3 AM London.
I receive a text message from a friend in Walthamstow reassuring me not to worry and that all is calm on her end. How could I not worry? My friend, a mother of two young teenage boys living right in the centre of this weekends rioting storm, I am concerned for obvious reasons.
All evening, friends and family across the UK have been calling and texting reporting that a relative calm has restored after living through a nightmarish fear unknown to them. One friend texted me Sunday night telling me “I’m scared. We just don’t know what area they’re going to be hitting next.”
Despite seemingly random flare ups across the nation on Wednesday, many across Britain appear to be breathing a sigh of relief believing that the worst of the rioting passed a day or two earlier – but it was apparent, most were still on edge.
In the midst of the relative calm, a sense of loss appears to unite communities – united by a sense of devastation and outrage. The reaction to the murder of 3 Muslim men in a hit and run in Birmingham in Tuesday nights skirmishes appeared to have brought home the point that Britons were anxious for the rioting to come to an end. The profound pleas of Tarek Jahan, the father of one of the young men killed, to cease the violent rioting, rang loudly across the nation and characterized the wider appeal of the public. By his side, members of various communities offered their support in a time of deep grievance.
In the aftermath of Jahan’s appeal, an apparent clash also came to characterize the unfortunate rifts that undeniably result after such volatile events. Britons, having their cities, homes, and livelihoods torn apart, are now left struggling to grasp an understanding of what happened and why.
It’s still in the early days for Britain’s riots of 2011 to have developed a fixed narrative. What is already evident, however, is that there is no one narrative. There cannot be – the situation is far too complex.
Attempting to unravel and understand the riots will take time. Already there have been narratives and counter narratives: the underclasses, or the “thug” “hoodies”, had taken the streets; juxtaposed with a multifaceted account by Paul Lewis, shedding an alternative view – the rioters were not a monolith. Floating photographs and videos on the internet show that the mobs were made up of men and women of various racial backgrounds and, most strikingly, represented a cross section of the UK’s economic strata. Lewis’ piece provides a tangential avenue to analysts wanting to evaluate rioters on their apparent opportunism.
In the quest to understand what took place inside the riots – getting to the bottom of why angry youth would want to tear society into pieces – it is additionally critical to attempt to understand what took place on the periphery. The reactions from the wider British public to the riots have been congruently chaotic. Outraged talking heads such as Steve Allen point their fingers squarely at poor blacks lamenting that social problems and poor parenting within the black community have compromised British culture and are to blame. In one of his nightly rants, Allen recommended that rioters be sent to China where they would face ruthless punishment.
Serener voices, such as Nina Powers’ elbowing reminder that the riots have greater context, are also visible, but haven’t quite made it into the emerging narrative. Since David Cameron’s return from holiday, his authoritarian language condemning the rioters has begun to obscure attempts to derive reason. Sectors of the media have been quick to retort any attempts at explanation; often conflating deeper analysis with justification for violence and looting. The public has mirrored this panicked temperament, finding examination deeply suspect.
As a result, there is a one-dimensional picture that has begun to emerge – while many Britons acknowledge that the rioting resulted from the fury of the underprivileged, nevertheless, the terminology used to describe the riots shaped a certain image. The “Mindless” “opportunistic” “thieving” “scummy” “thug” “gangsters” are engaging in “copycat riots”. In the end, the public is left with a picture that the riots had no real political or economic cause besides unadulterated greed. Media talking heads have effectively charged the rioters as “lazy benefits criminals” who don’t aspire to get jobs and work hard in order to contribute to society because they’d rather suck the system dry of its resources. The only logical punishment for such people is either pulling their benefits from them or imprisonment. Cameron’s draconian language adds to the spectacle: “We will track you down, we will find you, and we will punish you.” In effect, the narratives essentially delegitimise the anger that sparked the riots; a grave mistake. There is a difference between criminality and anger. Criminalities are illegal illegitimate acts – theft, arson, or killing. The anger of a community, on the other hand, is not only legitimate, but should also be widely heard by the public.
Another word thrown into the mix has been “terrorism”, used by Piers Morgan tweeting from afar in Los Angeles California on Tuesday evening. Undeniably, the British public was thrown into a state of terror resulting from the weekends rioting. However, using terminology reserved purely for organised political violence is a counter-intuitive choice of words considering the media and governments simultaneous attempts to diminish the politics of chaotic mass rioting “with no real point.” Even within a political context, the term terrorism, to describe politically motivated violence, remains heavily criticised. “Terrorism”, too, obscures the causal relationship between a violent political act and its political or economic motivation. “Terrorism” is often charged as a term defined from the top when acts of political violence jeopardise national interests.
From this perspective, the ensuing wave charging poor black mothers as responsible for the riots is bewildering. Social problems do exist, but finger pointing will not bring genuine answers to the surface. Comedian Ava Vidal on Twitter Tuesday night responded to a Sky News interview with Eve Pollard, “So all of these single Mums who are out there having boys are to blame for all of this are they?” She continued, “Clueless cow on Sky News saying ‘I feel very sorry for single Mums. But it comes from an alternative lifestyle & they have these boys.’” She then responded to a tweeter moments later saying “Stupid cow tweeting me saying single mothers or not if you can’t control your kids don’t have anymore… So if you have three children and your relationship breaks down and your kids react badly what do you do? Un-have them?!” Condemning entire communities intensifies hostility and isolates communities from one another; a lesson certain sectors of the British public should be well aware of.
By that I do specifically mean British Muslims. The responses from many British Muslims have been the most troublesome. A Muslim woman explained her experience of the London riots to me. Monday afternoon when she returned home early from work, as offices around the nation shut down early, she described the atmosphere in her neighborhood when she got out of the tube station and onto her local High Street as “tense.” She continued, “There was a group of teenagers hanging around opposite the grocery store and it didn’t look right. All the locals were standing around watching them and it got really tense. Eventually a police van turned up and they ended up dispersing.” I have even heard Muslims suggest that the army should be brought in and should be instructed to use “shoot to kill” tactics on the rioters.
Another Muslim woman admitted to me “I am now reassured by random stop and searches in Manchester rather than appalled.” When I questioned her on her sentiment saying that stop and search practices were cited as responsible for kicking off the tensions that resulted in the riots, she simply responded “Yeah, the approach led to a lot of problems and stereotyping in the past, but now feel like I would accept less freedom for more security.”
The British Muslim community has certainly had their moment in the spotlight in the midst of tragic events. Efforts of local vigilantes in the absence of the police to protect their neighbourhoods are heroic. The Muslim communities, however, need to exercise extreme caution in the face of moral panicking and reflect on their lessons: what was it like for them to be the enemy within during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, 7/7, and the Madrid bombings? It was an uncomfortable situation then, but now the tables have turned – particularly as British Muslims, along with British Sikhs, are being lauded as the vigilante heroes. If British Muslims were to contribute to the moral panic and the scapegoating, however, it would undoubtedly blot their dynamic history in Britain with a stain. With the immediate sensitivities and trauma pulsating, it is a very fine line that British Muslims are currently walking.
It goes without saying that the outrage on the part of British Muslims is comprehensible. The devastation of a community coming to terms with 3 innocent young men killed while guarding their community, reflexively causes British Muslims to call attention to the Islamophobia present in some of the rioters – and they’re correct to point it out. The rioters are but a thought provoking mirror of the wider society that has shaped and produced them – consumers and xenophobes. Members of the British public did not appear to like what was being reflected back at them.
That goes without saying that the sentiments of the British Muslim I spoke to about stop and search were indeed alarming. When a society willingly gives up its civil liberties in the name of security, I cannot help but to feel that society, in a state of fear and panic, has been maneuvered into thinking it is beneficial for them to not have their civil liberties and, therefore, surrenders them willingly. With the hard talk coming from Cameron and the Tories about clamping down, I fear the worst.
Heavier police presence in order to restore order throughout the UK may sound like a logical solution. However, in light of the fact that the grievances against the police from the underprivileged communities have been completely dismissed by the Prime Minister, to place police in heavy presence in those very places where distrust is so high, without remedying the frictions, seems like a plan set to fail. Increasing CCTV cameras and setting up tools, like the website set up by the Riot Clean Up efforts to identify riot suspects, is asking Britons to spy on each other. Make no mistake about Cameron’s intentions – the punishment for those caught will be severe.
But at what cost? Simply catching and locking away rioters and looters will not bring resolution. In the short term, it might provide some with a sense of satisfaction that justice has been served; but that won’t be long lasting. What happened to that sense of justice before the rioting sparked? Let’s face it, when our structures started to break down last weekend, it scared us – but the structures of the dispossessed began to fracture long ago. Should it have taken a bunch of kids from the structure depleting areas destroying cities and towns in order for them to be seen? We’ve seen them, but many of us appear hell bent on keeping our ears covered. For as long as they remain “mindless” “benefit sucking” “scummy” “thugs”, chances are, society won’t care what happens to them – they can have their neighbourhoods even more tightly controlled and monitored by police and CCTV cameras, have their benefits swiped from them, imprisoned indefinitely when they cause trouble, or worse yet, targeted by “shoot to kill” tactics.
This weighs on me heavily.
This article also appears on http://www.cageprisoners.com