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Why riot and not revolt? Protest and the London Riots

Posted on Tuesday, August 9th, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Author: GlobalComment Editor

Gc contributor: Emily Manuel

Apparently the 80s are back in vogue, again. With a Tory government sitting in Parliament–or rather, holidaying in Tuscany as David Cameron was–rioting is again occurring on the streets of London. It is hard not to wonder the connection between his Thatcher remix attacks on social services and the riots over the weekend.

The riots began on Saturday night with a protest, a five hour vigil at the Tottenham police station in response to the shooting death of Mark Duggan that ended with two police cars being set alight. But the widespread unrest has had little to do with the sparking event; the violence has spread virally over networks like BlackBerry Messenger (see this google map of verified affected areas of London) across London, to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and more.

Images of hooded and masked young men have filled the screens, scenes of looting stores and setting cars, buses and buildings on fire, throwing projectiles at police and media.

MSNBC reported the following exchange between a young Londoner and a television reporter. The reporter asked:

“Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?”

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

The young man makes a very good point. Politics has offered little chance of improving things for young people in the UK in recent history. In December, student and union protests against the devastating Brown Review cuts closed up the centre of London, with a peaceful rally in Bloomsbury and protests outside Parliament in which police charged protesters with horses, amongst other violent acts (that there was 43 hospitalised protesters and 12 police is suggestive). Despite a well organised campaign incorporating a wide array of direct action and symbolic protests over several months, ultimately the cuts were narrowly passed by Parliament.

Guardian journalist Paul Lewis tweeted his surprise from Tottenham, exclaiming that “I’m surprised how many local people know of (and criticise) the IPCC” (the Independent Police Complaints Commission). What should not be a surprise is the anger at police and watchdog institutions like the IPCC. Since 1998, over 333 people have died in custody in the UK without there being a single conviction. Rioters may not all have a highly developed (or always even accurate) knowledge of the political and legal system, but they know that it is not designed to protect them.

Combined with post-recession unemployment, other brutal cuts to housing benefits, the health care system, and many other social services have magnified the bleak outlook for disenfranchised youth. Yesterday, former London mayor Ken Livingstone told the BBC that “there is a level of despair out there. We have got to have a government that speaks to the whole community, not just the layer at the top.”

That the riots have spread so quickly across London and the country suggests that there is far more than just anger at police violence involved. The Duggan protest may have been the spark, but the kindling had been piled high by the recession, by the ConDem government’s extraordinary austerity program, by institutional police racism, by the steady dimming of the post-war promise of a better tomorrow for the poor, the underclass, the working class.

Riots are what happens when people–almost always young men–stop believing in their communities, in their country, in their rights as a citizen. Riots are what happens when whole groups are treated as potential or actual criminals by the police. Riots happen when anger, resentment, testosterone and yes, consumerist desire are greater than civic pride or fear of the police, when the facade of power finally cracks and people realise they outnumber the forces of order. And mostly particularly, riots are what happens when people despair, when there appears to be few options in the present and none in the future, and no way to fix the situation.

It is interesting to contrast these riots to the Arab Spring which has wept through the Middle East this year. Unlike the activists of the Arab Spring, the London rioters appear to want little, politically. Spread so far, the riots are indiscriminate, futile and meaningless in themselves, a wave of destruction that helps few and harms many. There are reports of looting more akin to opportunistic survival, of young women stealing milk and diapers, and of others of sheer mercenary desire, for trainers and DVD players, cigarettes.

It is instead an overwhelmingly negative protest at society in general, one that hits at the rioters’ own communities as much as anyone in power, one that takes in police and huge multinationals and small business owners, neighbours. An extraordinary video spread online shows a woman berating rioters, “this is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham, it ain’t about having fun on the road and bussing up the place. Get it real, black people! Get it real. Do it for a cause. If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a fucking cause.”

Riots are what happen when people are given too little, pushed too far, and stop being afraid of their governments. The UK government would do well to learn this and treat the social causes of unrest by giving these young people something to want besides trainers, to cater for more than the interests of the very rich. But they should also remember the recent lessons of the Middle East, as well as the older ones of their neighbours across the Channel–for revolutions are born in these same conditions. A Thatcher throwback is one thing, but a Marie Antoinette would be quite another.

Front page photo by Stuart Bannocks of riot police in Lewisham High Street, London 2011, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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  1. Wonderful article. Too many politicians and journalists are wiling to ignore what makes young people resort to this sort of lawlessness.

  2. The riots in Britain are in keeping with the example set by Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and Lord Kitchener, in Anglo Boer War II.
    England destroyed the Boer republics by burning Boer farms, food, clothes, furniture; and herding defenseless Boer women, children, the sick, disabled and elderly into concentration camps, where they starved almost 50% of Boer children. Britain also armed Black people against the Boers. What goes around comes around. The rioters are just not as evil as Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Lord Kitchener: they have not put up concentration camps yet. They should be commended for their restraint.
    Read: BRITISH TERRORISM AGAINST BOER CIVILIANS, from Amazon.

  3. David Cameron must act hard & swiftly . He must stamp out this rioting now, bring in the army & tell them use any force needed. If this is NOT stamped out now, the whole country will be in riot with copy cat actions tonight .

  4. You make some excellent points.
    Add to all this the complete destruction of their education, the social pressure to be part of the criminal fraternity, constant police harassment (just look on you tube, its full of incidents), 24 hour video surveillance and the media rubbing their noses in the lives of the rich and famous and all the stuff they will never ever be able to afford, is it any wonder they finally crack?

  5. I found this after listening to the biased reporting of the riots by Radio 4. The news reporters seem be giving a very one sided veiw of the motives of the perpetrators. I have now heard two conservative MP’s views on the events and one rather nervous person from the Tottenham community talk about the events. The consevative one on Radio 4 and the other on Utube Sky TV talked about the rioters as anarchists and yobs and a dangerous MINORITY where as the community member tentativley tried to explore the reasons for such anger. However he was not listened to by the Conservative MP with any willingness to engage with community fears and concerns. He was unable to hear the arguments and engage with them. This type of reporting is without any political analysis and does not explore or look at the fears and frustrations of young people in the current situation of cuts. No wonder they feel furious when they see that opportunites for employment and study being reduced, benefits theymight relie on being cut and disappearing, limited housing opportunites and thier parents afriad of and suffering in job loses. It is trite and glib of people who are comfortalbe to make judge ment. These people who earn good saleries and can afford to send their children to private schools and fund their higher education are not putting themselves in the palce of what it might be like to be young person living in these communites. This isn’t a few disgrunted anarchists because it has been so wide spread. It’s drawing people from many lower income communities who would like to be apart of the consumer society and have real reason to fear the coming years ahead. It’s easy to create splits between people who are not living in these communities and those that are experinceing the sharp end of cuts by fueling attitudes that perpetuate the problems by this type of reporting. When I talk about people who are better off I don’t just mean members of the current government and BBC employies I mean the many people who still have comfortalbe living standards in stockbroker counties and towns such as Bath and Cambridge where many of those who have access to the media live. Ok thoses areas have some areas of deprevaion but they are small and defuse and to certain level protected e.g. unemployment in Cambridge is low. However even there, there is an extrodinary level of hidden un employment in the youth on council estate where I work in Bath the few resources that have been availalbe are being cut, such as careers advice . There is also a higher level of physical and mental ill health and disability in social housing in these communities So that parents have more to juggle with than parents in well heeled areas. It’s time reporting was less smug and more wiling to anaylyse the causes of these events and not drive wedges between communites so that weathier communites can become a part of the solution not part of the problem.

  6. Great article! I’ve noticed that a lot of reporters are giving their own opinions on the riots which immediately makes me distrust the news. It stinks of propaganda and not truth. It’s good to see someone writing from an objective point of view and looking at the source and cause as opposed apportioning blame.

  7. Astute observation! This position concluded my own sentiments afters exploring the local troubles last night.

  8. Neale…
    so you recommend actions that will actually make things worse and turn the UK into a complete military dictatorship. That action failed in Northern Ireland, what makes you think it will work on the mainland?

  9. Fantastic write up. Probably one of the most impartial of all the stories Ive read. Thank you very much.

  10. A country can’t expect to spend billions of dollars into crusader wars against Islam and Muslims then except the world to be a wonderful place.

    Secondly, when all other systems have failed man will come back to the way of the prophets. Secular democracy is a man made system and it has failed.

  11. What may be a more astute understanding of what unnerves many Brits (and ironically has begun to plague the world financial markets and most Western societies) has been the relentless cutting of social services by resident conservative parties. It might be all about reigning in a runaway deficit and heeding the warnings of various central banks, but one has to ask a few questions, did those individuals collecting their unemployment checks and welfare stubs single handily cause the ballooning of the deficit there? Or could we perhaps ask aloud whether it’s been a situation of increased military spending and welfare breaks for the corporate elite (never mind the tax cuts for the well to do) that has caused a gutting of public finances, the demise of the manufacturing industry and relocation to the third world and the resultant occurrence of unemployment?

    How ironic and telling that the two ends of the class divide have begun to invert and feed on themselves. Both may in the end may be reacting to the same thing, the durability of a paradigm that’s failing them both.

    http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2011/08/how-the-shifting-class-wars-are-now-making-their-way-to-london-streets-and-world-financial-markets/

  12. This is by far the most honest and observant reporting I have read so far. I’m surprised that it has taken this long for the people at the bottom of the ladder to display anger in such a way. As long as the gap of inequality between rich and poor continues to grow such incidents will occur everywhere. The system is broken and this is consequence of sixty years of consumerist greed.

  13. A very written article but I disagree entirely with it. First of all, any comparison with the Arab Spring is an affront to all those heroes who took to the streets of Egypt and Tunisia. The latter were standing up (peacefully) in order to have a system of democracy in their countries like the system Britain has. Sure it’s imperfect, but it’s a far better system than dictatorship.

    Secondly, I think it’s very dangerous to argue that the only way for those people to be heard was to riot, rob, steal, break windows and set fire to shops. If a cause is so weak that it can only draw attention to itself through acts of violence, then it’s no cause at all (see all terrorist movements since time began). I don’t buy for one minute the idea that a peaceful protest wd not have worked. If all those rioters had demonstrated peacefully in Trafalgar Square, the world would have covered it. The sad reality is they had no cause.

    Cameron said it best “this is criminality, pure and simple”. This is simply the revolt of ordinary criminals, and they do not deserve a defence as eloquent as this article provides them. The only answer is in stricter policing and deterrence.

  14. I agree with Nasser, since when setting fire to an innocent man’s business gives us all the reasons to make ourselves heard? If heard is the aim, then why would Gandhi be ever known to start with? Or mother Teresa? Or even many more leaders whose cause they’ve stood for peacefully were heard and even, seriously, still being spoken of till date?

    Does it even make sense to call for a cause and yet, get ourselves involved in violence? This whole formula just doesn’t fit at all. I have always come to know that standing up for a cause stems out of a hunger for a better tomorrow, for a positive change and improvement to a current situation. What we see here, through looting, damaging public goods and ruining businesses, does not represent at all this honorable aim.

    “If a cause is so weak that it can only draw attention to itself through acts of violence, then it’s no cause at all”

    Violence will harbor nothing but a cascaded flow of hatred that would spread virally and lead to a complete disaster, and when this happens, god forbids, when people can no longer close their eyes to sleep for fear of a looting fire-igniting man, when food runs out of supply as shops no longer operate, or when a system that protects a society has been dissolved,

    then all what I can say is,

    Bravo people bravo, you have successfully managed to brilliantly achieve a complete change – to the worst that would lead to your extinction.

  15. Well put Aireen. These rioters and looters have now killed three people. They robbed a bleeding teenager. And some are still telling us they are disaffected youth, and that Government needs to do something about it. Indeed it does. A government needs to imprison criminals and murderers.

    Cameron is handling this in exactly the right way. It’s a matter of law and order. Justice must prevail.

  16. Hmm. Interesting that one comment mentions Ghandi. Maybe the poor, young population wants to get the message across without being beat down and not defending themselves. Remember, not all riots started out that way. In fact, many began as a peaceful protest that only turned ugly when police took things too far (poll tax march in ’90). I understand that it’s not right to loot stores and torch random buildings, but the government needs to stop stepping on their own people. You can’t judge the actions people are taking if you don’t have a better idea to not just get their attention, but get them to LISTEN. Someone doesn’t notice a fly until it bites; the government only listens to the people when they are destructive.

  17. Interesting that a comment mentions that people should act more like Ghandi. Maybe people aren’t willing to protest peacefully only to get brutally attacked. And we all know the police will beat anyone, even if in peaceful protest (poll tax riots are a great example). A single person to the government is a fly to a man. The fly buzzes around, the man pays little attention. A person (or several) hold peaceful protest, the government pays little attention. A fly bites, and the man certainly notices it. Maybe people are sick of sitting down and singing kumbayah when nothing is changing. If the governemnt won’t listen to peaceful protest, we’ll give them something to listen to.

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