Tuesday, 9 August 2011

In the end riot is the fault of the the rioter...no-one else

“The fact that we were all safe as kittens under a cookstove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way. Some of the most dignified, staid, cynical, and clear thinking men in town abandoned their wives, stenographers, homes and offices and ran east. There are few alarms in the world more terrifying than ‘The dam has broken!’ There are few persons capable of stopping to reason when that clarion cry strikes upon their ears, even persons who live in towns no nearer than five hundred miles to a dam.”

So it is as James Thurber explained. Once the hue and cry is out nothing – no reason can contain the progress of the mob. And, just as Columbus residents charged to higher ground because some poor fool had told some other poor fool the dam had burst – and the second poor fool had believed the first, we find the cry will be out for something to be done.

But we should consider carefully before – in the passion or pain of the moment – we commit to do things. The consequences of those commitments might prove more dangerous and intrusive that the things we are using them to prevent.

So to riots. Firstly, we’ve had riots before and shall have riots again. Such disturbances are a feature of urban living – not a good one but a feature nonetheless. This isn’t to say we should simply bow to the inevitable nor is it to excuse the act of riot but it is a necessary precursor to the judgments and decision we make about reducing the risk of such behaviour recurring.

In understanding this we have also to understand that, when people on the left speak of ‘poverty’, ‘social exclusion’ and ‘deprivation’, their words contain a grain of truth. It is poor places that, in the main have riots. Yesterday there were no riots (so far as I know) in Kingston or Sutton, in Pinner or Ruislip. I haven’t read reports of disturbances in Purley or looting in Richmond. The places worst affected – Tottenham, Hackney, Brixton, Peckham – read like a listing of London’s most troubled places. 

So, while drawing a causal relationship between poverty and riot is an insult to poor people who don’t riot – which is most of those poor people, we cannot simply dismiss those socio-economic arguments, to say that these matters are not a factor.

However, we must not stop at this point – as too many on the left are wont to do – or worse start seeking to link our vested interest (“it’s the cuts that did it you know”). Instead we need to add some of those things us on the right speak of – the problems with criminality and a criminal sub-culture within these places.

I recall canvassing round The Showfield in Keighley in the run up to the 2001 General Election. This is a tight little area of small terraced housing just north of the town centre. Its population is overwhelming Mirpuri, although there’s a smattering of Bengalis. I’m with a young lawyer brought up in the area – his dad was an important local man (a community leader, I guess we’d call him) – and he was introducing me to local families.

Walking down one street we saw, leaning on a new-ish Subaru Impreza, two smartly dressed young men. My friend the lawyer turned around and walked the other way. In response to my inquiry as to why, he explained that these were drug dealers and he didn’t want to be seen talking to them since ‘everyone’ knew him and them.

Except it wasn’t everyone – I was then told that the families of these men were proud of them. They were doing so well, nice car, smart clothes, nice presents for mum and for their sisters and plenty of money to help what was a poor family out. The families either knew and turned a blind eye or else had no idea where the money came from.

But then neither economic hardship nor criminality or a ‘gang culture’ fully explain. Part of the rest of the answer lies in the Thurber story – we are inclined to follow, often without really applying our brains so as to assess what we were doing. After the Bradford riots, in court appearance after court appearance, young men were unable to explain just why they had done the things they did. This doesn’t excuse that behaviour but it perhaps begins to explain how it is that people of otherwise good character get involved in riot and in looting.

The next reason, I believe, is a failure of policing. This was evident in the riots in Notting Hill back in 1976, at Brixton in 1981 and in Bradford ten years ago. And central to the problem of policing is the disengagement of the police from communities. Despite all the rhetoric of “community” that police use today, their actions and organisation belies this tale.

I look at modern police stations, great stone barracks with narrow windows, often barred – looming over poor communities. In Bradford we see these great lumps at Toller Lane, Dudley Hill and the new one, Trafalgar House.  These do not give off the signal of an involved, community service but of something akin to an occupying force. And when, as we see in these London places, the gang culture fertilizes a distrust and dislike of the police, the result in a complete disconnection between those charged with maintaining order and the “youth”.

And yes, the failings of policing and the disengagement of those charged with enforcement also plays its part. But still we are stuck with the incentive to riot, to loot – the view that you won’t get caught and if you do the ‘sheep’ defence, especially linked to race, with serve to minimise any consequence. 

In the end though there is no excuse, there can be no exoneration for the rioter. To appreciate the terror of the innocent caught in a riot, I always think back to 7th July ten years ago:

Ilyas was captured on police cameras wearing an Afro-style wig and throwing burning cardboard through a broken window of Manningham Labour Club while 23 people were inside.  The club was burned to the ground after petrol bombs were thrown by a group of Asian youths.

The 23 people inside were eventually led to safety after hiding in the club's cellar to avoid the flames. Police described the incident afterwards as the single most serious incident of the riots.

This is the truth of riot, not the romantic idea of revolution, not some sort of punishment meted out on the ‘rich’ or on the ‘government’. No, riot is the terrorising of innocents – men and women like those cowering in the cellar of a club while it burns above their head.

There is nothing grand or clever in all this – whatever your explanation for riot may be. However much we must attend to the economic, political and social factors helping contribute, in the final analysis the riot is the fault of the rioter.


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