London Burning. Where next?
The question that many are asking is “why?”.
Ms Penny’s opinion piece is the clearest attempt at understanding why these riots happened (and are still happening, as I write this) in a supposedly peaceful, civilised society.
I would add a further point: it is no coincidence that these riots are happening at a time when the “Arab Spring” has unleashed a human wave of rebellion in middle eastern countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. The common element is a deep disaffection with the status quo. Ms Penny explains it all in a simple, coherent, meaningful way…
The BBC is showing footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of infernos that once were shops and houses in Croydon and Peckham.
There have been hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries. A 26-year-old man shot in a car in Croydon is reportedly the first fatality, but police have not said whether he had been participating in the rioting or was a bystander.
This is the third consecutive night of rioting in London, and the disorder has now spread to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Politicians and police officers who only hours ago were making stony-faced statements about criminality are now simply begging the young people of Britain’s cities to go home. Britain is a tinderbox and, on Friday, somebody lit a match. How the hell did this happen? And what are we going to do now?
In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder ”mindless, mindless”.
Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, the Prime Minister, David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge – declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was ”utterly unacceptable”. The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ”pure criminality”, as the work of a ”violent minority”, as ”opportunism”. This is madly insufficient.
Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart.
Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there.
A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost 10 times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.
The truth is that few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the TV cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.
Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping and searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure knowledge that after decades of being marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news.
In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything.
”Yes,” said the young man. ”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 2000 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.”
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.
Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night.
No one expected this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after 30 years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong.
And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.
After reading Laurie Penny’s analysis in the Sydney Morning Herald – perhaps we should be asking, “where next“?
Because the disaffection, anger, and resentment shown by the young folk of Britain exists in other countries as well. Governments seem to have forgotten that nations are first and foremost societies – communities of people. Economies are built on societies, not the other way around.
Something to reflect on here in supposedly peaceful, civilised New Zealand.
What really angers me is that Baby boomers and neo-liberals castigate the young for their irresponsibility and selfishness.
Is this the same Baby Boomer Neo-Lib generation that enjoyed free tertiary education, free medical prescriptions, etc, etc – paid for by our parents and grandparents?
And when it came time for Baby Boomers to pass these same social services onto our children, we held up our hands and said, “Nah. You kids pay for what you want.” And then we introduced User Pays and gave ourselves hefty tax cuts, whilst privatising many of those state assets that used to provide us with good services.
And we expect the younger generation not to be selfish?!?!
Maybe I’m turning into a Grumpy Old Bugger, but I say “a pox on my generation” – my sympthathies are with the younger people who were well and truly shafted by my lot.
As for the neo-liberals and middle classes; you got what you wanted; a society of individuals out to get what they wanted; screw society; and devil take the hindmost.
And it was all utterly predictable, 20, 30 years ago.
We have seen the warning signs.