I don’t know what’s depressed me more over the last few days, the riots or the response to the riots from members of the public on forums, social networking websites and elsewhere. Until now, I’ve been living under the delusion that most people at heart have a fair sense of right and wrong and the importance of a level-headed, sane response to events such as the swathe of riots which swept the UK over the last few days (and may well continue sporadically over the next few days). Judging by most of the responses I’ve heard or read from people, however, I’ve clearly had my head floating somewhere up above in the clouds.
I can understand perfectly well and accept why the rioters are being categorised as “mindless yobs”, “hooligans”, “violent thugs” and so on. The behaviour witnessed over the last few days – the wanton destruction of shops and people’s homes and vehicles, the muggings, the carjackings, the widespread looting – is of course utterly reprehensible and cannot and should not be condoned, and such labels accurately fit this behaviour. There is no excuse for it. But there are reasons, and what I’ve discovered over the past few days is how few people are prepared to consider the context of the riots and how it reflects more broadly on socio-economic conditions in the UK.
Most people I’ve read commenting on Facebook, Twitter, news forums and elsewhere have demonstrated such a mind-numbingly simplistic attitude to the riots it beggars belief – to them, the cause of the riots is laid at the door of this perception of “yob mentality” that exists in complete isolation from any external factors, as if the rioters are born thugs, pampered by society, used to getting away with anything and completely incapable of behaving like “normal” human beings. I have seen virtually no attempt to appreciate the social and economic conditions that permeate many of the estates where the rioting took place, and worse still, a number of verbally abusive knee-jerk reactions to those who try and point this out.
One friend of mine came across a group on Facebook offering support for the Metropolitan Police and their efforts to quell the riots. He pointed out that a long history of poor policing in the area – constant stop and searches, racial profiling, suspicious deaths of suspects in custody with no convictions/investigations into the arresting officers – combined with the shooting of Mark Duggan and lack of response from the police when friends and family members peacefully protested outside the police station, suggests that the Met, and policing of these boroughs in general, might have something to answer for when examining the broader conditions which led to the riots. The response he got from some people for daring to suggest that the root causes might go beyond “they’re all mindless thugs” was accusations of “blaming the police and making excuses for the rioters”.
Meanwhile, another friend took the opportunity to raise some hugely relevant issues about the spending cuts; how, combined with already poor standards of living, a lack of education or job prospects and a social environment in which violence, crime and gang culture is the only option open to many young people, inevitably tensions build until a triggering event – in this instance the shooting of Mark Duggan – releases all the pent up rage, and all the frustration and helplessness is channeled into such riots. For daring to offer an objective and reasoned understanding of the backgrounds of many of the rioters, a number of people deleted him from Facebook.
As for the widespread looting, another friend tried to explain to a colleague the idea that many of the rioters and looters from these deprived areas have been brought up in an acquisitive society in which materialism and consumerism is one of the core “values” that people hold; a culture where possessions make you who you are, be it the latest trainers, iPhone or tracksuit. It stands to reason that, given this, many of those rioting will see it as an ideal opportunity to acquire the material things they couldn’t otherwise afford, satiating the superficial values imposed upon them by saturation advertising and MTV. This friend, too, was shouted down and immediately disregarded.
More worrying than the widespread disregard for understanding the social and economic conditions that lie at the root of the communities where rioting broke out is the willingness that many people appear to have for repressive and violent responses from the state. While Home Secretary Theresa May cautioned against the use of water cannons or the initiation of martial law, across the internet and in workplaces up and down the country people were clamouring for it, desperate to see the iron fist of the law hammering down on Tottenham and Hackney and anywhere else riots broke out, indiscriminately battering the “scum” since “we shouldn’t waste money on putting them in prison”. On a Yahoo News article, for example, virtually every comment was from someone calling for baton charges, rubber bullets, the army on the streets… No measure is too harsh – for some, even the death penalty is an option worth considering.
I used to think that any efforts by the government to bring about a full-blown police state in the UK would meet with failure. I used to think that people were inherently protective of their rights and that they were capable of taking a step back even when presented with something shocking and emotionally charged such as the recent riots and use their common sense to weigh up their response with a sense of proportion. I used to think that there was some truth to the old idiom, “Cooler heads will prevail”. Now it seems painfully clear that, given the right justification, the vast majority of people in this country will welcome a police state with open arms. They don’t care about the real causes of such riots – the huge rise in child poverty, police brutality and rising unemployment rates – which affect communities where such rioting breaks out. That would entail a degree of social responsibility and compassion for those less fortunate which sadly appears completely beyond them.
As for the wider issues such as the large-scale looting of the economy by bankers (a gargantuan theft which has left everyone but the super rich far worse off than any rioter could ever hope to), who at the same time award themselves billions in bonuses while forcing austerity measures which exacerbate the downward spiral of unemployment and lack of prospects – barely a word is uttered. After all, unlike the looters on the streets of London, the real criminals in this country have the media and the politicians on their side and the spokespeople in the suits and ties, and that’s enough to convince the general public that their motives are honourable.
Alexis de Tocqueville is alleged to have once said, “People get the government they deserve.”
I guess that means we’re headed for a dictatorship.