Over the past three days, two different types of rioting has been going on. The first, and far more serious, looting has been the smashing, looting and burning of scores of businesses across London. The second type is people pilfering these events and projecting onto them their own particular prejudices and causes. This has happened on both left and right, but particularly the left.
What these riots have done is show just how authoritarian the instincts of some of the British public can be. This is not just from the “usual suspects”: even supposedly bleeding-heart Liberal Democrats like Simon Hughes and Evan Harris have advocated the use of water cannon and sending in the army respectively. We’ve even had a contribution from Roger Helmer, everyone’s favourite Tory MEP. When he’s not arguing that homophobia doesn’t exist, or that women are responsible for their own rape, he’s tweeting this:
Memo to COBRA: Time to get tough. Bring in the Army. Shoot looters and arsonists on sight.—
Roger Helmer (@RogerHelmerMEP) August 09, 2011
Because, of course, the only proper response to mindless violence is more mindless violence.
None of these options seems particularly wise. I’ve written before about why using water cannon would be a dangerous and bad move, whilst David Allen Green has a good post on why the army should not be called in: they do not have the relevant training, and it didn’t exactly work out in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday, anyone?). The solution now seems to be that we’ll arm police with plastic bullets. They are “non-fatal”, apparently, but using them just doesn’t seem sensible. One stray bullet and we’ll have riots for another week at least.
We also have a large section of the left which seems perfectly happy to drop any notion of personal responsibility and go instead for political points-scoring and anti-cuts rhetoric. Ken Livingstone has been one of the more egregious examples of this, especially on Newsnight yesterday.
Much of the response has blamed these riots on cuts or poverty. These explanations don’t quite stack up with the available evidence. The Guardian has reported that many of these rioters are organising on Blackberrys. Rioters who can afford Blackberrys doesn’t sound like the urban poor rising up to me. Not in a country where people are starting to turn of fridges because they cannot afford the electricity.
Also, the cuts haven’t happened yet, so it’s not as if these protests were about service provision specifically. There’s been a lot of looting but nothing about Sure Start, Youth Centres or Citizens Advice Bureaus.
From the reports that have been coming in, it seems that there are three kinds of people participating in the riots, so it’s slightly more complicated than is suggested at first sight.
The first, and by far the smallest, group are the only ones to whom you could ascribe any “political” motivation. It includes people like this:
[H]ere’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.
Concerns over police tactics, for instance, was an issue even before Mark Duggan was shot in what is becoming ever-muddier circumstances. It may perhaps have started over that, but what has followed has shown that, at root, most of these rioters aren’t “political”.
Others will argue otherwise. Adam Ramsay for instance wrote that these riots were political because “every act is a political act”.
I disagree. If everything is political, then nothing is political. The aims of the majority of rioters were not political.
Compare this violence to the rioting that started during the student fees protest in November. Then, the smashing up of Millbank and only contained to that one building. Which was at least relevant on a fees protest, as it was the Conservative Party HQ, even if the violence itself was unjustified.
Contrast this to the rioting that has happened over the past few days. It’s not establishment buildings that have been targeted, but businesses. Even small family businesses, such as House of Reeves in Croydon. The shop was owned by the same family for five generations, survived two world wars, but did not survive a gang of out-of-control youngsters.
This brings us to the second group of rioters: violent thugs. I don’t know if “mindless” is the right word. How do you describe people who will help an injured, dazed teenager to his feet and then steal from his bag?
If “mindless” is not the word, perhaps “endemic” is. Evil maybe.
What seems to be happening is that violence that is generally confined to a few no-go areas around the city has spilled out across London and elsewhere. Probably because people can – the police are in many cases not able to stop them, and this only gives them motivation to continue.
The third, and final category, is people who want free stuff. I hope you’ve all seen by now the pictures of people who’ve been looting for, er, Tesco Value Basmati Rice, or tweeting about how they won’t get caught for stealing tracksuits, because they’re pathetically amusing. Some people seem to have used the opportunity to go and do a spot of opportunistic stealing. As was said yesterday by a friend, “Young people in the Arab Spring fought for freedom, democracy and the right to self determination. Our young people loot and destroy for Ipads and Blackberrys.”
So the roots of the riots were not political. Some of the responses are not political either. I have been greatly heartened by, and do not want to politicise, the amount of people who went out with brooms to reclaim their city:
This was not political; this was people just being nice and caring for others.
Part of the response, however, has to be political. Riots do not happen in a vacuum. There are obviously myriad social problems to address, and countless ways in which they can be tackled.
The best left-wing soundbite on crime remains Tony Blair’s “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. We can focus on the causes of crime soon enough in the months and years ahead. For now, let’s concentrate on ridding the cities of rioters and cleaning up the mess they’ve left. Only then can we focus on how to rebuild them.