For a few nights in August 2011 some streets in London, Manchester and Birmingham were temporarily taken over by, predominantly, young people who systematically and violently smashed, grabbed, looted and burned their way through the night…they acted, it seems, without fear, without a thought to the consequences of their behaviour and with reckless disregard for their safety and the safety of others. It was an extraordinary sight and one that will stay a long time in the memory of those who witnessed it on television. For those who live in the affected communities they may never fully come to terms with what happened and it will take months, perhaps years for communities to recover from the physical scars.
Now in the immediate aftermath we see the media typically try to simplify and thereby polarise the debate – on the one hand the liberal left blaming a lack of social cohesion, relative poverty and a lack of meaningful life opportunities, and on the conservative right a desire to treat the acts as purely those of criminal thuggery and deserving only of the strongest criminal justice punishments available.
The sound-bite media culture we live in forces the polarisation of the debate and while it might make good television it is not insightful in any meaningful way.
So, hesitatingly, I would like to offer a non-polarising viewpoint and to join in the debate. Before doing so I should say that I am not an expert in any relevant field and neither do I have the perspective of some relevant real life experience to draw upon. Indeed I only have the perspective of a middle-aged, professional white male. I presume I have very little in common with the urban poor teenager; although my family was certainly not wealthy. However, I did not consider myself poor and in many ways I had an idyllic childhood with a loving family in a rural small town. Expectations were more modest and I had no notion of being disenfranchised. If I am honest I had no notion of being enfranchised either.
My views therefore are not important to the media or to the so called “chattering classes” but I hope that does not mean I have no voice. So, with your indulgence I will take a few minutes of your day if you continue to read on…
For centuries the poor have rioted. They have rioted over the lack of food, property and political influence. They have rioted against the established orthodoxy and between themselves. It is not new and the only people who ever seem surprised are those who have plenty of food, wealth and political influence.
I believe however, that we all have it within us to be angered by unfairness and injustice whether over the closure of a school, hospital or factory; or, more significantly, when our families and communities are at risk of physical harm. Indeed in extremis we all have it within us to be destructive in a cause as well.
The mindset appears to be that in order to have a voice one must first be heard, and if we are not heard we will seek alternative and sometimes destructive, even self-destructive, means in order to be heard.
So, for example, workers will strike for better pay and conditions; but strikes cost those participating in them real money and may even cost them their jobs. These people will therefore destroy and harm their own wellbeing if the cause is worth it.
In times of war, predominantly young people can be mobilised to defend their way of life and their communities; but many will be killed and injured in doing so. In times of political revolution, predominantly young people will put themselves in harm’s way and may even participate in destroying the physical infrastructure they seek to protect and preserve.
I am sure there are very many more examples of affirmative action risking physical harm to people and property when we collectively feel mobilised to act. Before I am labelled an apologist for criminal behaviour, I should point out that I am not blind to the fact that within these constructs, bad people do bad things. The mistreatment of prisoners of war, the rape and assault of innocent civilians by occupying powers, the political and social corruption that follows dismantled commercial norms, the looting of property by opportunists and the settling of scores by rival gangs…these are all examples of criminal behaviour, sometimes on an industrial scale, that can flourish in the civil vacuum that is created by disruptive behaviour.
How we view the balance between criminal disruption and legitimate grievance in part depends on our proximity to the acts, our personal empathy with those involved and the distance we have in time to judge the actions in a broader context.
The young men and women who took to the streets in August in London, Manchester and Birmingham will have had many motivations and some of those motivations will have changed over the course of the days they were involved. Many will have felt angry and aggrieved some without necessarily knowing precisely what about or why…anger is not always a well directed emotion after all.
Some of them as well will have just seen an opportunity for a fight; while some others will have been caught up in the adrenalin rush of something crazy happening in the streets they live in.
I don’t think we can judge today with clarity or certainty why it happened and what lessons there are to draw from what happened. All I think we can say is that for a thousand years and more some people who have perceived themselves to be dispossessed, disconnected and disenfranchised have fought back when they felt that hopelessness was all they owned.
Then, depending on the kindliness (or not) of the historian’s perspective, we review such riotous acts of the poor as either the legitimate and honourable fight for rights and freedoms, or the misguided nastiness and folly of a criminally motivated minority.
I hope politicians have the sense and wisdom to pause before they act, but I predict they will not. I hope that we can build communities where we do not disengage and disenfranchise a significant minority of young people, but I predict we will always do so. I hope we may not have riots in future because we have addressed the legitimate concerns of the urban poor, but I fear we will not and sadly therefore, I predict a riot.