Riots

by Fish-Face at 4:17 p.m. on 11. August, 2011

Anyone in the UK not living in a cave will probably have realised that the country has experienced some of the worst disorder for a long time, with riots, vandalism, looting, mugging and crime of all flavours occurring in cities all across England. As the riots were happening and now that they appear to be dying down there has been a lot of debate as to the root cause of the riots and what should be done about them.

First of all it's pretty much clear that the riots have nothing to do with the death at the hands of firearms officers of Mark Duggan. While that was the spark, it's subsequently been made clear that the looters are not concerned about the event.

That in itself doesn't indicate that there is no legitimate grievance amongst the rioters, although this again seems doubtful. We need to be a bit careful when talking about this, though; what I mean is not that those committing crimes have no reason to be angry, nor that there could be no societal responsibility that should have prevented the violence. Rather, that there appears to have been no rational procedure starting with "I'm angry" going through "Because the government/police/etc did something wrong" and, with a bit of stirring, ending up at "Let's riot."

Handily the world has been experiencing protests and riots recently that allow us to make some neat comparisons. If you take, say, the Egyptian protests, it is quite obvious that the people on the streets, and probably even the people torching government buildings, were acutely aware of the problems with the state and why they were left with no choice but to take to the streets. This is in stark and depressing contrast to the pair of girls interviewed by the BBC who were rioting to "show the rich we can do what we want" and "it's the governments fault ... yeah, Conservatives ... or whoever it is, I dunno."

And so, in this sense, I would say, David Cameron is right to describe it as "criminality, pure and simple." It's not really a protest, and it is certainly criminal. Furthermore, there is some sense in which no matter what further analysis may uncover, some of the actions were absolutely beyond excuse or even understanding. To attack the police is, arguably, understandable — if you have been the victim of police oppression all your life, for example. But to attack fire and even ambulance crews as they are attempting to help people is sickeningly, intensely wrong. Nonetheless, as I indicated before, that's not to say that there aren't deeper issues at stake. Something can be "pure criminality" and utterly deplorable whilst still having societal causes that can be corrected by the state.

I was and still am sceptical of many of those commenting and saying that the fault lies with the state. This is because many are claiming that poverty, alienation, disaffection and lack of a stake in society are (correctable) causes of the looting. Yet from reports from witnesses, interviews and video footage we can see that a significant number of those taking part in the looting are unlikely to be poor, alienated and so on. One of those charged in the wee-hours court sessions recently was a University graduate training for her career. Witnesses and footage shows designer gear in great evidence (and not just being carried out under people's arms), and we hear that much of the looting was organised with the help of smartphones.

Now, what has gone unsaid (as far as I'm aware) is that people with smartphones and designer gear cannot be poor, which is probably untrue. But nonetheless I think it is indicative that there is a sizable portion of the crowd who are not disaffected, who have no reason to be lashing out at society and are just there for the thrill and the loot.

But that doesn't show that none of them are, or even that, if we fixed some societal problems, the riots would still have happened. Obviously you need to reach critical mass for an event of this magnitude to spread all across the country, and it seems likely that the well-integrated members of society who took part didn't start the trouble, but got swept up when they saw the opportunity.

Particularly worrying was this video from the Guardian. I was sceptical as to how effective government measures can be to solve problems like those said to be at fault here, but at least in this case it seems the provision of youth clubs is effective and they were not shunned by the people they were open for. Similarly this article includes an insight into how stop-and-search powers really can cause alienation.

For once it seems, though, that the comment is more polarised than parliament. From what I've read of the parliamentary proceedings, there seems to be quite a low (albeit nonzero) level of backbiting and opportunism. (As an aside I'm glad there's little real attention paid to reversing cuts to the police: if your policy is public spending cuts then a single datapoint, even a nasty one, is not enough to legitimately reverse the decision. Our politics already has enough knee-jerk reactions. The mooted restrictions on the use of instant messaging services would be just such a reaction, without even having the benefit of sounding sane)

But most of the comments I've read either condemn the riots and those who seek to find deeper explanations than "the youth of today" as seeking to apologise for the crimes or they condemn the riots and the former bunch of commentators for ignoring the real cause. The truth, I suspect is somewhat inbetween — the rioters are indulging in "pure criminality" yet it's not unreasonable to posit further causes, although whether there is sufficient evidence to make a definite assertion on that subject still seems doubtful.

Perhaps a more pertinent question, though, is "what should be done?" Immediately, of course, we want to quell the violence. After that, though, there is little suggestion of what action can be taken to prevent a repetition. Reopening youth clubs could be a start, although it seems that the fact of deficit reduction is here to stay at least for now, and so this could be difficult to orchestrate.

The role of the police in stopping and searching black men and boys, and no doubt other instances of discrimination are no easier to tackle. Part of this is because when criminal activity is associated with a particular race, discrimination becomes inherently useful. As far as I am aware, black people are overrepresented in street gangs and so if you're going to attempt to use a power like stop-and-search to combat gang crime then of course you're going to target people more likely to be involved. The only sensible alternative is to ditch the power entirely — which may be the correct response, but hardly an easy decision.

Hopefully there are other possibilities that are less difficult to implement, but so far I've not seen people discussing them much. Perhaps we can move on from universally condemning the violence to universally identifying things that can be fixed.


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