Guest Post: London’s Burning—A Riot By Any Other Name?

Last month, London burned.

Rioters took to the streets and for five days, smashed, robbed and burned their way through a number of suburbs. News footage showed teenagers being robbed by groups of people pretending to assist them, restaurant goers being mugged over dinner by large mobs, vigilante groups taking to the streets for justice, and thieves trying on shoes before stealing them from looted shops.

Buildings which had stood for over 150 years were burned to the ground, and riot police were ignored or attacked by large mobs of young people who sacked the streets.

The riots, which caused over a billion dollars worth of damage, saw more than 1000 people arrested and left five people dead, have been blamed on criminal gangs, social networking sites and a lawless generation of young people who lack respect.

British Home Secretary, Theresa May, has denounced the riots as being acts of “sheer criminality.”

“The violence we’ve seen, the looting we’ve seen, the thuggery we’ve seen—this is sheer criminality,” she said, and by saying so she has, like so many others, simplified the issue to deal with it in the simplest terms possible. But these watery explanations about lawless youths do not fully address the issues of rioting and are rife with problematic reasoning and contradiction.

A perfect example of the problems with this type of reasoning can be found in an Australian publication which discussed the London riots. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt took a similar approach to May, and attributed the violence that took place on the streets of London to a loss of family values in a contemporary world. (But let’s be honest here; what does Bolt not blame to a loss of family values?) Missing no opportunity to push his conservative agenda, Bolt claims that in the London riots, “What we saw was the kind of people hidden in the cavities of decaying society” and that these people, or at least what he refers to as its “underclasses”, are “lazy, resentful and greedy, being handed everything from the food on their plate to the plasma in the corner”.

He then gives a number of examples of the youths participating in the riots, documenting their crimes, and painting a picture of a generation of young people who are out of control. But herein lies the first contradiction; if young people are the main perpetrators of these types of crimes, as Bolt highlighted by giving examples of 11-year-old children participating in the riots, how can he object to them being given the food on their plate, or even a plasma television? (Not that I have ever heard of the poor being given free plasmas anywhere in the world, now that he has mentioned it). Since when do we not feed our children, or expect them to provide for themselves? And does it really seem logical to blame the riots on the poor for being spoiled with food? Doesn’t it seem more likely that there may be something more to this story? Rather than simplifying the issue by blaming riots on a loss of family values and a delinquent underclass, it would be better to engage with the complex history of rioting that exists across Europe and with the unique psychological effects of rioting, particularly on children and young people, who live in areas of diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and who experience high levels of feelings of relative depravation as a consequence.

Relative deprivation is basically where someone feels as though that have been deprived, not in worldly comparison, but in comparison to affluence or privilege that surrounds them on a daily basis, and which they are unable to access. It is becoming increasingly common across the Western world, and other places, as the global division between rich and poor becomes wider and as wealth becomes more visible through the media. Relative deprivation is an increasingly important phenomenon, which has been linked not only to rioting, but to other acts of violence and civil unrest, including terrorism. The psychological impacts of relative deprivation need to be further studied and better understood, particularly when “blaming-the-poor” narratives keep appearing in articles like Bolt’s, potentially adding more fuel to the civil unrest fire by ignoring the phenomenon.

Having noted the importance of feelings of relative deprivation, it is also quite plausible that the deprivation felt by these young rioters, may not only be relative. The social and political changes which have occurred in London over the past 12 months, and which have had negative consequences for many Londoners, are also likely to have had a significant impact on the rioters. One of the most notable in this case is police violence.

Riots are not typically the acts of criminals, although criminals have been known to capitalise on them; rioting has been used since before the seventeenth century by groups and individuals to express civil unrest and negative feelings toward authority figures. Although usually triggered by a particular event, riots occur after ongoing and sustained civil unrest.

The catalyst which triggered the London riots was the suspicious police shooting of Mark Duggan, an unarmed civilian, killed by police. One witness has alleged Duggan was shot at close range while pinned the ground by the police, and although this account is far from substantiated, it is known the Duggan was unarmed at the time of his death and that the bullets which the police claimed were fired at them, came from a police gun. The riots began as a peaceful vigil outside a police station, where friends and family of Duggan gathered to demand police adequately explain the circumstances of Duggan’s death. Other people, not involved in the vigil or immediately known to the Duggan family, triggered the riots by setting fire to a police car when police refused to acknowledge the vigil or address the mourning family. From then on, the riots rapidly escalated and spread throughout the city, far removed from their peaceful beginnings, and without being condoned at any point by Duggan’s family.

It is important to note that although Duggan’s shooting was the catalyst to the riots, it was not an isolated case. Police violence has become an increasingly troubling problem for the English over the last few years, particularly since the introduction of tasers in 2004, and in the last 12 months alone London Police have been widely criticised for a number of violent acts, including the brutalising of a non-violent student protester with cerebral palsy by fully-riot-gear-equipped police officers, who dragged him from his wheelchair (his only source of mobility) and then hauled him across the pavement. Similar acts of police aggression can be seen even after the riots, in the deaths of Dale Burns, 27, Jacob Michael, 25, and Philip Hulmes, 53, who all died within the last month, following incidents in which police used either tasers or pepper spray. In each case, there were at least eight officers arresting a single person, and in Michael’s case, there were 11 police present after Michael himself called them for help. During his arrest for an unknown crime, he was pepper sprayed, pinned to the floor, handcuffed and then beaten for up to 15 minutes by all 11 officers before being arrested. Two hours later, Michael died in police custody.

The purpose of presenting this evidence of police violence is not to vilify police and champion rioters, but rather to demonstrate that the issues which have contributed to the civil unrest that led to riots are complex and widespread. It also highlights that there are significant policing issues which need to be addressed in the UK and which are, by Scotland Yard’s own admission, causing a “growing anti-police sentiment” which is marked by “fury” and that during the riots “there was an atmosphere of absolute hatred towards the police and the establishment—the government—because they feel abandoned, the cuts in youth services, the cuts right across the board.” The increase in police violence is, in turn, leading to an increase in civil unrest. It is no coincidence that one day after the death of Hulmes, a marked police car was petrol bombed while patrolling in North London; just as it was no coincidence that riots ensued after the shooting of Duggan.  The same thing happened in Tottenham in 1985 with riots against racially motivated police violence and it will happen again, if these issues are not addressed.

Police violence was a trigger for the London riots, but not the only cause of civil unrest in London. Other recent and highly inflammatory occurrences include the rising unemployment rate (just under 8% of the population cannot find a job in England, a figure which continues to rise), an openly corrupt media blatantly flaunting basic human rights and the law (see billionaire Rupert Murdoch and his cronies escaping criminal charges after deleting vital evidence in the murder investigation of Milly Dowler, where phone messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive.), the rapidly increasing cost of living (the cost of a loaf of bread has tripled in the last five years), and the extremely fast-rising cost of education (the cost of a university degree has also nearly tripled in England in the last year). These are but a few of the troubles ailing England; it is not surprising that young people might feel helpless and angry, or that they might not care if their actions disrupt plans for the Olympic games, or upset local diners and traders.

Furthermore, that the riots spread so far so fast doesn’t mean London’s “underclasses” are felonious criminals. It is well known that once a riot begins, individuals begin to exhibit pack-like behaviours in the heightened excitement and highly charged atmosphere. Young people and children are particularly prone to this psychological influence, which makes it very easy for them to be caught up in the activities of the crowd, and similarly, it can be difficult for them to associate their actions with concepts of right and wrong.

Yet little of the reporting that has taken place about the London riots has yet to examine rioting in London, and indeed the wider context of Europe, and to examine the social, political and psychological aspects of rioting, not to mention the economic considerations, which most certainly would have played their part.

England has a close history with rioting, which spans over centuries, and it is not now, nor has it really ever been, merely the acts of criminal groups who opportunistically pray on an unsuspecting society. Instead, riots reflect a much deeper and wider frustration, which in 2011 was triggered by episodes of police violence. The areas which were most badly damaged in the riots are those which have high levels of poverty, and relative deprivation, where the rich and the poor share spaces as neighbours, living in deep contrast of one another. Blaming the poor for being spoiled is like saying “let them eat cake.” It didn’t work for the French all those centuries ago, and it won’t work now.

—Tessa Keane.

Related: [The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Life Below the Poverty Line is a Horrible Place.

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Not Quite Out of the Woods—The State of Australian Politics.

Elsewhere: [The Age] London Riots Spread as Police Lose Control.

[Herald Sun] Rioters Show a Nation Split & Family Values Gone Forever.

[CBC News] London Riots Erupt After Fatal Police Shooting.

[London Progressive Journal] Jody McIntyre: Victim of Police Brutality & Media Distortion.

[The Guardian] Man Does After Taser Arrest Near Bolton.

[The Guardian] Notting Hill Carnival: Tensions High After Recent Deaths, Say Police.

[The Observer] Notting Hill Carnival Curfew Plan is “Pie in the Sky”, Warn Police on Ground.

[The Guardian] Missing Milly Dowler’s Voicemail Was Hacked by News of the World.

[The Telegraph] London Living Costs on the Rise.

Image via Chi Movement.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

Rachel Hills discusses Naomi Wolf’s response to WikiGate here, whilst also doing a fine job of unpacking the fun for twenty-somethings = lots of casual sex myth.

On that, “How to Be A 20-Something”:

“Be really attractive. Your acne is gone, your face has matured without having wrinkles and everything on your body is lifted naturally. Eat bagels seven days a week, binge-drink and do drugs: you’ll still look like a babe. When you turn thirty, it’ll become a different story but that’s, like, not for a really long time.

“Reestablish a relationship with your parents. You don’t live with them anymore (hopefully) so start to appreciate them as human beings with thoughts, flaws and feelings rather than soulless life ruiners who won’t let you borrow their car.”

What Would Phoebe Do? on the pretentiousness of Francophilia:

“Gratuitously adding French words to conversation is a time-honoured way of signalling pretentiousness.”

Next year’s Halloween costume sorted!

“How to Be A Complete Douche” has a certain Patrick Bateman feel to it.

Hugh Hefner defends his May-December engagement to Crystal Harris to The Daily Beast.

“How to Live in New York City”:

“Certain moments of living in the city will always stick out to you. Buying plums from a fruit vendor on 34th street and eating three of them on a long walk, the day you spent in bed with your best friend watching Tyra Banks, the amazing rooftop party you attended on a sweltering hot day in July. These memories might seem insignificant but they were all moments when you looked around the city and felt like you were a part of it all.”

Sarah at Feministe recalls “How I Learned to Stop Caring and Admit I Love Pop”.

Jezebel chronicles “The Evolution of Moms” from Soccer Mom (Mater Adidas) to a future robot-mom who encompasses all the admirable features of stage and helicopter mothers alike, with a special focus on the parent Sarah Palin made famous, the Mama Grizzly.

Memo to Lady Gaga: leggings are not pants. Nor, more to the point, are leotards.

TV: Let Them Eat Cake… And Wear Headbands.

It has been a Gossip Girl-heavy week here on The Early Bird Catches the Worm, and today is no exception.

Blair Waldorf is known for her Upper East Side opulence and her stop-at-nothing mindset to becomeand staythe Queen B. But now that she’s more concerned with being taken seriously as an academic Columbia student and “empowered” woman.

And who was more empowered than Marie Antoinette, one of Blair’s idols, whom she adorns her bedroom with images of? While some view her as a decadent, frivolous vixen, others (including me) see her as the ultimate emblem of grace, class and power. Kind of like a latter-day Joan of Arc, but with bigger hair. Plus, she has the same birthday as me.

Both misunderstood in some respects, the vision of Marie Antoinette as everything that was wrong with the French monarchy persists to this day, as does the common perception of Blair as one-dimensionally vindictive and conniving. That’s why she and Chuck make such a good couple!

However, anyone who’s done their research or is committed to the guilty pleasure that is Gossip Girl, will know that this is not entirely true. Accounts of the Queen’s true persona by those close to her say that she was generous, kind and courageous. While the first two adjectives aren’t usually applied to Blair, fragments of her nature underneath all the hating, haute couture and headbands show that she’d do anything for her closest friends, family and lovers.

Marie Antoinette is even alleged to have carried on a sordid affair with Count Axel Fersen, similar to her Gossip Girl counterpart’s on-again-off-again trysts with Chuck Bass.

While the character of Blair Waldorf has been compared to such female fictional greats as Scarlett O’Hara (who also has a penchant for the Queen) and Holly Golightly, who both have certain Antoinetteisms, Blair is one of the only characters who is modelled so closely on the French queen. This is evident most recently in the episodes “Juliet Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Witches of Bushwick”, in which Blair tries to distract herself from Chuck with macaroons, Marie’s dessert of choice, and decides she can’t be with him until she makes something of herself first.

If Blair does follow in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette, this surely won’t be a problem for her. Who remembers her husband, anyway?

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Gossip Girl Proves There’s No Such Thing as Wonder Woman.

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Mag Cover of the Week: Leighton Meester on December Cleo.

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Sexual Healing: Gossip Girl Takes a Page Out of John Irving’s Book.

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Early Bird Hiatus: Birthday Edition!

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Women in Fiction: My Favourite Fictional Females.

[The Early Bird Catches the Worm] Women in Fiction: Are Our Favourite Fictional Females Actually Strong, or Stereotypes?