Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again?
Last night was utterly surreal. Being nowhere near London and watching events unfurl on the rolling news channels was really upsetting. Seeing places I recognised and hearing the names of areas in or through which people I love would be staying or travelling, feeling so remote and so helpless.

The scenes of devastation this morning were horrifying. Entire streets decimated. Burnt out cars and buildings, smashed windows and mangled roller shutters stretched as far as the eye could see in some parts of the city. Admittedly, the eye can’t stretch too far in London, but still. The pictures of a plume of thick, black smoke rising somewhere in South London [most likely Croydon] against the backdrop of the London Eye just set in stark contrast the ‘public’ face of London and the extent of the wreckage wrought by last night’s rampages.

There’s a few things that I find more disturbing than anything else. As I was looking through cameraphone footage and pictures posted all over the internet, I was stunned by how gleeful the rioters were. The callous way I saw one young lad robbed, his rucksack rifled after being apparently helped up off the floor, bleeding from the face, will stick with me for some time yet. I don’t know quite how to process the complete lack of compassion or thought for other people.

As is predictable in these circumstances, people are starting to ask the Big Questions. Why did this happen? What does this mean for us as a society? Where do we go from here?

The obvious trigger was the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham following an exchange of fire between him and police officers. The incident is still under investigation by the Police Complaints Commission [PCC] and it certainly seems that the peaceful protest that began in Tottenham at the weekend attracted people who wanted to do more than quietly make their grief and dissatisfaction known about that particular incident.

Yesterday, things really took hold and spread far and wide in London and further out into other parts of the UK. Groups of [mostly young] people gathered apparently out of nowhere armed with missiles and started to break into shops. Shops with high value stock seemed to be targeted especially to begin with – electrical stores and mobile phone shops – but quickly devolved into mass destruction. Buildings and vehicles were set alight. Young people with no apparent concern for the consequences were squaring off against lines of riot police. The scenes were reminiscent of those recently seen in Syria, Egypt, Libya, but with one important difference. There was no commonly agreed political aim.

Now, one may argue – and I’m sure social policy-makers, philosophers and any number of other commentators will do the very same over the coming weeks – that these actions say something about society. I couldn’t agree more. They do say something, but what they don’t say is that this is a massive movement of disenfranchised youth taking up arms against the oppressive state. From what I can tell, this is much more subtle and nuanced than that.

Over the course of the past 20 or 30 years, we as a society have gone wrong with the messages we’ve been sending out to our children. With a very fluid population in most parts of the country, there is not the sense of community that there was in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Our media and social discourse is permeated with ideas of possessions being of primary importance. If you don’t have X, Y or Z product, you won’t be successful; won’t have any friends; won’t be able to attract a mate and keep them.

The notable thing about this ongoing situation is the looting. There has been widespread criminal damage to property but even more than that, huge amounts of acquisitive crime. Young people are seen on cameraphone footage discussing what the best shop would be to break into based on the value of the goods they can carry off. Things are more important than people.

There have been lots of between commentators, broadcasters and so-called experts about what should be done in the wake of not just this event but the realisation that we have gone so badly wrong.

“Arm the police!” cry some. “Send in the Army!” say others. Use of water cannon, rubber bullets, baton rounds and all sorts of other tactics have been discussed as ways to quell the riots and bring them under control.

The only sensible solution, which I’ve heard mentioned only once by the Metropolitan Police’s Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin, is for parents to keep their children off the streets. “I urge parents to start contacting their children and ask them where they are,” he said yesterday. “Please get your children off the streets and let my brave officers do their jobs.”

Brilliant. Why did no-one think of that before?

I could go off on a long diatribe here about individual liability, parental responsibility and the expectation that the State is responsible for All Of The Things here, but I won’t because I’ll just make myself angry.

“Ban social media!” others rail. “It’s that Twitter what done it! People having easy access to talk to each other and that. It shouldn’t be allowed!”

Should we also ban the telephone? Radios! They were used in all sorts of nefarious ways during World War II to enable spies to communicate with one another and conspire against us. It also allowed our side to gain intelligence that could not have otherwise been conveyed but, damn it! Some people use it for things we don’t agree with! We should ban it all immediately!

I would like to point out that while some people may have been using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking portals to organise looting parties, there has also been a considerable number of people mobilised through Twitter to wield brooms and help those whose shops and livelihoods have been ransacked to clear up and put things back together. Twitter and Tumblr have also been used to keep people posted on trouble spots to avoid and crowdsource intelligence on the identities of rioters and looters using released cameraphone pictures and videos and CCTV footage published by the Met and other police forces involved.

I have seen the finger of blame pointed at a wide number of red herrings – Police; social media; the Government; the recession. A number of those things may have a large part to play in what led to the events that have unfolded over the last 72 hours but so far no-one is turning the spotlight where it is most painful to shine it: on ourselves. We have all contributed to creating the conditions in which these dreadful things happen and until we start to examine that and decide how we can do things differently, I can’t see any room for change.

And for the record, I don’t think that the necessary change is enforced reintroduction of National Service, 9pm curfews for the under 21s and greater restriction of everyone’s civil liberties. I would like to think that between us we can come up with some suggestions for how we can all start to take back responsibility for the society that we have co-created rather than assuming it’s all someone else’s problem and they will come in and clear it up for us if we sit in and stare in dismay at our televisions for long enough.

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