London’s Burning: Mindless Violence Matched with Mindless Reactions from the Public

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.

49 comments on “London’s Burning: Mindless Violence Matched with Mindless Reactions from the Public

  1. HEY! thanks for this. you’ll be happy to know that myself and nearly all of my friends have been countering all of the small minded blame mentality for 4 days now, on line and off. very very exhausting.

    • orwellwasright on said:

      Exhausting and depressing – thankfully there are exceptions out there who don’t follow the herd and can think for themselves. Thanks for reading

  2. also “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.”

    Sadly, and terribly true.

  3. Totally agree. Forums are full of people telling their own personal sob storys and how they didnt resort to behaving like this. Alot of people abusive to anyone trying to look deeper inside this issue. I find it very arogant that one person claims to understand the motives of all these people.

  4. The reactions I’ve had to my own appeals for a balanced, and thoughtful, response have met with accusations of supporting the rioting scum, and outright criticism, much as you’ve described in your rather fine article

    We live in scarey times, and my own optimism and positivity towards the hope and belief that people are inherently sane, and inherently good, has taken a severe knock

    However, your article once again reinforces my beliefs that sanity may still prevail

    Peace & Thanx

    Stu

  5. Whilst agreeing that the state has let a number of these youths down, there are an enormous amount of them who have used this opportunity for mindless violence and theft.
    I know the police pick up youths for what appears no reason, and I accept that the authorities have let a lot of people down. You can’t compare this and the banking crisis either. Everyone’s paying for it. I am. You are. I have no intention of rioting. I’ll have to work harder and cut down in other areas to reduce the effects. Petrol prices are up. Gas and elec is 20% up. Everyone’s got problems.
    Did you see sky news last night? Some fella came on and said he’s not a law abiding citizen. He won’t be the only one. Surely kids like him justify, to some extent, random police searches/arrests etc.

  6. Well said.

  7. This very much parallels my own view even down to ‘knee-jerk reaction’.

    I too have been shouted down for trying to use reason and logic; in trying to see the bigger picture and wider factors of impact on individuals ostracised from their -so called- communities by manipulated DWP figures creating hate towards anyone sick or disabled, or simply on benefits thanks to the likes of The Daily Fail/The Sun/The Telegraph.

    We are creating the country we live in by how we choose to treat one another. As long as people continue to be told what to think and believe by red-tops and the biased state propaganda machine, the BBC there’s little hope if people can’t stop being angery reactionists and use some independent thought..

  8. Couldn’t agree more, it’s worrying it seems the 30s are now such a distant memory that the fact that we seem to be sleepwalking into repeating the outcomes of that decade (though I sincerely hope not!).

  9. (sorry, forgot last line…) doesn’t seem to register with most folk.

  10. Generally well written article but you don’t seem to give credence to the hysteria the media have put into people, and into themselves, via Twitter. Everyone’s getting rather too worked up.

    Dictatorship? I don’t think so. I think people probably expected maybe a heavier hand from the police (the student riots had a harsher police response) and as they got more scared started saying things that rationally they probably wouldn’t mean. We can’t let this change our fundamental values and we shouldn’t be making declarations of doom just yet. I hope politics will change, and I think we’ll see it, but people, as proved yesterday, are sick of pithy lines from politicians and cheap photo-ops.

    You’ll probably see more demand for openess and transparency and hopefully a front-page realisation of how we got into this mess driven by the more coherent media punters. People are, healthily, asking questions, and that’s great – we have so many viewpoints in this country, so many people clamouring for a voice, that suddenly declaring the result to potentially be a route towards a far-right dictatorship, with all our historical knowledge, is just as much a product of media hysteria as anything else. Laters!

    • I should note I’d like to eidt some of that but can’t figure out how. Rather than twitter read “social networking”. Doh.

    • orwellwasright on said:

      Well I wasn’t strictly suggesting we are actually heading into a dictatorship, more that, if the majority of people get what they’re calling for then that’s what we’d have. Hopefully as you say in the aftermath of all this when people have had time to think, a more measured response will be seen by more people

  11. Beautifully written – many, many thanks.

  12. Overthrow on said:

    You already live in a dictatorship of Capital.

  13. “as the swathe of riots which swept the UK over the last few days”

    Would you mind awfully not claiming that these riots are anything but an ENGLISH phenomenon? As far as I’m aware, three quarters of the United Kingdom AREN’T rioting. Even the BBC appear to have finally worked this out.

    I’d also ask, if a rioter is out there angry at treatment by the police, why is he then attacking innocent shops? Why are 100 of his mates not joining him on an attack on a local police station? Why are their fellow citizens being made to suffer loss of property – and in some cases their lives – and not the people actually responsible for their conditions? For all your talk of trying to understand these people, and the comments people are making on Facebook missing the apparent background behind all this, it seems the rioters aren’t thinking very clearly either, if any thought is being applied at all amidst all that raw aggression.

    Violence solves nothing, especially when it is randomised and undirected like this is, and the apparent lack of any word of condemnation or censure of the violence from your little piece here mean you are the one who really needs to look again at his thinking. It is the violence itself – NOT the people calling for them – that will bring water cannons and rubber bullets onto our streets. I suggest you think about that while bleeding for those poor innocent victims of circumstance pouring their rage onto the wrong targets.

    • orwellwasright on said:

      Didn’t claim these riots were an “ENGLISH phenomenon” anywhere in the article – I’m simply addressing the riots in the UK specifically and my feelings about many of the reactions from the British public. I’m sure it’s much more than 3/4 of the UK that aren’t rioting but I don’t see what that has to do with those who are. As for this little snipe, “Violence solves nothing, especially when it is randomised and undirected like this is, and the apparent lack of any word of condemnation or censure of the violence from your little piece here mean you are the one who really needs to look again at his thinking” – did you actually read the article? If you did I guess you missed this part: “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.”

      If you’re going to be critical, it helps if you don’t resort to deliberate distortion and omission to make your “point”…

  14. Thank ‘god’ I’m not alone

  15. Zak Simmonds on said:

    Excellent article, I have been pretty much arguing points like these with friends for days now, yet you seem to do a much better job at encapsulating the issues and articulating them better than I. I’ve passed this link around, good job :)

    Z

  16. Faye West on said:

    finally read someone who makes sense and who has articulated everything that is buzzing around in my head

  17. simon warren on said:

    hmmmm perhaps you are a few days ahead of the story – people should be angry and upset and be allowed to vent – however the sense will out once the dust settles. is there an argument the state did become too fat and disempower those who felt soicety offers them nothing by pandering to their woe in too softer manner ? i agree though the injustice of bankers bonuses and the greed / corruption of the establishment highlighted by the mps expenses scandal and emeshed police / news international stuff makes it feel the world is run by “others”. Dont dismiss peoples right to be upset and angry though – this has been v v v tough.

  18. Some good points but be sure not to imagine the online world is truly representative of the real world. I see lots of gibberish online that the real people I know would never sign up for or even consider acceptable.

  19. You lost me at “crime and gang culture is the only option open to many young people” that is not and has never been true.

  20. My experience is similar… and I am hugely saddened by the ill-considered (often ill-mannered) responses of the ‘string-‘em-up’ brigade – not to mention those who also, inaccurately, accuse anyone seeking explanations of ‘making excuses’. Nobody excuses the vandalism. It’s just that some of us want to examine the causes too.

    More thoughts on this here: http://marcusmoore.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/the-wrong-questions/

    and (perhaps of historical interest, though still relevant, I would claim) here: http://marcusmoore.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/trappings-of-indignity/

    • orwellwasright on said:

      Perhaps some of these people will revise their views once things have settled down – a lot of people do seem to react and then contemplate, which is not quite the right way to go about things. Thanks for the links – I’m hoping one day I’ll be a freelance writer as well, although probably not for my political views, which aren’t very popular amongst the mainstream!

  21. Interesting although equally inflammatory, you make some fair points but leading this on to accusations of accepting a police state (no real evidence of this, people were searching for methods of crowd control to manage a problem not experienced for a decade, people felt the current methods of policing were impotent in the face of such violence) and a potential dictatorship are huge leaps from an initial position of considering all socio-economic variables.

    We are further away now from a police state than at any point in our past.

    Also losing friends on Facebook is no great hardship for speaking your mind, especially given the rate at which we seem to acquire said friends anyway

    • orwellwasright on said:

      Well I was taking the extreme examples from people’s reactions to make the point that some out there would be happy if the rioters were executed but I think it’s fair to say that the image of the water cannon firing at protesters is synonymous with many dictatorships in history. And we are certainly not further away from a police state than at any point in our past – a simple survey of surveillance measures and policing reveals numerous measures characteristic of a police state, which are well documented. Although that statement goes some way to explaining your perception of my article as “inflammatory”.

      • Inflammatory was harsh, agreed, retracted. although surveillance is undeniably much greater, the police are under a scrutiny unseen in their history, through politicians, the ipcc (whatever your opinion of them may be) and, probably most relevant to the general public, the press. the time when they are allowed to exercise their free will as an officer over policy is, I feel, a long way away.

        but, alas, tis only my opinion

  22. orwellwasright on said:

    Another look at some of the wider issues I address in the article:

  23. beetaylor on said:

    It seems that a lot of the roiters had jobs – youth workers, teaching assistants, dental assistants… I also find it hard to find sympathy for those who (and I utterly agree about the acquisitive, materialistic society point) wear £100 trainers and use a £300 phone to communicate, being classed as ‘poor’ in the normal sense of the word. They aren’t starving from a food deficit, but there is definitely an argument for entrenched educational poverty.

  24. These riots are connected… (to everything else): http://t.co/s2iocro

  25. orwellwasright on said:

    Another video from Stefan Molyneux expanding on some of the wider issues I discuss in the article:

  26. Jacqueline Leighton Boyce on said:

    Thats a brilliant essay. I think one of the reasons why so many people have reacted in an extreme way to the rioters is that they simply cannot cope with dealing with yet another problem in our country and just want this all ‘swept under the carpet’ by the justice system. They cannot deal with the root of the problem.

  27. I feel your pain & frustration. It seems as though it doesn’t matter how many times you preface an analysis of the causes with a condemnation of the outcome, you’ll always be accused of a contemptible support for the rioting & looting. A tweet that went ’round a couple of days ago should be all one needs to say: “Just because rioters do not have political aims does not mean the causes of the riots do not lie in politics.” I believe the deafness is for some convenient and deliberate, but for others emotional. Those for whom it’s deliberate have an agenda that’s always been there and are as opportunist as the looters they condemn. But what also bothers me is that many of the people now spewing reaction & hatred are among those who agreed with myself & others when we warned of this coming if political change didn’t happen. However, I do think in these cases it is the shock & horror. It’s one thing to be intellectual and socially conscious in theory, but another when you have to face the reality. These people are among those in the emotional knee jerk category. Opinion always swings in these situations dependent upon the resolve of those prepared to consistently stand up and make the reasoned argument. Many supported Thatcher in her attacks on Unions, social housing and “spongers”, now even modern Tories want to distance themselves from her – or at least disguise themselves as something different. We need to continue to make the arguments where ever we can and when the anger subsides and (unfortunately) we begin to experience the draconian policies to come, ears will open again.

  28. I was going to write an article on the rioting myself, but you took the words right out of my fingers! Excellent article, it’s a shame stereotypes we’ve been brought up with have made being smart or ‘geeky’ a bad thing to be among children. Suppressive tools like that are the reason not enough people question what they hear and read

  29. Strong and meaningful words there. Security through fear is ready to overcome liberty once for all in people’s minds, there’s no question. But there’s hope, glad I got here.

  30. Good article.

    Hopefully the silent majority will keep us from falling into dictatorship, even through revolution if necessary.

  31. rumor has it that it could influence a similar scenario here in the USA especially with unemployment in the double digits; most definitely higher for the youth. And, if history is any indicator, revolutions are always started and driven by the youth.

    audymm.wordpress.com

  32. Agreed it’s appalling how quickly what is relatively small scale issues have become a national agenda for a police state – when the banking crisis, which was much more damaging, went unpunished and relatively unremarked.

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