This is just a round-up of some of the better things I have read on the riots. I might add to it as I go along.
Riots always start with an immediate grievance—a hugely corrupt police force shooting a man to death, this time—and become a free-for-all, where people exploit the absence of the law, in which the people who suffer are often innocent. Rioting is a politics of despair, but to claim that these riots are somehow different, somehow ‘neoliberal’, because of the allegedly novel phenomenon of mass looting, is asinine. It would be infantile to cheer on rioters against corner shopkeepers trying to defend their already small livelihoods; but equally so to pretend that this had nothing to do with the demonisation of the young and poor, nothing to do with our brutally unequal society and our pathetic trickle-down attempts at amelioration. Then we line up with those who think that looting Foot Locker is worse than the looting of an entire economy.
As we face-off with the returned ugliness of the 80s British conservatism and increasing hostility, conditions are being set for a ‘police army state’. I was disgusted listening to a BBC Radio 5 reporter commenting ‘If you shoot at the police what else do you expect?’ I expect the police to arrest and charge their suspects. I expect individuals charged with crimes to face court and the full length of our judicial process as required. (The Guardian has since published information stating early ballistic tests show that all bullets were fired from the police – evidence of the false account used to cover police corruption.) I have not been so deceived out of my citizenship, nor convinced of the absent humanity of those of us living in the inner city, as to expect and humbly accept rising numbers of curious deaths at the hands of our police – and certainly not when they are all men of African-Caribbean descent.
The truth is that riots almost always hurt poor, working class people. There’s no riot that embodies a pure struggle for justice, that is not also partly a self-inflicted wound. There is no riot without looting, without anti-social behaviour, without a mixture of bad motives and bad politics. That still doesn’t mean that the riot doesn’t have a certain political focus; that it doesn’t have consequences for the ability of the ruling class to keep control; that the contest with the police is somehow taking place outside of its usual context of suspicion borne of institutional racism and brutality. The rioters here, whenever they’ve been asked, have made it more than abundantly clear what their motives are – most basically, repaying years of police mistreatment.
If this week’s eruption is an expression of pure criminality and has nothing to do with police harassment or youth unemployment or rampant inequality or deepening economic crisis, why is it happening now and not a decade ago? The criminal classes, as the Victorians branded those at the margins of society, are always with us, after all. And if it has no connection with Britain’s savage social divide and ghettoes of deprivation, why did it kick off in Haringey and not Henley?
We create a system based on only-just-barely controlling (through law-abiding earn-and-shop mechanisms of governmentality) visceral urges to HAVE MORE SHINY EXPENSIVE STUFF all the time, and then have the cheek to regard those people who break down the shop windows (and the figurative barriers around that gluttonous drive to consumption) with disgust. What pigs – grabbing as many mobile phones and trainers as they can – we would definitely not do that; we have earned ours.
To behave in this manner young people have to believe they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no stake in wider society. This belief is compounded when it becomes a reality over generations, as it has done for some. If the riots at the weekend and the disturbances around London today have come as a surprise to the police and that wider society, the warning signs have long been there for those of us who engage with black youths.
One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC, but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.
A large proportion of London teenagers know the police are racist and violent, and hate and mistrust them accordingly (including my teenage self). They shouldn’t know it, because happy children don’t know how fucked up the world is, but many of them know it from first-hand violence and humiliation. In Forest Gate, where everyone has been mugged or burgled, everyone hates the police. There were lots of stories on Twitter on Tuesday and Wednesday about Asian boys in Green Street, Forest Gate, defending the local businesses from rioters. My favourite story, unfortunately completely unverifiable, has those boys saying ‘We don’t want no looters round here. We don’t want no cops, either.’
The idea seems to be that those in social housing could just find somewhere else, they could just walk into private housing. Like the similar proposals for taking away housing benefit from miscreants, it is based on an inability to imagine what poverty is like, to think for a second what might happen to a family when it loses its income or its home. Given that the riots were largely concentrated in areas where extreme wealth and poverty rub up against each other – from Clapham to the Thames Valley, from Manchester to Bristol – it shows the total mutual incomprehension that we have for our literal neighbours.
You could certainly be forgiven for comparing the fate of the Facebook pair to the MPs jailed for fraudulently taking tens of thousands from the public purse – whose average jail sentence came in at around 18 months. But it’s arguably even more instructive to look at those who merely paid back hefty sums for claims they clearly thought had been indefensible, many of whom are now cheerleading for the sentencing craziness that has seized the courts.
Edit 4 (yeah, this is silly now):
Jews sans frontieres have a great set of links for a more historical perspective, including a recommendation for E.P. Thompson’s The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century, available here.