Building the Rioters of the Future

[8/15/2011] I’m assuming you already know that riots broke out in many English cities this week. If not, Wikipedia has a good summary of the basic facts.

But while it was easy to turn on your TV and see video of burning and looting, getting a half-way decent explanation of what it was all about was quite a bit harder.

Everyone agreed that the riots weren’t “political” like the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunis or Cairo. No leaders presented lists of demands. Mobs didn’t shout slogans, political or otherwise.

The riots also didn’t seem to be racial, exactly. The unrest started in London’s diverse Tottenham neighborhood, but also jumped to mostly white neighborhoods like Croydon. The Irish Times reported:

Those who were taking part in the looting and fighting, or throwing fireworks at the police, were of many shades, ages and nationalities, but they all had something in common: they felt they had little to lose.

Eliminating politics and race left even less likely simple explanations: Prime Minister Cameron seemed to suggest that lots of people spontaneously turned criminal for no reason. Others blamed bad parenting, though it’s mysterious why that would suddenly become a problem last week rather than the week before. Maybe it was “mob mentality” or “mindless violence” — terms that sound more substantive than “I’ve got no clue”, but may not be. And there were the usual attempts to blame technology, which made no more sense than giving technology the credit in Cairo.

To me, the most disturbing aspects the coverage were the journalists who didn’t want an explanation. In this BBC interview, West Indian writer (and long-time Londoner) Darcus Howe tries to raise underlying issues:

What I was certain about, listening to my grandson and my son, is that something very, very serious was going to take place in this country. Our political leaders had no idea. The police had no idea. But if you looked at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us — and we would not listen — about what has been happening in this country to them.

The interviewer then cuts him often, asking if he condones the violence. After a disgusted “Of course not”, Howe tries to talk about police behavior, and how often young blacks are stopped and searched for no reason. The interviewer interrupts to accuse Howe of having been a rioter himself in the past, which he indignantly denies. (“Show some respect for an old West Indian Negro,” he pleads.)

And then time is up. Riots: Are you for them or against them?

The most insightful thing I read about the riots was on the London blog Penny Red. (You may have seen it reposted on AlterNet, Common Dreams, or some other American web site.)

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

As in this week’s lead article, I find myself thinking that people are looking in the wrong direction. Asking why rioters take what they want, hurt people they don’t like, or burn down establishments they resent is like asking Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. (His iconic answer: “Because that’s where the money is.”)

It’s perfectly obvious why people would loot and burn. If you want to get simple, start with the question: Why don’t the rest of us riot every day?

The best answer, I think, is: Because we participate in systems that we believe work better for us and for our loved ones in the long run. We participate in the property system because we also want to own things. We participate in the money economy because we also want to have jobs and buy things. We participate in a system of mutual respect because we also want want to claim respect.

Now imagine that you own essentially nothing, have no job prospects, and are treated with disrespect on a regular basis. What’s the system to you other than a policeman who is too busy to bother with you right now?

Riots may not be organized political actions that make clear demands. But nonetheless they have political causes. If we are leaving people out, leaving them without hope and without any clear way to channel their effort into bettering their lives, then we are building the rioters of the future. When the disorder begins, they will have no reason to restrain themselves.

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  • cantabarrister  On August 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    These riots are about the collapse in discipline and public morality in Britain over the last thirty years, pure and simple.

  • velvinette  On August 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    If you look at their educational system, it doesn’t give people many second chances, or even first chances. Young people are tracked pretty early about whether they’re going to college or not. They are still growing emotionally through their 20s, but their heads are not growing as much as they could, or their talents being developed.


  • By Turn Back « The Weekly Sift on August 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    […] Building the Rioters of the Future. Pundits tried very hard to stuff the British riots into some simple box: a crime spree, a revolution, bad parenting, mass insanity. When that failed, they proclaimed the violence a great mystery. But is it really so hard to understand why people with little to lose would loot or burn? […]

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