Looking At The London Riots

By: Grainne Rhuad

By now we all know the basics, On August 4th rioting broke out in response to the police shooting of a 29 year old Mark Duggan; what the neighborhood  and much of the world considered police brutality.  The shooting is currently under investigation and likely will be for some time.

Tottenham has been for some time an under served neighborhood.  It is a highly multicultural area which also has a high rate of poverty.  People here are disenfranchised already, have suffered the heavy hand of the police force and were incensed when Duggan was shot in the attempt to arrest him for a crime the police suspected  he may be planning to commit.

There have been tensions in this mainly African-Caribbean area since the race riots beginning in the 1970’s.  Residents site police brutality and an over abundance of deaths in police interactions.  The neighborhood was rife with dissatisfaction and the death of Duggan was the spark.

Much like the 1992 riots sparked by the Rodney King arrest in the Los Angeles area however the community quickly rose up without plan and turned their rage which maybe could have been used on the establishment against themselves.

Looting, violence against one another and general misconduct ruled the day.  But what seems interesting to the rest of the world was how fast the rioting spread to other areas of London and her outlying suburbs and further.

Rioting would eventually range as far as 112 miles away in Gloucester, where witnesses reported it was not just young people participating in rioting and looting.  Resident Maggie Barnes stated she sighted 40 year old house mums in house jackets lifting merchandise although the witness conceded that mostly it was young folk.  She also felt that the riots in outlying areas were more copycat-ish in tone.  Not so much a case of actual rage at police treatment but an excuse to act out.

But should we brush off even this excuse to act out?  After all, when things are at a point when house mums are raiding stores because they can, the nation should be looking at why.  It seems there is a lot more discordance in Great Britain than the ruling class and Parliament would like to think about.  As pointed out by writers at The Disorder of Things; “The destructive rabble as mindless, inhuman, destructive force is a defensive trope; just note how often and readily it is deployed. Our anxiety is telling and the denial of meaning, much less politics, arms us mentally and emotionally for the deployment of arms in the name of order.”

This is something worldwide we should have our eye on.  In an earlier article here at Subversify  I pointed out that Twitter was under scrutiny for being instrumental in rallying protesters both in Egypt and Tunisia.  I speculated that western governments were likely taking a hard look at this and would most likely be cracking down on our use of such tools.

It seems this played out in the London riots.  Police almost immediately began arresting twitter and Facebook users who posted about the riots, whether it was in jest, incited people or not.  As in the cases of Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Marston near Northwich, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington who each received 4 year sentences for Facebook posts, neither of which resulted in rioting behavior.  Indeed a 16 year old as far away as Glasgow is facing sentencing for suggesting riot on Facebook following the London riots.  Again, in his case no rioting behavior occurred due to his posting.

In fact Prime Minister David Cameron has told parliament that in the wake of this week’s riots the government is looking at banning people from using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they are thought to be plotting criminal activity.

He doesn’t stop there, much like the Bush era sweeps of civil rights violations in the name of public safety he has asked that journalists and news media be required to hand over unseen or reviewed footage in order to make arrests.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill,” said Cameron. “And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

“I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”

Cameron has called for social media outlets to shut down during such civil unrest. Thus far Facebook and Twitter both have cautioned against this attack on freedom of speech and declined to cooperate, although Facebook which has 30 million users in the UK, said it had actively removed “several credible threats of violence” to stem the riots across England this month. The bigger problem in the U.K. is Blackberry Messenger which is proving harder to track.

All this posturing seemingly misses the point.  People are clearly not happy in their lives.  Were they destructive?  Yes of course, but was it entirely unbased.  There are very good arguments that say no.

A lot of this is due to heavy cuts to what has been a fairly well managed public service system.  In the past 5 years National Health Services (NHS) has received cuts to routine, as well as psychiatric and social service health care, on a regular basis.

Back in Gloucester Maggie Barnes was of the opinion of the opinion that while in outlying areas, people were generally behaving badly.  In fact, she told us, quite a few die hard anarchists were shaking their heads at the waste; the troubles in Tottenham were more to be expected.  About 70% of the youth budget has also been cut.  There’s nothing to do and not many jobs, and benefits are being cut. Maggie Barnes stated “Kids in Tottenham have been fed up for years at being picked on because they are Black, Asian or disadvantaged in some area. When that young lad’s head was blown off by police the local community got very angry, understandably, but I guess as the discontent spread, people had no idea why it started.”

What is perhaps most disappointing is the dismissal the journalism outlets have given to this event.  It has largely been characterized as “pure violence and gravity.”  of “looting” and “kids having one on.”  It was reported this way by the various news outlets in the U.K. as well as here in the U.S.  We were presented with pictures of youths looting much more than the more important attack on authority.

I found that The Times Football editor Tony Evans addressed this discrepancy best.  The following is a transcript from his interview with BBC’s Newsnight:

“The presenter turned to Kelvin Mackenzie and said to him, “don’t you think we should try to understand these riots?”

He said, “No I don’t think we should”. And there we have it. The lack of understanding; the willful ignorance. To try and come to terms with what’s caused this trouble in our society and this alienation where one large section of society just doesn’t want to think about the people who are involved in it [the rioting]. And wants to write them off, criminalize them, and put them in to a sort of box where they don’t have to be thought about.

I think that is what has characterized the coverage of the riots. I think it has been a particularly grim period for journalism. It was led that way, in many ways, in the initial outburst of violence by the 24hr rolling news.

I found it staggering; the way news presenters were editorializing. They were showing film of what was going on in Tottenham, and they were saying: “there is no political element to this, this is just vandalism, this is just people looting” … without any sense of what the background to this was. Without any attempt to put it in its context.

We saw Sky News reporters walking down the streets, filming people on their phones and saying, “I come from round here, I can’t believe what I’m seeing, are you proud of yourself?” As if they were headmasters.

That’s not journalism. Journalism should be the pursuit of the truth and the pursuit of knowledge. And we weren’t seeing knowledge there. We were getting the vicarious thrills of being in the middle of a riot. The Daily Mail’s view? “Give this man an award”. I don’t think it’s award-winning journalism personally – because it told me nothing.

It told me nothing because I’ve been in a riot. I’ve fought with policemen. I’ve kicked in shop windows. I’ve stole from shops. A lot of people haven’t, but I have. And I understand the frustrations that come from being in that underclass, where you’re written off, where you’re given no opportunities. And you’re demonized. You’re demonized by the media and you’re demonized by the political system. It was 30 years ago, but I felt the same way they [the rioters] did.

The way the media was quick to put it all down to a sense of consumerism. “They’ve all got Blackberrys”. Well, a Blackberry doesn’t cost very much actually. But I’ll tell you what – what a lot of the kids who where there [rioting] don’t have is expectations. The poverty of expectation, the poverty of belief in what you can do with your life…

But of course, the newspapers were more concerned with taking the opposite view. The Daily Express – the headline – “Flaming Morons“. Which says to you: these people don’t deserve to be treated well; they don’t deserve to be regarded as human beings. And all through that whole week of rioting… the narrative was all about that. It was all about criminality. It’s all about not being able to explain, about not being able to understand. As if this came all out of the blue and surprised us.

This has been building for four or five years. And the only people who appear to be surprised about it are journalists and politicians. So we have this situation where the government now is allowed to move the dialogue on and suddenly blame gangs. And the newspapers are rushing to report this, and agree with it.

In every time of economic turmoil, where poverty is building, there have been riots over the years. There has also been the instinctive urge to blame gangs. It goes back to the 1870s and the 1880s and the High Rip [gang] in Liverpool. So they [gangs] are easy targets.

And what it does: you don’t need to get beyond the surface, you can just point fingers. And this is what’s disappointed me from the newspapers especially in the last few weeks.

I can understand the superficiality of television. But you know, I can’t understand that newspapers, where you’ve got time, you’ve got the chance to talk to people, the anonymity that’s guaranteed in print, that no one’s gone out to talk to the people who were doing this, who were out there.

… Sky News ran a piece with four kids, where they discussed the reason that they rioted. And they were very articulate about it. They talked about how they had attempted to fit in to normal society, but had been turned back at every turn. You know, it’s easy to understand. But again, that piece was undermined by the payoff, which talked about criminal behaviour. If this was about criminal behaviour, if this was about violence, if this was just about feral kids running out of control, we’d see it every weekend.

We saw spontaneous outbursts of it because this society’s mantra is “there is no society”. Why would you expect these kids to care about people around them?

And yet, there was no sense of blaming the politicians for this environment that they’ve created. It’s all about punishment. It’s all about victimization; it’s all about marginalizing people who’ve got the least voice. That’s what’s really disappointed me. And I don’t see it getting any better.

Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a will to understand in this country. And I also think there is an instinctive fear in some journalists – quite a lot of them – to actually confront the preconceptions of the mass of the British public.

This is a time when journalism has been trusted probably about as little as it’s ever been trusted. And what people don’t want to do is say to the people who say “they’re louts, send them to the army, hang them, shoot them”, no, you’re wrong, think about it. It’s easier to go along with public perceptions…

But that’s not our role. Our role is to come up with the truth. And I don’t believe we’ve got to the truth in the last few weeks.”

In these times when information is moving so incredibly fast it is frightening really how easily the public is spoon fed what the leading parties want them to know, feel and react to. Journalist should be ashamed. And we all should be asking the deeper questions like “How do we fix this?”