Emerging from the depths of Clapham Junction station yesterday morning I was greeted by the husk of a burnt-out building, its blackened windows staring sightlessly at the commuters scurrying past the neon-clad policemen standing guard. Beyond the charred wreckage, rows of boarded-up shop fronts stretched as far as the eye could see, the road and pavement littered with debris and slivers of broken glass. Newscrews and journalist milled around, questioning those brave enough to meet them in the eye, while tourists and opportunists (myself included) snapped photos of the scene: history captured on a camera lens.
This is the aftermath of the looting and rioting that has gripped London over the past few days. What began as a protest against the (allegedly) unlawful killing by police of Mark Duggan, a black man from the Tottenham area, escalated into a full-scale rampage as people took to the streets across London and the rest of the UK. Speaking to people on the scene (though not, as yet, any actual rioters), the overwhelming sentiment seems to be one of shock and anger – and yet everyone seems to ascribe different reasons for the ongoing chaos.
If we listen to the ruling political elite (i.e. the Conservative-led government), then the rioters are nothing but “mindless criminals”; to the businessmen and shop owners whose livelihoods have been endangered or ruined they are “thugs” and “delinquents”; to the youth workers and left-wing activists they are part of the “misunderstood underclass”, the “deprived youth” of Britain making a desperate plea for their social rights. The ubiquitous image of a hooded youth brandishing a metal pole shape-shifting into different characters according to the agenda of the speaker. As Aditya Chakrabotty pointed out in an article for the Guardian:
Right there on a late-night BBC2 debate you caught a glimpse of how this week’s mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets – and see precisely what they wanted to seeRight there on a late-night BBC2 debate you caught a glimpse of how this week’s mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets – and see precisely what they wanted to see.
Now, I can’t pretend to be an expert on the root causes and motivations spurring on the rioters, but despite the overwhelming criminality and seemingly mindlessness of the pillaging and ransacking, I am inclined to disagree with David Cameron and his minions and agree instead with David Hind when he says that “any breakdown of civil order is inescapably political”. Shocking? Yes. Condemnable? Certainly. Mindless? Not at all.
For those eager to jump on the bandwagon and condemn the “hooligans” outright (and a quick glance at my Twitter feed or Facebook home page is enough to see that there are plenty of misinformed bigots out there ready to judge without understanding and condemn without asking why) I would tentatively put forward the premise that if these riots were taking place in Egypt, Syria, Iran, China or any other country deemed to be oppressing its citizens, then the conclusions being drawn here would be very different. History teaches us that any attempt to overthrow the current social order is, by definition, violent, unrestrained, and often involves raw, undirected anger and hatred directed at the establishment. Just because we don’t currently understand the underlying social symptoms and malaise that have created an underclass that glorifies in petty violence and thuggery does not mean that malaise does not exist.
The rioters are trying to send us a message. It might not be a particularly coherent message, or even one they know themselves they are making – but to shut our ears and close our minds will do nothing to overcome the simmering problems that are evidently lurking just beneath the surface of our dysfunctional society. If we don’t listen today, then who knows what sorts of troubles the future will bring.