TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

UK Riots: Hope in the Madness?

The past few days have seen the worst unrest in the UK since the 2001 Bradford Race Riots. Residents have watched from the questionable safety of their homes as mobs of men, women, boys, and girls attack and set light to shops, cars, and buses. Sometimes bystanders and journalists have been attacked too. Many have been shocked by the tendency of some to smash rather than steal expensive goods. The following is a dispassionate look at the facts and possible causes, followed by a controversially hopeful look into what the riots, and the reactions to them, might mean for the future of community in Britain.

The rioting began on the evening of Friday, August 6th, in response to the shooting of 29-year-old father of three Mark Duggan. After an initially peaceful protest outside a police station, the violence and looting escalated over a number of hours. It has been suggested that the earliest rioting was instigated by gangs with which Duggan may have been associated. But over the following week, riots have broken out all over London and the UK, involving people of all ages, faiths, races, and classes. While many have disputed the claim, reports indicate that the poor and excluded make up the majority of those involved. Certainly the sites of unrest tend to correspond to areas of disadvantage. Those that have joined over the week can be divided into three groups: opportunists, the legitimately disgruntled, and middle-class sympathizers.

The opportunists need little explaining. They arrive on each scene within a couple of hours of the rioters. The opportunists tend not to cause any extra damage. Rather, they engage in swift looting for a relatively small number of high-value goods: televisions, computers, and jewelry. They often bring young children with them. Adults stay in the car to avoid arrest as their children, too young to face prosecution, collect the goods.

The legitimately disgruntled are those who, though not directly affected by the death of Mark Duggan, suggest they feel disenfranchised, unfairly treated by police and politicians alike, as well as being demonized by the media. They are the group once described as the skilled working class but who in the face of a changing economy have been on government benefits for generations. And as a result they are those most affected by government cuts. It is in the face of this group that Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class is once again important. They are fighting back. To recognize this group is not to accept their behavior. As hundreds of posts on Facebook and Twitter attest, there are plenty of disadvantaged people who have remained orderly throughout the process and who have expressed moral indignation at the violence. The behavior of the unruly is bad news for those who look and sound like them.

Interestingly, middle-class sympathizers got involved rather quickly. Partly this is because they are misrepresented as merely middle-class. Generally they are professional-class frontline workers with a natural human sympathy for the disadvantaged. They are teaching assistants, teachers, youth workers, and community organizers. It is their students, even their friends who are most affected by government cuts. Sometimes the line between those most affected and the professionals working with them is gray. The age difference between the aforementioned workers and their clients is often very small; they are often from the same community and may only be a few school years above those they work with.

But slowly there is also the more typical middle-class standoffish sympathy. Those affected by government cuts feel a new camaraderie with the long-term disadvantaged. Increasingly there seems to be little difference aesthetically between the current riots and the student protests over university tuition fees and the dissolution of education maintenance allowance (a means-tested weekly allowance given to students beyond the age of 16). Moreover, very little emerged aesthetically from the teacher strikes over pension cuts, and there is a sense of vicarious rioting that extends to many public sector workers.

At the same time the relative proximity of the rioters to other public sector workers has been cause for disgust. That police, firefighters, and even ambulance workers have been attacked with impunity does the rioters few favors. Another difference between the riots and the public sector protests is intended outcome. What has struck most people is the meaninglessness of the behavior.

Yet I hope this piece has shown that it is not at all meaningless. There are no gang leaders. They have no demands. There is no specific event that seems to justify their behavior. It is not specific to age, faith, race, or class. But there is meaning. It is terrible behavior. But treating it as meaningless only increases the possibility of its happening again or its continuing for longer. This dispassionate look seems to indicate what crowd psychologists have long suggested, that far from irrational, mobs tend to target specific objects of offense: in this case, wealth. That many chose to smash goods rather than steal them betrays anger rather than greed.

There is even meaning to the behavior of the looters. It has been reported that young people have discussed on Twitter the most appropriate shops to loot depending on the quality of their goods. We must ask what sort of society we have created whereby young people target shops based on what goods they have. Consumer mentality seems to overcome basic morality. This has been exasperated by an economy based on personal debt. The poorest in our country are encouraged to buy goods they cannot afford. The short-term pleasure temporarily buries the long-term stress of debt. In a faltering economy these short-term pleasures have diminished and people are angry. This is supplemented by a worrying impunity. As The Economist puts it, Britain has “Near-American levels of inequality . . . combined with laxer European attitudes towards criminal justice.” People have nothing to lose and they are not scared of the police.

There is also a sense of unfairness generally in the public zeitgeist. The phone-hacking scandal has further shed light on how wealth dictates influence. The lack of prosecutions following the MPs’ expenses scandal led the public to think there is one law for the advantaged and another for the disadvantaged. Meanwhile bankers, many groan, still do not seem to have reaped the consequences of the economic crisis.

Yet there is a frightening fourth division of those involved into which all of the above groups fit and to who it is more difficult to attribute meaning: those inspired, allured, and enthralled by the mayhem. Partly they are excited by what they can get away with. Partly being part of a group that seems to easily overcome longstanding symbols of authority excites them. Similarly people have been impassioned by the power of spontaneous gatherings against the rioters. In some districts residents have marched rioters out of town. In others they have taken to the streets simply to clear up the mess. This touches on a much greater issue: the desire for belonging.

It is worth mentioning that this is the worst unrest since the Bradford Race Riots of 2001 because it was following these riots that huge funds were poured into understanding what drove the people of Bradford to riot. Partly there was a problem of race. Similarly, following the death of Mark Duggan, a black man, many have cited statistics claiming that a black person is 26 times more likely than a white person to face police stop and search charges. Yet the common involvement of people of all races calls for a common grievance.

Belonging was the only problem identified after Bradford that transcends all categories. Young people feel simultaneously alienated from decisions about their future and from mainstream culture. As Owen Jones has said, huge swathes of society have been demonized as useless. This attitude has been highlighted by many responses to the riots describing the perpetrators as “rats” and “scum.”

Undoubtedly the violence is unconscionable and should be punished. But beneath all this, and extending to the rioters and the community cleaners alike, is a yearning for greater group involvement. Many are angry at what has happened and disgusted at the perpetrators. But perhaps as many are saddened, unsettled by our lack of understanding and desperate to add meaning to the events. We want to reach out to people who at the very least have the energy for activity and the desire for involvement. The government cuts are only going to make it harder to do this.

In Germany last year, David Cameron attributed Islamic extremism in the UK to Britain’s failure to provide a vision of the future to which people of other cultures feel they can belong. Last week’s riots perhaps indicate that this failure has an effect on all of us. We do not have a shared sense of where we are going. Yet Cameron has described the rioting as “criminality pure and simple”, suggesting that any attempt at social diagnosis only excuses the behavior. While this may seem smart for the man at the head of huge government cuts, it is a shame for the man trying to build a so-called “Big Society.” Many of the people rioting are the same people Cameron will hope to involve in building that society. He is missing a chance to understand them.

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