Riots and Responsibilities

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’.


8 responses to “Riots and Responsibilities

  1. I’m not convinced these people ever sat down to have a good long think about their futures and the parts they play in society. And therein lies the problem. Britain being a soft-hearted nation, eager not to offend, has only served to facilitate their mindless attempts to prove that they ‘can do what [they] want and the police can’t stop [them]’. I presume you heard that interview with a London girl taking part in the violence, who had to stop and debate for a while with her friend who exactly was in power in this country, and who therefore they were rebelling against. Although they took a lucky stab at ‘Conserva’ivs, innit?!’ they weren’t quite confident enough to stick to that argument and settled on the police as their target to shame.
    They are, most probably, suffering from neglect and a sense of worthlessness – but in my opinion, the heart of the matter lies in their homes. And the secret to the cycle of this poverty? Let’s stop harassing the people committing their lives to doing the best for this country and, instead, ask the parents.

    -Is my opinion.

    • Who are ‘these people’ you’re talking about? It’s an entire underclass of society that have been shit on by both sides of government for generations. Why should they know Davey Cameron’s name? He certainly doesn’t know theirs. It’s crazy that everyone’s anger is so misplaced about the riots, i know the looting element was pretty severely covered by the media but as it explains so beautifully above, this is a generation of kids with a poor education and no legit way of making enough money to afford the mass consumerism that’s rammed down their throats every day. They’re angry because no one gives a shit and in London it’s worse because a lot of the estates are smack bang next to areas of enormous affluence and they can’t get near it. In the last couple of weeks, RBS, who were bailed out by the gov lets not forget,reported a massive loss this year- but i bet you everyone still got their nice fat cheques anyway. The government need to sort their act out and people should be getting behind that message instead of carping on about ‘these people’ all the time.

      • ‘These people’ – is quite simply a reference to ‘these people’ who have decided their best course of action is to riot, regardless of any stereotype – be it racial, social or otherwise. I’m sure you understand Rach that the primary reason the Government is harping on is that the behaviour of these people – aside from its obvious futility – is damaging on a very personal level. The looting is shocking, yes, and as such has attracted media attention – much as it is human nature to observe animals at play in a zoo. But sadly, the animals in question have misplaced their prey and with base, gratuitous animal savagery lashed out at people who a) have spent years continuing family businesses, no doubt putting in hours of blood, sweat and sacrifice in the process and b) riled and sought to humiliate the one social structure in place to protect and create a sense of order: The Police. Let’s not forget that we are blessed (or, arguably, cursed) with a relatively humane police force who shun panic demands for an equally brutal and harmful response, resolving issues as far as possible through sheer numbers and calm defense. They stand beneath the windows of innocents’ flats, ready to catch them when they jump from their arson-ravaged grimy studios. And they are likewise there as a port of call – enjoying autonomy from the Government in the decisions they make and advice they provide – for any citizen feeling lost or fearful. In this respect they are, to my mind, the last people who anyone should be hitting out at.

        I’ve worked in a school for your aforementioned underclass of society, amongst fellow teachers who strive day-in-day-out to achieve the best they can for such youths. Many border on bouts of depression from the struggle to help individuals to reach their full potential, when these individuals are returning home each night often to a family embroiled in age-old bitter disputes with another, both of whom have forgotten the original cause, or even worse – divided or empty homes. In this particular school, I experienced a police presence outside the school gates at home-time and, often, within school walls. This was not simply to provide safety for the adults committed to inspiring and caring for these children, but also to show them the network of support that was in place, should they feel in need of it. The police there, as throughout the country, serve to bring order where it is lost and support where it is most desperately needed. Unfortunately, the most influential people in helping children/youths to realise this are often the same people to bring about the problems. Parents won’t always be in the money, nor will their relationships be ever free of strain; they are, however, capable of instilling morals in their children’s lives and providing them with love, care and guidelines toward how they can best approach this life. Sadly, I stand by my point that, in many areas of this country, this approach to parenting is sadly lacking.

        In regard to Cameron knowing people by name, it must be remembered that he was elected (into coalition, yes) by a majoritarian system. He, in collaboration with Clegg, therefore serves to represent a majority. It is far too easy to expect or demand superhero deeds from those in power, as such is life – it will always be impossible to please everyone. Which is why the ground work needs to be done in the company of those who do know one’s name – the family unit.

        I would however be interested to hear your views on exactly how the Government can tackle the problems we face in our nation? A Londoner myself, working 11 1/2 hr days to just about bring in enough money to keep a little place on the outskirts going, I understand that city life is tough – it’s grueling and demanding. I’m also somewhat opposed to the idea of having the fairly meagre fruits of my labour burned to the ground by people who do not know my name. So I am open to any practical suggestions as to how life’s ‘bitch’ rating could be taken down a notch or two.

  2. Great commentary. Here are some points that stayed with me:

    *”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 the release of pent-up rage and a small financial gain. 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.”

    *”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.”

  3. You’re forgetting the millionaire’s daughters, school assistants, lifeguards & 50 year olds that also got arrested. It’s not all penniless undisciplined youths attending lower class schools with a bad start in life. “These people” are opportunists. Yes it is morally wrong, but also the opportunity should never have arisen.

  4. Holy massive posts Batman!

    Lack of positive authority figures are undoubtedly a factor, whether it’s parents or those who abuse their higher authority. The bankers who looted the nations wealth, crippling thousands of small businesses, are not exactly paragons of good behaviour. Is it so surprising that the people of their society reflect their greed, immorality, inequality, violence and disrespect?

    As to police response, I think that the death of Ian Tomlinson definately left its mark, with police wary of doing more than herding rioters. Let’s face it, they were always going to be criticised for their approach; the delicate balance between being too heavy handed and not being seen to do enough is too fine a tightrope to walk in regular times let alone in the chaos of mass looting. All in all my personal opinion is that they did a fairly good job of controlling the situation.

    I don’t know about suggestions to reduce life’s ‘bitch’ rating, but I wouldn’t think that removing looters benefits and evicting them from their council homes is going to help the situation much. The theory behind the move, that poor, homeless people will be calmer and accept their lot more readily, seems deeply flawed, and although I accept that some form of punitive measure is neccesary, surely this will only exacerbate their anger.

    In the post I stated that the groups that stood up to the rioters and defended their community, the football fans, sikhs and turks, embodied community spirit.And they do, but something Cat said about the bestial nature of the rioters made me think that it’s not just the yobs that are behaving like animals. There’s something primal about falling back on groups formed by ethnic or tribal simmilarities, grouping together to protect each other. Perhaps the events of the early week brought about some cardinal change in all of us.

    Who, or what to blame for the riots? It’s easy to accuse society for the actions of the mob, but that eliminates the personal responsibility they obviously have for their actions. The balance, methinks, lies somewhere in the middle. Personally I’d like to see some justice done to the mob in pinstripe.

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