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Riots 2011: Against the riots, and against a ‘return to normality’

Croydon_Riots_2011Last night was relatively quiet in London, although the same cannot be said for the rest of the country, but here at least it looks as though things may be calming down. Boris Johnson is back in town, being heckled by some and (bizarrely) cheered by others. Between the interruptions and heckling from residents and shop owners in Clapham Junction, he said that he didn’t want to hear ‘socio-economic reasons for the violence’.

This is a dangerous game to play, and already indicates a dangerous trend that seems to be gaining ground; namely, an unwillingness to talk about the reasons for what has happened. And I will take this opportunity to repeat what I said in my last post, that debate over the reasons of the rioting is not the same as ‘sympathy’ for, or ‘understanding’ those who are taking part.

There has been a lot of talk of ‘returning to normal’, and on the BBC news feed this morning there were several comments from people deploring the media for focusing on the ‘negative headlines’ and ‘bad news’ of the riot itself, and urging them to focus instead on the positive response to them, such as the Twitter organised clean-up operation. This is a dangerous game to play, and one that could backfire if taken seriously.

Yes, it’s unpleasant to see the constant images of violence, the burning buildings and the mugging of bystanders. But ignoring the violence is a dangerous distraction, and solely focusing on events such as the volunteer clean-ups, which, while laudable and heart-warming, are something of safe distraction from the real forces at play here.

It should be clear to everyone now that thousands of people around the country did not wake up the last couple of mornings and spontaneously decide they wanted a new pair of trainers. Again, debating this is not the same as sympathy for the rioters. But this does not change the fact that thousands of people, in one way or another, have become completely alienated from the society in which they live, and the reasons for this need to be discussed.

This violence did not magic itself out of nowhere, and the conditions for it clearly existed before Saturday evening, but to most people they were invisible, simmering below the surface and hidden on housing estates. They were present in the ‘normality’ that commentators are calling for a return to. To return to ‘normality’ would leave these conditions unchanged, and keep them merely hidden again. If we return to ‘normality’, quietly disdaining debate over the reasons of what has happened, nothing will have changed and we risk a re-run of this in the years to come. Pondering when Egypt would return to ‘normality’ was a fairly big feature in the British press when Cairo was rioting during the first stage of the revolution. Egypt did not want to return to normality, normality was what caused the riots in the first place.

Something else that should be avoided would be for the country to be enveloped in some kind of moral panic, indications to which are already becoming clear. There is a lot of ‘what happened to my country’, and, ‘ashamed to be British’ talk going around. These comments indicate the personal level on which people are feeling the force of the riots, but, although difficult, we should try to view them as dispassionately as possible. We should be cold and objective, and not be scared to discuss the implications of this for a long time afterwards.

Perhaps it is because events such as these are a rare occurence in Britain that they elicit such a personal response. The headline of Le Monde’s coverage of events yesterday was ‘the British press dramatises and tries to understand’. We should not be dramatising, and it is to the credit of the French that, due to the fairly recurrent nature of rioting in their own country, they have the ability to analyse them without the moral panic the British press are prone to.

After the nationwide riots of banlieue youth in 2005, a widespread national debate ensued concerning the riots that made no attempt to de-politicise them as David Cameron, and Boris Johnson, with his ‘no socio-economic reasons’ remark, have been attempting to do. Being shy of asking questions of social and political significance is akin to sticking your head in the sand. The French debates covered everything from politics to unemployment, government policy, housing, gang culture, immigration and national identity. We cannot afford to have a right-wing press inspired period of moral outrage followed by silence and a ‘return to normality’. We need a reasoned debate, not panic and outrage.

George Orwell’s famous indictment at the end of Homage to Catalonia of Britain’s impasse to events happening in Europe that would lead to World War II should be remembered here,

‘The huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’

The bombs have roared for the past four nights, and the worst thing we could do is to go back to sleep. Something is wrong here, and it needs to be discussed openly. The violence has to end, but we should ignore the calls to return to ‘normality’.

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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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