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At the time of writing, the protests that began two nights ago in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham have developed into full-blown riots in other neighborhoods across the city, including Enfield, Hackney, Brixton, Lewisham, Ealing, Clapham, Peckham, Camden, Woolwich, Bromley, Croydon (5 miles from my current location), as well as the cities of Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham, hundreds of miles away. Police have been employed, civilians attacked, businesses (both local and corporate) looted, property torched. By the time I finish writing this, many more places will likely be on fire.
I am always wary of using a term like “riot,” because of its origin as a state employed term to redefine legitimate protest as mindless violence. And this tactic has certainly been employed in the past couple of days. But at the same time, there is no denying that the particular actions of some people at street level (whether they are a minority or majority at this stage isn’t clear) has had little to do with protest. By now the scenes of violence, and even more so the evidence of large-scale, organized theft, has completely undermined the original point that protesters sought to make. Unlike Home Secretary Theresa May, I am not willing to dismiss all of the past few days’ events as mindless “criminality” and sheer “thuggery.” But neither am I happy to proclaim, as future London Mayoral Candidate Ken Livingstone is, that the speed with which the riots have spread, or the sheer level of destruction witnessed, is evidence only of a nationwide feeling of discontent among young people. From what I can tell, there are far more self-interested actions at work in this carnage than in most examples of civil disobedience I have studied. I hope I am wrong about this. I am just as wary of using the term “looter”—memories of New Orleans tell us how often that term has been misused. However, here it seems increasingly appropriate. I hope that it will turn out that political points are being made once the smoke (quite literally) clears. It is difficult not to be pessimistic though, and I’m not convinced that any grievance, no matter how substantial, justifies the current destruction and the costs (financial and psychological) London’s inhabitants will have to bear.
Outbursts of civil unrest usually have immediate triggers and long term causes. For those unfamiliar with the suggested immediate causes of the current violence, Mark Duggan, a father of four was shot and killed by police in Tottenham on Thursday. A firearm was recovered from the minicab in which Duggan was travelling, and suggestions were made that Duggan had fired on police first. More recent (unconfirmed) reports suggest that Duggan may not have fired at all. A silent vigil held by family and friends outside Tottenham police station seems now to have been largely unconnected to the violence that developed, although it was the site at which the confrontation began. Rumors of police brutality towards protesters in Tottenham, as well as a stop-and-search of a man in Hackney (a police tactic of random searching which has often been used disproportionately on people of color, and was seen as a central reason behind the 1981 Brixton riots), if true, also likely served as triggers. More long-term causes probably include the growing unemployment and poverty, particularly among young people, in the communities that have witnessed destruction, significant government cuts to local youth services that have removed recreational programs and means of political self-expression, and a sense of victimization at the hands of police brutality and politicians’ social and economic policies. Few would agree that these phenomena justify the level of violence sweeping over the country, but they should not be forgotten.
Those responsible for destroying the property of others, for depriving people of places to live and work, for diverting much needed public funds to containment and cleanup of destruction, for seizing on legitimate discontent as a means for selfish gain, and for hurting those caught in the crossfire, bear a heavy responsibility. They should be held accountable for the damage they have caused. When businesses that have been family owned for five generations and have served a community since the 1860s is destroyed overnight, there seems to be little in the way of symbolic political expression in its destruction. I hate to admit it, but as time goes on, I find suggestions that all remaining disturbances reveal only profit-motivated theft and wanton vandalism increasingly convincing. But just as significant, to my mind, is the responsibility rioters bear for distracting attention away from the systematic inequalities, disenfranchisement of marginalized communities and heavy-handed police tactics that existed before this began. If we can believe police reports that tonight (August 8, 2011), unlike the two previous nights, witnessed a more organized system of theft and fewer attempts at political expression, continuation along this route will only further detract from the discussions of social inequality that need to be had.
Because I genuinely believe that this began as an expression of discontent that needs an answer. This is not the same as the “rage” mentioned by even sympathetic political commentators—the term connotes an unthinking, blind, near pathological action that diminishes the political agency of protestors as much as accusations of sheer criminality prevent us from addressing social problems and governmental responsibility. Because while we must hold rioters accountable for the destruction they have caused, the people they have injured and the damage they have inflicted to the causes of legitimate protest, the responsibility does not end with them. In the space of two days, most of the country seems to have forgotten that there was more to this mess than “thuggery.”
In some respects we expect this kind of amnesia from our politicians. It suits Theresa May and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to dismiss the troubles as the actions of mindless criminal youths because they simultaneously absolve themselves and the institutions they represent of all responsibility and lessen public support for the criticisms of their policy that some of disturbances just might symbolize. So formulaic were the government’s actions in fact that the Prime Minister and Mayor of London did not feel compelled to return from holiday until after the third night of disturbances. Now that Cameron has returned and parliament has been recalled, we can expect more simplistic explanations and accusations.
More troubling, but perhaps no less surprising, was the media’s reaction. Even before tonight’s upsurge in violence, most news outlets, most notably ITV, decided to focus far more on the then relatively limited looting than on the possible reasons for the unrest. Mark Duggan’s death was already becoming an afterthought, or even a footnote, in media coverage before most fires were set. The same has since happened with suggestions that Duggan did not fire on police. This choice of coverage may have been government mandated (although unlikely, the Murdoch scandal has reminded us of just how unsettlingly close these intuitions are), or more likely, it was decided that sensational shots of looted stores and the (at that time) few destroyed buildings would guarantee higher ratings. But few attempts, one heavily criticized Guardian article aside, have been made to take a longer view. A socially responsible media that will do more than echo part lines, that will attempt to traffic in more than hackneyed stereotypes of criminality and will ask searching questions about why people are rioting, has been sorely lacking.
If the media, and the general public watching it, decides to ask some of those questions, it is possible that something can come out of the carnage beyond self-righteous condemnation of an unspecific criminal youth. Certainly we can condemn violence and theft, but we can do more. We can separate the destructive actions from the legitimate political issues that led to protest. We can ask whether government cuts to social welfare, especially youth services and unemployment benefits, (riots always seem to happen under Conservative governments) have been too severe and too quick. We can ask how young people in certain communities came to feel so isolated. We can ask what role police tactics played in the run up to the unrest and how practices might be amended. We can ask how structural inequalities that have been exacerbated by financial crisis might be ameliorated. The events of the last few days have inevitably brought comparison to the 1981 Brixton riots. Those disturbances of 30 years ago led to systematic investigation and reform of police tactics in 1984. Though it seems some of the changes may not have gone far enough, we can hope that this time around more lasting interventions can be made. Just one such change should consider ways to give isolated communities better access to those who govern them. Another could be a more independent press that reports on more than just destruction. These reforms, among others, offer the best way for London and the rest of the country, to move on from this.