At the start of last week, with sections of the nation’s youth deciding to break the unwritten social contract that maintains stability in some of our major cities, I was asked to write an article analysing the riots in London and why they had erupted. I had to decline, partly because I was back in hospital and partly because events were still unfolding (this was before disturbances had spread to Manchester and Birmingham and before six people had died). The main reason I couldn’t write anything, however, was that in truth, I had no more idea than everyone else about why riots erupted at the moment that they did and why they spread from their original incendiary source, the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham at the hands of the police.
A week on, the avalanche of commentary has hardly helped to make things clearer. The right blame poor parenting, although only 21% of those appearing in court are under 18. Much of the left directly blame cuts in services, especially for the young, which may be a vital factor in parts of the country but less so in areas they haven’t been implemented yet. I'm far from convinced by some of the rhetoric on the left: the claim by Socialist Worker that the riots are a "rising against Tory Britain" is simply too simplistic. However, its statement that the riots represent an "explosion of bitterness and rage" is probably closer to the truth.
Since the election of the Coalition government, commentators have been discussing the way that the gap between rich and poor, the widest in 40 years, has fuelled a general public resentment about the way the burden of government austerity measures have fallen on the country’s poorest. It's also possible too that our voraciously brand-obsessed consumer culture may have finally turned on itself. It can be no accident that brands like Footlocker, JD Sports and mobile phone retailers, whose aggressively 'urban and street' marketing is aimed squarely at the young, were the targets of looting last week, just as it's no accident that their goods are routinely ‘looted’ from young people every week, long after they have left the shops. As overall crime has fallen, young people now snarled at as 'feral rats' remain more likely to themselves become victims of street violence and theft.
With less money, fewer prospects of employment and (in London) the massive cost of private rented accommodation, it’s hardly a surprise that many, many people feel completely powerless. One of the dynamics behind the rioting that I haven’t seen addressed in the coverage I’ve read so far is how exhilarating a riot can make people feel, albeit for a short time. Ask anyone who has been on a protest that has kicked off (or, indeed, the advertising agency working for Levis, who tried to appropriate this energy to sell more jeans). Inevitably, as a means of handing people real long term power, that brief heady sense of freedom is illusionary – the state commands an overwhelming ability to exact vengeance, as we have seen from the way that court sentencing guidelines have been abandoned – but it may explain the number of the young, poor and unemployed in the courts. Far from representing 'sheer thuggery', it's just as likely that many of those who joined the looting did so because they were swept up in the excitement of the moment.
However, the fact that much of the rioting involved a direct, often targeted confrontation with the police should be far less of a surprise. Everyone who complains about the breakdown of respect for authority should listen more closely to what young people, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, have to say about their relationship with the police. In the numerous sessions run by Newham Monitoring Project in east London, everyone complains about stop & search, particularly since the government initiatives to reduce knife crime, and everyone has experienced it themselves or knows someone who has. It has become a part of growing up, some commonplace that it has become routine, but what angers the young is not just the stops and the searches but the way they say they are treated: not as citizens or as people but collectively as criminals. So often, we have heard that officers try and provoke a reaction that leads to an arrest and there was an example of this last week in Newham on Barking Road:
Where I live in Newham, like the vast majority of the country, the disturbances were nothing like the major flashpoints in Croydon, Woolwich or Enfield, which has made it more difficult to get a clearer sense of what triggered them. There were a few broken windows and theft targeted largely on the Currys and Argos stores in East Ham. This hasn’t stopped the Newham Recorder from announcing that “our communities will survive this”, as though the level of disturbance was on a par with east London’s famous endurance of the Blitz (itself mythologised: we rarely talk about widespread looting in 1940). Neither has it stopped the borough’s Mayor from joining in the calls for hardline retribution: in a special issue of the local free sheet ‘The Newham Mag’, the council promises to evict tenants convicted of riot-connected crimes, including people living with them who have committed no crime themselves. Anecdotally, there has also been a huge rise in the number of police stop & search incidents.
More than anything this reaction, mirrored across the country, looks like locking the stable after the horse has bolted. Having been surprised by the rioting - and humiliated by the rioters - police and politicians are lashing out in anger, apparently with little consideration of the potential problems they create in the future. Randomly disrupting the daily lives of huge numbers of young people isn't going to restore respect in the police, whilst the arbitrary punishment of parents whose children face imprisonment, by seeking to make them homeless, isn't likely to convince people in the long term that local government values fairness or justice. Equally, are those released from overcrowded prisons in a few months time, after wholly disproportionate sentences, likely to feel even more resentful or instead chastened - and if politicians really think incarceration makes people better citizens, how do they explain the higher rate of reoffending after short prison terms?
We've had moral panics before, a long history of them in fact, but always voices that have stood out against them. Thirty years ago, after the 1981 riots, the then Newham MP Ron Leighton warned Margaret Thatcher that "if society rejects those young people and says that it has no use for them, they are likely to reject society and act in an anti-social way." How times have changed. If the man whose name now adorns 'Ron Leighton Way', the road bypassing East Ham's damaged shopping area, was alive and a Labour Party member today, a comment like that would most likely lead to violent accusations that he was condemning too little and seeking to understand too much.