Like some game of civil disobedience whack-a-mole, even as extra coppers are drafted in to London, there is trouble in the shires. Manchester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich have all seen theft and arson and in Nottingham a police station was attacked with firebombs. Such violence deserves to be condemned, but condemnation should not take the place of analysis in what are is, after all worst civil unrest seen in Britain in decades.
Unlike many people, I think the police have coped fairly well (after a slow start) with violence that is more sporadic, widespread and dynamic than anything seen on our streets before and that confounds their riot training which is mostly geared towards managing organised protests that turn sour. Sadly the same cannot be said of the politicians who stand behind them.
The response across the entire political spectrum as been to explain these events as mindless violence and criminality, arson without reason, just theft and vandalism. The few who have suggested that there might be underlying causes have been accused of political opportunism, justifying the rioters and giving succor to their vandalism (revealingly in that order).
Unfortunately these are not actually explanations. If it really is no more than mindless violence with no actual cause, we must conclude that a significant portion of the UK population are intrinsically criminal. This sits quite easily with some, who have been quick to characterise the unrest as racial and ethnic in origin. So, 30 years after Brixton and Toxteth, we are back to the argument that black people are basically savages who periodically kick off because it is in their nature to resent the yoke of civilisation. Or to put it another way, just 12 years after the Lawrence inquiry found the police to be massively institutionally racist, we are assuming that all forms of institutional race bias have been eliminated from our society (even if we don’t touch on the racial aspect, we are still left with nothing better than the Victorian notion of “criminal classes.” And in the 21st Century, that isn’t really good enough).
There are a number of problems with this appealingly simplistic theory:
1. Not all of the rioters, looters, vandals and taggers along are black. Reports indicate that while the majority of the original Tottenham rioters were of Afro-Carribean origin, as the rioting has spread, it has taken on a United Colours of stealing from Benetton aspect. The only thing these people seem to have in common is that they are angry and that they are nicking stuff.
2. Even if we assume that some people are basically just criminals, we find no explanation as to why their intrinsic criminality has chosen this moment to express itself. If they have always been criminals and their actions have nothing to do with social or economic circumstances, is it mere coincidence that they are rioting at the same time as massive government cuts begin to hit home, unemployment skyrockets and the country looks set for a double-dip recession? The prevailing lines being trotted out by the government would have you believe so. They would also have you believe that the fact Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world is utterly unrelated to the fact that people are stealing consumer goods they used to be able to buy on credit but can now no longer afford.
3. Despite the hyping up of the theft of plasmas and trainers, which makes for great TV, a lot of the looting has been of basic items like food, clothes and nappies. I found this picture on a Facebook page called “Looting fail” above a charming Planet of the Apes mashup entitled “Rise of the Retards:”
And yes, it is easy to mock the idea that someone would break into a shop and steal Tescos Value rice. Unless of course you stop to examine the proposition “Why would someone break into Tescos and steal rice?” Possibly because we are seeing the “rise of the retards,” an a-causal attack by criminal idiots on every aspect of our society. Possibly there are deeper issues here. I’ll leave it to you to decide.
4. These riots have spread, and quickly, to other parts of the UK. Whatever their root causes, they are not limited to Tottenham, London or the black community. Now, perhaps I have a rose-tinted view of human nature, but I’m disinclined to believe that active, engaged, happy members of society who have hope in the future go on orgies of arson and pillage. I’m also disinclined to believe that some people are by nature criminals, the only conclusion left is that underlying social issues across the whole of the UK play a part here. The alternatives seem to be either deep pessimism about human nature or racism, and I’m not entirely comfortable with either.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a massive element of brutality, criminality and selfishness at play here; the footage of a young Malaysian kid being helped up by some rioters who then mug him will play around the world for weeks to come, and for many it exemplifies the anti-social nature of the rioters, but to entirely absolve society at large of blame is a bizarre stance to take. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, but society is at least partially responsible for creating situations where brutality, criminality and selfishness seem like a good idea.
In all of this, there has been little coming from the rioters themselves, a tendency to beat up reporters and steal there equipment playing a major part in this. I’ve found a couple of interesting interviews, though, one by American network NBC, the other by the Guardian.
NBC: “Here’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Guardian: “One young bystander said the violence was because young people felt they had no voice. “Things are really hard at the moment; there is a lot of frustration and tension. This is our way of making a point in as direct as way as possible. People don’t believe the government anymore since the Iraq war. Now, because of the internet, they are able to think for themselves. This is a response to their frustration.”
The evocation of the Iraq war as a pivot point is interesting here. I’ve long felt that we, as a nation, refused to address the sheer level of the affront that was being lied to and dragged into a pointless war. Iraq ruptured our society and snapped the basic belief that we are governed rather than ruled.
This is an opinion that cuts across the political divide. The Right blames the “Socialist” New Labour government and its utopian fantasies, the Left blames the same government, but sees them as spineless right-wing patsies of the US imperium. Regardless of your political standpoint, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the way we went to war broke the bond of trust between the people and the politicians.
The last few years, far from enabling a healing of this rupture have seen its exacerbation, a financial crash that was caused by the an elite who do not appear to have paid for their recklessness and law-breaking, an expenses scandal that confirmed the popular superstition that all politicians are petty criminals (in 2010 it was revealed that for years many British members of Parliament has been supplementing their incomes by doing things like renovating their homes at cost to the taxpayer and selling them on for personal profit) and cuts that appear to be implemented by a government that couldn’t win a majority but is still driving home the most far-reaching changes to our society since the institution of the welfare state after WW2.
But, we are told by “Labour,” Conservative and Lib-Dem alike, this has nothing to do with anything. The rioters are too stupid to understand such nuanced arguments. They are thugs whose behaviour is intrinsic to their criminal nature and need not be explored in terms of anything so crass as causality.
As a Muslim, I’ve heard this argument before. 9/11 was a similar event, no cause, certainly not Israel/Palestine, American foreign policy or any of the other things mentioned as grievances by the people who carried out the attacks. Similarly, the 7/7 attacks were not directly related to the fact that Britain re-elected the government that caused the Iraq war, and anyone who tells you different is deluded – even if they are the leader of the bombers who carried out the attacks laying out atheir last communication with the world before carrying out a huge atrocity.
Now, those grievances do not justify violence, but ignoring grievances because we don’t like the methods by which they are expressed, and refusing to engage with even the possibility that the people we are dealing with have their reasons, no matter how twisted or confused is not a step towards addressing any problem.
This is the causal disconnect at the heart of our politics. It is hard to know whether it is a con-trick or whether those in power actually believe that everyone who disagrees with them is incapable of reason by virtue of their disagreement. Whatever the truth, it leaves us as a society ill-placed to address issues of social discontent.
And that is the real tragedy here. I’ve nailed my political colours firmly to the mast and I expect a lot of people to disagree with me simply because of that. Ultimately, I’m not concerned about winning arguments between left and right, I’m concerned at the logical cul-de-sac that our entire political class appears happy to have entered. I’m proud of this country, proud of its long tradition of critical self-analysis. Proud of the fact that our police don’t carry guns, proud of the fact that thousands turned out to clean up after last night’s carnage.
There is, however, a bigger clean-up job at hand, one that will require at least some acknowledgement that riots don’t generally happen in a vacuum and that no matter how inarticulately expressed, there is a sense of grievance among many of the urban poor that needs to be addressed. If we can do that, we are still capable, intelligent citizens living in a dynamic and growing society. If we dismiss this as just thuggery, without cause or motive, then the adjective of the moment – “mindless” – applies to every single one of us.