The capital is in flames. In Haringey, Ealing, Croydon (Croydon!) Lewisham, gangs of young people are wreaking havoc, setting fire to shops, bottling the police, causing mayhem and giving vent to a wild, manic rage.
The Guardian’s London blogger, Dave Hill has posted an excellent early analysis here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/davehillblog/2011/aug/08/things-i-believe-about-london-riots
And knowing the risks of adding my tuppence worth, I’m wading in with a few thoughts. I’m sure I’ll be accused of defending the rioters, I’m not, I’m as scared and horrified as the rest of us, but fear and horror are not articulate responses. The fact is, these kids are rioting right now, they weren’t rioting last year or the year before and something has triggered this, because by and large, people don’t take to the streets, steal and set things on fire.
There are a number of different contexts to this, all of which need to be considered together. The first of the riots were triggered by the police shooting of 29 year old Mark Duggan, an incident for which the police have now apologised. Confidence in the police, across all levels of society, has been eroded massively in the last decade. The deaths at the hands of the police of Jean Charles de Menezes and Iain Tomlinson, the revelation that police officers from the notorious Territorial Support Group routinely covered their faces and badges when going into action, the News of the World Hacking inquiry, all have contributed to the sense that the police are not to be trusted, are working to their own agenda and are next to impossible to hold to account. Add to this the fact that while the population in general may have moved on from the Macpherson report, for many in the black and minority ethnic communities, the institutional police racism the report identified in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence is still keenly felt. It doesn’t even matter if such institutional bias exists anymore, it has become part of the narrative of grievance and mistrust.
Another key aspect is the Con-Dem government’s blase attitude to the cuts it is making. They’ve talked of sharing the pain, of being in it together, but there seems to be little suffering on the part of the super-rich. The bankers whose reckless disregard for, well anything except their own short term profit, caused the economic crisis, have got off scott free. In many cases, the same people who caused the mess have been put in charge of fixing it. Add to that the fact that the Tories who are driving the cuts agenda didn’t even win an outright majority and you have a recipe for frustration, anger and discontent. Again, it is not the actual politics that matters so much as the perception. And for teenagers on the streets, being told by Old Etonians that their youth clubs are going to close, that they won’t be able to afford university and that there won’t be any jobs at the other side doesn’t create a positive vibe.
That isn’t just my leftist politics speaking, here’s an article from the Torygraph dated September last year: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8001113/Cuts-will-bring-civil-unrest-says-police-leader.html
Then there’s stuff like the expenses scandal, which compounded the sense that politicians are just a bunch of chancers in it for what they can get. The fact that the wounds from the way we went into Iraq have not healed also plays a part, the whole sorry affair gave an entire generation the impression that no matter how many people stand up, The Man does what he wants.
Finally, there is the Arab Spring, which showed people around the world that even in some of the world’s most repressive societies, social media offer a way to congregate and organise that is very hard for the authorities to counter. Of course, our society is very, very different, but the key lesson is that social media can bring people together and that if enough of you get together it is very hard for anyone to do anything to stop you. Whether it is peaceful revolution or an orgy of looting and arson is beside the point. The fact is that the tools are there and they make this business very difficult to police.
Now, you may ask how much of this has actually filtered down to the teenagers rampaging on our streets, and the answer is probably very little. But the basic messages do get through (even if they’re not, and sometimes especially if they’re not, true). And the messages of the last few years are these: The world economy is buggered; The police are thugs who do what they want; Politicians are thieves who don’t care about ordinary people; the bankers got away with massive theft and now we’re paying for it; young people, especially young black people, have no future because of all of the above.
So they aren’t on the streets waving placards- what would be the point? We already know protest doesn’t work. Instead they’re following the example of the crooked politicians and casino capitalists, they’re grabbing what they can while the going is good and gambling on the premise that if enough of them do it, they can’t all get busted. Also, the weather has been pretty good of late and school’s out for summer.
A lot of people have said that this isn’t political. And in the sense of slogans, banners and manifestos, that is indeed the case. But in a society that privileges property and wealth above all else, what more political act is there than violating property and engaging in theft?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to join the rest of London in staying up all night on twitter and hoping they don’t come my way.