London riots, 2011, we need more conjecture, not less.

This is the second personal post I’ve made on this blog, and there probably won’t be too many, but given the unprecedented situation in London at the minute I think it’s worth writing something about it.

Yesterday morning I walked down to Brixton from my home in Clapham, in South London, which has (apart from a few broken windows on the high street) so far managed to avoid any serious violence. Brixton Road had been completely wrecked and was closed off, as was the tube station, and there was broken glass everywhere. Last night we listened to the constant wail of sirens and sat up for hours checking the Guardian live blog to see where the trouble was spreading next. There was reports of rioting in Clapham, but thankfully this turned out to be in Lavender Hill and around Clapham Junction station, which is actually in Battersea and at least a bus ride from here.

The official response so far has been fairly woeful. A Cameron/Clegg/May or ministerial minion will show up on television with the usual pointless clichés to ‘deplore’, or ‘utterly condemn’ what is happening, followed with a lot of grandstanding talk of ‘you will be caught’. The police have been equally vocal in their threats to catch the perpetrators, perhaps even more unjustifiably considering the criticism they have faced for their slow responses to looting. In the case of Brixton, residents told reporters that looting just 100m from the police station was allowed to continue for over half an hour. And in the East End, shopkeepers and residents have formed vigilante groups to protect their homes and businesses, having given up on the police.

The general response from the public has been mixed. There are those complaining that the police are restricted in their actions and scared of seeming too aggressive in dealing with looters, mostly because criticism they have been under recently for their heavy-handed policing of the student and TUC protests earlier this year, and their handling of the G20 protests last year that led to the death of Ian Tomlinson. I don’t buy this; given the amount of criticisms levelled at the police over the years for their policing of public order situations, as well as the shooting of Jean-Charles de Menezes and subsequent half-arsed cover up, they are unlikely to suddenly learn their lesson now and go softly-softly as half of London burns.

Others, including a few overzealous MPs and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, are going further still and calling for the military to be deployed. This is unlikely to happen, and would be virtually unprecedented in British history excepting a few occasions, notably the Rhondda riots in South Wales in 1910, and the 40-hour strike in Glasgow during the Red Clydeside era. On a practical level, the military is already incredibly overstretched, and as one military officer from South London said in a message that featured on the BBC’s live blog this morning,

‘As an Army officer, please do not go on about bringing the military in. More or less all the army has been in a warzone within the last two years, they have been fighting literally for their lives. I would have great concern that our troops are too prepared for using lethal force to be placed into an environment of violence on British streets.’

I’m inclined to agree with him.

The explanations for what has been happening also seem a little inadequate. The shooting of Mark Duggan was obviously the catalyst in Tottenham, but its more difficult to use his death as an explaination for rioting all around the country. It’s fairly pointless to speculate on what happened when he was killed, or what kind of man he was, as a thousand different theories have been thrown about in the last few days, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission is being as weirdly mysterious and non-communicative as it always is. As with Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, the truth will appear eventually. Many on the left are claiming that the riots are the result of poverty and the governments cuts to public services and welfare, and while I’m sure these play a part, this is by no means the complete picture.

Some are going further and painting this as a political protest, which, although it may have begun as a demonstration against the police, has now taken on an entirely new character. And the support of what is going on as a political protest now seems bordering on the ridiculous, with the obvious fact that people’s homes are being burned down, and the multiple muggings and stabbings that have occurred during the riots. To think that people are looting outlets of JJB sports for a new pair of trainers are doing it for political reasons is laughable.

But equally ridiculous is the attempt by others to completely disengage what is happening from any kind of analysis, political or otherwise, seeing it in some way as being ‘sympathetic’ to the rioters, or attempting to ‘understand’ them. It’s not, and the reasons behind what is happening need to be discussed.

Events have definitely gone beyond the death of Mark Duggan, and it is hard to reconcile the idea of a sincere protest over perceived police brutality with looting widescreen TVs from a burning Curry’s outlet. Unemployment and social deprivation obviously have a part to play, but it’s hard not to place some blame on the political culture that many people my age (in their early twenties) have grown up with. Namely, the culture of complete individualism that has been actively encouraged by the political class in this country for the last thirty years.

Under Thatcher, we were essentially told, in the words of Gordon Gekko, that ‘greed is good’, and actively encouraged to see people like Gordon Gekko, albeit tamer versions, as role models. The message carried on under Labour through the boom years of the late 90s and early 2000s. And although they didn’t say it quite so crudely as a red-blooded Tory would, the ‘no such thing as society’ doctrine was carried on through the glory years before the crash of 2007-2008. Make as much money as you can was the message, and damn the effects on wider society. When generations are taught to aspire to be like the successful businessmen to semi-illiterate millionaire footballers that are treated like gods in the media, and when, as has happened since the 2007-2008 crisis, these aspirations turn out to be a cruel joke with no chance of fulfillment, there are consequences.

We were encouraged to be greedy, and selfish, and it was exactly this greed that led to the worldwide economic crisis, and you can see exactly the same greed now tearing through the high streets of Tottenham, Hackney, and Brixton in these last few days. Decades of state-encouraged selfishness have their consequences, and last night those consequences were looting and burning a Debenhams on Lavender Hill.

It’s 14:09 and the sirens outside my window are getting more frequent. BBC news has just reported that the riots have now claimed their first life, and there are reports that there has been looting in Hackney already. It’s going to be another long night, but let’s not confuse discussing the reasons for what is happening with sympathy with those who are doing it. They are not the same, and the calls for ‘going back to normal’, as if nothing had happened, are pointless, and will lead to nothing but a repeat of this violence in years to come. We can’t shy away from discussing the causes of what has happened; we need more conjecture.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “London riots, 2011, we need more conjecture, not less.

  1. John

    Excellent article, that develops some good analysis with good critical thinking too. Issues like this are rarely uni-factorial and as ever there will be several key issues that come to the fore over the next weeks and months. But everyone has a role to play, everyone has to take repsonsibility – from the rioters, to their parents (absent or ignorant), the wider community, politicians and indeed the faux role-models that these people shape their behaviours around.

    For too long, parenting or whatever you want to call it has been unbalanced. Throughout the 2000s the Labour Government allowed many people to abrogate responsibility for themselves, their children, their friends and colleagues, as they took over the impossible task of being mother, father, teacher – the ultimate Nanny State.

    But neither can the Tories hide from their responsibility of the past thirty years – the parents of these rioting kids were ‘Thatcher’s Children’ – fed on a diet of greed, selfishness, self and the absence of responsibility. Today’s role models are rarely true heroes, political greats or adventurers – they are those who worship at the altar of greed, instant sunshine and ‘I want it now’. As with their parents, the apple never falls far from the tree.

    My conjecture is that we are all individually and collectively responsible for what is happening in society now, this week and always. We will only get through this and move on when we accept this – all of us; when we accept our own contribution, however small, to the events of the past few nights.

  2. Keith

    Very well explained. There is such a lot of emphasis on community. I think that the politicians are concentrating on the wrong community. The real community is the online messaging gang members who decide which place to target next.

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