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Guest post: On the riots

August 10, 2011

I’ve been wanting to write something about the riots in the UK over the last four days, but thanks to being in full dissertation mode I haven’t really had the time or brain-space to pull anything coherent together. Seamus, however, has been consistently spot-on in his commentary on Facebook, and graciously agreed to put together a post here. All plaudits should be directed at him. Typos and formatting errors are probably, alas, mine.


I am going to talk about the political and social factors which I think are responsible for the wave of vandalism, theft and violence which has spread out across Britain over the last four nights. I believe that these riots are the inevitable result of certain conditions existing in this country.

At this point, if this were a TV interview, the host would very probably say, “Surely you’re not condoning the violence?” As if to think, in itself, were a dangerous thing at a time like this. As if the proper response would be to say, “Wow, the biggest outbreak of violent disorder in this country in 30 years just happened completely at random; there definitely aren’t any lessons to be drawn from this!”

I am not going to refrain from analysing the conditions that made this possible just because it might be taken as a justification for lawlessness. Nor am I going to add the standard disclaimer, “Of course, the riots are indefensible …” I leave it to you to decide whether a person, while being motivated enough to sit and write out his thoughts about how his country could be improved, would nevertheless be in favour of that country getting smashed to pieces.

So why has this happened now? We know that the spark, as with, to cite a few, the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981, the Newark riots of 1967, the Queens riots of 1973, and the LA riots of 1992, was an incident of police violence. Two, in fact: the shooting of Mark Duggan was the reason for the peaceful protest outside Tottenham Hale police station; this protest then became violent when a 16-year-old girl was allegedly attacked by police while demanding answers. Mistrusting the police is not unusual. Even so, the lurch of shock when you are suddenly made to feel that they are truly malevolent, truly out to get you whether you are guilty or not, pushes many people into the kind of violence that they would not otherwise contemplate.

Equally, we know that Duggan’s death and the incident at the police station cannot be the whole explanation. People breaking windows and looting shops in Birmingham, or Liverpool, or Bristol, are unlikely to have much thought of Duggan, and his name has not come up in any of the interviews with rioters that I have heard so far. Instead, statements like this are typical:

That’s what it’s all about: showing the police, we can do what we want. And now we have…. It’s the government’s fault…. We’re just showing the rich people that we can do what we want.

Why are you gonna miss the opportunity to get, like, free stuff that’s worth loads of money?… It’s about that the government aren’t in control, because if they was, we wouldn’t be able to do it, would we?

Anger towards the government is a strong theme, and with good reason. The current government has dealt hammer blow after hammer blow to the youth of this country, particularly in inner-city areas. Education Maintenance Allowance has been withdrawn and university tuition fees tripled, leaving further education less accessible for the poorest people.* Welfare schemes have been reduced or scrapped altogether; those who remain on sickness benefit are being aggressively pressurised to get off it. Youth services have seen their budgets catastrophically reduced, as well: Haringey, one of the worst-hit areas in the riots, has recently seen eight of its thirteen youth clubs closed. With amazing prescience, the Guardian posted a video just ten days ago with the title Haringey youth club closures: ‘There’ll be riots’. If the young people who are causing this trouble feel that the government doesn’t care about them, they feel so with good reason. I don’t think this government does care about them. It certainly doesn’t understand them.

And yet, more than animosity towards the police or the government, the central message journalists keep hearing, from both the quoted interviewees among many others, is this: we are doing it because we can. So then how do you begin to change society, remove the reasons people do this kind of thing, when it appears they have such flimsy reasons to do it in the first place? And when people admit, as the second interviewee above admitted, that they could probably afford to buy the things they are stealing if they wanted to, how can you justify taking the responsibility off them and putting it onto things like society, the government, the education system?

Well, first of all, what I am seeking is not to decrease the level of personal responsibility attributed to the people doing these things, but to increase it. It seems to me that very few people have actually talked about the choice people made to get involved with these disturbances. There’s a tendency a lot of the time to assume that people, or certain people, are essentially wretches and will always do stuff like this given the chance: there’s a great deal of “we will stop you doing this” and not a lot of “you shouldn’t do this, you ought to stop”. Those who do mention the morality of the rioters tend to refer to them as if “rioter” were a type of person, something you either are or you aren’t, rather than a choice people make. The news and the government have both been anxious to show off the terrible consequences rioters can expect to suffer. This kind of deterrent only works if people expect to be caught: for those who do not, shows of strength by the authorities only add to the thrill of escaping capture.

Look at one of the most justly-celebrated public information campaigns: the one against drink-driving, starting with “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” in the 80s. The reason why this was so successful was that it didn’t say “Don’t drink and drive because we’ll throw you in prison”; it said “Don’t drink and drive because you could hurt other people or yourself”. It also encouraged social pressure as the means of preventing the crime in question, placing the onus on peers to make sure these things didn’t happen. This is what I mean about increasing personal responsibility.

If I were in charge of the rolling news, I would show fewer repeats of David Cameron saying “we will do everything necessary to restore order”, and more of furniture store owner Trevor Reeves forlornly saying “we don’t understand why they’ve done this”. Getting one over on an authoritarian prime minister makes you feel like a hero; destroying the livelihood of a peaceful old man makes you feel like a wanker.

It may be that we have enough police officers and resources to put an end to these riots. But if we don’t want them to happen again next week, or next year, we must make people feel that it is wrong to steal from other people, to burn up their shops and homes – not just that it is illegal. To do that, they will need to have a stake and an interest in preserving their local area: it is all very well exclaiming in shock that they are burning down their own communities, but if those communities offer them nothing but boredom and hostility, why would the mere fact that they live there deter them? Making this change will cost money, for youth services and education above all, but it surely can’t cost as much as the damage outbreaks like this will do if they keep on happening. They will also need to feel that the authorities – that is, the government, the police, teachers, local business owners – care about them as people, and want them to succeed, instead of just wanting to keep them in line. To become a healthy society, we can’t just prevent people doing these things. We need them to decide not to.


*wickedday footnote: This phrase in the original piece referred to “education after 16”. The government is currently pushing through legislation to make education compulsory until 18 – at the same time as cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance designed to help pay for the costs of an extra two years in school. As well as adding to the material burden on the school system I can’t imagine that keeping all the people who would previously have left at 16 (for apprenticeships or jobs) in school for another two years is going to be good for them, their teachers or their peers. Higher education must be available to anyone, but it will never be right for everyone, because (newsflash!) people have different temperaments and different skills. See also the damaging effects of the assumption that all middle-class children are innately suited to university.


Some other links of interest (please add more in comments)

An open letter to David Cameron’s parents, from Nathaniel Tapley A timely reminder that those attempting to be the voice of moral probity here are not doing a very convincing job of it. Also highlights the utter ridiculousness of Cameron’s – and various police bods’ – continued insistence on bringing the rioters’ parents into this. (A note: Mr Cameron’s father passed away last year. This pointed out in the comments, Tapley responded with “I thought about that, but I think it underscores the point that whenever you blame someone’s parents you are doing so in utter ignorance of their situation. Whenever Cameron himself places the blame on parents, he has no idea if he’s talking to widows or the recently bereaved and yet he still feels quite confident in doing it. Yes, it’s crass and insensitive. It’s also exactly what he does.”)

Nothing ‘mindless’ about rioters, by Daniel Hind at Al-Jazeera – A piece interrogating the popular media line about “mindless violence”, and pointing out that while there will be different motivations among the rioters there are motivations nonetheless. Also has some good thoughts on the role of technology in the social perception of rioting.

The UK riots and Twitter’s solution, by ukenagashi on Livejournal – Looking briefly at the #OperationCupOfTea Twitter response to the riots, and why while it’s nice it’s not necessarily that helpful.

There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored, by Nina Power at the Guardian – A piece from Monday looking at the riots in light of the UK’s abysmal levels of social inequality (high) and social mobility (low).

If the rioting was a surprise, people weren’t looking, by Stafford Scott at the Guardian – A piece again from Monday pointing out that you can’t really call the riots “unexpected”, “surprising”, “shocking” and so on given what’s been building up of late.

Caring costs – but so do riots, by Camila Batmanghelidjh at the Independent – An article looking at how a great deal of anti-establishment feeling is fostered by the establishment, when the very systems supposedly set up to help the most vulnerable end up reinforcing dividing lines.

Looking at the whys is not optional, by Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon – A response to and brief elaboration on Batmanghelidjh’s article, focusing more narrowly on the links between rioting and poverty and the impossibility of preventing the one without dealing with the other.

And from September last year (props to Seamus for digging this one out), a Guardian piece quoting Theresa May saying that it’s possible to cut police budgets without risking violent unrest. A cheap shot, perhaps, but . . . yeah.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011 11:14 pm

    I’ve already told you how excellent I think this is, but I’ll tell you again – thank you. Your commentary has been a much-needed antidote to the froth of bigoted authoritarian bullshit that seems to have come over . . . well, much of the country. Did you see Cameron saying earlier about how they’re planning to publish CCTV images of the rioters and not “let any phony concerns about human rights get in the way”? It’s not the specific issue that it’s attached to that’s the problem there; rather, you have to wonder what other procedures he doesn’t intend to let “phony concerns about human rights” get in the way of.

    The notion being pushed that certain groups of people (and it’s never “us”, these groups, always “them”), as you say, “are essentially wretches and will always do stuff like this given the chance” – restrained only by the threat of punishment – reminded me of one of Fred Clark’s posts on the Left Behind series. He’s looking at the worldview specifically in the context of the fundamentalist Christian idea that people only do good out of the fear of Hell, but a lot of his points are more broadly applicable.

  2. Becky permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:29 pm

    I agree with your assessment of a more effective way to police this–increasing the feeling of personal responsibility and community rather than depending on fear of legal repercussions, because as you said, most people probably think they’ll be getting away with this.

    However, just to play Devil’s Advocate–I come from the US, where there is a much lower amount of aid available and it’s much more difficult to qualify for it. I get the impression that many people in this country that are on benefits are simply used to others taking care of them. Now let me say right away that I believe that there does need to be a certain amount of public aid and that I’m sure many people who receive it in this country are in real need of it–just as in my country there are many people who need it that aren’t getting it. But there are others in the UK (who have less actual need of these benefits) who have been spoon-fed by the government for so long that they live with a sense of entitlement–other people can be responsible for them, they don’t have to be responsible for themselves. I definitely think that their disgruntlement at the spoon being taken away–cuts in services, etc–is contributing to these riots.

    I think many people are giving some of those taking part in the riots far too much credit by giving their actions a political foundation–that is definitely true for many of those taking part, on some level, but many others are simply doing it out of greed and opportunity. Many of these people are not looting food and basic supplies, nor are they attacking government buildings–they’re stealing DVD players and phones and setting fire to private homes and independent businesses, and getting out of there before the police even show up.

  3. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    August 10, 2011 11:46 pm

    Excellent, I’d been thinking about a lot of this stuff too, especially the uninformed comments being thrown around from pretty much everyone in authority. I saw one of the MPs for East London on the Guardian asking ‘Why are they doing this? Who would want to come here and invest now?’ which seems to miss the point that nobody was investing there anyway! They might not feel like they are ruining the community if it was already ruined to being with!

    I could also expand upon your comments about the difference between actions being wrong and being illegal. With things happening that people disagree with that are legal (like the large welfare cuts), and other illegal things many people do and seem to feel justified in doing (pirating music and games, or using cannabis*), maybe the idea that things are made illegal because they are wrong is coming further apart in some people’s minds.

    *I am not saying that these things are right or wrong, or that they should be legal or illegal (perhaps another blog post), just that many people do them.

  4. Seamus permalink
    August 11, 2011 1:51 am

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to write this, wickedday, and thanks also for casting your discerning eye over it and adding a note and those links. I’d read the articles by Stafford Scott and the wonderful Camila Batmanghelidjh, and I’m now looking forward to reading the other ones you posted.

    Becky, I think it’s definitely true that you can’t justify nicking a DVD player by saying that the government pissed you off. Even so, we need to be aiming to have the kind of society where people wouldn’t do that at all, and so rooting out the social influences that contribute to this behaviour is an urgent priority. I’m well aware that some people who don’t really need to receive benefits have got them in the past, but I would a thousand times rather that than have people destitute, sleeping on the street, for lack of them — which is the situation in the UK now, and in the US as well.

    Knightofthedropdowntable, I think the wrong/illegal distinction is a really interesting one in general. I’ve found as a teacher that I can hand out all the punishments I want without changing students’ behaviour in the slightest, but that once they feel I’m on their side and I care about them, a merely symbolic punishment, or just a disapproving word, is sufficient to make them say “sorry” and get on with their work. Wanting the approval of the teacher is so much more powerful a force than wanting not to have to stay in at break-time. Not that I always succeed in establishing that bond with them: it is really difficult — but for the teachers of today it is perhaps the most significant issue and the most important challenge that they face.

  5. thirithch permalink
    August 11, 2011 5:44 am

    Thanks a lot for some much needed intelligent, considerate comment at a time when so many people are frothing at the mouth…


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