The $5 Cereal That Provoked a London Mob

Activists have violently attacked a whimsical cereal cafe. Why?

Alan Keery, an owner of London's Cereal Killer Cafe, at work (Luke MacGregor / Reuters)

I despise breakfast cereal. As in: feel-it’s-an-affront-to-civilization, why-add-insult-to-the-injury-of-morning-existence despise. I can’t fathom why someone would devote an entire establishment to dispensing the sad stuff, still less why anyone would fork over upwards of five dollars for a “medium”-sized bowl of it.

But storming the place while carrying pigs’ heads and torches? That takes something more than an offended palate.

News of the mobbing on Saturday night of the Cereal Killer Cafe in Shoreditch, in London’s East End—wherein demonstrators allegedly organized by an anarchist group hurled bottles, burned the effigy of a policeman, painted “scum” on a storefront window, and also smashed the window of a nearby real-estate office—has spread beyond the British media, being called an “anti-gentrification” protest or even an “anti-hipster” crusade. The Facebook description for the demonstration (or “street party,” as its organizers called it) puts it plainly: “We don’t want luxury flats that no one can afford, we want genuinely affordable housing. We don’t want pop-up gin bars or brioche buns—we want community.”

But why this particular establishment, and why now? And doesn’t this seem a little excessive, even for anti-hipster sentiment? After all, according to one of Cereal Killer’s owners, there were children in the cafe at the time it was attacked. Adding to the confusion, The Times of London is reporting that the mob was led not by low-income Londoners being forced out of their traditional neighborhoods, but rather by “middle-class academics.”

Strange as all this may seem, it’s not uncommon to “see people who look like gentrifying classes participating in protests against gentrification,” according to Japonica Brown-Saracino, a professor of sociology at Boston University who studies gentrification in U.S. cities.

“There are people who move into a neighborhood because they’re attracted to certain qualities of a place,” she said. “On moving, they recognize that they are part of transforming the things that they value about a place. And they end up working to forestall some of the transformation, protesting in the streets for affordable housing, trying to hold onto community centers or certain commercial institutions that they regard as linked to longtime populations.”

In the East London case, wrote Paul Cheshire, an emeritus professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, via email, “the very early relatively poor but mainly educated/drop-out pioneer gentrifiers—typical of most processes of gentrification moving into areas of architectural interest in mainly inner city neighborhoods when those are still rundown and largely occupied by working class or refugee poor—are being replaced by richer and more market-oriented still mainly liberal professional and successfully university educated successor gentrifiers, who are a good bit richer and (commercially) fashion-conscious.” The “pioneer gentrifiers” were attracted not just to East London’s cheapness but also its edginess, which they believe the richer groups are eroding.

Variations on this trend, with or without pronounced economic and cultural differences between gentrifying groups, are actually the norm in gentrification debates, not just in England but in the United States. In fact, Brown-Saracino said, “In most of the instances [of vehement demonstration] I can point to [in the United States], it’s probably not the longtime residents who’ve been in the neighborhood for generations peopling these protests.”

Nor is this kind of semi-violent targeting unusual. Brown-Saracino pointed to protests against Google Buses in San Francisco as the “nearest example” of incidents like that of the Cereal Killer mob. Commercial institutions in particular, she said, tend to find themselves at the center of these debates, being more ready symbols than the latest in a string of residential moving vans, for instance: “a lot of neighborhood reputation and branding depends upon commercial institutions, and I think everyday actors sense that.”

But in London, there may be something at stake beyond a changing neighborhood.

“The way I’d read these protests is something slightly different than the issue of gentrification,” said Nancy Holman, an associate professor of urban planning at the London School of Economics. “It’s more to do, to be honest, with a very sick housing market.”

Holman said she’s seen the resentment firsthand. “Certainly I see at the university lots of people who graduate from the [master-of-science program] with a good job and prospects, living in a house with several other people living with them, and they’re doing that into their thirties. Really, what we’re seeing isn’t so much about gentrification but about feeling priced out—people who are in their twenties and thirties feeling that there’s not a lot of hope in their being a part of life in the capital despite the fact that they work and contribute.” (In fact, The Times of London identified one Cereal Killer demonstrator as a research fellow at the London School of Economics.)

Holman’s interpretation lends clarity to the parts of the anti-Cereal Killer activists’ Facebook manifesto that aren’t about “brioche buns.” Other paragraphs focus on “Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks, Israeli scumbag property developers, Texan oil-money twats and our own home-grown Eton toffs” messing with the housing market: “Soon this City will be an unrecognisable, bland, yuppie infested wasteland with no room for normal (and not so normal) people like us,” the event description reads. “Working class people are being forced out of our homes but we won’t go out without a fight.”

The problem, according to Holman, is that London has had a “chronic undersupply of housing” since the late 1970s, when the government got out of the housing game.

“The housing market, which is now driven by the private market, is incredibly sensitive to shocks. Even in boom times it doesn’t necessarily expand as much as you might think,” said Holman. That’s in part, she noted, because the government and smaller developers tend to produce housing most quickly. Large-scale builders frequently construct and release homes relatively slowly—a process that is typically more profitable. As obtaining “planning permission” has become more expensive, small homebuilders have been priced out.

Things have gotten so bad that “there’s a big problem with people living in sheds in people’s gardens,” Holman added.

As for those Texans, Israelis, Saudis, and Russians referred to in rather ugly terms in the group’s Facebook manifesto?

“We also have a problem with housing right now being seen as a safe asset class,” Holman said. “So you do have foreign investors who come in and invest in housing as an assert, which also drives up prices.”

Holman acknowledges that there’s a “planner” and a “developer” side to the debate over what’s wrong with London housing, and cops to being a planner. The opposing side, she noted, “would say that there’s an issue with land banking, with people not developing sites as quickly as they could. They would say it’s all about planners being slow, about having a green belt around London, about historic conservation regulations.” She thinks both sides are probably clinging too tightly to their creeds, and will have to “come together. Otherwise you just get people pulling tiny levers that don’t work.”

All of this isn’t to suggest that the Cereal Killer Cafe was an entirely arbitrary target of anger over the housing market. Cheshire, for instance, is skeptical of a pure housing-resentment model for the protest. “Although the seriously high cost of housing in London is fuel for this,” he wrote, “my—not perfectly informed—reading of this is that it had far more in common with the ‘Occupation’ movement of a year or two ago (i.e. considered quasi-anarchic, ‘Leveller-type’ and politically intended direct action) than with [a] popular outburst of resentment,” which might look more like England’s 2011 riots, triggered by the police shooting of a Tottenham man. In the Cereal Killer case, the demonstrators, or at least the organizers, appeared to have a specific political-cultural agenda.

Then, too, the Cereal Killer Cafe did seem to court controversy. Last December, when a reporter pressed Gary Keery, one of the twin brothers who own the eatery, about opening such a cheekily niche, high-end enterprise, Keery responded testily, and then posted an open letter: “You obviously don’t understand business if you think I don’t have to put a mark-up on what I sell. It may be the poorest borough in London, but let’s not forget Canary Wharf [one of the city’s financial centers] is also in the borough,” wrote Keery, before citing his own origins in “the most deprived areas in Belfast.” The letter also included the memorable line: “If you want someone to solve the poverty crises in London I don’t think I’m the man to do that as I am too busy trying to cure Ebola and get Kim Kardashian to keep her clothes on.”

The day after the attack on Cereal Killer Cafe, London Mayor Boris Johnson tweeted his support for the institution: “Small businesses like @CerealKillerUK are lifeblood of London’s thriving economy—any violent protest is unacceptable.” The tweet echoed Cereal Killer Cafe’s own Twitter response to the incident: “Unhappy with the state of the country? Why not attack a small business #smart.”

If it’s overly simplistic to say these protests were about retaliating against hipsters, it’s equally unhelpful to make Cereal Killer Cafe’s critics out to be anti-business, or London’s economy out to be flawless. Given that a Cereal Killer-style attack could soon be coming to a hipster establishment near you (pretty much regardless of where you’re reading this from, judging by the latest reports on global housing crunches and international urban gentrification), everyone’s got a stake in this fight.