Thursday, August 18, 2011

Giving rioting a bad name

‘If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’
- Malcolm X

First of all: you can hold disparate opinions about the riots if you want to. I can say that the causes of the riots are rampant consumerism, vast and rapidly increasing inequality, and thousands of lives without hope. And I can say that the looting perpetrated by the rioters was an amateurish affair compared to the industrial scale looting perpetrated year after year by bankers. Yet at the same time I can also say I should take it a deep personal failure if any grandchild of mine was mixed up in most of what I've seen on the screen and read about. I can say that some of the rioters were the scum of the earth. I can also pose the question: how did they come to be this way? All those things I can think simultaneously.

Yes. What happened in London and elsewhere in England has given rioting a bad name. The very word riot implies some sort of political consciousness which was notably absent. Not wholly so though. I did see one looter say to a reporter who challenged him ”these big shops can afford it”. But that doesn’t excuse indiscriminate (indiscriminate is the operative word here) looting, arson and violence.

The Spirit Level

If you haven't read The Spirit Level you should. It produces a wealth of evidence that inequality (not merely absolute poverty) causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives, whilst functioning as a driver of consumption and depleting the planet's resources.

The full title is The Spirit Level - Why equality is better for everyone, 2009, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Cameron can declare war on gangs but he needs to lose his attitude first. If gangs didn’t serve a purpose they wouldn't exist. He needs to work out what their purpose is. And why that purpose is served by gangs and not by more socially useful organisations such as work, trade unions, political parties, churches, youth clubs and the like.

Who were the rioters?

A few extracts from the newspapers.

From The Guardian Wednesday 10 August. “Who are the rioters? Young men from poor areas; but that's not the full story”. Paul Lewis and James Harkin reported that the crowds involved in violence and looting are drawn from a complex mix of social and racial backgrounds. As Lewis and Harkin followed a group of looters who had just finished ransacking a pawnbroker's, and had started cleaning out a local fashion boutique, they witnessed an angry young black woman berating one of the looters.

" ‘You're taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she's built that shop up from nothing. It's like stealing from your mum.’ A girl holding a looted wedding dress smiled sheepishly, stuck for anything to say. ”

The context suggests the angry young black woman was herself a looter, though the story doesn’t say.

Terry Prone had a piece in the
Irish Examiner 15th August “No easy answers as to why ordinary people were stirred into looting”. She mentions two cases that came to court. The youngest of the looters captured was an 11-year-old who had stolen a trash can. It might have been a wheelie bin. Or it might have been a static garbage container. The details didn’t come out in court. All that came out in evidence was that he had stolen this trash can. Outside the court, his mother turned to him and asked him the lethal simple question, to which she got no answer: “Why?”

The other case Terry Prone mentions was an aspirant social worker. Natasha Reid, aged 24, didn’t wait for the police to identify her from CCTV footage. She had nicked a TV set from one of the shops broken into during the rioting, and turned herself in, having, according to her mother, spent a couple of days in her bedroom, doing nothing but crying. This young graduate knew she was guilty, and was ashamed of what she had done.

Her mother, baffled by the three days which had put her daughter on the front pages of newspapers worldwide and put paid to any chance of getting a job as a social worker, told reporters: ’She didn’t want a TV. She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.’ "

Looting in the London Blitz

A couple of pieces from the papers in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. Duncan Campbell revealed how black marketeers, thieves and looters took advantage of the misfortunes of war, in The Observer 29 August 2010.

And then there's the Café de Paris incident, a nightclub hit on 8 March, 1941. Two bombs hurtled down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded in the basement nightclub right in front of the band. The carnage caused by the explosion in that confined space was dreadful. The Daily Mail online 9th April 2010 reports :

“The worst of human nature was in evidence that night too – amid the rubble and the chaos, unscrupulous looters were seen cutting off the fingers of the dead to steal their rings.”

It is also widely reported on the internet (but always in precisely the same phraseology which means it may be false) that on the same night "even the wounded in the Café de Paris were robbed of their jewellery amid the confusion and carnage".

Echo here of that prize scum of the earth incident, the Youtube clip of the bad samaritans, two youths pretending to assist a hurt Malaysian student whilst robbing him.


Red Pepper blog

Zoe Williams in The Guardian, Tuesday 9 August: The psychology of looting - she says the shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters.

More Malcolm X quotes

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