Some words on the London RiotsPosted: August 16, 2011
“There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.”
Martin Luther King Jr. I saw this quote posted everywhere over the past week. And you know my rule: “ x 3? Pay attention…”
Unless you’ve been living in a cave over the past week, you will no doubt have seen footage and news reports on a few days of rioting in London. There was vigorous condemnation of, as well as defensive arguments for, the rioters – a young rainbow coalition of looters (as the CCTV stills shamefully revealed) destroying property, committing arson, and stealing goods from various businesses (I don’t think residential properties were targeted, but I could be wrong).
As someone with a particular interest in people and communities in lower socioeconomic areas, marginalised groups, these kinds of events really capture my attention. I’m also curious as to how they start – not so much the trigger, but how they “catch fire”, so to speak. And why. In this case, it was reported that riots erupted first in Tottenham after protests over the suspicious shooting death of Mark Duggan, 29, by police. There have been allegations of police brutality and racism, as well as others supporting the contention that he was a known drug dealer. The actions of the rioters, though, had little to do with this one death, and relatives of Mr Duggan have expressed their disgust at those actions.
Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron described the rioting as a “wake-up call” for the country. At a youth centre in his Witney constituency in Oxfordshire, he said his broken society analysis is “back at the top of my political agenda”. Cameron went on to outline plans to, like Bob The Builder, fix his country. He pledged his government would “turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families” – the 120,000 families across the UK his government has assessed(?) cause much of the disturbance in communities across the country.
Although Opposition leader Ed Miliband has accused the prime minister of being “shallow and simplistic”, and responding with “gimmickry”, they do agree on this: that the banking crises, the phone-hacking scandal, MPs’ expenses and the thieving that occurred during the riots indicate a greed, irresponsibility and selfishness problem across British society. Hard to argue with that.
But it will be interesting to see what these words will mean policy wise. One policy Cameron will be pushing is a national citizens service, which he has stated he will try to make available to 16 year olds. He also wants to look at toughening up the conditions for the unemployed on welfare.
Of course, Cameron was also careful to offset his strong language, and any potential extrapolation of racism or some such nonsense, by reiterating:
“As we begin the necessary processes of inquiry, investigation, listening and learning, let’s be clear: these riots were not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were white, black and Asian.”
Toff hypocrisy (the judgemental “haves”)
Meanwhile, others have pointed to Mr Cameron’s dismissal of the riots as “criminality, plain and simple” being a smidge hypocritical, given his 1980s involvement with an Oxford University members club (equivalent of an American fraternity) called The Bullingdon. Notoriously elite and exclusive, members were known to ritualistically smash up local restaurants, Salon.com reports HERE. The difference, of course, was the lack of CCTV footage back in the day, possibly the wealth of the properties damaged, and the availability of mummy & daddy’s money to offset the excesses of ambitious young students. Mr Cameron has been haunted by his Bullingdon association at various times in his career.
Alienation and violence
But back to the cause of the London riots. Yesterday I read THIS little editorial by Ben Cumming, doing his masters in Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He argues that the government helped cause the riots, but not in the way many left-leaning pundits have suggested (i.e. that it was widespread government cuts to important services in poor areas, coupled with systematic discrimination, that created the nihilistic anger which fuelled the violence and vandalism).
Rather, he suggests that various governments, by helping to foster expectations that citizens should look to Government to provide services that fix all social problems, and then failing to deliver and satisfy those expectations, are now reaping the predictable fruits of that failure: a frustrated, future-less underclass angry at its government (and, I would speculate, all the people who seem to be getting more than they are from “the system”).
The behaviour of the rioters was indeed criminal – no one should excuse their actions, and you do the youngsters involved no favours by attempting to do so. The properties of innocent people were destroyed – people trying to earn a living, take care of themselves and their families. In order to steal stuff you do not need, from someone who has not harmed you takes… a warped sense of right and wrong, yes. But, deeper than that, it shows a worrying alienation from those around you and the society (or segments of society) in which you live.
Clearly, the rioters didn’t give a fuck. Opportunistically thieving and mindlessly destroying property, they were seemingly unfazed by or unaware of the possible consequences of their actions, either to themselves, their loved ones, or the owners of destroyed property. Bullingdon Dave is right about that.
So why don’t they care? Something is going very wrong when this number of your nation’s youth, the up-and-coming generation, the “future”, display such a disconnect, a lack of care about what effects their actions will have on their fellow citizens. And, I hasten to add, a lack of respect for, not only others, but themselves, too. That bothers me. No self-respecting person would stoop so low as to use a man’s shooting as an excuse to cover their face with a scarf and nick off with a pair of Adidas trainers. Pretty bleak stuff.
The libertarian thought process
Cumming’s argument and Cameron’s have similarities. He goes on, “For weakening community bonds and undermining personal responsibility, the top-down government expansion that has gone on for years must be held partially responsible for the riots.” According to the argument, relying on government to deliver social services it is ill-equipped to results in weakened community infrastructure (particularly if those services are mismanaged or unsuitable). Cumming, a libertarian, believes the welfare state undermines personal responsibility, because individuals come to expect that the negative consequences of their choices will be offset by government aid eg. One chooses not to work, because they know they can collect welfare. Or one overindulges and leads an unhealthy lifestyle, because they know they have free healthcare. And presumably feel “entitled” to it – something I observe libertarians and David Cameron despise (he mentioned the evil of “entitlement” in his youth centre speech).
A fairer view: the case for collective responsibility AND individual responsibility
Though I certainly have some libertarian sympathies, I find arguments along these lines simplistic and unfair, as they rarely acknowledge how a person’s background, family wealth, environment, culture, education, and socialization can and will affect the choices that young person will make in life. That’s not an excuse, it’s just true. Or what barriers a person may face in society, because of who they are (eg. employment barriers, marginalization due to difference, stigmatization, perceived criminality etc). Libertarians seem to believe these factors don’t exist, or want to believe that, if they do, it is up to the individual to choose to rise above them (please see my previous sentence about how the ability to make that choice will be affected by external factors to begin with). To live in a society that doesn’t penalize people because of these mitigating factors is something to be PROUD of. Kind of like how nice guys should be proud they aren’t… bad guys.
I do, however, agree with this: we cannot rely on government for all solutions to social problems, or to create community. Bottom-up initiatives, such as the social media led clean-up that followed the initial days of rioting, can be extremely effective in uniting people in positive, community building action. It’s unfortunate that the rioters, also part of a bottom-up, social media led initiative, chose to unite in such a destructive way. Accepting as I do that at least some of the rioters were legitimately angry and upset at the police and government austerity measures (hence, not just seizing on the opportunity to get a five-finger discount on an X-Box) I suspect ignorance about what positive action could be taken to express and redress the ongoing concerns and tensions they had played a big part in this.
It’s these kids I am concerned about. People need to be guided and educated to right action. They need to be empowered by being made aware of the positive choices they can make, today, to improve their own lives, irrespective of what the government does or doesn’t do for them. You might think this would be common sense – I’ve certainly heard many critical comments in that direction through the week. But the majority of people who would think that, I suspect, come from good homes, have supportive families, live in a mostly positive environment, with a number of cultural, social, and psychological supports, and self-esteem, they are likely to take for granted. The people I heard this week making that criticism all came from or are assimilated into the dominant culture.
Positive Community organizations and mentors can (and do, in my experience) play the role of providing emotional and social support, and guidance, to individuals trying to make positive choices in their lives, who don’t come from a privileged position. And the ‘positive choices to empowerment’ principle works for groups of people, for communities, too. In a bottom-up style of community organization, the people who must live by the decision are the ones who make the decision. This gives them a sense of power (and much of the tension in regards to policing is about the reduced sense of power that it engenders amongst those people affected). And, importantly, it gives them the great responsibility of having to make sure their activism affects their community in a beneficial way.
Because it’s their own neighbourhoods and loved ones who will benefit, the stakes are greater. If people stand to lose, they are more likely to work to gain. Or at least protect what they have. If they think they have something to protect, that is.
I’ll continue watching with interest what kind of “solutions” the UK comes up with in the next year or so, and whether Cameron’s policies to instill discipline and respect actually work.
Rushed post! Sorry I’m running late today, this week, this month… why do I get feeling I’ll be editing this in a weeks time?