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ENGLAND RIOTS: A Rioter’s Mind

A week after a peaceful demonstration in protest of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by Tottenham police turns riotous, writer and cultural maverick Tarik Fontenelle takes a look at the dynamics, casualties and the solutions to the melee that have swept England.

Words: Tarik Fontenelle

The riots that have rocked England over the past few days have sent shockwaves around the world. Rioters, some of whom were as young as seven, looted, burned and mugged their way across England’s cities and suburbs, attacking police, journalists and fellow civilians in the process. As shops were looted and buildings burnt, the disenfranchised echoes of urban Britain sang out above the sirens and screams of stricken cities.

Much has already been written of the actual events of these riots – individual moments of violence, pain and regret have shocked the media the world over. I, however, wish to focus on the root causes and the solutions.

The struggles faced by many impoverished families in England are felt by nearly all who feel associated with a marginalised faction of society. London is one of the most, if not the most, economically unequal cities in the world. Social mobility is still the worst in Europe and VAT increases and government cuts are being felt most severely by the poorest Britons. These are hard times.

As opportunity beckoned for criminals and chancers alike, connections were made possible through the vehicle of BBM and social networking. But through my own experiences of the riot and my interaction with the people on the street, I’d suggest a deeper relationship to the events that have marred England over the past week.

These rioters weren’t just mindless vandals. They were mindless at times, yes, and certainly they vandalised, but there was also a fierce expression of counter-capitalism in their actions. By disregarding the domination of governance, these rioters were subconsciously expressing their grievances to the society they livewithin; a society they feel disconnected to and abandoned by.

The aftermath

The aftermath of four days of violent riots has given voice to many who demand excessively punitive measures. Though wide condemnation of these events is to be expected, the increasingly reactionary attitude is proving to be equally as frightening. Tuesday evening saw an English Defence League [a right-wing and racist English organization] march through Eltham as several racially motivated attacks across the country have been reported since. And yet, as so many panicked and called for plastic bullets, the army and excessive police force, it left others demanding inquiry into the social roots of these events. The dismissive attitude of the Mayor of London to these calls, however, laments an underlying problem within how our society has addressed these issues in the past.

Camila Batmanghelidjh’s moving piece in The Independent cast a light on the plight of many impoverished families and young people. She admonished that “these rioters feel they don’t actually belong to the community. For years,they’ve felt cut adrift from society.” What I saw on my time out covering these riots, and from my own experiences living in London, I have to second those views.

In the midst of these riots were people, young and old alike; believing they were taking back from a system that they feel leaves them with very little. With public funding cut, unemployment rising and a serious lack of financial support, the very bonds holding together families, and, subsequently, communities, is becoming painfully stressed.

This wave of riots, whilst beginning on the streets of Tottenham on Saturday evening, were truly spread through a wave of realised opportunism. Dianne Abbott, the MP of Hackney suggested that the events in Tottenham “gave greenlight to every little hooligan in London”. When I interviewed a young man during the Peckham riots, he quickly concluded that they were doing this “just becausewe can”. However I’d suggest, in light of the unprecedented actions witnessed in the heart of England’s towns and cities, that deeper problems lay beneath the masquerade of wanton destruction and criminality.

Scratching beneath the surface

Whereas some argued that these riots were purely products of greed, even a shallow scratch beneath the surface bears light on a variety of issues at play: relationships with the police are at an all time low — the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police officers was the catalyst and tipping point for this sorry affair; Social care and public service budgets are being slashed and with them, a wave of community centres and support groups are closing; and, perhaps most crucially for the younger rioters, the Government’s Education Maintenance Allowance [EMA] is being completely cut – leaving families with less money to support their kids through school, and young students without the incentive to further their education. Take into account unemployment and rises in VAT, what we are facing is a growing faction of society that we risk losing forever.

There are those who argue that rioters lack political motive, but we had only turn to the actions of these groups for proof of strong social idealisms. “It’s ‘cos of the Feds,” said one masked rioter. “We want our taxes back,” screamed another. “Shows us respect,” defiantly added a female rioter. Articulation aside, whilst these statements may sound ridiculous, naïve and even dangerous, the deeper lying implications are surely indicative of the struggle these men and women face in their daily lives. They speak of the hostility and a lack of trust in the authority, of a lack of understanding within society’s mechanics and of a yearning desire to be acknowledged and recognised. Whilst I could never condone the actions, I can sympathise with the causalities.

Shopping riots

Another revelation within these events can be found in a perceived blowback to the aggressive materialism and consumption ideals that infiltrate much of our day-to-day lives. As Zoe Williams acknowledged in a piece for the Guardian, “these are shopping riots, characterized by their consumer choices”. By looting clothing stores, jewellers, betting shops and the like, these rioters have not only told us who they are, but also what they really want.

Growing up in the depths of East London, it was mandatory to be fitted out in fresh trainers, crisp tees and, dutifully, holding the newest gadgets. These riots were a forceful expression of the heavy pressures of this same consumer mindset gone AWOL. I witnessed looters tearing up protective grills from beneath shops and kicking in windows; thieves as young as ten peeling goods from decimated shop floors; young men carrying three looted laptops beneatheach arm; and, most strangely of all, old men risking life and limb to clamber through broken glass for a new pair of jeans.

With success, status and identity so heavily linked to wealth, and the accumulation of material objects, are we seriously surprised that the favourite sneaker, clothing and electronics stores of these rioters were looted? What they are screaming at us, through the medium of stolen goods, is that they want to conform more than ever – that they want to be part of a consuming society they clearly aspire towards; that they wish to be able to forge out their identities at their own will; that they want to be recognised within society. Part of the solution to this problem must involve showing these disillusioned spirits that there are other ways to fulfil these aims.

The long-term view

The questions that have risen from the mess of these riots have brought forth a keen reminder to all those within the higher echelons of society that the disconnect is becoming too large. The richest Britons are already ten times richer than the poorer — the worst ratio in Europe. As bankers, politicians and marketing directors sit high above in their polished towers, what effect is their work having upon the rust and rubble of street level London? Questions must be asked of the disconnect between the separated world of the market and thereality of day-to-day life for the average Briton.

As England pertains to fix this troubled ‘underbelly’ of society, it must be remembered that society as a whole must answer this call. With the barrage of increasingly reactionary views flitting around the public sphere, fears are already being raised of the same mistakes being repeated. Further alienation of a group that already feels disenfranchised, cut adrift from society and who believe they don’t have a voice will only serve to commit future generations to similar
ailments.

Punishment must be swift and an example must be made, but perhaps British society can also begin to ask itself some serious questions as to why this occurred, and, with hope, work together to deal with not only the short-termfixes but also the root causes.

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