Cyclist during London riots. Photo by Andy Armstrong

Paul Sullivan looks at the London riots, the surrounding issues and causal factors, and the fact that it’s never black and white.

IT’S TUESDAY EVENING HERE IN BERLIN, and like many of my friends and acquaintances over in the U.K., I’ve had a tense and irritable day. I’ve tried my best to focus on work but one of my two sleep-thirsty eyes has been roving constantly over the stream of comments, analyses and newly emerging information following yesterday’s incendiary English riots.

The previous night was long and almost dream-like at times as events unfolded and then just kept on unfolding like some weirdly apocalyptic cinematic sequence. There had, of course, already been sporadic outbursts following Saturday’s (initially peaceful) protests at Tottenham police station, in relation to the shooting of Mark Duggan, which his family and friends felt – justifiably – had not been adequately explained or handled.

But last night’s eruptions were a molten stream of burnings, lootings, muggings and street battles as gangs of youths rampaged through a swathe of London districts like Brixton, Enfield, Hackney, Peckham, Lewisham and Croydon, Clapham Junction – and eventually other major UK cities like Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

Greatly concerned for my many friends in London (I lived there for several years) and around the country, I quickly abandoned everything to follow the BBC and Al Jazeera reports and catch real-time updates from my social media feeds. The world narrowed to the shocking series of images featuring burning buildings, beaten up buses, people hurling objects at police, cars, shops, journalists.

Kids as young as nine and ten, Twitter was saying, were smashing windows to steal things; but there were also reports that people had been burned alive and that British tanks had turned up at Bank – both these were false (the tanks image was from Egypt); one of the negative aspects of the social media info flow.

(Speaking of social media, a consensus quickly circulated that social media had somehow contributed directly to the riots, based on the knowledge that those involved were using Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and Sony’s Playstation Network to organise meet ups – a fact later leading to the events being described as the world’s first “decentralised riots”.)

The dramatic lack of police presence (there were allegedly 6,000, spread very thinly across the entire city), and the fact the BBC couldn’t get hold of any senior politicians or spokespersons as they were all on holiday, added greatly to the sense that this was a country that had totally lost its mind and was dangerously out of control. Eventually, exhausted by the continuous horror of it all, I collapsed into a troubled sleep.

When I woke up, amazed to find that no one had been burned or battered to death, the Internet was still working double time as Britain — and the rest of the world to some extent — tried to wrap their heads around what happened. A range of reactions piled up encompassing anger, sadness, fear, and shock with undertones of class and racial politics.

Reading the steady stream of rants, warnings, and analyses gave rise to a schizophrenic set of feelings. On one hand I was disgusted with the riots and the unthinking damage and danger these stupid mother-fuckers had caused, and of course I wasn’t alone: the same feeling united people throughout the country, as social media redeemed itself and Facebook Groups and Twitter hash-tags like #riotcleanup coalesced into real-life campaigns, donation help-lines, and other manifestations of community solidarity.

Blogs were launched to make photos of looters publicly available and – classic British humour dressed as light relief – photoshopped them too. Heroes emerged, like the Turkish shop-keepers who chased away the mobs to protect their shops in the absence of police, and the lone, eerily sane West Indian lady who lambasted her community as they mindlessly tore their city (and largely their own neighbourhoods) to shreds.

Photos appeared showing exhausted police being served tea on riot shields and eventually even the Prime Minister (David Cameron) and Mayor (Boris Johnson) returned from their respective holidays, though the reception they received was justifiably less than warm.

So there was the general agreement that the kids – most were in their teens and early 20s – were complete assholes and needed to be rounded up and rightfully punished for their madness. But there was something else too, the uneasy fact that kids just don’t generally go raging around town smashing shit up.

So there was the general agreement that the kids – most were in their teens and early 20s – were complete assholes and needed to be rounded up and rightfully punished for their madness. But there was something else too, the uneasy fact that kids just don’t generally go raging around town smashing shit up. Even as the clean-up operation began, disagreement raged about the causes of the events. Some claimed the looting had nothing to do with the Duggan shooting (a theory backed up by certain depressing interviews); others insisted there was a definite political context, that – as one Tweet had it – even if the looters were not politically motivated themselves, the incidents were inexorably rooted in politics.

On reflection, it’s difficult to deny that if any group has suffered under the hands of the coalition government this last year, it’s the young and the impoverished. Aside from the general discontent provoked by public spending cuts, the student cuts have had a galvanizing political effect on British youth, as has the scrapping of the EMA (a means-tested weekly stipend to help poorer school pupils stay on in post-16 education) and extensive cuts to recreational services like youth clubs.

Can it be coincidence that over half the youth clubs (eight in total) in the Haringey district (which incorporates Tottenham) had been shut down in the last three months? That some 10,000 people in Haringey draw unemployment benefits? That every job vacancy in the area attracts an average of 54 applicants? There are racial elements to the story too: the legacy of the Broadwater Farm and Brixton Riots of the 80s; the awful track record of black deaths in police custody; the reported 70% rise in BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] Brits who are stopped and searched.

But these riots seem less about race and more about class and the pressures of capitalism. The looting of shops like Curry’s, JD Sports, and Foot Locker seems banal yet curiously relevant for an “underclass” who are used to having the carrot of consumerism dangled forever in front of their noses. Again, it can surely be no coincidence that around 20 percent of 16-24 year olds in the UK are unemployed.

Understanding why rioting and looting has happened shouldn’t be conflated with supporting it. While it can be a seemingly contradictory experience to condemn the riots and simultaneously contextualize them, it’s not. It’s simply the complex nature of the issues intertwined through these events – through British society and, ultimately, through consumerist culture in general.

As Tuesday evening slides into Tuesday night, my eye is still on the Twitter feed (it’s faster than the news, even if you do have to sift fact from fiction- plus my mates are on it) – wondering if the UK is in for another pounding as more disturbances and arrests are reported in London and Manchester, or if the kids have had enough. It won’t be so easy for them tonight: there are 16,000 police on the streets armed with baton rounds, essentially rubber bullets that “can severely injure or kill in a wide variety of ways”.

The police have, in the meantime, apologized to Duggan’s family, but the details of the shooting are far from clear and there is clearly still tension in the air. Likely there will be until Britain’s out-of-touch politicians begin a dialogue with the youth and communities they’ve worked so hard to disaffect and disenfranchise. Chances are a little genuine conversation might go a long way, but of course history teaches us that a more likely outcome is swift and exemplary punishment for the convicted offenders (563 have been arrested at the time of writing) followed by yet more insult and indifference (the phrase “pure criminality” – i.e. divorced from any explanatory context — already ominously present in formal statements about the riots).

But the kids will always find ways of making themselves heard. As politics writer Penny Red points out in her blog post about London’s events, when a young man in Tottenham was asked by TV station NBC if rioting really achieved anything: “Yes,” he said. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?

To see a gallery of London before and after, click here.