London Calling…

It’s difficult to know how to begin to write about the last few days here in the UK. The disturbances — shall we call them ‘riots’, ‘protests’, ‘unrest’, ‘civil disobedience’, ‘mob violence’? — that started last Saturday in Tottenham, just up the road from where I write this, and spread over the next four days throughout London initially, and then to other English cities, have been unprecedented in scale, nature, and organization. If an initially peaceful protest over the fatal police shooting of local man Mark Duggan in Tottenham on Saturday afternoon marked the beginning of the last few days’ events, there is no question that something much bigger emerged from that tinderbox moment.

London, Birmingham, Salford, Manchester and a host other English cities burned. They have been burned.

Like many others, I have to say that “I’ve been both shocked and saddened by the images and stories of youths, some apparently as young as 14, looting, destroying and setting fire to shops at will, and battling with police.”

But that’s just it. It seems I have to say it (hence the quote marks). What strikes me more strongly than anything else right now is precisely that such a reaction seems almost obligatory as the dust is settling on the last few days’ events. It’s the acceptable public discourse of a political present in an increasingly polarized country that situates me on the socially acceptable side of an emerging social chasm. It’s the phrase I have to say such that I’m not mistaken for one of those “feral youths” perpetrating the violence. Our media coverage and our politicians (from right and left) have been quick to “unequivocally condemn” the riots, to label the events as “mindless thuggery”, “senseless destruction”, and as our Prime Minister told us just yesterday, the pathological behaviour of “pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly, sick.” In doing so, it seems there is a concerted effort being made to abstract the events of the last few days, firstly, from what is a longer history of civil disobedience in the UK in times of economic and racial inequality, and secondly, from any of the current and horrific austerity measures wrought by our con-dem government; measures that Mrs. Thatcher could only dream about, and measures that are cutting sections of our society adrift and entrenching massive economic inequalities for years to come. Two days ago, Boris Johnson, our Mayor here in London, openly said that he does not want to hear social and economic justifications for the rioting.

OK, I am the first to admit that it might be difficult to read political intent from the opportunistic theft of sneakers, plasma screen TVs, and clothes from High Street stores that were systematically looted, destroyed and set alight. It is difficult to see the politics of a collective violence inflicted upon those who have little in the first place. But it also seems to me that to seek no explanation, to regard the violence as the pathological criminality of a “feral youth” (as our deputy Mayor, Kit Malthouse, put it), is a response that seems symptomatic of a social present in which large sections of society are today being actively forgotten about, and excluded, as a direct result of austerity measures that have disproportionately affected the poorest few in our already unequal society. Of course I cannot understand the violence, because as this excellent post by Penny Red puts it, I have 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.” My Education Maintenance Allowance has not been cut, my job prospects are not dismal, I don’t rely on increasingly scarce income benefits, I do not depend on local council support structures that are being rolled back due to budget cuts, and I’ve already benefitted from a fully state-funded university education that from 2012 would cost me £27,000.

So, if we can’t understand the violence, perhaps we need to try. Which, I add, is an effort that requires neither condemnation nor support in itself. Just an ability to listen to what the poorest, and youngest, sections of English society are saying. On Sunday, when one ITV reporter asked a man in London whether rioting was the best way to express his discontent, the reply he received was, “Yes. You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?   

Riots rarely unfold in a political vacuum. They are not abstractions. And they rarely come from nowhere.

So right now, it seems to me utterly misleading to ask whether these were ‘mindless riots’, ‘mob violence’, or ‘political protests’? The fact is we don’t fully understand what has happened, but there is a more important question, which is: Why has what has happened, happened now? To begin to answer that question we need not to be coerced into a ‘you’re either with them or against them’ mentality, to either condone or condemn. London, and countless cities up and down the country have spoken. Are we prepared to listen? 

Image: Protestor on Tottenham High Road, Sat 6 Aug, 2011
Image by Beacon Radio on Flickr, reproduced with permission

Tariq Jazeel