Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Conflagration in Britain

When I saw the first reports from the unrest in Tottenham, my first thought was that it followed the classical pattern of urban disorder in Britain and France in recent decates, with an act of police brutality triggering the conflagration. A difference to what happened in France 2005 was that this time no-one tried to describe the unrest as an immigrant riot or race riot. It seemed like a riot by all the young people, regardless of race, who had ended up socially excluded and with no future. Was there hope in this, I wondered - hope that race and religion would be forgotten and common experiences of exclusion would unite people? But another difference, less hope-inspiring, was the sheer scale of the violence in London, and the fact that people trying to stop fires or protect their shops were among the victims. By contrast, the riots in the banlieus had seemed comparatively controlled, rational or even ritualized, the violence being directed against the police or against cars, but not really against any other unrelated people.  

As I've written before about the riots in France, the causes of urban unrest are seldom exhaused by economic grivances. Economic marginality is certainly an important background factor. But to say that economic betterment is all the rioters want seems unconvincing. In episodes of unrest, the paramount desires seem to be those of freedom and respect. To pay back against humiliation, to restore "justice" and to revel in new-found freedom almost always seems like more important concerns to rioters than economic deprivation per se.

Some commentators have argued that the brutal cuts and austerity measures of the present Cameron government cannot have caused the riots since they haven't really started to have effect yet. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the measures were an important factor anyway, not for economical reasons, but as a final insult and proof of the establishment's arrogance and contempt for the lower classes.

That pur joy and revellation in freedom is an important factor in rioting is apparent from the following gleanings from various texts on the riots.
It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about. Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. (Laurie Penny, "Panic on the Streets of London", Open Democracy, 9 August 2011)
At around 5pm, watching the live coverage of the start of the night's violence on Mare Street, it struck me that things were kicking off in broad daylight. The disturbances on Sunday seemed opportunistic, "copycat" - people taking advantage of the overstretched police to launch a relatively minor spree of theft and destruction. On Monday, this "opportunism" had become a strategy. A daylight confrontation meant open defiance of the police, not simply taking advantage of darkness and overstretch. It was as if, all of a sudden, groups across London realised that the police could not be everywhere. [...] It looked as if the rioters were revelling in their mobility, flowing from place to place without pattern but simply because they could. It looked like a kind of sudden freedom. Call it mob rule, call it Hobbesian anarchy; condemn these robberies, the arson, the assaults on passers-by, the destruction of small businesses. All those things were disgusting. But the kids doing them were clearly dizzy with a kind of liberation. (Will Wiles, "Riot Thoughts")
Everyone was on a riot, just goin’ mad like, chuckin’ fings, chuckin’ bottles. . .it was good tho’. . .it was good fun . . . ‘course it is! [...] Yeah. . .it’s the governments fault . . . conservatives whatever, whoever it is, I dunno’. We’re showin’ the police we can do what we want. That’s what it’s all about (interview with riot girls, BBC)
The second quote above continues with a statement on how frightened the author feels about the breakdown of  rule of law, since that is a rule he benefits from. The interview with the "riot girls" seems to have been the object of much derison on the net, but aren't what they are doing simply that they are celebrating freedom in all its ugliness and beauty? Against the tendency to idealize freedom and turn it into a harmless slogan, these quotes are, I think, a good a reminder of how explosive this ideal really is. Whenever freedom is realized, it tends to frighten people or scandalize them.

Let me return to the comparison between the unrest in Britain with the 2005 riots in France. Sophie Body-Gendrot has written a lucid analysis about it. She expresses one of the similarities in a laconic sentence: "What is striking is that these youths ask for nothing." This is indeed a striking, important fact. It's true that they don't ask for anything, they act. What's happening is that they take the opportunity of freedom as it offers itself, trying to expand it and keep it alive. They know that no one is ever going to help them with that. They can't ask anyone, since no-one can do it except they themselves.

Pointing out that the desire for freedom, or joy in freedom, can be an important factor behind riots is not to defend them. I too would have felt frightened by looting and arson. As a researcher, however, I think it is undeniable that much rioting is simply impossible to understand without taking this desire - along with the desire for respect - into account. That said, I also admit that I do have a weakness for this desire, that I find comfort in how strong and pervasive it has proven to be (even though I do not approve of all the manners in which it has been realized), and that I do wish that all downtrodden souls will have the opportunity at least once in a lifetime to feel the joy of freedom. It goes without saying that no one else should come to harm and that the freedom must be shared with others.

To return to Body-Gendrot, she also mentions a few differences between the urban unrest of Britain and Frace. Apart from the fact that racial conflict seems to play so little role in the British unrest, she also discusses the different configuration of Paris and London - affluent Paris being like a "medieval fortress" with outbreaks taking place at the margins while the boundaries of London neighbourhoods are more porous - and the differences in public reaction to the riots in Britain and France which reflect differences in political culture. The only thing I wonder about in her discussion is the seeming discrepancy between the early part of her paper that stresses how much rioters usually have in common with other residents in their neighborhoods (whim whom they share the same "reservoir of grievances" regarding police harassment, poor housing and lack of jobs), and the middle part that mentions their "detachment from their communities that allowed actions without remorse".

End of blogging for today. A privilige of writing a blog is that you can indulge in impressions and on-the-spur comments, without having to be systematic or reaching conclusions. Writing a blog can be very dreamlike, but such dreamlikeness is also true of reality itself.

A friend found this Google map linked to by the Guardian. A snapshot of the situation in London on Monday night August 8. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.