“Criminality pure and simple” was Prime Minister David Cameron’s initial verdict on the rioting. From the right came the mantra, “Down with sociology! Up with water cannon!” Don’t think but do act – harshly, punitively, peremptorily.
In the wake of the riots, a powerful vested interest has been at work – a vested interest in people not making links, not searching for causes, not weighing contexts. Above all, an interest in derailing the growing resistance to the government’s austerity programme.
In the vast realm of human phenomena there are few things as impure or as complex as a riot, with its ever-shifting array of motives and circumstances. It is a social phenomenon and requires a social analysis and response. It’s the denial of that duty that’s reckless and irresponsible, not the alleged “socio-economic excuses” reviled by conservatives.
The opening scene was in Tottenham, an impoverished, multi-ethnic community in north London, where a young man had been shot dead by police in circumstances that remain unexplained. A peaceful vigil was held outside the local police station but the mood turned angry when no one from the police would come out to talk to the bereaved family. What ensued was a running battle between local youths – as multi-ethnic as the local population – and police. The arson and looting came in the wake of that.
The next major flashpoint came 48 hours later in Hackney, just south of Tottenham and sharing all its problems. Here groups of young people faced off against the police for several hours, during which time they took control of and barricaded a nearby public housing complex, to a decidedly mixed response from residents. Again, in this episode, looting was secondary to the confrontation with police.
In the hours and days that followed, various forms of disorder spread to other locales in London and eventually to other English cities, notably Liverpool and Birmingham. In Ealing in west London restaurants and cafes were attacked. In Enfield, to the north of Tottenham, a Sony warehouse was ransacked and incinerated. In Clapham, south of the Thames, a Debenhams department store was looted. Most tragically, in Birmingham, three young Muslims were killed as they protected their family shops. In the London suburb of Eltham, a vigilante mob assembled to hunt for “rioters” – backed by the Muslim-hating English Defence League.
What happened was a concatenation of actions and reactions, with the riotous behaviour taking several forms: confrontation with police, destruction of property (large chain stores but also small shops), sporadic assaults on individuals, looting (theft), sometimes as a secondary overspill and sometimes as primary purpose, plus a lawless reaction to all of the above.
All Londoners have been distressed by the riots, but only a small minority have been directly affected. At no time did London resemble a “war zone”. The main business of the city went on as usual. There are small scarred patches but no large burnt out areas. The exaggeration serves a purpose, however, selling papers, stoking mutual fear and licensing the authoritarian responses that go with fear.
Though no one foresaw the course the riots would take, it wasn’t hard to predict some kind of social outburst, and indeed such predictions were made by many, not least the police themselves. To anyone walking around certain areas of London with their eyes open, it was clear that patience was ebbing, anger brewing, grievances converging. And behind that lies the realm of context and causation that we are being warned not to explore.
The killing in Tottenham elicited a response because it was the latest in a series of events which have left the Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) deeply compromised. There have been fatal and near-fatal shootings of innocent young men, the death of a middle aged newspaper vendor as a result of heavy handed policing at the G20 protest in 2009, and the death earlier this year of reggae musician Smiley Culture during a police raid on his home (a peaceful protest of thousands was ignored). When student demonstrations against the tripling of tuition fees surged through central London this past winter, they were subjected to stringent police tactics, with many thousands “kettled” – forcibly confined for hours to small areas without facilities of any kind. Tens of thousands of London youth have found themselves subject to demeaning and discriminatory ’stop and search’ operations. Finally came the exposure of police complicity in the Rupert Murdoch-sponsored phone-hacking scandal, culminating in the resignations of the Met’s two top cops only weeks before the riot.
When historians look back I suspect they will be most immediately struck by the conjuncture of the rioting with the global stock market turmoil sparked off by the Eurozone crisis and the downgrading of the US’s credit rating. They’ll scratch their heads and wonder just how it was we missed this connection.
Britain as a whole is a wealthy country but the distribution of that wealth has grown increasingly and palpably unequal. In London in particular there’s a concentration of glamour and grimness, luxury goods and lifestyles next to poverty and exclusion. Fifteen years of GDP growth passed many of those in the riot-affected areas by, and three years of recession have hit them hard. Average male life expectancy in Tottenham is 18 years less than in wealthy Kensington and Chelsea (and youngsters there five times more likely to be injured in road accidents). Youth unemployment, running at 20% nationally, runs at double that figure in places like Tottenham and Hackney.
Recession is now being compounded by austerity, with the coalition government cutting public support for housing, education, healthcare, pension contributions, the disabled and the unemployed, while privatising state functions and further easing the tax burden on the rich. Young people face an exceptionally bleak future: it will be much harder for them than for their parents to get an education, a decent job, a secure home, or, in the remote future, a dignified retirement. The life chances of millions are being diminished. 150 people have been made homeless as a result of the recent riots, but tens of thousands will be made homeless by the government’s cuts to housing benefit.
There is widespread resentment about the way the burden of austerity has fallen much more heavily on some than on others. Tax evasion by the rich will this year cost the public about one hundred times what’s being spent repairing riot damage. And the anti-social behaviour of the banks and financial institutions has been as brazen as anything seen in the riots. Their reckless avarice triggered a meltdown that destroyed London’s property values to a far greater extent than the riots, but they go on rewarding themselves record-breaking bonuses – sharing among the few a pot of money worth twice the combined spending of all London local authorities.
As so often these days, whenever there is resistance to acknowledging a context of inequality, “culture” is dragged in as the preferred culprit. Or rather in this case a putative youth sub-culture of selfishness and indiscipline, usually held to be the upshot of an over-permissive society (or over generous welfare state). This seems to be Cameron’s current line and he will use it to push long-standing right wing ambitions, not least the curtailing of European Union human rights requirements.
There is, of course, a cultural context, and it is provided principally by the dominant culture of the day, a competitive consumerism in which self-aggrandisement is celebrated, brand names fetishised (see the clips of looters in footwear shops), and leisure thoroughly commercialised. Looting is shopping without money, a brief dose of retail therapy. In naked acquisitiveness and contempt for the law, the rioters were merely emulating their betters. One elite scandal has followed another – from MPs’ expenses through bankers’ bonuses to the Murdoch hacking imbroglio. There must be a cumulative impact, an erosion of authority, and it would be naïve to deny it.
Beyond culture, and informing it, there is the phenomenon of powerlessness, which is both a subjective and objective reality, and poverty’s constant companion. Watching the rioters, it was easy to see how pumped up and liberated some were by this brief taste of power, of possession. But in the end the only antidote to powerlessness is power, economic and political. The current route to that is through resistance to austerity, in Britain and across Europe. For that resistance, the challenge now, in the wake of the riots, is to expand in scope and diversity.
For the moment, we’re being treated to a familiar demonology – “feral” youths, an amoral underclass of the irresponsible and rude – a phantom menace that is dangerously elastic, easily shaped by racial, generational and class prejudices. Politicians and media want rioters stripped of benefits and evicted from public housing. The Sunday Express wants to see them conscripted into the armed forces (and handed guns). Cameron wants to import a super-cop from USA to run the Met. He’s even targeted “the obsession with health and safety” as a riot factor which must be addressed, of course, with deregulation. More ominously, the riots are being used as an excuse to criminalise protest and clamp down on internet freedom.
But the demonology has already been undermined by the diverse social profile of those appearing before the courts. Thousands will pass through this mill in the months to come. Politicians and the media are pressing for harsh penalties, and the 6 months sentence handed to a first offender for looting 4 bottles of water bodes ill for the future. Britain’s prisons are already over-crowed, costly and dangerous, with more than 300 deaths in custody in the last decade, including scores of children and young people.
The court appearances and jail terms will inevitably involve injustices, disruption of family life and depletion of family resources. And given what we know of the fates of ex-prisoners we have no excuse for not expecting that many of those imprisoned will re-offend or suffer joblessness, poverty, homelessness, mental illness. The scale of the human damage to be done in the coming months, most of which will go unreported, is disheartening in the extreme. Unlike the riots this damage will be done not spontaneously but deliberately, which makes it all the more chilling.
Discussion on the ground in London is more nuanced than the official version, with its prerequisite of mindless condemnation of “mindless violence”. There is confusion and disagreement and emotion, inevitably and rightly. But the government’s one-dimensional response has little credibility. The battle over the meaning(s) of the riots has only just begun.