Is it ‘simple criminality’ or the result of years of simmering social inequality and a capitalist society that allows the rich a certain amount of impunity and condemns the poor to a vicious cycle of poverty?
Reliable information on the circumstances surrounding the death of Mark Duggan is scarce. How convincing the official report will be is unclear. But the relevance of this event to the rioting that has plagued some of England’s major cities is undoubtedly little more than the spark to an increasingly flammable situation of social inequality.
On Tuesday night in Birmingham, having ignored the pleas of my sensible girlfriend, I attempted to enter the heart of what has been described as a warzone, the city centre. I wasn’t driven by anger, or the need for a flat-screen television and some Nikes, but sheer curiosity. Conflicting reports from social networks and the ever-dependable beeb had fed my appetite for truth, and, to be perfectly honest, there’s something about the heady concoction of danger and spectacle that was irresistible. Unfortunately my thrill-seeking was shortlived as I found that every arterial route into the centre had been cordoned off with police vehicles. After unsuccessfully trying to navigate around them, I resigned to head home and return to see the damage in the morning.
So we have burned-out cars and broken windows, balaclavas and baseball bats. What’s missing? It certainly isn’t, as I found, a police presence; every group (collective noun suggestions welcome) of hooded youths that I passed on my journey were being eyed vigilantly from a distance by an, albeit smaller and less threatening, assemblage of fluorescent jackets. No, the elusive ingredient is a clear motive. The PM seems convinced that it can be explained by criminal opportunism and wanton vandalism, conveniently ignoring other factors such as rising unemployment, the drastic dichotomy between rich and poor, the resulting civil disquiet, and the raising of tuition fees that induced so many to protest earlier in the year.
Riots ‘erupted across what is now by some measures the most unequal city in the developed world, where the wealth of the richest 10% has risen to 273 times that of the poorest, drawing in young people who have had their educational maintenance allowance axed just as official youth unemployment has reached a record high and university places are being cut back under the weight of a tripling of tuition fees’ (Seumas Milne – The Guardian)
It is telling that the businesses that suffered the most from the looting sold sportswear and small electricals – and not just revealing of the type of people that committed the crimes, but also of the bigger picture. The ‘capitalist society is to blame for everything’ argument has been over-used, yet it seems strangely applicable to the current situation. Where did the rioters get the idea that branded goods are the best way to express their identity, or that wealth is the ultimate goal? Certainly not from the bankers who filtered millions into personal accounts, or the greedy politicians who abused their expenses to fund second homes, not from any of the forms of advertisement that encourage the poor to borrow and buy. Though speculation is rife, a total explanation for the rioter’s actions at this early stage is unlikely. History assigns reasons to events such as these, reasons that are sometimes only visible through the lucidifying lens of hindsight.
It is undoubtedly scary that a small percentage of people that you walk past everyday have a primal proclivity to destruction, have no sense of the basic human concepts of empathy or community, and feel that they can disregard society’s morality for the sake of a small financial gain and the release of their caged rage. Although there may be reasons for their behavior, there are no justifications for their actions. Indeed it seems, regardless of the ethical issues, impossible to justify such a self-harming act in terms of logic. Destroying local businesses in a time of low employment is as rational as punching yourself in the face during a fight, a fight that jobseekers are already losing.
The riots have had the effect of peeling back from our society the veil of civilisation, allowing us to sneak a peek at the lawlessness and disquiet that simmers just below the surface. As difficult as it may be to admit, it does exist; and to dismiss the actions of this strata as ‘mindless’ is to ignore the underlying issues that caused the unrest, only encouraging a repeat performance. It is clear that the way that we operate is unsustainable, and once the physical threat of rioting and looting is removed, maybe it’s time to address Britain’s social dichotomy.
The morning after the night before, Birmingham city centre has a strange feeling of unity that I have never experienced in such a large city. The sound of pedestrians describing the damage and their disbelief into their mobile phones is barely audible over the screech of drills boarding up shop-windows. Others stand staring into vacuous window frames or at the carpet of glistening glass that lines the streets. It is at times like these, when the dark side of human nature has been revealed, that there is the most necessity for community spirit. And it has certainly risen to the challenge in the form of all the shopkeepers and home-owners that united to protect their communities, in the small army of Londoners that took to the streets, brooms in hand, to assist the clear-up operation, and in the football fans from Birmingham that dared the rioters to try again. Defiant in the face of violence, Birmingham proudly asserted that it was ‘Open as Usual’.