UK riots: causes and effects

The aftermath of rioting in Clapham (image courtesy of George Rex/Flickr)

I don’t really watch the TV news any more as – being something of an information junkie – I tend to absorb it online during the day. In fact, before the last few days the last time I sat through an entire news broadcast was during the tragedy of 9/11. But for much of the last few evenings I have had a constant eye on the TV as the riots have spread first across London and then to other towns and cities in the UK.

I have watched shops being torched and innocent people jumping out of burning flats. I have been astounded by the bravado/stupidity/both of individuals who have bragged about their exploits on Twitter and attempted to pass off theft as some kind of protest against the police and the rich. I have expressed concern for a number of London-based friends who have been uncomfortably close to the action and have endured sleepless nights under siege or taken the precaution of vacating the area to keep their children safe.

Do you know what? In every possible sense, I have had enough.

There is a wealth of excellent commentary on the riots – and the responses of participants, politicians and innocent victims to it – on the web, but I would particularly recommend the scribblings of Chris at What I Reckon, Stephen at The-At-Long-Last-I’ve-Got-A-Job Blog and Steve at Wait Until Next Year, and also Camila Batmanghelidjh‘s thought-provoking piece in The Independent. All of the above have passed judgement on the events of the last few nights with far more eloquence, detail and objectivity than I ever could.

However, with the peak of the violence and destruction now seemingly past, I’m more interested in the causes and particularly the lasting effects of these riots, and whether anything will genuinely change as a result. Here are a few random thoughts: some my own, some the views of others who I would like to wholeheartedly echo.

No single cause

Unlike some in the public eye, I won’t even pretend to have all the answers because I don’t believe the causes of the riots of the past few days can be neatly summed up in a simple soundbite. Suffice to say there are a whole load of underlying factors, ranging from cutbacks in social and community projects to the ongoing problems suffered by people from certain backgrounds to simple greed, and a whole lot more besides. But let me just quickly tick off a few of the more commonly mentioned ones here.

The relative poverty of many of those involved has been offered up as both a cause and an excuse for the looters and rioters. Perhaps the most idiotic of all were the two drunken girls in Croydon who boasted to a BBC reporter that they were showing police and “the rich people that have got businesses” that “we can do what we want”. (Seriously, see how true that is if you end up with a criminal record. And do you really think the bloke with the corner shop who works 90 hours a week is ‘rich’?)

Real poverty is horrible. And it can certainly explain many – but by no means all – of the root causes of criminal behaviour. But does it excuse it? Of course not. And the reality is that there will always be poverty. I don’t disagree that the trend towards the super-rich becoming ever more wealthy and powerful can have a destructive effect on society. But I also don’t think that is an excuse to set buildings on fire, relieve shops of their contents and set out with the intention of injuring the police.

The tweet below is perhaps the best comment I have seen on the subject:

I think that says it all, don’t you?

Of course, not everyone has blamed poverty. BNP leader Nick Griffin – sadly but predictably – puts the blame for the riots solely on the shoulders of immigration policy. He tweeted the following (which appears to have been subsequently deleted):

If root cause was poverty then Scotland, Wales & the North East would be far worse than London. But of course it’s not poverty. It’s immigration & chip on shoulder problem of blacks.

As a child of immigrant parents, I probably don’t need to tell you what I think of the odious Mr Griffin, do I? Yes, a significant proportion of the rioters are not of Aryan stock. But the vast majority of people – whether white, black or any other shade in between – were also peaceful, and indeed many were involved in defending their communities when police support did not materialise. And I’m fairly sure many of the faces I have seen involved in the riots were distinctly Caucasian. No doubt Griffin will dismiss this as the biased liberal agenda of the BBC and other media outlets. Oh, hang on – he already has.

Immigration is not the root cause of the riots. Neither is poverty. For anyone to believe it is as simplistic as that is sadly misguided – or driven by their own political agenda.

Equally, I am not saying it is as simple as a matter of greed and a sense of entitlement, but I am more inclined to believe in this as a motivation for looting than some kind of rebellion of our disenfranchised youth, as has been claimed by some of those involved. Greed is a very human emotion, and hardly a new one. In a world where we celebrate the cult of the celebrity and hold up the ‘stars’ of Big Brother and The Only Way Is Essex as aspirational role models, everyone believes they deserve their 15 minutes of fame. Or at least the shot of a short-cut passage from rags to riches.

Quite incredibly, the last 48 hours has seen images posted online of individuals photographed proudly with their newly-acquired loot, or even the budding Einstein who placed an ad on the London Craigslist offering 40 brand new iPhones for sale. The ad has since been removed by Craigslist. I can’t imagine why.

It’s not so much the greed that drives people to loot that shocks me. It’s more the fact that some are brazen enough to think they are both able and entitled to get away with it.

What will be the longer-term impact of the riots?

Firstly, let’s look at the role of government. At times like this, we should be looking to our political leaders to form a united front as they seek to deal with the aftermath of these terrible events, and work together to ensure they do not happen again. Of course, what will happen – and is already happening – is that they will look to encapsulate the issues in ways that further their own agendas and enable them to score points off the other side. Labour Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper pointed the finger of blame squarely at the government’s 20% police cuts, in doing so completely missing the point. The rioting did not start because of the police cuts, although it did somewhat affect their ability to respond to it. And a couple of thousand more officers on the streets would in reality have made little difference in controlling small and mobile gangs which popped up in multiple locations.

The Prime Minister’s ‘big society’ has transformed into a ‘sick society’ (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Of course, this will not stop the political posturing. (Or, on Monday night, the lack of it as at the height of the rioting no one from the government was available for comment to BBC’s Newsnight programme, presumably while spin doctors worked on carefully crafting their ‘message’.) David Cameron blames the parents of riotous youths and condemns the ‘sick society’. Labour blames the coalition government for their police cuts. Nick Griffin blames immigrants and the liberal media. Others blame systematic cuts to community projects. Everyone blames the politicians for being somewhat less than moral bastions themselves when it comes to looting the public purse at every available opportunity. Nothing changes as a result, other than everyone ends up coated in a veneer of mud.

What the country needs at a time of civil unrest is strong and united leadership. Instead we will end up with a playground squabble of my fault/your fault accusations which will make the rioters look like a positively civilised gathering by comparison – although I suspect the worst of the mud-slinging will be reserved for after this afternoon’s House of Commons debate rather than during it. Some riots involve thousands of people. Others merely require the presence of 650 MPs, a TV camera and a microphone.

In purely impersonal terms, the rioting will have definite short-term and possible longer-term economic impacts. Figures published a fortnight ago showed that the UK economy grew by just 0.2% in the second quarter of 2011, a sign that the country remains on the brink of being plunged back into another damaging recession – the feared ‘double dip’. It does not take much to tip that precarious balance. Certainly the sight of shops closing up early to avoid looting and of city streets all but abandoned from mid-afternoon is not going to help stimulate economic growth. Neither will the plight of those unfortunate enough to have been plunged into unemployment as their businesses have been destroyed, such as Reeves, the generations-old family-run furniture store in Croydon, which was razed to the ground.

In the longer-term, an economy which has been tipped into stagnation by the wanton acts of a criminal minority will be farther reaching. In times of recession, further spending cuts are likely. The most likely victims? Public services such as schools, hospitals, social services and other community projects. It will not be the wealthy and powerful who feel the brunt of this. Many of the rioters purported to be striking a blow against the rich. The truth is anything but. The expression ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ springs readily to mind.

Local leaders in some areas have spoken about how the riots could set community relations back 20 or 30 years, which would make any prospective cuts to community or other urban regeneration projects doubly damaging. It will certainly take some communities a while to recover from the physical damage caused by rioters. The social scars could take much longer. And while punishment of apprehended criminals is clearly a necessary thing, I would suggest that tub-thumping statements from our political leaders about possible evictions and the removal of benefits will only make things worse in the long-term, as they address only the symptoms of the problem while fostering some of the underlying causes.

The whole future direction and funding of policing will now come under increasing scrutiny. Labour MPs have already launched concerted verbal attacks on the government’s cuts in police spending – as if the maintenance of previous funding levels would have been sufficient to deal with the troubles, which I very much doubt. The issue for me is not just police manpower but their approach to controlling the riots. Many communities have spoken about how an overstretched police force failed to respond to rioters in their areas, leading many to take direct action themselves – a praiseworthy action, but one fraught with all kind of dangers. And even where the police did show up, they were often relatively passive and struggled to control groups of rioters which were small and therefore incredibly mobile. Existing policing methods are much better suited to dealing with large, relatively immobile mobs.

Also, there is the question of what constitutes a suitable level of force. Would water cannon and plastic rounds work as a more proactive means of controlling trouble? Their effectiveness is questionable, and the danger of causing serious injury or fatality increases significantly with their use. It would also lay the police open to the kind of accusations of excessive brutality which have damaged their image in the past. In fact, it’s a difficult line to tread between using too much force and too little, or between being excessive and not assertive enough. After the PR battering they took after last year’s student protests, it’s not difficult to understand why the Met Police might have erred on the side of a softly-softly approach this time around, and it can only support their cries for a reversal of spending cuts in the force.

And finally … social media as a force for good

It’s difficult not to view everything in terms of doom and gloom, but let me finish on an upbeat note and comment on the role of social media as a force for good in underlining the fundamental good nature of the law-abiding majority.

True to form, the Daily Mail was quick to blame Twitter for its role in allowing rioters to organise and mobilise themselves quickly. As usual, the Mail got it wrong. Twitter was certainly used to spread the news quickly, but as a public medium those involved were smarter than to use it for circulating incriminating messages. Instead, it appears the more private Blackberry Messenger network was the primary culprit, not to mention old-fashioned means of communication such as face-to-face contact and word-of-mouth.

There’s no doubt that social media can play a role in mobilising those intent on causing organised mischief. But it can also perform a huge social good by spreading warnings of trouble, something certain factions have been slow to acknowledge. And it can also form a supplementary media outlet for the kind of positive stories which show a different side to events beyond the running battles and the burning buildings that mainstream media simply do not cover, as this photo so beautifully demonstrates.

Social media also spawned the wonderful ‘riotcleanup’ concept – similar to an idea which formed after the recent Vancouver riots – which via a combination of Twitter, Facebook and website enabled people in their thousands to organise themselves to clear up the devastation the morning after the night before. Images of ‘riotwombles’ marching with brooms upraised in Clapham and various other locations around London flooded social media on Tuesday. It was heartwarming to see, and went some way to restoring my faith in humanity which had taken something of a knock over the previous three days.

‘Riotwombles’ reclaim the streets of London (image courtesy of Lawcol888)

Looking forward, I wonder how this positive social good can be harnessed in a more permanent way. With public funding to support communities likely to decrease if anything, we cannot rely on the government focussing effort and resources in this area, let alone do the right things (as opposed to the ones which will create the biggest headlines among the middle classes). It is a matter of personal and collective responsibility – something which we have seen in abundance from the silent majority, and which has been singularly lacking in a small but violent minority. It would be good to see a positive force for change rise from one of the darkest weeks in the UK’s recent history.

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