes me proud, as I recognise so many of the faces and voices in it, and I wish those people all the best. I am not a Newport local, but I am a local to a city very much like it. Hull did not have a Chartist uprising, but we did apparently have a “radical bookshop“. Yorkshire owes a great deal to the Chartists as well, but it is not a very well known part of our history. It is in Newport and that is something that the city is, rightly so, very proud of.

There is a sickening irony to all of these events in Newport considering its history. Chartism, for those who don’t know, was a movement in the early 19th century that fought for political reform and equal rights and governmental representation for the working classes. The Chartist’s dedication to the cause and the government’s subsequent lack of action led to many violent clashes. John Frost (the man who is the namesake for the square where Newport’s Chartist mural used to be) was on trial for treason for his role in the movement when he led thousands of people through the streets of Newport in protest. They stormed the Westgate Hotel which was occupied by the many of the area’s upper classes and landed gentry, as well as a number of soldiers. A battle broke out leaving 35 dead and injured.

In comparison to the Chartists the London rioters did not have had such an ardent political agenda, but they undeniably show that the disenfranchisement of the working classes is still very much an issue in this country, so much so that it can lead to violence. The Chartists changed the laws, but over 150 years later more is needed to change attitudes. Newport feels like the spiritual home of working class political dissent in the UK in many respects. Sadly, we do not seem so perceptive to the changes that warrant it. So much damage has already been done to this community and it is sad that it has taken the spectacular violence of the Chartist mural’s destruction to provoke widespread action and protest. It feels that for years Newport City Council have been seeing just how much they can get away with. Now they have gone a step too far and the entire city knows it. They are a disgrace to the Chartist movement and they have been so long before they chose to destroy its commemorative mural. If there was ever a council that was guilty of ignoring and neglecting its working class citizens, it was Newport City Council. In a city so proud of its history to the contrary, this is inherently unacceptable.

Today, at noon, a demonstration that was initially planned to protest the proposed destruction of the mural (before the council did it anyway without warning and ahead of schedule) has still gone ahead. According to a Facebook page set up for the event, there will be a march through the town to the civic centre at 16.30 where the protesters will hand in a signed petition “with dignity and pride.” They should have just left John Frost Square as I write this.

There will be no disenfranchised riots in Newport today: too much unnecessary destruction has already occurred this week. After the London riots, there were countless arrests and some of those arrested were made examples of, receiving harsher sentences than perhaps they deserved. Such wanton destruction at the hands of the people is totally unnecessary. So what about destruction at the hands of a governing body like Newport City Council? What will their punishment be?

There have been a number of blogs written on the destruction of the mural in the past few days, some even appearing on international news websites. This is an extended and proud community making an example of its council. Hopefully it will result in some sort of action on the council’s behalf, but they cannot put the mural back now. The hole where it once was is hard to ignore as are the still-circulating images of its destruction but to those protesting today and to those like me who are there in spirit, it might be worth taking the time to look around and beyond the mural. The residents of Marlborough Road need not look too far – I’m sure they wish the council would rebuild their street instead of a shopping centre in a city with so many already-empty shops. Newport City Council has a lot more to answer for, and perhaps now is the right time for them to do so.

Leave a Reply