Burning Questions of London – Class War or Pure Criminality

And to these people I would say this: you are not only wrecking the lives of others, you are not only wrecking your communities, you are potentially wrecking your own lives too.

— David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain

There is no future in England’s dreaming
Don’t be told what you want
Don’t be told what you need
There’s no future, no future,
No future for you…

— The Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen


On Saturday August 6th, a group of around 200 people gathered outside a police station in Tottenham, in North London, to protest against the police shooting of 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan. According to some reports, the vigil was peaceful until a 16-year-old girl was pushed to the ground by policemen when she approached them to demand details of his death. The crowd erupted.

Two days later, the capital resembled a movie set, a video game, or a dystopian nightmare: take your pick from the similes. London had autoimmune disease: it was attacking itself.

Lawlessness reigned as hooded youths smashed windows, threw bricks, Molotov

cocktails and metal road signs, burned shops and houses, and charged at riot police. The disruptions spread from Tottenham to other North London boroughs such as Wood Green, Enfield Town, and Ponders End, then south to Brixton and Croydon (outside of London), then east to Hackney, and to the west in Notting Hill.

Rioting and looting then emerged hundreds of miles away from London, in Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, and Gloucestershire. The death toll is five at the time of writing, with an unknown number in hospital after being beaten. Why did this happen? And how?

The latter is easier to answer.

The Burning Question of London (HESO Magazine)

The Burning Question of London © Arnaud De Grave


It started off as a crowd of 200 people protesting the death of a young black man. Partly because they knew him personally—and partly because he was the latest victim of police brutality and/or racism. Then, in the same way that the L.A. riots turned quickly from a protest with a point to mob rule, the London riots unraveled into an orgy of looting and chaos. The tipping point came when people realised they had outnumbered and overpowered police, that they could do whatever they wanted. And so they did.

The rioters on the first night were predominantly young black males. Yet after that, the rioters—and particularly the looters—could not be boxed in with tags of race, gender, or even age. Young girls, middle-aged men—many appeared to be opportunistic “bystanders” to the violence, who merely wanted their share of free stuff.

The disturbances only simmered to a halt after David Cameron deigned to return from his holiday in Italy and announce that the number of police on London’s streets would be increased from 6,000 to 16,000. Many of the most hardcore contingent were arrested and as people realised they were more likely to get caught, they stopped. And put the stolen iPhones and flat-screen TVs on eBay.

Now to the question of why. The rioters were unable to articulate a coherent justification for their actions: “We’re taking our taxes back… it’s about the rich people, yeah, or the Government, the Conservatives or whoever it is,” as if they’d been reading leftie newspapers for a good line to quote. The responsibility to explain why has fallen instead to the intellectuals, academics and journalists.

The response has fallen into two camps. The conservative right have maligned the rioters as “purely criminal” with Cameron saying they were “frankly sick”. The liberal left have tried to explain the underlying social, economic, political and cultural reasons, inviting derision from some who say they are condoning the looters.

To me, exploring the background context is not an excuse for the horrific attacks on individuals, livelihoods, private property and communities, but rather a question that begs to be asked.

It is easy to romanticise protests. Riots also erupted in England back in 1981, when 2 tone music could dress up aggression as meaningful political protest. But this time, it was not about demands for rights, or political participation, or less welfare cuts, or racial equality. The non-looting public were outraged and disgusted at the utter lack of conscious objective, or political engagement. They were furious that underprivileged kids would willfully destroy the shops of other underprivileged people who had worked hard to get where they were. This was not an attack on the rich, no matter the confused claims of the looters who spoke to journalists.

Those who claim, however, that the riots were merely about mindless greed and violence, somehow miss the point as well. As any historian, sociologist or anthropologist will try and tell you, all events have context and background: widespread criminality does not emerge simply as a result of individual faults.

Countless explanations have been offered already. Is it about broken familial structure, absentee parents, widespread lack of discipline, as those on the right say or social disenfranchisement, relentless humiliation and a lack of hope or future, as the left suggest? Is it the glamorisation of gangster culture, which promises wealth and status through violence and intimidation rather than the socially acceptable route of schooling and employment? Is it a question of race and the inevitable consequence of misguided multi-culturist policies?

Are we asking the right questions?

Building Utopia (HESO Magazine)

Building Utopia © Arnaud De Grave


It could be all of the above, and more. That violent, looting and arson exploded to such a scale suggests that the giddy euphoria of complete transgression—and the crowd mentality that encouraged it—are surely factors. But as it becomes clear that the participants came from myriad walks of life—teachers, millionaires’ daughters, eight year-old kids—and not all were impoverished, desperate, or angry, it also becomes harder to argue that there is one root cause.

For the opposition Labour government, it is convenient to claim that the violence erupted in response to recent austerity cuts, which affected student loans, health care, and youth facilities. For the British National Party and other xenophobes, it is convenient to point the finger at blacks. And for liberals, it is convenient to pin the blame on a consistent underinvestment in deprived areas and the increasingly large gap between the haves and have-nots. Is placing blame getting us anywhere?

It is nigh on impossible to prise apart the threads that knotted up to produce the situation. It would also be patronizing and presumptuous to suggest what the rioters are thinking, or what they have been through, particularly those belonging to the so-called “underclass”. I have never had a confrontation, never mind a conversation, with any of them.

Yet I lived in London for three years. I spent one of those years in a block of council flats in Hackney, where kids tossed Molotov cocktails in the courtyard at Halloween. Like the rest of the middle-class students there, I treated the deprivation and gang culture around me as a form of ersatz danger, as hip and edgy as the exposed brick walls in the local dive bar. I was an agent of gentrification, and the social mix was still impoverished enough to be cool and raw enough to make me feel alive.

But as well as being authentic, the undercurrents of violence, aggression and apathy that run through British life are depressing. Anyone who has lived in London or any part of the UK has been an unwilling witness to the carnage that hits urban centres on Friday and Saturday nights: the gutters awash with blood, smashed glass and drunk girls with their skirts up.

Yet perhaps people like me, who patronize and jeer at the underclass—their accents, their clothes, their limited lexicon—are to blame for their supposed alienation from society. Or maybe not. Maybe their actions last week were unforgivable: poverty is not necessarily a precursor to immorality.

Every article I read twists my arm and pulls me to a different conclusion. One thing I can be sure of is that the riots were not “about race”. Anyone who claims they were means one of two things: 1) since the majority of rioters were black, then all blacks are intrinsically criminal trouble-makers, or that 2) young black men suffer relentless institutionalized racism, and this was their reaction to it.

I think the fact that the participation of whites, even in the first night of riots, renders these arguments nonsensical. It is true that blacks are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by police on the street than whites, which might explain why anti-police sentiment is particularly rife among the black community.

Yet it is also true that they are responsible for 70% of gun crime in the capital, which might go far to deciphering some of the institutional racism within the police force and misgivings in society at large. If you agree that race is simply a social construct, born out of environment and culture, then it holds that there is no a priori connection between your skin colour and the likelihood of you being a criminal, shown by the difference between kids brought up in affluent and impoverished environments.

Yet it is undeniable that there is a general human impulse to gravitate towards people who are similar to you, which helps create the phenomenon of culture. We can observe a group of people and say that the way they behave and interact with each other constitutes “black culture,” just as we can for British Indians, Polish immigrants or Blood Sausage connoisseurs. To blame skin colour in itself, rather than environments and cultures, unfairly condemns people by their appearance alone, or their affinity for black pudding and so on.

Of course, you can argue that the elements of “black culture” in Britain that idolize American gangs are responsible for the racism leveled against them. You can argue that young black kids don’t have enough role models, or father figures, but aren’t there as many white and Asian kids who are exactly the same? Doesn’t that prove that it is more about environment than genetic heritage—and that it is more about class than race, as is usually the case in Britain?

It is class that allows people to call the rioters “mindless,” a codeword for thick, which is the British equivalent of dumb. It’s easy to be horrified, to jeer, to demean them as “feral”: base brutes lacking intelligence and morality and deserving of all the force the state can muster against them. But call someone a no-good criminal enough times and they will eventually begin to claim it as an identity. If you want to be fancy you can call it Foucauldian.I can see why the government is keener to talk about punishing them than trying to fix the social and cultural circumstances that led to their disenfranchisement and alienation from society. I too have no solutions to offer. The debate rages on between those who think that only severe punishment will teach the perpetrators to fear authority, to those who think the people who have been systemically abused and humiliated by society actually need help.

While retribution might be necessary, it is not going to solve the root of the problem, and might even spark future unrest. Wandsworth Council has announced that it is looking into evicting rioters who live in council houses (e.g. heavily subsidized rent), and even families of rioters. In addition to the absurdity of a family’s fate resting on a wayward kid (even rich kids go off the rails, remember Mr. PM), such a move is unlikely to cause anything other than resentment, and further potential unrest. If we continue to go down that route, the War on the Underclass might become just like the War on Drugs, or the War on Terror: a battle fought in the vain belief that increasing the forces that sparked the problem will eventually make it disappear.

About the Author

Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sophie Knight is a writer based in Tokyo, Japan, who contributes regularly to HESO on a variety of subjects.

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Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

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