Riotology

Riot police in Tottenham. Credit Unknown.

Written for New America Media in early August. Posting belatedly.

LONDON — The riots that surged across England in recent days will have sociologists scratching their heads for years. Ostensibly triggered in London’s Tottenham by the police shooting of a young black man, within 24 hours of the protest turning violent, cars were burning across the country and young, white pre-teen kids were looting supermarkets for cheap vodka.

The social fabric in Britain is clearly brittle. Race riots; protests; mindless thuggery: whatever cause or opprobrium observers cast, none seemed to provide a clear casus belli. “So much anger aimed in no particular direction, just sprays and sprays and through the radio waves it plays and plays until it stays stuck in your head for days and days.”

It’s Eminem, rather Emeritus professors, who are probably closest to analysing the situation, and plenty of the kids in the UK’s bigger cities seem ready to snap. If you want to know who saw it coming, UNICEF warned things weren’t looking good four years ago in 2007.  In a strongly worded report it claimed that children growing up in the United Kingdom suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world.

It didn’t predict, of course, that they’d start burning and looting as a result.

Yet with the UK placed bottom of the league of 21 economically advanced countries according to the “report card”‘ on the wellbeing of children and adolescents, perhaps it was inevitable that something would happen. All it needed was a trigger, and the as-yet unexplained shooting of Mark Duggan by the police was a catalyst for violence in one community that found ready echoes in a certain demographic across the rest of the country.

The mainstream public mood meanwhile is fierce: Friends, brown, black and white, call — not entirely in jest — for live ammunition to be used against the rioters. Other stray voices decry the closure of youth centers and the hiking of education fees, as the government imposes an austerity program on those furthest removed from the causes of the financial crisis and most likely to suffer as a result. “A few more ping pong tables would not have stopped this,” comes the retort. It’s an endless debate.

The turmoil and near panic that gripped London’s financial markets at the start of this week was so clearly mirrored in chaos on the streets they seemed to be not just related, but synchronized. Correlation may not imply causation, but “some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk,” as Thoreau put it; an increasingly calamitous macroeconomic climate may well be being echoed in the microcosm of rundown neighborhoods.

“We’re getting our taxes back.” “We just want to give the cops the runaround.” “We don’t trust the government ever since Iraq.” These are just some of the comments reporters have been hearing amid the smoke. Why political discontent should be manifested by burning your neighbour’s barber or greengrocer may be a moot point – not every Nike-laden, Blackberry-fiddling looter has spent much time with Engel or Kropotkin. They just want to smash shit up and sometimes “Whatever’s Closest” is what breaks easiest.

It is order in any of its manifestations that has been a target. The established order of the government is a hard target; the tick-tock-tyranny of daily life’s rhythms a softer one; the shopkeeper who pissed you off; the policemen who stopped and searched you, the smug normality of the people who are so shocked at what’s happening.

Postcode gangs, who usually guard their arbitrary territories as fiercely as pissing hounds, have joined together in an orgy of Blackberry messaging and window-smashing and thus a subculture is created; an underbelly that finally has a unified “Us” to pit against the do-gooding “Them” who joined the “#riotcleanup” Twitter hashtag, turned up in force at London’s Clapham Junction with brooms and were promptly told by police not to bother as the area was technically a crime scene. Civic emasculation knows no limits.

The politicians swan back from their expensive holidays as the embers glow; hearty tans set against burning cities, clutching brooms in flimsy photo opportunities. The good, the bad, the ugly; all have been disempowered by what has happened and only an increasingly feral police – previously facing savage cutbacks to their budget and overtime pay, stand to gain as a result.

Postscript. Amid the wailing and teeth-knashing, the best thing to come out of the riots was the frequently hilarious photoshopping going on, particularly the “London Prepares” series, mocking the damage done to the capital’s image ahead of the Olympics. A favourite below:

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