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.

Guest Post: Life Below the Poverty Line is a Horrible Place.

My Shopping List:

Penne pasta: $0.78

Jasmine rice: $1.29

Can of beans: $0.89

Can of spaghetti: $0.89

Oats: $0.99

Bag of carrots: $0.99

Can of tomato soup: $0.74

1 onion $0.41

Sultanas: $1.03

Milk: $1.09

5 small pears: $0.92

Total: $10.02

Day 1:

Breakfast: Bowl of oats in hot water and a pear.

Lunch: Canned spaghetti (this was an operations error. I meant to buy two cans of beans to mix with rice for protein but came home by mistake with spag.). Handful of sultanas.

Dinner: Rice with onion, carrots and beans. A carrot.

It’s not so bad. I thought this would be far more difficult, although I am surprised that I feel hungry already, because I am still eating three meals a day.

Day 2:

Breakfast: Bowl of oats with milk and sultanas.

Lunch: Remaining canned spaghetti and a pear.

Dinner: Pasta with tomato soup on it.

I have a headache, and I am hungry and grumpy and anxious. My body is simultaneously withdrawing from caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and quite possibly any other number of food- and wine-related chemical addictions. My body feels as though it’s put together all wrong and I am having difficulty focusing on anything for any length of time.  Woe begets any person who wakes, disturbs, annoys , or—let’s face it—even talks to me right now. My final 18,000-word thesis for a masters degree in International Development is due in two and a half weeks and I am supposed to be focussing and working hard, but all I can think about right now is coffee, coffee, coffee! It is strange, because this is not the first thesis I have written, nor the hardest academic challenge I have faced, but it is the first time I have faced any of it without coffee. This is my Everest!

Day 3:

Breakfast: Bowl of oats with milk and sultanas.

Lunch: Rice with carrot and onion pieces and beans and a pear.

Dinner: Pasta with tomato soup on it.

I ‘m going to be honest with you: I want to cheat.  I want to eat a tub of fried food, drink two gallons of coffee, and finish off with a 1kg slab of Cadbury’s finest. But I won’t, partly because so many people have paid money to see me suffer, but mostly because I want to have a better idea of what it feels like to live in extreme poverty.

If I were truly living off this two-dollar budget, then I would have no toothpaste, no shampoo, no soap, no (eek!) makeup. I would not be living in my lovely light-filled, fully furnished open-plan apartment 10 minutes from the beach, with polished floorboards and a security gate. I wouldn’t be typing on this computer. I wouldn’t be warm, and safe.

Take it from me, who has only lived here for three days: life below this line is a hungry, headachey, horrible place. And I sleep at night in a secure apartment, in a queen-sized bed, with thick blankets to fend of the cold, and electricity and plumbing and a fridge and any other number of comforts. The police are a phone call away if I feel scared or threatened, and so are my family and friends if I feel lonely. I live in the knowledge that if I get sick or injured, I will have a choice of doctors who will treat me. If I lose my job, I will have help from my government, a government who I have a hand in electing, and a chance of holding accountable if required, and a government who has real authority. Hunger is no real threat to me here; I am hungry now, only because I have chosen to be. I am so lucky. But the most important thing is, now I know it; it’s a small insight, but an important one.

Maybe the hunger is making me sentimental, but I think half of the challenge is to understand what it is like for those who suffer below the line; it is knowing the physical limitations of living there.  But the other part is understanding that the people we are trying to help are not fictitious, or lesser, or abstract, or really all that different from ourselves.  The people who live there are not faceless or nameless, though often they are depicted as so. They are young people, old people, women, children and men, who have dreams and ambitions, who have extreme determination to survive. The people who live there are wilful, funny, and intuitive; they have great capacity for innovation and great instincts for survival. They are all different kinds of things: hardworking, honest, reliable, efficient. They are human, and come in as many varieties as the people we know and love.  And I think one of the most important things about Living Below the Line (aside from raising money) is that we understand this, not remove ourselves from those who suffer by painting abstract images or pretending the problem doesn’t exist.  Because it becomes too easy to accept the status quo; to say, “there is nothing I can do; this is just the way it is.” Because it is not true! By changing the way we think, by looking at the way we live, we can make a difference.

Day 4:

Breakfast: Bowl of oats with milk and sultanas.

Lunch: Rice with carrot, onion pieces,  and beans, and a pear.

Dinner: Rice with carrot, onion pieces and beans.

I hate oats.

Day 5:

Breakfast: Bowl of oats with milk and sultanas.

Lunch: Rice with carrot and onion pieces, and a pear.

Dinner: Pasta with tomato soup and a carrot.

In just one week, we have raised enough money to build 7.8 remote classrooms in Papua New Guinea and also provided six full time scholarships to first time students in Cambodia. In just one week, we have made a real and tangible difference to the lives of others, by providing education to people who would certainly not get it otherwise.It is not too late to sponsor me, or someone else, if you have not already. If not now, it is certainly worth considering taking the challenge yourself. Please donate kindly; any amount can go a long way to helping in the fight against poverty. Or think of taking the challenge yourself next year!

On a final note, I also swear to never pay out Aldi supermarket again! For $10 I got more than I hoped for. My advice to anyone thinking of doing this next year is: don’t waste your time and money trying to get some variety. You won’t have variety, and the more things you get the worse quality they will be. If I did it again next year, I would forget the pasta, which tasted like glue, and the tomato soup, which tasted like salt and smelled like vinegar and made me want to gag. This money would have been better spent on eggs or more vegetables for nutrition, which would do more to feed the hunger. (It’s not that there is not enough to eat, the food is just not nutritious so you don’t feel good or satisfied after most meals.) I thought the onion was a cheap way to put flavour in the meals, but forgot that I wouldn’t have any oil to cook it in, so had to either boil, or grill it, which didn’t help much on the flavour front. I wouldn’t waste my time with that either next time.  The pears were a great find, the oats were bearable (they were cheap and powdery, but they were still oats) and the rice was, well, rice; you can’t really go wrong there!

Thank you to everyone who supported me! I hope I wasn’t too much of a pain to anyone who had to put up with me and my constant whinging Facebook status updates!

—Tessa Keane.

Related: Living Below the Line.