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Rebels Without A Cause
Causes — Or The Lack Of Them — Of The UK Riots, August 2011
With a heat wave reminiscent in New York of a bygone era one may have thought that a new "Summer of Sam" could have been on the agenda. However, departing the humidity of the Big Apple for the more temperate European climate, the riots that broke out in London and then spread subsequently to Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester came as a shock to almost everyone.
Duggan's family and others from Tottenham wanted answers and around 300 people marched to Tottenham police station. Nothing was heard for several hours. Riot police were deployed and violence ensued. Up until that point, one may have been able to make a link, however tenuous, to the past, where police and race relations had historically led to severe inner city riots last seen in the Eighties in Tottenham on Broadwater Farm Estate and in Brixton, Toxteth in Liverpool and Handsworth in Birmingham.
Britain however, has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years. Once, the infamous "SUSS" laws (Stop and Search) were widely targeted against black youth by police and a climate of racial hostility existed. A climate of "us and them" was fostered under Margaret Thatcher's government, where inner city youth were often presented as being a similar battle to Northern Ireland. The riots that occurred then had the language of demands for equality, fair treatment and an end to harassment. Looting was something that was incidental to the main battle between enraged inner city communities and the police.
In each of these instances it seems that the police have had a disorientated and muted response. Gone are the tough boot boys of the miners strike and the political demonstrations of yesteryear where the police were often brutal and certainly unflinching. These days, the combined impact of a politically correct outlook alongside a softly softly approach with young people certainly seems to have impacted the police leadership, which has officers on the street somewhat hamstrung. From the recent student demo misbehaviour to handling gunmen in London, there has been an increasing tendency for the police to try and deal with things with kid gloves.
I am not, I should say, an advocate of heavy-handed policing of citizens and certainly do not want to see clamping down on civil liberties or want the introduction of more autocratic rules. However, it is clear that for those in the business of law and order, the current impasse has come about from an approach that has been obsessed with 'Health and Safety' (for officers as well as citizens) and an anxious and fearful outlook about who they are and what they represent. This has come from the top, in an age of therapeutic psycho-management and has left the police force as well as most other British institutions in a state of disarray. Most tellingly, authority across the whole of British society seems to have collapsed.
Thus it is that these "riots" — and to be honest it has been a few hundred kids in various areas, chancing — has been more about the implosion of authority from above than any sense of rebellion from below. Readers of The American will have noted that I often make the point that history is made by ordinary people, out on the streets, coming together to challenge the prevailing sentiments and working towards a new set of ideals. The recent looting across the UK is imbued with no such aspirations or ideas. Far more, it represents a nihilistic attack on the community and a selfish, incoherent grab for consumer products.
The generations no longer speak to one another — our 'moral web' of values seems to have disintegrated, with those at the top of society embarrassed and incapable of articulating, let alone arguing for, any set of principles and ideas that could cohere society. My mother decided to go out to one of the looted areas and talk to the police and, at one point, confront the tearaway kids — she couldn't understand what would motivate such wanton destruction. That is the point. There isn't one. What we have witnessed in the past few days in Britain certainly can point to disillusionment and disengagement and isolation from a wider network; however there is no attempt to challenge any of this. Simply to do a bit of destructo-shoplifting.
Clearly it is the topic that everyone in London is discussing. The surprise by ordinary Londoners at the ineffectual policing is because they haven't followed the transition from confrontational policing to consensual policing over the last twenty years. However, after a couple of days, many local people decided that they would deal with things if the police would not. In Haringey and Stoke Newington, Turkish Kurds patrolled their shops and the local area, as did Sikhs in west London who joined up with Muslims. In Brick Lane, Bengali youth and adults aligned with white business owners and locals and patrolled the area together saying they would not tolerate looting. In areas such as Enfield where locals have been tagged as "racists" because they were predominantly white, and as "vigilantes", it is clear why authorities are fearful of hundreds of citizens out on the street saying that they will take control of things themselves.
There have been times when people very consciously took control of things with a view to suggesting that they did not agree with the state and that they believed there was a better way to do things. That is not the case here, where it can be seen as encouraging that local people will simply not sit around while looting occurs. At the same time this is mainly because they feel the state has imploded and abandoned its responsibility.
I try not to pepper these articles with personal anecdotes as they can be unempirical and impressionistic. However, having been in many of the areas in the past few days from Tottenham and Enfield to Hackney and Brick Lane, it is clear that the fearful, anxious and pessimistic response of those at the top of society who have advised shop owners, theatres, sports stadiums and others simply to close down have totally missed the point. We don't need the army on the streets, or water canons and rubber (or real) bullets as some have argued on radio stations and other media. We need to be able to tell children who are misbehaving they are petulant and irresponsible and to get a grip. We need to hold the line. We should argue for making London even more open, for longer hours, not shutting up shop in fear of a bunch of teenagers who are on a naughty shopping spree. Watching the images from around the country, it is clear that rather than a well organized, militant and radical foe, the kids on the street are themselves erratic and disorganized. It is a pathetic moment when the authority of the elite has diminished so far that it cannot present any clear response.
The last word though must go to those that are trying to dress up the riots as some kind of "challenge" to the system. Grow up. You are living in a different world, plagued by the fact that you cannot see that this is not a noble uprising of the poor to challenge their position in society and make a better world. It is theft and destruction.
If we want to be in a position where we can give a lead to young people, we need ideas that can inspire them and aspirations that will make a difference. We also need to address why authority is so diminished and fix the 'Bowling Alone' effect of disintegrating communities. Most of all, we need to be honest. There is little 'context' for the current spread of looting. What is required is setting some context to why we are here and how we can, collectively, get to somewhere better. For that we need to discuss, argue and inspire with ideas.
Alan Miller is Director of The New York Salon www.nysalon.org and Director of The Vibe Bar in London and co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery media center.