So…The good old Daily Mail has the best selection of images and videos that I’ve seen of last night’s trouble invarious parts of London, and other parts of the UK, while some enterprising person has collated a bunch of Youtube videos into a single account. In terms of up-to-date information, BBC News and Sky News each had good rolling coverage, while following #londonriots on Twitter is a good way of keeping up with rumours – though Twitter, as ever, comes with a health warning, since much of the information is unverified. There was a kerfuffle at one stage last night after someone tweeted a picture reputedly showing “the army at Bank”. Given the place in the picture wasn’t Bank, and the tanks in the image had Arabic slogans on them, I was actually quite surprised it took so long for someone to point out that the image is actually of the Egyptian protests in February. Still, if one takes some of the comments with a pinch of salt, Twitter continues to be a good source of rapid information in fast-moving situations. And you don’t have to actually have an account to use it for this purpose.
Now, in terms of the meaning of these events, a wide range of interpretations have already begun to emerge. Are we looking at the inevitable explosion of an abandoned underclass? The consequences of a recklessausterity plan? Or just a baffling display of random mischief and anger? One thing I don’t think we’re looking at is Public Opinion. Certainly the riots are public. But they are not an expression of opinion. I disagree with those who suggest last night’s activities were primarilypolitical, even if they were not perceived as such by their originators. I believe it is significant that the violence was targeted primarily at property rather than people (including the police, though there were inevitably injuries amongst the 6,000 officers trying to contain the chaos). I believe that it is significant that the looting of consumer goods took precedence over the targeting of political symbols (in contrast to the tuitionfees riot earlier this year). I believe it is significant that the violence was decentralised and leaderless. This is not politics. Rioting may well be related to the sluggish economy and the abolition of the prospects of young people, but it is not a political act, because it has no political goal. The people stealing trainers and burning police cars are doing so to get trainers and to have a laugh. They certainly do not have anything else to do; they have no jobs, and no prospects – which is the common lot of young people in 21st-century Britain, especially under a Tory government, given Tories cause riots (correlation = causation) – but they are rioting, and not protesting.
Even the death of Mark Duggan, which prompted the protest which led to the first riots in Tottenham over the weekend, is not as significant as has been suggested. The IPCC will need to explain how Duggan died, but the latest reports are that he was a known gangster who was carrying a viable illegal firearm; that he was shot and killed by police may well not have been appropriate – we knowthe police make mistakes in such situations, and it now appears the bullet which hit one officer had been fired by another, suggesting Duggan may not have fired at all as was first reported – but this was hardly a random act of unjustified aggression. Individual police officers still take thingstoo far in pressured situations, while tactics for dealing with mass protests remain slow and blunt, but no-one could reasonably claim the force has not improved its community relations and general professionalism since it was heavily criticised over the Stephen Lawrenceinvestigation. Plenty of people still don’t trust the police, and some of them have good reasons not to, but the riots over the last few days are not a symptom of widespread police failures.
No, what we are seeing is bored youngpeople out having fun, smashing things up and stealing, in the probably realistic expectation that they will face no direct consequences as a result. Smashing things is fun. So is burning things (been there). And new trainers. It’s the middle of the school holidays, no-one has a job or any money, and everyone’s doing it so it’s not really anyone’s fault. There’s no point pretending rioting isn’t cool. Of course it’s cool. It impresses girls, and it’s fun to do. It’s like smoking. Also, like smoking, its consequences are deeply uncool. But teenagers don’t care too much for consequences, because teenagers stay young forever, as those of us in our mid-twenties can confirm.
As an aside, my PhD research is essentially about ‘spin’, and I like to think I’ve developed a bit of a sense for it overthe last few years. So here’s a suggestion for the government. “Only in a city as youthful, energetic, creative, dynamic and diverse as London could such a range of spontaneous activity have sprung up so quickly. These young people are organised, enterprising, and single-minded in their pursuit of advancement. Their energy will form a driving force in Britain’s future development”.
Say it with your fingers crossed, if you must.
This interview by the BBC of two girls drinking stolen wine at 9:30am sums up my point nicely. “we’re just showing the police and the rich people – people who’ve got businesses and that – that we can do what we want”.