Why Riot and Not Revolt in London?

Emily Manuel

Apparently the 80s are back in vogue, again. With a Tory government sitting in Parliament — or rather, holidaying in Tuscany as David Cameron was — rioting is again occurring on the streets of London. It is hard not to wonder the connection between his Thatcher remix attacks on social services and the riots that began over the weekend.

Riots are what happen when people are given too little, pushed too far, and stop being afraid of their governments.

The riots began on Saturday night with a protest, a five hour vigil at the Tottenham police station in response to the shooting death of Mark Duggan that ended with two police cars being set alight. But the widespread unrest has had little to do with the sparking event; the violence has spread virally over networks like BlackBerry Messenger (see this google map of verified affected areas of London) across London, to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and more.

Images of hooded and masked young men have filled the screens, scenes of looting stores and setting cars, buses and buildings on fire, throwing projectiles at police and media.

MSNBC reported the following exchange between a young Londoner and a television reporter. The reporter asked: 

Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?”

Yes,” said the young man. You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

The young man makes a very good point. Politics has offered little chance of improving things for young people in the UK in recent history. In December, student and union protests against the devastating Brown Review cuts closed up the center of London, with a peaceful rally in Bloomsbury and protests outside Parliament in which police charged protesters with horses, amongst other violent acts (that there was 43 hospitalized protesters and 12 police is suggestive). Despite a well organized campaign incorporating a wide array of direct action and symbolic protests over several months, ultimately the cuts were narrowly passed by Parliament. 

Guardian journalist Paul Lewis tweeted his surprise from Tottenham, exclaiming that I’m surprised how many local people know of (and criticise) the IPCC” (the Independent Police Complaints Commission). What should not be a surprise is the anger at police and watchdog institutions like the IPCC. Since 1998, over 333 people have died in custody in the UK without there being a single conviction. Rioters may not all have a highly developed (or always even accurate) knowledge of the political and legal system, but they know that it is not designed to protect them.

Combined with post-recession unemployment, other brutal cuts to housing benefits, the health care system, and many other social services have magnified the bleak outlook for disenfranchised youth. Yesterday, former London mayor Ken Livingstone told the BBC that there is a level of despair out there. We have got to have a government that speaks to the whole community, not just the layer at the top.”

That the riots have spread so quickly across London and the country suggests that there is far more than just anger at police violence involved. The Duggan protest may have been the spark, but the kindling had been piled high by the recession, by the ConDem government’s extraordinary austerity program, by institutional police racism, by the steady dimming of the post-war promise of a better tomorrow for the poor, the underclass, the working class.

Riots are what happens when people — almost always young men — stop believing in their communities, in their country, in their rights as a citizen. Riots are what happens when whole groups are treated as potential or actual criminals by the police. Riots happen when anger, resentment, testosterone and yes, consumerist desire are greater than civic pride or fear of the police, when the facade of power finally cracks and people realise they outnumber the forces of order. And mostly particularly, riots are what happens when people despair, when there appears to be few options in the present and none in the future, and no way to fix the situation.

It is interesting to contrast these riots to the Arab Spring which has wept through the Middle East this year. Unlike the activists of the Arab Spring, the London rioters appear to want little, politically. Spread so far, the riots are indiscriminate, futile and meaningless in themselves, a wave of destruction that helps few and harms many. There are reports of looting more akin to opportunistic survival, of young women stealing milk and diapers, and of others of sheer mercenary desire, for trainers and DVD players, cigarettes.

It is instead an overwhelmingly negative protest at society in general, one that hits at the rioters’ own communities as much as anyone in power, one that takes in police and huge multinationals and small business owners, neighbors. An extraordinary video spread online shows a woman berating rioters, this is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham, it ain’t about having fun on the road and bussing up the place. Get it real, black people! Get it real. Do it for a cause. If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a fucking cause.”

Riots are what happen when people are given too little, pushed too far, and stop being afraid of their governments. The UK government would do well to learn this and treat the social causes of unrest by giving these young people something to want besides trainers, to cater for more than the interests of the very rich. But they should also remember the recent lessons of the Middle East, as well as the older ones of their neighbors across the Channel — for revolutions are born in these same conditions. A Thatcher throwback is one thing, but a Marie Antoinette would be quite another.

This piece originally appeared at Global Comment.

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