Thursday, August 11, 2011

London riots

Someone who calls herself Penny Red writes about the British riots while listening to the violence come closer to her London flat:

It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

No one expected this. ... The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

This seems highly believable to me -- though who can be sure from thousands of miles away in another country?

Unlike most younger white U.S. adults, I grew up with rioting. U.S. cities burned as the heat climbed, as reliably as summer came around each year during the latter part of the 1960s. As seems to be happening in Britain, mostly people burned their own neighborhoods, many of which have still not recovered. (This is a story told cogently in columnist Eugene Robinson's recent book on Black America.) Concurrently I saw (and ran within) what the media called "student riots" -- mostly protests that began peacefully, though some turned destructive when broken up by police force. I saw a man take birdshot in the back next to me as we tried to escape such a scene. When I went to graduate school to study modern European history, I remember a seminar that was discussing popular uprisings in 19th century cities -- there was a sharp divide in the room between our professors and most the students who had never seen street violence and the small number of us who had. Our experiences meant we saw the world differently.

Some of us knew, as Penny Red says that riots are about power and about catharsis.

Riots have remained part of my experience since. In 1979 there was the San Francisco White Night Riot touched off by lenient sentencing of the murderer of the city's mayor and first gay supervisor, a former cop. In 1992, when part of Los Angeles went up in smoke after the acquittal of policemen who beat Rodney King and were caught on video, I witnessed the smaller, gentler San Francisco sympathy riot. Just recently in 2009, Oakland protests against the shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a transit cop, again caught on video, resulted in what media called a riot soon after the fact. Police got some of their own back when the officer got a light sentence and a small band of protesters ran into a mass police pushback a year later.

Note there's a common factor in these events: police officers get off easy for killings that would get civilians locked up for life, if not executed. People feel they have nothing left to lose -- bingo, there's a riot.

But Penny Red gets at something more. Elites think they can do anything to people who lose all hope. That's just as true in the United States as in Britain. Eventually, something makes a spark. Then there will be a riot and no sophisticated surveillance systems and police preparations can entirely stop it.

Will rioting do anyone any good? Probably not. But when you've got nothing left to lose, who cares?
H/t open democracyfor leading me to Penny Red.

And for what it is worth, here's a link to the UK government's riot website. Yes, they are on top of things. They've put up a web page.

1 comment:

PeonInChief said...

One of the factors in the attack on the poor that is little mentioned in the US is the "reform" of housing assistance, reform that will drive many low-income Londoners from many of their neighborhoods. The most draconian provision of the law goes into effect in October. See

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