Gastkommentar: England Riots

Aus Manchester: Politikwissenschafts-Student James Fielding* über die Unruhen in England

If you’ve listened to the British press reports on the recent riots you will have heard certain phrases used repeatedly. I’m thinking of the following: shopping with violence, senseless opportunism, and consumer rioting. Sounds bad doesn’t it? You know things are ghastly when people aren’t just looting; they’re looting with shallow intentions.

The purpose of this article is to explore the correlation between the descriptions of the riot and the descriptions of the individual rioters. If you cared to glance over the media reports at the time you would have seen a relationship emerge. Whilst the riots were being stripped of any deeper significance i.e. racial and economic, the rioters were being stripped of any human qualities; they were portrayed as covetous and narcissistic. The narrative people took from this was simple. It was just a case of feral thugs running amok in violent shopping brigades. Given this sort of write up, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were dealing with some kind of sickness, an irrational explosion of vanity and acquisitiveness.

In fact, we’re facing nothing of the sort. The biggest threat stems, as usual, from our dangerously unimaginative political class. Everyone knows a riot, indeed any crisis, is something of a mixed blessing for a politician. It’s uncomfortable when they’re faced with the conventional accusations of incompetence. However, it’s brilliant because they get to talk so tough. Good old-fashioned fire and brimstone, nice and easy, everybody’s happy.

Yet the rhetoric of the politicians and journalists, as always, has an alarming subtext. It’s obviously seeking to render our understanding of the riots in a specific way. Ideally, the Conservative administration thinks riots ought to be understood as nothing more than the inevitable expression of widespread moral decay. Therefore matters can remain simple: wicked people do wicked things, and they must be punished. Yet, in fairness, there are many voices calling for people to take a broader view. ‘Think of the poverty’, they say, ‘the lack of aspiration’, not to mention how things began with the fatal and suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan.

Yet no one really seems to be listening. They’re not listening for several reasons. One of which is simple: people are angry. To insist on a broader take on things often troubles people. When explaining someone’s actions you often appear to be somehow absolving him or her of responsibility. However, people need to realise that you cannot ever hope to prevent the recurrence of civil unrest if you continue to naively believe that a riot is the sum total of a thousand individual pathologies.

There’s been a cliché bandying about recently and it goes something like this – ‘the best way to prevent an underclass rioting is to not have an underclass.’ The thousands of individual decisions made by people to riot were not plucked from the upper air. There has to be an explanation why some young people from certain backgrounds started smashing shops and other young people, like myself, didn’t. After all, everyone shops in the places that were robbed, they sell things people want but can’t often afford. Why wasn’t I there? The best, if not bizarre, way of answering the question involves examining the never-ending stream of child abuse served up by the Catholic Church.

Time after time, revelations emerge that somewhere, in some parish, a priest has abused another child. The priest is prosecuted, his actions condemned and his mental health questioned. What no one thinks to question is whether demanding men be celibate, in isolation from women and in positions of trust and authority, doesn’t perhaps inculcate a tendency towards abusing the children found in their care? It’s fine by me to keep putting priests in prison but it won’t achieve much, I’ll bet you my new flat screen television (cough, cough) that they’ll be plenty more ‘a‘ coming. Correspondingly, we can lock up as many people from London, Manchester and Birmingham as we like, it’ll never alter the basic conditions that got them into the courtroom in the first place. I know that analogy was pretty wild but we’re dealing with the same basic mechanisms and at least now you might remember.

There is another, more delicate, reason no one is listening to attempts at explanation. They think there is nothing to explain. The analogy drawn between the riots and consumer culture is not only bogus but also serves as a barrier to critical reflection. Everybody hates consumerism, Socialists hate it, Conservatives hate it, and Liberals hate it. Everybody publically disavows consumerism, then like you and me, go and buy a pair of trainers. I’m simply lost when it comes to understanding what gave these riots a shallow consumerist edge? Has anyone in the history of the world ever looted things they didn’t want? I particularly disliked the mocking tones deployed when people noticed a bookshop was the only building untouched on a looted high street. What kind of mug would risk a maximum of 14 years in prison for collection of Jane Austin paperbacks? The Library of Alexandria it ain’t!

The crucial thing that everyone missed was found if you looked closely at the footage of the looting. People were queuing to get into shops. I will say that again: queuing. Even my inoperably racist and socially conservative grandmother had to concede that these young people were slightly British. In an interview for Flip Life TV (a small independent media company) a homeless man from Clapham pleaded that the rioters were mostly okay. He maintained they were regular people who between looting hardware shops, took time to say hello to his dog.

So why, I ask, are we being led to believe that these riots are senseless? Why will no one engage with the obvious political nuances of the whole affair? Everywhere, all you’ll see is single-minded condemnation and this is why I feel justified in writing something of an apologist piece. These riots have a meaning that is far more subtle and important that the press’s lazy caricaturing implies. I will leave you with my thoughts on a BBC report entitled ‘Riot Girls ‚Brag‘ About Violence’. Two girls are talking to a BBC correspondent. It’s 9:30am and they’ve been drinking all night. The reporter asks them if they’d enjoyed themselves during the riot. Barley able to control their giggling, they confirm that obviously they have. When asked whom they think is to blame for the riots the following list is provided: the Government, the Conservatives and the rich. Now I’m sure there are a few things to add to that list but in essence I agree with their analysis. 

 

*Der Name wurde auf Wunsch des Studenten von der Redaktion geändert

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