I am writing a longer and more reflective piece, but in the meantime here are five quick points about the riots in London and elsewhere:
This is not a rerun of the inner city riots that shook Britain in the late seventies and the eighties. Those riots were a direct challenge to oppressive policing and to mass unemployment. They threatened the social fabric of Britain’s inner cities and forced the government to rethink its mechanisms of social control. Today’s riots may have made the Metropolitan police look inept, revealed politicians as out of touch and brought mayhem to some parts of London, Liverpool and Birmingham. But there is little sense that they pose a challenge to social order, in the way that the 80s riots did, or that they are in any sense ‘insurrectionary’, as Darcus Howe described those revolts. Rather today’s riots amounted to the trashing of some of the poorest areas in the city. On Friday night, when the riots began in Tottenham, there was some political content to the violence, an inchoate response to the shooting of Mark Duggan (whose death looks increasingly like a police killing rather than the outcome of an exchange of fire). By Saturday the riots had descended largely into arson and looting with little sense of political motive or cause.
The riots are not about race. Many on the left have seen them as a response to racist policing. Many on the right have been pouring out racist bile against ‘immigrants’. In fact race has played little role in the violence. This is not to deny that young black men continue to be the primary target of police stop and search (an issue that has been shamefully ignored in recent years). Nor is it to deny that there is a legacy of bitterness about, and resentment of, police tactics in many inner city communities. But the riots were not in any way defined by racial divisions, antagonisms or resentments.
The polarisation between the claim that ‘the riots are a response to unemployment and wasted lives’ and the insistence ‘the violence constitutes mere criminality’ makes little sense. There is clearly more to the riots than simple random hooliganism. But that does not mean that the riots, as many have claimed, are protests against disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives. In fact, it’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any meaningful sense, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem. Disengaged not just from the political process (largely because politicians, especially those on the left, have disengaged from them), but also from a sense of the community or the collective, there is a generation (in fact more than a generation) with no focus for their anger and resentment, no sense that they can change society and no reason to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is very different from suggesting that the riots were caused by, a response to, or a protest against, unemployment, austerity and the cuts.
We should ignore anyone who talks about what ‘the community’ wants or needs. So called ‘community leaders’ are very much part of the problem.
Mindless though the rioters may be, those who call for the army to be unleashed, curfews to be imposed, or ‘robust policing’ to be used, are more mindless still, and more dangerous.
(Apologies for a lack of links in the piece. I am off grid at the moment. I will update the piece with links later.)