By Anna Perkins
This week I pace around my South-West London home and feel the same sensation I’ve been feeling since Monday: vague panic, helplessness, and a strange kind of inertia. I want to get out of my house, to see the local destruction: I need for it to be made real. I seem to be two steps behind the #riotcleanup operations and I don’t want to wander round agape and useless, like one of the ‘riot tourists’ apparently swarming through Hackney yesterday. I’d rather be a member of the bloggerati who sits at home and pontificates on a laptop, than a helpless voyeur. I feel utterly claustrophobic; my knowledge of what’s going on around me, in my precious hometown, has been gleaned from rolling news and live feeds. But it’s not enough. I was briefly in Leicester Square on Tuesday night, where the only signs of trouble ahead were the occasional police regiment heading up Charing Cross Road. Sirens have been passing my home, loudly and constantly. But yet I’m still somehow in a bubble, however much news and commentary tabs I have open on my internet browser – the hysteria and sensationalism whipped up by the rolling news has undoubtedly contributed to the spreading riots, incidentally (Twitter’s paid its dues for allegedly doing the same) – and I look, but I don’t see.
I’ve only known about this since Monday because I’d been away since the Thursday, at a festival, with no access to the news. On my way back I opened a paper, and read that there had been riots in Tottenham, provoked by the alleged fatal shooting of one man, Mark Duggan. At Waterloo, I saw a man being stopped and searched by a crowd of police. But that was it, until I got home, and that night the riots swept on again: through Hackney, Peckham, Lewisham, Wood Green, and more. I’d come back to find my city in flames, and I feel like I should have been out there, amid it all, to try and understand better.
Practically every single Facebook status in the last few days has been about the riots, and most people share the same opinion: that the rioters are collective scum. Even without the ‘chav’ prefix, we still know what they’re saying: disgusting, subhuman, yobs, louts, vandals, thugs, for whom greed and destruction alone are the motivating force. Reactions have ranged from disgust and shame to death threats, incitements to bring out martial law and water cannons. At the other end of the spectrum, a few voices – who know they’ll be shouted down, no doubt – have cautiously raised the issue of political context.
Everyone’s opinions seem hard to reconcile, and that’s because they are. There are as many individual reasons why the riots happen as there are rioters. And that’s why it’s unhelpful and classist and appalling to refer, in the default, knee-jerk manner, to a single ‘underclass’: it’s the traditional means of denigrating and dehumanising the ‘swarming mass’ of the proletariat. The fact that the tendency remains gives us an important insight into why this might have happened in the first place. It’s the ‘give a dog a bad name’ argument, but it’s a valid one. Treat the ‘yobbish’ working class like they’re one entity, and they will eventually rise up together to act as one. It’s ignorant and reductive to treat this as the work of one, non-descript ‘underclass’. As has been pointed out, the rioters are from a complex mix of racial and social backgrounds, mostly young men and women: a cross-section of deprived young people. And against the backdrop of the riots, interracial tensions are brewing too.
Understand that when I write this I make no excuses for the rioters’ behaviour. I believe that it’s damagingly patronising, for one thing, to state that because someone is from a low-income, poorly-educated background, they are unable to take responsibility for his or her own actions. But reasons are not the same as excuses – and it is only those in power that it will ever help to conflate the two in a situation such as this. By writing off the rioters’ behaviour as utterly ‘meaningless’ criminality – to ignore the context in which it happens, because to take it on board is to somehow vindicate or validate their actions – is to say that no solutions are required: just a good stiff sentence. And so nothing changes. The hierarchy can continue to rumble on as usual, leaving its top echelons to grow richer and its poor to grow increasingly poor, alienated and disaffected.
As Zoe Williams states in her Guardian piece, ‘just because there is no political agenda on the part of the rioters doesn’t mean the answer isn’t rooted in politics’. This is the point that I, and others I know, are trying to argue. A boy breaks into a Footlocker and steals a pair of trainers: he then breaks into a Comet and runs out with as much stuff as he can carry. This isn’t a well thought-out political protest; no placards, no slogans, clearly and consciously proclaim his desire to overthrow capitalism or ‘stick it to the man’. His actions, rooted first and foremost in desire for cool clothes and gadgetry, do no such thing either. About the most we can allow him is that he’s sticking two fingers up at authority. Many of these kids are opportunists, pure and simple: they want stuff, and with no fear off impunity, they will take it. The genuine anger in Tottenham that followed the shooting of Mark Duggan seems to have been diluted as the riots spread beyond Tottenham; looters are riding off the back of each riot that went before.
When listening to the BBC clip that’s been making the rounds – the two girls discussing their motivations for looting – it becomes very clear that a lot of these people have no idea who ‘the man’ even is (‘Cameron… I think’). If looting small independent businesses in Hackney, owned by local immigrant shopkeepers who have worked 80 hours a week to build them up from nothing, constitutes fighting back against the rich, then God save us all from the impoverished future envisaged by these desperadoes. These are the events around which communities’ anger really crystallises, and rightly so. The West Indian shopkeeper, who pleaded with rioters in Hackney to gather together for a cause – not just to go thieving at Footlocker – seemed like a lone voice of reason, of clear and articulate desire for protest, amidst the chaos.
But the inarticulacy of rioters, and their lack of political consciousness, is a point in itself, symbolic of their abandonment by society. The highly-educated, the middle classes, those with a stake in society – and therefore a sense of duty to preserve it in its current form – are not those involved in the riots. Why do we have a generation who think that it’s ok to wreck people’s homes and livelihoods unthinkingly; to believe that this is some sort of legitimate means of protest? It ain’t just a case of bad human nature, for God’s sake, the argument of those who believe that there might be no mitigating circumstances – like poverty – which might cause someone to commit crimes. And although politicians might not want to hear it, the fact that it’s society’s dispossessed who are looting and pillaging on the streets of London tells us all we need to know. But it certainly isn’t as simplistic as closure of youth clubs, and it’s not as clear-cut as the Brixton race riots in ’81 (the ‘stop and search’ policies of police on disproportionate numbers of the black community). When this happens in a developed country, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
To ignore the social, political and economic context is a form of mindlessness in itself. It’s no coincidence that these riots come at the time they do: when social mobility in Britain, according to the OECD, is worse than in any other developed country. The richest 10% are now up to 100 times richer than the poorest. Making a statement about this situation may not be the looters’ intent – as I said, the overwhelming inability to make any statement of the sort is significant in itself – but this does not mean the situation is not at the root cause. But many, too, are consciously angry at the system they’ve been done over by. As one man said to NBC news: “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?… 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.”
Poverty, unemployment, and an education system that has utterly failed this country’s least able, has led to marginalisation, criminalisation, and an alienated younger generation – many of whose parents were let down too. Maybe the looters do know right from wrong, but if so, they are concealing that knowledge well. At a time when capitalism is collapsing in upon itself, in a society where demand far exceeds means and (to paraphrase Baudrillard) advertising and consumerism promotes a falsification of real social life, an escape, kids stealing trainers aren’t necessarily ‘victims’ of mass consumerism – sometimes I think it does everyone a disservice to use the victim tag – but our society, predicated on a consumerist basis, is unarguably one that’s rotten. Kids, black or white, are taught that consumerism, bling, gadgets, and trainers, are the way to self-define when you have little else. Robbing and drug dealing present an easier route to these than the education system, which offers less in the way of immediate gratification – and, importantly, no prospect of useful training and a job. Not anymore.
The model of consumer-capitalism has entrenched the wealth division, stretched it to its utterly unsustainable limit, and in the London riots we see the results of those social tensions finally spilling over. One can condemn, but also believe in causation, and that – supposedly – is how history teaches us not to repeat our mistakes.