News in Europe

The London Riots

Events are multifaceted, cultural and racial groups are not monolithic, and many things about a situation can be true at the same time. Reductionism is dangerous. Simplicity is dangerous. There are no easy, one-line answers. They don’t exist, because life isn’t like that.

The following ideas do not contradict each other.

1. There are real socio-economic and political reasons for why this riot occurred. Urban violence committed by youth and marginalized people of color does not happen in a vacuum. When you neglect a community for so long, when you treat its residents as criminals-by-default who must then prove themselves to be citizens, when you treat these communities as problem areas to be hemmed in and monitored, instead of nurtured, when tax money goes to law enforcement, not schools and development – this is what happens.

Do NOT believe what the law enforcement or the media has to say about this. The institutions of power have a vested interest in protecting the status quo, which is the continued existence of the police state in poor communities of color in London, and in similar cities across the Western world. The rioters are not individual hooligans taking advantage of a bad situation. This is not an argument for more police control, for taking away social spending, or longer prison sentences.

The official reaction to these riots confirms what activists from these communities have been saying for years; poor kids of color are either: A) irrelevant to mainstream society, or if they are finally noticed, are B) only seen as criminals. There’s very little opportunity for poor youth to be seen as the nuanced, complicated, diverse beings that they are. That’s intentional. The status quo is reinforced every time minority youth are seen as a terrifying, brainless monolith. That is what the mainstream media is going to try to do to these kids. Do not let them.

2. It’s silly to pretend that all of this violence is directed, focused, and political in intent. A powder keg of repressed anger and energy has exploded, and London is feeling the consequence of that. It doesn’t mean London deserves the violence, or that the rioters are correct in their actions. The rioters are not innocents, fighting back the only way they can against a corrupt police state. They are culpable. Their behavior cannot be excused by their political intentions; political violence cannot be purified or sanctified or reduced into something palatable and easily digestible by an ideology. Political violence is still violence, the same old beast we’ve engaged with for millions of years. Nothing changes that.

You run over me, doesn’t matter how oppressed you are. You still ran over me. I’m still dead. There are a lot of people, innocent people, who are going to lose their lives, their livelihoods, and their homes. People who we know are in danger.

Don’t you dare try to paper over that.

11 replies on “The London Riots”

For those still interested, Zoe Williams had a really interesting piece in the Guardian today about the rioting/looting, in which she takes a closer look at the types of shops and businesses that were targeted (they were, en masse, taking things they would normally buy – not attacking high-end shops, but attacking J.D. Sports and Foot Locker and Curry’s). In a nutshell she argues that this reflects the twin contexts of a relentlessly consumerist society and a deeply unequal one, in which people are constantly reminded of all the things they should have but are also systematically denied the ability to obtain those things. Really worth a read.

Very glad that they don’t have access to water cannons since the entire UK supply is in, surprise surprise, NI.

I’m hoping things don’t kick off much more in Manchester and Birmingham. The situation in London looks tense, but relatively calm thus far tonight. Keeping fingers and various other appendages firmly crossed.

Great piece. Though as someone with friends in the metropolitan police, and friends who had to evacuate their flat in Clapham, I have to offer a slightly different interpretation (though it’s mostly semantics). You write,

The rioters are not individual hooligans taking advantage of a bad situation.

Actually, I think that’s exactly what they are. Last night’s looting wasn’t like the Tottenham riot over the weekend, or like the student protests earlier this year. There was no cogent political intention other than to show the police that they couldn’t be intimidated (which IS political, of course, but more on that later) and to take whatever they could get. What’s emerging from last night is a picture of teens constantly communicating with each other, looting those areas where they thought they could get away with it.

But that doesn’t negate a single thing you’ve written above. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in Europe. Anyone who didn’t see this coming has been living under a rock. For years, youth workers and journalists have warned that young working-class Britons were being excluded and disenfranchised. Of course they define themselves against the law, the police, politics, ‘society’. Society has shunned and demonised them their entire lives, treating them like criminals the moment they step outside their homes, abandoning them to sub-par schools and then blaming them for their lack of education. The recession has only exacerbated an existing trend. These young people are powerless, criminalised and ignored, and now they’re asserting what limited power they can. Many of them don’t seem to have coherent political agendas, because the political system abandoned them long ago. Now we’re meant to be surprised that they’re reflecting back the contempt with which they’ve been treated?

TL; DR: I do actually think the looting and arson last night was pure opportunistic hooliganism. But it’s hooliganism that our society created and perpetuated by allowing the political, social and economic disenfranchisement of a huge group of people – and then blaming them for being disenfranchised.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that, like in America, Britons have become so disenchanted with the failures and foibles of their government, that they have allowed themselves to turn away from holding them accountable and have swallowed the prepackaged and digestible rhetoric of their political parties as regurgitated by the tabloids. The government has indeed disenfranchised whole sections of British society, but they had help.

So, in essence, you have to hold everyone in Great Britain accountable, to some degree. It’s not like these are new problems and it’s not like this kind of thing is unknown. The people let the government have their way, the government took away the people’s power, and the poor and minorities bore the brunt of it, leading to this. This event has to go a long way to opening up a dialog and bringing about a reckoning. The problem I see, is that Britain has a hard time facing up to its own problems and spends a lot of time pushing accountability around in circles until it falls on the heads of the lowest classes. Rupert Murdoch can violate the law and walk away; the rioters will not be so lucky.

Fantastic piece. It makes me think of the Malcolm X quote on resistance

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”

Thank you for pointing out the dangers in reduction and simplicity too. I think far too much devolves from trying to pinpoint things into a nice, neat manageable package instead of the complex and often times difficult-no real answer things that they really are.

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