Nothing ‘mindless’ about rioters

A burnt police car is seen on a street in Tottenham

A burnt police car is seen on a street in Tottenham

Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements.

In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.

We can dispense with some mistakes, though. It is wrong to say that the riots are apolitical. The trouble began on Saturday night when protesters gathered at Tottenham police station to demand that the police explain the circumstances in which a local man, Mark Duggan, had been shot dead by the police. The death of a Londoner, another black Londoner, at the hands of the police has a gruesome significance. The police are employed to keep the peace and the police shot someone dead. This is a deeply political matter. Besides, it is conventional to say how much policing in London has changed since the Brixton riots of the early eighties – but not many people mouthing the conventional wisdom have much firsthand experience of being young and poor in Britain’s inner cities.

More broadly, any breakdown of civil order is inescapably political. Quite large numbers of mostly young people have decided that, on balance, they want to take to the streets and attack the forces of law and order, damage property or steal goods. Their motives may differ – they are bound to differ. But their actions can only be understood adequately in political terms. While the recklessness of adrenaline has something to do with what is happening, the willingness to act is something to be explained. We should perhaps ask them what they were thinking before reaching for phrases like “mindless violence”. We might actually learn something.

The fierce conflict remains ahead

The profusion of images that modern technology generates makes it even more difficult to impose a single meaning on a complex event. Those who live in terror of a feral underclass and those who are worried about the impact of fiscal austerity on vulnerable communities can find material online that confirms their world-view. There will be a fierce conflict in the weeks ahead as politicians, commentators and others seek to frame the events of the last few days in ways that serve their wider agenda. The police, for example, will call for increased budgets to deal with the increased risks of civil disorder. In this sense, too, riots are inescapably political events.

There are signs too that technology is allowing individuals to intervene in the process by which meaning is assigned to social events. When disorder broke out in France in 2005 in somewhat similar circumstances the political right was the major beneficiary. Sarkozy’s rise from interior minister to president owed a great deal to his role in expressing the anxious aggression of a mass constituency that often lived far away from the burning cars and public buildings.

In London today people were on the streets tidying up the damage. The hashtag #riotcleanup on Twitter is being used by councils and residents to coordinate the work. The decision to act in this way, to make the streets a little more safe, to reclaim them for peaceful sociability, steps away from the temptation to condemn the violence or explain it in terms that inevitably simplify or distort it. Those who come together like this will be less likely to conclude that the country is on the verge of chaos, less likely to call for harsh measures and the further erosion of liberty in the name of security. It is the one shrewd thing one can do in present circumstances and it is to be celebrated.

So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement. The same politicians now denouncing the mindless violence of the mob all supported a system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious. They should have known that their policies would lead to disaster. They didn’t know. Who then is more mindless?

The global economic crisis is at least as political as the riots we’ve seen in the last few days. It has lasted far longer and done far more damage. We need not draw a straight line from the decision to bail out the banks to what’s going on now in London. But we must not lose sight of what both events tell us about our current condition. Those who want to see law and order restored must turn their attention to a menace that no amount of riot police will disperse; a social and political order that rewards vandalism and the looting of public property, so long as the perpetrators are sufficiently rich and powerful.

Originally appeared on the Aljazeera website http://english.aljazeera.net/

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Dan Hind

Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.

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8 Responses to Nothing ‘mindless’ about rioters

  • Gareth Jones says:

    I’m afraid I just couldn’t read your whole article. I had to stop after the first paragraph because it’s just nonsense.

    Most of the people rioting here don’t even know who Mark Duggan is/was. Many of them don’t even know which political party is in power (listen to some of the BBC’s audio files in which looters openly admit to not knowing) so how can any of this be political?

    Some claimed that they were rioting to get something back for their taxes. Setting fire to an independent furniture business does that how exactly?

    It is, like right-minded people have observed, nothing more than an uneducated under-class of society taking advantage of a situation and causing trouble for their own gain, relying on the safety of numbers for protection.

    Nothing more, nothing less.

    By looking for deep, philosophical reason where there blatantly isn’t any, the only thing you are going to achieve is to make yourself look completely clueless.

  • Matt says:

    Gareth – yes, the violence is mindless, has no cause, and is completely stupid. But what more proof do you need that there isn’t something seriously wrong with this country and the way it is run, than widespread riots?

    I think you need to look deeper. People don’t do this for no reason at all. Why do we have people in such poverty, so desperate to get their hands on this new gear (that we all take for granted) that they will take to the streets and loot for it?

    Why do we have an “underclass” capable of such atrocities in this country, when others don’t?? There have to be answers. The Government have ALOT to answer for.
    These people are poor and desperate.

  • Gareth Jones says:

    These people are poor and living in poverty? Really? Then I guess their £100 trainers and £300 BlackBerry phones grew on the trees in their back gardens, correct?

    Don’t talk nonsense. These people aren’t poor at all – but they don’t work either. They are instead propped up by the liberal government of this country, rewarded for not working and rewarded for contributing nothing to society.

    In days gone by these people would simply have starved to death. Today they are maintained at huge public cost because letting them starve to death is deemed to be too uncivilised for the 21st century.

    We give them weekly allowances that in some cases are higher than what an honest, working individual will earn through hard graft. Like I said, they are rewarded for doing NOTHING – and so they are trained from a young age, generation after generation, to not understand the value of working for what they want.

    Many of these people come from backgrounds where generations of their families have never done a day’s work in their lives – breeding as they do for the sole purpose of getting more and more money from the state in the form of child benefits.

    They are a plague to society. A cancer. A disease. And unless some radical policy changes are put in place the problems will only continue to worsen as they continue to multiply and decent, hard-working folk continue to emigrate to countries that actually have a working social policy.

    It seems to be you have concocted your theories in isolation of any facts. Instead of sitting in your bedroom by yourself, dreaming up reasons for the behaviour of these animals, get out there onto the streets and look for yourself. Listen to what they are saying. Look at how they are behaving. If you can’t do that, look at the news stations that are broadcasting all of this.

    Their behaviour is openly motivated by getting “free stuff” and money. It has nothing to do with any kind of political statements and nothing to do with Mark Duggan. Like I said before, most of them don’t even know who he is/was.

    It’s treating these animals like victims that has us in this mess in the first place, and so I must conclude that people like you are the real root cause of what is happening here. People like you who look for excuses with which you can label these animals as victims so that you can look for ways in which to give them an even easier ride through life – for free.

    Unless these people are made to make their own way in life, these problems will not only continue but they will get much, much worse.

  • Matt says:

    Gareth, I agree with you entirely on everything they are. A cancer, plague, diseases, worthless etc etc

    But whose fault is it? Who decided to prop everyone up with OUR hard working taxes? Who created this “free” culture whereby people think its OK to not have to work at all? The Government. I think this is why we need to be looking deeper. These riots are the result of decades of incorrect policies. Political correctness gone wrong. Our Government has had this culture for years and what happens is people abuse it and get used to it. When its taken away they think it is wrong and have to riot.

    David Cameron’s “big society” policy is essentially mass cuts in disguise. It is like stripping all of these people of their only lifeline, and they don’t know any better. Complete poverty. On top of that you have racism and police brutality. What would you do?

    I am not making excuses for them. I am simply seeing it for how it is. You make someone think something’s ok, and then you change the rules immediately.

    In some ways its more of a cultural change that’s required throughout the UK, to stop thinking its ok for EVERYONE to mooch off of benefits. I still believe there are legitmate cases where benefits are needed. But its drawing that line thats difficult.

    The Government needs to introduce big but careful changes, and i’m not sure if the current one is capable of that. I’m not sure if any of them are.

  • Allen says:

    These people are not in poverty! Poverty is lack of food, shelter, healthcare, benefits, educations, ect. The youths out on the streets recieve all of these luxuries, but for some reason that’s not enough? I’m not saying the government are blameless, I am merely pointing out that these youths have it a lot better here than in a lot of other countries.

    I also would like to question what makes you believe that the police just shot Mark Duggan as if it was a random act of police brutality. I’m not trying to start an arguement on this point I am merely interested on what lead you and others to this conclusion.

  • A says:

    It’s so clear none of you have ever lived in poverty.

    I know alot of people who have spent their whole life in poverty, struggling to make ends meet, getting into massive debt.

    Let’s not forget alot of our economy relies on consumer debt (or did, anyway).

    Our whole culture was redisigned for the benefit of this new economy, shifting away from manufacturing and into making money out of money out of money.

    And like ANY economic model, the working classes are indoctrinated in favour of their own exploitation.

    Seriously, people, do you think living on £50/week is easy ANYWHERE? Let alone London? And you think you can tell me what poverty is?

    I bet you are comfortably off, arent you Allen? You who claims to know what poverty is?

    As for Duggan, it was not a random act of brutality no. It was cold-blooded, pre-meditated extra judicial execution.

    Because thats what the cops do – they are scum and they behave as a law unto themselves.

    Just look up the United Friends and Family campaign to get an idea of what these fucks are capable of.

    And Matt, you think ‘the underclass’ are a cancer, a plague and a disease? Well fuck you. If you’re looking for a half-baked liberal analysis of this situation then look no further than your own class superiority complex. It is proof positive of the cancerous plague of discrimination and injustice that makes up our society.

  • Allen says:

    I recently graduated from university and I know what it is like living off that small amount and I also know what it’s like to have a large debt hanging over your head.

    But I don’t deem it necessary to run out and steal from the middle class because I recieve a low income and it’s extremely difficult to get a job.

    Although, I have to agree with part of what you’re saying and I’m not trying to imply that these people have it easy, but when you start mugging students and attacking the middle class why should you expect any sympathy? Why should you expect the government to respect you?

  • panchovilla says:

    people attacking ordinary workers or the poor is wrong , but smashing up posh places , the rich and the cops is fantastic, you guys need guns , but its still a bloody good start bravo , welldone , keep up the good work