I’d just walked out of the cinema in Clapham, South London, on Saturday 6th August at around 11pm, having sat through Spielberg’s Super 8 and found it pleasant enough. Idly checking my Twitter feed as the lady did the customary bathroom trip, I spotted some of the journalists I followed tweeting links to images of parts of North London seemingly on fire. I showed Maddy when she returned and she was mildly surprised. “It’s like 28 Days Later“, she commented, making me ponder for a moment just what it would be like to emerge from a movie theatre to find society totally broken down and full of screaming maniacs.
Cheap analogies aside, this was a real breakdown in society. Three days passed and the riots had become social media royalty: they’d been granted their own hashtag. And yet they were still happening before our eyes, even as media pundits began the shitstorm of social commentary which continues even now (within this very blog entry, even).
I ventured out into Clapham High Street on the following Wednesday when rumours suggested things were really going to kick off. David Cameron had duly flown home from his Tuscany holiday to announce more police would be on the streets and the government had already announced prisons had plenty of available space. The atmosphere around central London was tense: shops had closed early and some were barricaded shut. We walked past an Indian corner shop which was completely boarded up with seemingly anything wooden the owners could get their hands on. Outside sat 4 or 5 middle aged Indian men, ready to defend their livelihood if the “rioters” came knocking again. One restaurant owner let us inside, quickly locking the door behind us when we walked in, and told me he was “scared” when he saw me taking photos of the boarded up newsagent across the road.
It’s an odd feeling to feel invaded in your own city. Terrorist threats are the thing we’re supposed to be blindly terrified of, not the youths from the council estate. The idea that the teenagers you brush past outside the entrance to McDonalds could become an organised threat, mobilised on the streets, is almost unreal. I caught myself feeling panicked as I cycled home, with vague recollections of reports of people being “bikejacked” whirling through my mind. Having my bike stolen could happen at any time, I told myself, but this felt different. Somehow it was as if an entire generation’s disaffection had been unified and made homogeneous.
A few days later it had calmed down and I wandered along Clapham Junction to survey the damage. Debenhams had only just reopened and almost every shop around it was boarded up or in the process of re-opening. Debenhams’ wooden boards were covered with scrawls of support from locals. Some of them were of the proud, hopeful type that were represented by the public cleanup efforts that immediately followed the rioting. “Our community will repair your damage and we will be stronger together”, or words to that effect. Others were more challenging, or even threatening. “What goes around comes around” read one marker-scrawled warning. Others spoke of revenge.
We’ve all seen the footage now. Classroom assistants looting TVs; kids queueing to steal jewellry; men in hoodies helping an injured boy then calmly robbing him as he bled. It’s painful to watch, and eye-opening, perhaps. But not shocking.
Chavs, a recent book by former trade union lobbyist Owen Jones, almost predicts the events that hit London and the UK’s other major cities this August. In the book, subtitled The Demonisation of the Working Classes, Jones argues that decades of Thatcherism, consumer capitalism culture and the Labour Party’s insistence that “we’re all middle class now” and emphasis on “social mobility” (as though being working class was something inherently devalued which one should strive to escape) have led to the alienation of the white working classes, commonly denigrated to the status of “chavs”. Jones ultimately suggests that media portrayals of the working classes as “dole scum”, “benefit scroungers”, and other right wing tabloid catchphrases are simply tools to reduce the status of the working class to almost farcical, sitcom-esque levels. Turn the idea of the working classes into a joke, a Vicky Pollard, and it becomes easier to ignore the difficult problems of social cohesion, racial tension and poverty. This is an aspect of what happened in London this month.
Much of the media coverage of the rioting suggested it was predominantly black youth. This has been proven to be inaccurate, particularly when images of northern cities hit the news and streets full of disaffected white youth in hoodies claiming the streets of Manchester were broadcast. The fact remains that the uprisings happened in poor, neglected locations – the people who rose up were the people who lived there, black or white. But how does this fit into Jones’ theories about the white working classes?
Britain is a country still struggling to identify where black culture fits in its social and ethnic makeup, as demonstrated by David Starkey’s disastrous efforts on Newsnight to lay the blame for the rioting on “whites becoming black”. Young black teenagers grow up into a society where Tory governments are keen to demonstrate their understand of inner city issues, yet struggle to do more than point the finger of “mindless violence” at the scenes their policies result in. If Jones’ white working classes are the butt of the joke in modern Britain, then the black working classes aren’t even in on the joke.
The footage of young people kicking in the windows of a local corner shop or raiding FootLocker to get the latest trainers are indicative of the values they’ve learned from decades of being ignored, unchallenged and unlistened to. Politicans and commentators can hand-wring and pontificate on the lack of strong father figures, role models, education or aspirations. But beneath these observations (and not necessarily causes), there is a deeper issue. What kind of society produces citizens who lash out at it? Citizens who feel that their lives cannot be made worse by smashing up the local shop? Citizens whose immediate thought when they hear of social injustice is to go out and take whatever material benefit they can get for themselves? We have a serious breakdown in the fabric of British society and we’re fucking around blaming it on the kids looting the shops? There are bigger fish to fry.
As a society we have collective responsibility. We’re not a bunch of people who elect a government once every few years then sit back while they clean up after us, organise us and educate us. Maybe we could be, in some utopian dreamworld, but this is 2011 and we’re in the global recession. The government can barely legislate to handle big business and banking: things controlled by the state and closely observed and organised. How can it be expected to figure out the youth of the day? It’s not impossible, but it’s damned sure not easy, either. Labelling them “feral” and “mindless” is not only missing the point, but wilfully ignorant of it. These children aren’t just the worst of a bad bunch; wasters; a minority. They’re the offensive, ugly faces of what our society is heading towards if we continue as we are. These arguments are the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and humming “I’m not listening”.
Many people’s early responses to the violence were to meet it with more violence. “They need to send in the army” was my own father’s response. Other friends suggested that “if these lads want a fight, send them off to Iraq”. Politicians promised retribution and militant Sikhs threatened to hurt anyone approaching their religious buildings. This response is the reason we’re experiencing these issues. Complain about the kids hanging around on the street, then close down the youth clubs. Blame gang crime on video games and rap music, then fill everyone’s televisions with mindless celebrity dross instead. Insist that better education would prevent these crimes then shut the local library. The list goes on. When you’re met with indifference and insincerity every time, is it any wonder you feel abandoned? Is it any surprise you’ll go out and take anything you can from a society that’s already swept you under the carpet?
Understanding isn’t the same as condoning, and listening isn’t the same as agreeing. The youth of Britain — our next generation — have spoken up clearly, in perhaps the only medium left to them. Are we going to listen? Or will we keep our fingers in our ears?