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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.

About The Author

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan is a freelance writer, author, editor and photographer covering music, travel and culture. His writing and photography work has been published in The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, National Geographic UK, Matador Network, Wax Poetics, XLR8R and more, and he has scribed/snapped several guidebooks for Time Out, HG2, Rough Guide, Cool Camping and others. He currently lives in Berlin, where he runs the sustainable travel portal Slow Travel Berlin. Check out his photography website, follow him on Twitter or join hisFacebook photography page.

  • Eva14

    Thank you, Paul.

    “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.”

    Yes. THIS. Yep, the rioters would appear to be ignorant assholes. But let’s talk about why there are quite so many angry ignorant assholes in Britain’s poorest areas, shall we?

  • T.C.

    “Yes,” he said. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
    This statement should be required reading for anyone commenting on these events.

  • AnthonyV8

    Just a couple months ago, the Spanish “indignados” protested peacefully in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, in Barcelona’s Placa de Catalunya, and throughout the nation.  Their frustration and anger were broadcast throughout Spain and the world.  You don’t have to destroy your own community to be heard. 

    • http://wonderfulblunderfulworld.wordpress.com/ CC

      Anthony: Definitely agreed and obviously much of the Arab Spring is another example, but with very few exceptions, the British media seems reluctant to explore the underlying issues for fear of seeming to justify these riots. 

      The NYTimes did a great liveblog piece with reactions from Egyptian bloggers: Oh the one hand :Egyptian blogger added that even though police brutality sparked revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, “Egyptians and Tunisians took revenge for Khaled Said and Bouazizi by peacefully toppling their murdering regimes, not stealing DVD players.”But on the other, I agree with this: 
      Egyptian state television reports: “BBC is making it sound like young people have a single aim and that’s to loot and vandalise. Nothing or very little on why they are doing so.”http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/egyptian-bloggers-parse-london-riots-in-real-time/?scp=1&sq=London&st=cse

    • Paul Sullivan
  • http://wonderfulblunderfulworld.wordpress.com/ CC

    Paul, Great piece !!  Love this bit: 
    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.

  • Andrew

    This was excellent, excellent excellent.

  • alschiele

    Great piece, Paul. 

  • http://www.blackchickontour.com/ Terri Lundberg

    This is a great piece.  I’ve refrained from reading much on the riots, mainly due to the over emotional comments (i.e. just take the thugs out and shoot them) my British expat friends are posting on FB, and I hate the sensationalistic news media.  I don’t condone what they’re doing. But, I think to just say, “they’re animals” is simplistic.

  • Tatumsworld

    Love the article. Thank you for this piece. You took the time to look deeper into the issue instead of chalking up as “niggers” trying to make off with shoes. Because those are the sentiments that I have seen via the comment section of several youtube  videos.  The last sentence of this article sums up everything.

  • http://ianmack.com/ Ian MacKenzie

    Nice work Paul. You nailed it.  I believe the authorities and government, and even well-meaning citizens will miss the point.  They will miss the context.   As my friend said ”Right now, all the looting only serves to reinforce a bad system that is keeping them down and out of place. Once this disenfranchised youth realize their actions can create the next culture to evolve… then things will move fast.”

  • Marcel

    Well written and to the point. A Hackney bookseller allegedly answered to the question to why her shop was still open with: “They are not going for the collected works of Shakespeare, are they?”, which pretty much underlines the issues at hand. 

  • http://euphonick.com/ Nick Rowlands

    Sober, balanced piece, Paul – nice one. I still think the idea that people were “protesting” – in the way they have been across the Middle East, in Spain, and in Chile, for example – is wrong. But the very real set of grievances and frustrations that you highlight in the article are at the root of this outbreak, and they aren’t gonna go away. (In fact, they will probably get worse, and spread to affect a far wider swathe of the population, but that’s a different story.) The sad thing is that because this was an outbreak of violence and looting, not placards and slogans, means the government (and media?) could dismiss it as “mindless thuggery” and criminality, and deny there are serious problems that need to be addressed.

    On a slight tangent – I can totally relate to how you were feeling whilst watching the riots from afar, flicking from twitter to youtube to live media streaming. I felt the same when things were kicking off in Egypt. Following the London events from afar evoked similar feelings in me to following Egypt from afar, though at least none of my loved ones were actually in the streets in London, which helped some. 

    Question: quite a few Egyptian tweeps were questioning a perceived lack of “citizen journalism” coverage of the riots, and I must admit most people I was following were mainstream media. Do you agree with this, or were we just plugged in to the wrong people? (I’m not really dialed into the UK scene.) 

    Thanks for this!

    • http://www.aliteralgirl.com Miranda Ward

      Paul – great piece, definitely one of the most balanced  and intelligent I’ve read.

      Nick – interesting question re: citizen journalism. I feel like I saw quite a lot of “spectator journalism” – people posting reports and photos from vantage points, from inside their homes – which was primarily (and understandably) motivated by fear. I did think Paul Lewis from the Guardian did some good reporting – admittedly on behalf of a major national paper, but the immediacy made it feel less mainstream.

      • http://euphonick.com/ Nick Rowlands

        Yep, I also thought Paul Lewis was really good.

  • Rebecca

    These events reminded me of the L.A. riots in the 1990s. 

    I understand peoples’ frustration; America’s isn’t in that great of shape. However, it would behoove people to look in the mirror and ask, “What part have I played in this?” Politicians don’t get elected to office by osmosis. If people want change, it begins with them. As in America’s case, it was supposed to be “a country by the people, for the people.” I think we forgot this. 

  • BringInTheArmy

    The law is the law and they are breaking it. Grow up.

  • pepa

    I am not under the impression that the  goverment, or any one else in the various communities affected, is reallyinterested to talk to those youth. In fact, it seems that the consensus now is on less talk and less looking for excuses. I dont hear an army of politicians giving us the  “we must celebrate our differences” usual political correctness.

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