non-fiction and other stories
published in de Revisor
and Mr. Motley Kiest
Non-fiction and other stories
2012, my front door, middle of the night: Bitch! You! Open the door! You think you can come to Tottenham, being all white, without paying up?
If I didn’t open they would come back, they threatened at a loud volume. I never saw the group of men, or boys perhaps, I only heard their hands producing series of loud bangs on my door. Motionlessly I lay in bed, listening, too paralysed to reach for my phone. In the morning I discovered a small mayhem outside. Two bicycles had been stolen, holes had been cut in the metal fence, rubbish containers had been destroyed. The police made a note on vandalism about the incident, the most they could do with the little information I had. Tired and still somewhat afraid I walked home. I was being noticed, but I didn’t know by whom or what it meant. As if needing to brace myself against something, involuntarily I looked into the eyes of everyone who crossed my path. Or did they seek mine because I was staring at them? Everyone was a suspect, everyone became part of my grim scenario.
Tottenham, a North London neighbourhood. I had moved there a year after the 2011 riots. Chipboard panels, carelessly fixed atop and across one another, still covered the burnt-out windows of several buildings on my street. Nonetheless i had found an attractive, large and affordable option here when I was looking for a new apartment. In addition, it seemed only fair that I should move into a different kind of atmosphere from the cosy, reassuring neighbourhoods filled with playgrounds and green areas that are reserved for only a marginal slice of the world’s population. The Tottenham pavements were full of holes, filled with thick slabs of cement. The view from my window: a Polish supermarket, two Somali hairdressers, a betting shop and a blind wall featuring a different billboard ad every few weeks. For three weeks, House of Cards was staring straight into my living room. Three weeks of Frank Underwood’s crooked smile, the face of a routine liar.
I am a terrible liar.
‘You are as honest as the light in an H&M fitting booth,’ a friend once told me. I laughed at the metaphor but understood what she meant. Honesty is a core value in my family. It is synonymous to full transparency. To be honest means that selectively omitting parts of a story amounts to telling a half truth. And a half-truth is not a truth. If you are not telling the whole truth, the reasoning goes, what truth you have told will be automatically disqualified.
For a long time I therefore believed that omitting information meant lying deliberately. However, life beyond the neatly fenced garden of my parents’ house began to shake this assumption. I noticed that the stories we tell about ourselves and our pasts are accumulations of omissions, thus allowing fiction to enter these reports. Does this mean that any form of telling amounts to lying? And what is the role of the medium, the words, through which we distinguish truth from lie?
Back to Tottenham and the 2011 riots. Shops and banks were damaged, looted and left in ashes. On video footage I saw people who ran across the streets carrying plasma screens, sneakers and piles of clothing. Faces wrapped in bandannas were constructing burning barricades. Murderers! Murderers! it sounded on the streets, while in secluded patios clothing was being swapped, a looted laptop was sold for 20 quid. The riots travelled across the globe through articles, tweets, photos and videos, as an outburst of greed and vandalism. Utter scum it was, scum that felt the urge to raise havoc. This is not a lie, but it isn’t the full truth either. I had to think of the Vandals (1), who entered history as barbaric looters because the Romans
meticulously documented them as such. At the time such recordkeeping was not exactly common, certainly not among Vandals. Everything else this tribe did, such as preserving an unusually large amount of Roman culture, was left out, was left dangling between the lines (1). Similar to a diary in which one only writes on bad days, the image became distorted. Fiction crept in between the facts and into the word ‘vandal’.
The Tottenham story leaves out the hopeless poverty on those streets, in addition to which the
government had cancelled hundreds of jobs in this area, raised tuition fees, cut spending on youth work. More omitted information: the death of Mark Duggan, killed by two police shots.
Two shots, three stories
Under the moniker Operation Trident, a Metropolitan Police department investigated armed crime in London’s black community. 29-year-old Mark Duggan was a suspect and therefore being monitored, due to which it was known that on that fateful Thursday he had come into Tottenham in a taxi with a recently purchased weapon. Police cars surrounded the taxi; Duggan opened the door, made a run for it and was killed with two shots. The officer, known as V53 in the reports, later tells the jury he was certain that Duggan was carrying a weapon in his hand – I was only focussing on the gun. Though it was wrapped in a sock, he could clearly make out the shape of the gun. The first bullet hit Duggan’s chest, the body contracted. As the gun was still in Duggan’s hand (I-was-only-focussed-on-the-gun) V53 fired another shot, this time hitting Duggan in the arm. The body, falling backwards, was circled by other officers. Meanwhile, V53 cannot find the weapon anywhere. It is eventually found over six meters away, on the other side of a fence. None of the officers, all trained to keep their eyes on the gun, have seen it flying through the air.
Mark Duggan – clothing salesman, engaged, three children – had two relatively minor convictions on his name for cannabis possession and trading stolen goods. That Thursday he bought a weapon with a single bullet, which was delivered in a shoebox. Duggan knew he was being followed: from the taxi he sent a text message saying Trident have jammed me. Five seconds before the taxi was halted, ten seconds before he was shot, he was still speaking on the telephone. A forensic pathologist concluded that the arm had been hit first. Duggan’s DNA was not found on the gun, nor on the sock. The trigger was never pulled. An eyewitness saw Duggan exit the taxi with a shiny object, a telephone. The statement was never confirmed.
- Four days after Mark Duggan’s death, the family still has not received any explanation. With a crowd of local residents they gather at the police station in protest, demanding answers. When no answers follow, two men direct their anger at the first object near them, a police car. Stones, bottles and fireworks become the carriers of accusations. Meanwhile, a younger, aggressive group carrying jerry cans spreads out across the streets. A rumour travels among them that a 16-year-old girl was batted down by the police. Whether the rumour is true or false cannot be verified and makes no difference to the course of events. It works as a catalyst. In a Youtube video showing burning cars and severe fighting, someone can be heard shouting Didn't you see the girl getting roughed by the Feds, man? Come on!(3)
About a year later I was having a birthday party. It was the night that would become the night of the incident, my house was filled with classmates, we were dancing, we were laughing, windows wide open. The music must have drifted onto the street. I had lived in Tottenham for some months by now, had immersed myself in neighbourhood life. Had learned to cook okra, eat arepas, cycle the last part of my route home through a series of alleyways.
However, in the days following the incident I was not so sure whether I could continue to live here. Therefore I kept on looking everyone straight in the eyes on the streets, hoping for this to provide answers. One lad glanced back at me for just a little too long. Or did he do so because I was staring at him? On the corner a man was announcing the end of time through a megaphone. He often did this on the weekends, but now everyone had become a character and I effortlessly adapted his apocalypse into my story. In the bright light of day a fiction was being woven. Little by little I felt fear restrict my space for manoeuvring.
I am reminded of the Samurai crab, mentioned by Carl Sagan in an episode of his Cosmos series. Sagan explains that when the samurai of a particular clan were on the brink of losing a war, they surrendered themselves not to the enemy but to the sea. For years after, the story went that the samurai had continued their lives on the ocean floor, and at times the back shell of a crab was thought to show the face of a samurai. If one of these crabs landed on the deck of a fishing boat it was not kept aside for consumption, as other crabs were, but thrown back into the water. Over centuries, as a consequence of this artificial selection the perfect samurai crab evolved, with an angry face carved into its shields ever more sharply. Through their acts of selection, fishermen kept the story alive. Had Mark Duggan faced V53 with a gun in his hand? It was true to V53. A pre-programmed thought had distorted reality. Was the rumour about the girl beaten down by the police true? It was never proven, but the story fuelled the facts that followed it.
I knew I had succumbed to artificial selection in a similar manner as I walked across my neighbourhood with an uncanny feeling, unlocking my front door with suspicion. But it did not matter that I knew. It was just as real. I was my adrenaline, my fear, the shards of information I had obtained, and most importantly: all the information I did not have. When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion, Margaret Atwood acutely observed, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. (4)
It is only now, five years later, that I can unfold my memories of Tottenham as a story and manage to get a glimpse of what was left out.
What did I leave out?
How, watching a new Aldi store being built, I hadn’t noticed that the old one beneath it had burned down. That things had gone past me partly due to my naivety, had been flicked out of my frame partly due to stubborn optimism. How the siren blue that crept across my walls on weekend nights had always felt like someone else’s story. How a drunk classmate had tried to get the attention of a group of street dealers, with her breasts hanging out of the window. How the front door of my apartment building had been left open after the last party guests went home.
That my story took place within someone else’s story. A story in which new people buy up old buildings, white privilege rides its bicycles through the streets with rolled-up yoga mats, carelessly spending four pounds on a loaf of bread or a coffee. In which I could easily live in a ‘real’ neighbourhood for a while and leave it with the same ease, while others, very non-fictional, would never get out. How I can now write a story using ‘raw material’. A story made from words that each have their own habits and feel at home between other words. Words that, put together, make up an excerpt, a cut-out, within which I still do not quite know what constitutes lying. What I can see, as I write this, is that the lack of understanding has only expanded further.