These are mindless riots, but that doesn’t make them pointless

Sorry to point this out to you, but these are not pointless riots. Yes, they are sickening, and I condemn them wholeheartedly. But this does not mean that there are no underlying problems in British society that are likely to have accentuated these violent conflicts. Thuggish looting on our television screens demonstrates a group of people that have lost confidence in the institutions of both state and society. Does this make these riots explicitly ideological? No, it does not. However, I challenge anyone with the ignorant claim that there is nothing more to it than ‘mindlessness’.

Thugs have taken on the British police – constabularies which have never used rubber bullets in mainland UK, yet now have the opportunity to do so. How can rioters have become bold enough to take on the British law enforcement agencies? Does this not suggest something more than anarchic opportunism? To me, it shows that there is a deeper crisis of authority. Internalised conflicts have simmered through in a brief moment over the past few days from long-term problems of neglect, inequality and disaffection. As riots hit Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, we really have to ask ourselves whether we can be ignorant enough to simply call this mindlessness. It may not be ideological, and it may not be particularly well thought-through, but that does not mean that these riots are not making a point:

Riots don’t tend to happen in affluent areas: they tend to happen where there is deprivation, where there is no trust in government or its policing methods, or where the perceived gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. (Prospect, 09 August 2011)

This is a simple, yet important, fact. I repeat that I wholeheartedly condemn these riots. However, we need to understand its roots, which go far beyond opportunism and theft. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

A riot is the language of the unheard.

The people who have committed these atrocious acts of violence and destroyed the livelihoods of so many law-abiding citizens are adopting a despicable code to voice their concerns. They have, in part, been driven to this. They are ostracised from mainstream society and asking one question: what is our place in British society? Marginalised communities are acting in a moment of (sickening) violence; young people not in education, employment or training (i.e., NEETs) acting in an unjustifiable and brutal way. Commentators have claimed that these thugs are doing this for ‘fun’ – this suggests something more than anarchy; this suggests a systemic failure to protect younger people over generation and generation from the harsh reality of living in bleakness. These are ‘style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots’ (not post-political riots). They may be aggressive, consumerist gangs, but this does not mean that this is not a sign of political, social or economic failure. We must confront this challenge, and defeat it.

Defeating these conflicts will be arduous in the medium- to long-term. Quelling riots will be relatively easy compared to the mountainous task of re-building these communities. Our society has become increasingly divided from the 1980s right up to today. This, unfortunately, lies at the heart of the present situation. Our society has been battered repeatedly in the recent past: from MPs Expenses to bankers’ bonuses to the false moral economy. This broader picture is important, because it engenders a sense of hopelessness and despair. These were not the direct cause of these specific riots, I accept that. However, I believe that this is the culture in which many uneducated young people in poorer inner cities feel at the moment. [1]

This is why we must have a considered approach in how we proceed, a point made well here. I believe that UK constabularies should be allowed to use tear gas, and in the worst case a water canon (although, see possible outcome here). Rubber bullets will reinforce the feeling of a war zone. A curfew will do nothing other than instigate fear of ‘what’s out there’. Tapping mobile phone networks hardly seems effective (other communications media exist). The army should be out of the question – they would accentuate the problem of the rejected versus the (perceived) elite. Mixing state security organs with internal civil ones hasn’t been a useful move in the past in other countries, nor will it be here. We need more belief in our police force. Yes, they’ve made mistakes – but they aren’t ‘namby pamby’. I’m happy that police numbers have been trebled (not so much that they will be cut by 16,000 by 2015). We need a strong, hard and fast response to condemn these rioters. We need clarity on the causes, but we do not need violence to demonstrate the symptoms. Only when the violence has calmed down and the dust has settled will it be possible for us to move forward from these truly sickening acts. Criminals, looters and rioters need to face the full force of the law.

In no way have I tried to justify any of these chaotic, criminal actions by the rioters in any of our cities. I have tried to set out a defence of clarity, because this is not a mindless mob. If we subscribe to a view that there is nothing to it, then we are shutting down debate and we are condemning these riots to the dustbin of history. The problem is that if we do not confront the problems, they will happen again and again. We need to tackle the underlying issues that have been described above: inequality of opportunity, political disaffection and personal responsibility.

[1] I can only partly verify that through the news reports, interviews, columns and such like that I have come across, being a student in Sheffield.


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