So I suppose it’s about time I took the time to collect my thoughts on the UK riots that have been spreading like wildfire since the weekend. There have been a lot of people perfectly happy to decry rioters as mindless and I’ve said snippets towards that, but it’s about time I collected my thoughts and said something in completeness.
The first thing I will say is that a riot is an amoral event. Which is to say I do not judge the riot (taking the riot as a complete whole) as being something which is morally good or justified, nor do I judge the riot as being something morally bad which should be condemned. This is because a riot is an organic event that has been created from society and is carried out by an amalgamation of disparate groups and individuals. It has no governing body, it has no direction or intent as a whole. It’s something which is simply happening, you cannot judge the entire event as one thing and you cannot judge every single person present within the riot by the actions that have happened within the riot as a whole. It is not the same, for example, as a military force whose actions can be judged based on the intentions of the government commanding them along with the effect they have because they act as a coordinated unit.
Which is why if someone says “you must condemn the rioters!” I say no. I condemn burning homes, cars, mugging and physical attacks on people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Absolutely those actions are not acceptable, especially the triple murder in Birmingham and the shooting in London. Within a riot situation, because there isn’t and over-arching organisation that constructs and guides the events, those events are not definitive of all the rioters. So you cannot use them to blanket condemn everyone who has taken to the streets. Acts of class cannibalism are still wrong, they’re still misguided and inappropriate.
As for looting, I don’t think it’s particularly smart to cripple small local business but again there’s no one present to govern or guide tactics. But big businesses such as tesco, carphone warehouse and so on being looted and burnt? The Sony depot being burnt? Well … riots aren’t the best way to attack capitalism but I’m not overly upset when such events do happen.
The real crime of the riots isn’t the individual actions that have happened in them, but the society that has created the potential for them all to happen. To understand what this means we have to realise that deprivation and privilege do not exist on a linear scale, instead they exist relative to the society and relative to the individual. The most recurring theme I’ve encountered is that people comprehend society solely from their own perspective; that their experiences represent what it is to be hard done by in the UK, while the media presents images to them of people who are better off (celebrities) and people who are worse off (such as people who are starving in Africa) are externalised as not being a part of the same system. If this own person’s hard done by experiences haven’t led them to want to riot, why would anyone else?
But the problem is the media in the UK doesn’t go into real depth so that middle England can really comprehend what life is like living on the breadline, when everyone around you is also in the same position. Entire communities that have had the EMA (so a chance at a college education) taken away, even if they do manage to get that there’s certainly no chance they could afford university. There’s no jobs in the area and not enough money to move to a different area where they may be more jobs. Youth centres and social centres that give people things to do which don’t cost are being taken away. At the same time they’re still living in a society where it’s full of adverts telling people they have to buy this, that or the other to make their lives complete. Full of articles about celebrities who have the world at their feet. People are moving into their area, gentrifying it, pushing up the price of houses and rent and commodities so that the little they had is now worth even less. They won’t be able to live there when they move out. Facing police stop and searches on a daily basis for the crime of being a person of colour. Their own existence is invalidated and ignored because they don’t have the money or privilege to fit the accepted form of a successful person.
You may say that “oh they’re just organising riots on their blackberries and laptops so they can’t be that hard up” but that still doesn’t mean anything. We’re hitting the second dip of the recession; many of these people may well have had jobs but lost them. The community around them is being gutted. Aside from this the economic downturn along with the structuring of society creates within it gang culture and a drug economy; perhaps the only source of income which may in itself be lucrative enough for them to afford mobiles and laptops but it’s still a life that has to be lived as a subculture where people are rejected and criminalised for finding a way to live in an area without jobs.
All of this builds into an anger and a rage. It’s intuitive that every day of their life society rejects them and so they fight back at society. They don’t have a philosophical political grounding in what it is that they’re angry at or why they’re striking out but that doesn’t invalidate or neutralise the experience. The result is that the reaction isn’t directed at the true causal factors, it’s directed at the rest of society around them. The chaos created by a riot gives rise to opportunistic behaviour, the adrenaline and crowd consciousness leads to attacks and genuine violence which isn’t acceptable. But to get lost decrying that and ignoring the socio-economic factors is to get society stuck in a loop where it doesn’t fix the ills that caused the riot but instead propagates it and maintains the cycle. If society doesn’t listen to the warning that the riot heralds, it is damned into repeating the problem and having more riots. This one will burn out in time but without change we’ll have more in ten, twenty or thirty years.
And is a practical response to criminalise everyone who was involved, and each generation gut a community by imprisoning vast segments of it’s population? Or will that instead increase racial and class antagonism? Will bring in the military really solve anything or make this work? Societies quick fixes to these problems are not ones that will create a lasting positive change.
Cameron has allowed the use of baton rounds (plastic bullets) and water-cannons on mainland soil. He hasn’t specified stringent limits on this. Whether or not you think these are justified in this instance, you can bet that they’ll be introduced more broadly into the policing of demonstrations. They will be used broadly to suppress people’s human rights in addition to this specific event. I have no doubt of that.
Finally something should be said about the danger of proto-fascist groups such as the BNP and EDL using these events to build racial antagonism. It goes without saying that this would be absolutely wrong to allow to happen but it’s something I need to collect my thoughts on.
Sorry if that was a rant and a bit all over the place, I find it hard to keep up with what I’ve typed in these small boxes on tumblr. Hopefully I made sense and didn’t go off on a tangent.