It’s perhaps too soon to work out what the hell really happened in London last night, or why. I stayed up til 2am following the news and the Twitter feeds, and I have to say it was one of the saddest nights I’ve ever spent in the capital.
There has already been some debate about the reasons for all of this, but I wanted to put a bit of a marker down on a couple of things that those on the outside may not have realised. I’ve lived in London for nearly 20 years, taught teenage Londoners for nearly 15 of those, and teenagers who I could well imagine getting involved in these ‘riots’ for nearly 10. I don’t claim some special knowledge, but I do feel I can tell the difference between one kind of fight and another.
1. This was not about race
Already people have been talking about ‘reclaiming London from the foreigners.’ Total nonsense. The looting and violence that took place was committed by blacks, whites and asians, and we mustn’t let idiots from the far right take advantage.
2. This was not about the shooting of Mark Duggen
The violence that sparked off in Tottenham at the end of last week was about the understandable anger that that community felt over the police’s handling of the Duggen case. The Metropolitan Police screwed up. They should have been open with the family, they should have listened to them and not left them outside for hours with empty promises of meetings with high level officers. And they certainly need to start telling the truth about what happened that night, and whether Duggen did fire his weapon, which is now doubted.
But the violence that kicked off in different areas of London last night was not about that. The people who were out looting were not out there expressing anger at their treatment by the police.
3. This is partly, but not wholly, about disenfranchisement
Mary Riddell has written a powerful piece in The Telegraph examining some of the reasons behind the violence, in which she says this:
The real causes are more insidious. It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for freefall. The causes of recession set out by J K Galbraith in his book, The Great Crash 1929, were as follows: bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in “corporate larceny”, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.
I do agree with this, but only in part. What I think Riddell has failed to factor in is the viral nature of the looting. I mean viral in every sense: this spread through social networks, but it also spread – as I’ve seen violent action spread in classrooms and playgrounds countless times – through the spirit of the mob.
In playground violence you do get those at the centre who will spark something, but the vast majority who get caught up in things would never, never do so without the mob. They get caught up and excited and act not from some anger or frustration of their own, but by proxy. Yes, they will use the excuses that they’ve heard and quote things about police attitudes and Mark Duggen and the rest, but the hard truth is that most of the people out on the streets were there for a bit of a laugh. They were there because other people were there, who were there because other people…
Without doubt we have to deal with inequality, with the bastards at the banks who have got away with a different kind of violent theft. But we must understand that much of this was far away from these triggers. People set fires because they saw that other people in other boroughs had. People turned over cars because they saw others had. There’s been lots of talk of these people being on benefits and having no jobs and all the rest. But I am absolutely certain that the demographic, if you really analysed it, would be kids from pretty decent homes, kids still in education, kids with parents in good trades. Yes, there will be those who see their futures as bleak, but I honestly don’t think that this is all about that.
The video above has rightly provoked complete disgust, but I think it’s significant because it goes some way to showing the complete lack of cause among people involved. There’s no sense of camaraderie, of a spirit of protest or some aims in mind. This was excitable people caught up in collective madness – in the sociological sense.
What do we do?
I think it may be too early to tell, but I feel that needs to be a careful response from parents, a thoughtful response from the media about how best to calm the situation and not further enflame it, and a community response (which I’ve already seen) to get out, clear up and stand up and be counted and show just how much the majority care for their community and one another. The political response – deep reflection on the nature of our inequitable capitalist system and our obsession with the banks – also needs to start right now.
Certainly, this should give the Labour party food for thought. Stop running to the middle, and let’s have decent policies to improve the lot of the poorest:
The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution.
That, would you believe, is from Riddell in the Telegraph too. And if the Telegraph is saying that we need to divert more money into expensive public sector services, it’s time to sit up and listen, and lobby Cameron and Osbourne to think again on these deep cuts.
I’ve just been listening to the news, where teenagers who were involved in disturbances last night have been justifying their actions. ‘We just want to show these rich people who own these businesses that we can do what we like.’ ‘Yeah, we just want to show the police that we can do what we like.’ The response when asked if it will happen again tonight? ‘I hope so!’ I think this gets to the heart of the matter. There has been much talk of alienation from communities and how we’re in ‘Broken Britain’ – and I think there is a very serious political responsibility that Cameron has to take for talking this up into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children will do what is of expected of them – good or bad. But I think the key alienation here is not from person to person, but from the self itself. The lack of self-knowledge and understanding shown by these responses is so very sad, and the core question must be how we can help our young people to discover who they are, and what their place is.
This, I think does boil back down to a capitalist problem. People are so busy having to work to make the money to buy the house to get the nice things because everyone says that this is where value lies… so there is no time to spend being with children, who are sat in front of TVs and games where they are told again and again that the way to be valued is a) to have loads of stuff and b) in GameWorld™, you just smash shit up without thought for the consequences to get what you want. And that, I’m afraid, is exactly what they did when they finally turned off the TV and did something.