Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riot Thoughts

Rough, off-the-cuff, not an expert, not an eyewitness, just a Londoner, just thinking what I've been thinking.

1. "This is criminality, pure and simple" - D Cameron. Theresa May said something very similar. Criminality, maybe, but not very simple. Criminals are not the sole source of criminality. It can be manufactured in wholesale quantities by the state and applied to sections of the population who might not actually be directly involved in criminal activities. I think most of us who live in the centre of London are aware of large groups of young people who exist in a semi-criminalised state - they are essentially close to being illegal for who they are, simply because of their age, their background, how they dress, where they live and how they carry themselves, before any crime or "antisocial behaviour" is actually perpetrated. These young people face almost unimaginable restrictions on their freedom of movement. They are policed by displacement, being moved on. The fabric of the city is increasingly built to deter and exclude them - "mosquito" sonic alarms drive them out of shops and they are unwelcome in shopping centres and privatised public space like Spitalfields. ASBOs operated spatially, banning people from certain areas. Perhaps as a consequence of this displacement and exclusion, they have become ferociously territorial, and their movement is further confined by gang allegiances and nasty little "postcode wars". (Something I've touched on before: 1, 2, 3)

2. Yesterday the containment efforts failed. At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere.

3. It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. The visible breakdown of the rule of law frightened me because I benefit from the rule of law. So do most people. But this group who wanted to rip it down, who were boasting of their desire to fight with the police, who were setting fires and snatching phones - this group clearly has a different conception of what that rule means, and (whatever "community leaders " and our political class might claim) it isn't a tiny nucleus of habitual criminals.

4. People marvelled at the stupidity of people setting fire to their own neighbourhoods. And because this behaviour cannot be simply comprehended it is called "mindless", and the rioters are called "animals". Attacking your own neighbourhood by fire and attacking your own neighbours as animals are cousin impulses, in my opinion.

5. We have done our best to make these people, our neighbours, the angry ones, go away. Now more efforts will be made to get them back in their zones, and move those zones further out into the periphery, but we're only storing up more trouble for the future. After three nights of fire, and one frightening night of chaos, people are screaming for punitive policing, which can be understood. But once the situation is back under control, punitive policing is only going to store up more trouble for the future, too. How to break the cycle? I don't know. But I know that the solution will be expensive, it will take time, and it will be hard to reduce to a slogan as simple as "bring back the birch". Difficult and complicated it may be, but we are going to have to do it eventually.

6. Those who are calling for the army to be sent in have taken leave of their senses. Unless we really are going to solidify this failure, to carve it into stone, and exclude the angry ones from the citizenship altogether, to declare them to be something more than criminals: our enemies, the enemies of the state. I don't want to live in a city in a state where that happens.

7. Fortitude now; later, along with everything else that will follow these events, let's have some curiosity, a spirit of inquiry, of exploration. Something terrible has happened in our city (and may yet continue to happen). It's damnable, deplorable, heartbreaking. But it is also extraordinary, unusual, bizarre. Slamming the door on it without studying and understanding it is a dangerous and short-term tactic. Allowing yourself to feel nothing but anger, and doing nothing but lashing out ... isn't that a little mindless? It would be nice, and useful, if we could ask London "why" without already having an answer in mind.

8. Stay safe out there.


Technohippy said...

Well said!

Sergio said...

"Attacking your own neighbourhood by fire and attacking your own neighbours as animals are cousin impulses, in my opinion."

You made me laugh... I really almost prefer to see my house set on fire than be called animal....

P Boateng said...

Agreed. Simplifying the problem will only make that worse.

JVK said...

Interesting thoughts. Rebels with a cause, but no literature, not much culture apart from LOLspeak, gangs and violent US media. I'm thinking of the indie films burnt in the warehouse which were aimed at adults.

Anonymous said...

very well written. dont quite understand the fire/animal/neighbourhood analogy, but all your other points hit home for me.

there's too much binary thinking going on. it's not as simple as that.

in the immediate term it needs ending, and quickly, but a lot of thought needs to go into stopping it happening again.

risky mouse said...

I think you have hit on so many important points here.

I think the reduction of public space and the freedom to be unobserved is wearing upon the spirit.

Some have made disparaging comparisons to the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring protesters are fighting for freedom and the "London Rioters" are fighting for plasma TVs. The dictators the Arab Spring protestors rise up against never claimed powerlessness. In our part of the world, since the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney years, we have been told that governments are powerless in the face of market forces to shape society through policy and programs. So why are we surprised when protest is directed at symbols of the market?

Also since that era, governments have worked with capital to diminish the ways people used to gather to express dissatisfaction: unions, community organizations, etc. But the dissatisfaction and the reasons for it remain. So why are we surprised that protests seem individual and random?

Also - our 3 countries (US/UK/Canada) are notorious for resistance to taking good care of the planet. In Canada, our government will not even agree to LABEL asbestos a hazardous substance and insists that economic benefits of extracting oil from tar sands justifies the harm to people, wildlife and the environment . So why are we surprised when protestors show no respect for their neighbourhoods?

Are these chickens coming home to roost? Are these rational responses to an increasingly irrational ruling class? I am not sure but thanks for all the good food for thought in this post.

Will said...

Sergio & Anonymous -

I don't mean for a moment that setting fire to a shop is the same as/as bad as calling someone an animal. My point was that both are a self-destructive disavowal of something you're part of; harming yourself as much as lashing out as others. I can certainly understand people using strong language, it's an upsetting time, but when the smoke clears we shouldn't just write people off or make out they're less than people.

tooktheredpill said...

someone mentioned tranquiliser darts. Surely that would be the most humane way to handle things ;-)
Yes we are all animals. The Lord of the flies is a good book.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

In relation to your first point, and those gangs who live in a semi criminalised state, they like the rest of us, have choices. They chose not to change their life style how they dress or carry themselves. Instead they chose to reinforce the stereotype. I can't blame anyone for how they now think and feel about them.

Anonymous said...

The most articulate (and still open) piece of expression that I have come across thus far. Thank you.

Alex said...

Excellent, Will. Sober, considered and to my mind right. Also, in the coming weeks, all of its ideas are probably to be flouted.

Anonymous said...

Well said , will . A thoughtful and considered piece . I do hope there will be a pause for reflection and efforts made to create a more inclusive society .