Posted on | February 21, 2017 | 1 Comment
In 2011, Mark Duggan, a young black man, was shot dead by armed response officers in Tottenham, North London. Anger at the events sparked off riots and looting that spread throughout London and other English cities over a number of days.
Many expressions of outrage at the riots were conspicuous for the privilege of those that mouthed them. Boris Johnson spoke of how appalled he was by the violence while refusing to cut short his holiday. Theresa May’s references to “sheer criminality” and “thuggery” borrowed from the lexicon of ruling class disdain for the underclass. The broomstick brigades that assembled each morning to clean up were mainly gentrifiers, eager to step on the toes of public service workers while keeping property values at the desired rate. When Darcus Howe refused to condemn the riots on national television, he was treated with contempt by an aristocratic anchor who couldn’t get his name right.
It was this gulf between the moral breakdown on England’s inner city streets and the moral bankruptcy of the outraged upper and middle classes that created fertile ground for the effectiveness of Pauline Pearce’s speech. People that would normally ignore the street corner wrath of a working class black woman suddenly paid attention as the video of her rant went viral. Politicians and public figures clamoured to be associated with her.
Stood at a street corner, in front of FUCK CAMERON graffiti, Pearce’s setting could be a backdrop for a theatrical production about Broken Britain. Leaning on a walking stick while shaking her fist, she condemns the looters while acknowledging the event that sparked the unrest. The first comment of the recording (we should remember that she probably mouthed her first words before the record button was pressed) is “This is fucking reality” . While this was intended as an expression of reproach for the rioters, in the speech’s new context as a viral video it becomes a sign of reproach for all those judging from a safe distance, geographically or economically.
In expressing her anger, Pearce does not shy away from profanity.
“This is fucking reality”
“This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham”
“You lot piss me the fuck off”.
(transcript from urbanruralfabric)
This plays an important role in her not assuming moral or societal superiority over those that she addresses.
At the same time her expressions of rage are interspersed and appended with calls for understanding and unity.
Lo’ up burning people’s shops that they worked hard to start their business
She’s working hard to make her business work and then you lot want to go and burn it up
For what, just to say you’re warring and you’re bad man
Get real black people get real
Do it for a cause
If we’re fighting for a cause lets fight for a cause
Cause we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause
We’re running down Foot Locker and thievin’ shoes
It is the combination of anger, profanity and proactiveness that highlights Pearce’s authenticity. She is not talking down to the looters, nor arguing from a place of assumed moral authority. Theresa May’s language reflected the power dynamics of the ruling class. The bourgeois disdain of the “riot clean up” groups reflected the power dynamics of middle class gentrifiers. Pearce’s anger, and her expression of it, comes from the same sense of powerlessness that triggered the riots in the first place.
The recording ends shortly after Pearce concludes her speech and turns to leave. She later stated that she feared for her safety in that moment but couldn’t contain her anger
In the years to come, those that wanted to be associated with Pearce’s authenticity were quick to distance themselves when she turned out to be a little too authentic. As gentrification ramps up in the later years of the same decade, could this video be seen as the last cry of the inner city working class?
This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.