Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning, Call the Engine

Like most Londoners, I’ve spent a long time over the past few nights glued to the TV.
Burning buildings, muggings in the street, home-invasions, cops with dogs. For me the apotheosis of Horrible was captured live by the Sky News ‘copter, as a woman in Croydon fled the back door of her home while the streetfront fa├žade went-up in flames. She’d quickly crammed a few valuables into a bag and – as smoke poured behind her – staggered out in horror. Only to find several people waiting: staring . They’d been crawling across rooftops in the previous moments – trying to open windows, knocking on glass – and we’d assumed, shouting at the telly, that they were worried neighbours, trying to determine if anyone was inside the burning building.

They weren’t.
They watched the woman leave, hopped down from their gutters and sills, and – before she’d even turned the corner – poured into her home to grab what they could. They looked like nothing so much as a flock of vultures, watching lions slope off into the long-grass, frenzying onto a deserted carcass.

Even I, despite all that I’m about to say below, couldn’t help snarling-out a kneejerk: I hope the fuckers get stuck in there…

And that’s the problem. Or, rather, it’s one of the problems. The “fix it now” solution – calling for a violent response, clearing the streets, stop this! – is so much easier to contemplate and justify if one utterly ignores the more valid, and more useful, question: “Why did this happen?”

Keeping an eye on Twitter gifted me with a veritable blur of anger, rage, and disgust from London residents. All of it entirely understandable, of course: we’ve all been shaken, all been made to feel as though the city we love is suddenly a far less rational place than we’d always hoped. Most of us watched the student protests earlier in the year with at least a little sympathy. The kids may have gone too far in their rage, they may have become carried-away and strayed into obscenity, but at least their objectives – the nature of their fury – was understandable. (Or at least easily sound-byted, which is perhaps the same thing in today’s world.)

Not so our current vagabonds; these “troublemakers”, these “feral youths”, these “hoodies” – or any of the other collective nouns the newsmakers have taken to using. The term “protestors”, bringing with it some abstract legitimacy, was phased-out of the coverage even before the end of the first night’s trouble in Tottenham, which really was triggered by outrage at a specific event: the shooting of a local father by police. No matter how valid or spurious the locals’ complaint ultimately proves, we can at least understand a community reacting to a perceived attack.
Since then? The riots have spread. The family of the man shot in Tottenham has made it clear this isn’t part of their protest; this chaos isn’t occurring in their name. Consequently the empathy dissolves; the “plucky community Vs. tyrannical cops” narrative folds away like a bad pamphlet, and what are we left with?

“Looters”. “Opportunistic criminality”. “Scum.” People with no specified motive for taking to the streets, and whose justification is therefore divined from their behaviour.

Which is to say: smashing windows. Mugging kids. Stealing tracksuits and TVs. Emptying baby-supply stores onto park benches. And yeah: looting the burning homes of frightened women before they’ve properly left the premises.

Little wonder the Twitter-feed has become a howl. Little wonder the “send in the army!” brigade have been screeching at top volume. Somewhere, last night, Richard Littlejohn was masturbating himself into a smug-coma, sharpening his pen in delight.

Let’s not muck about, shall we? This post isn’t some fluffy attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Nobody in their right mind can genuinely rationalize the sorts of selfish, stupid, counter-intuitive violence we’ve seen as a legitimate protest. Nobody would defend these groups of boys – and girls – on the grounds of justifiable “social mischief”. And so London’s first priority must be to find a way to prevent this from happening every night. Sending in the army, as so many angry Twitterers have demanded, is about as awful an idea as it’s possible to have. Did we not just spend the first half of the year being disgusted by middle eastern regimes attempting to control their unruly citizens by shelling and shooting them? Did we not hail the “Arab Spring” as a victory of “lawless liberty”?
Yeah. Let’s shoot our own youths in the kneecaps, shall we, because we don't agree with their motives. Let’s see how the rest of the world respects us then.

Water cannons...? Better. These kids are being nothing more than opportunistic adventurers, and current control-tactics are clearly not working. The mobs know that if the police rush them they can quickly and effortlessly scatter into sidestreets and regroup at will. This isn’t some ingeniously planned scheme; no tactical coup enabled by that Modern Madness: the Social Network. It’s just plain old Urban War: the same thorny impossibility that left us with Haussmann’s fields-of-fire Paris. If you make the whole adventure a little more unpleasant for the mob – for instance, if they’re sopping wet – I'd be amazed if they didn't scurry-along-home a little faster.

Whatever the sensible tactic, it's clear that this needs to be stopped.


There's a bigger problem here. That longer-term issue I mentioned before. The bigger picture. The difficult question.

The acts these kids are inflicting upon the city are abhorrent, but simply punishing them - or shooting them in the knees, or shelling them with tanks, or blasting them with waterguns, or whatever-the-hell you do - isn't going to stop this happening again and again. The uncomfortable truth is that our cities have created a generation of children who are too angry, or too poor, or too ignorant, or too fired-up, or too under-eductated, or too unintegrated, or too something… (and, honestly, I have no idea what it is) …to understand that this isn't how you behave in a functioning society. This isn’t how the world turns. This isn’t how we all co-exist in cities which don’t collapse under their own communal cruelty.

Until someone grips that nettle – identifies the fundamental problems at the heart of youth disaffection and tries their damndest to U-turn it, in the public arena and under political scrutiny (rather than sidelined into hushed borough-centric concerns) – these flare-ups are going to keep happening. And all the “community leaders” in the world, calling endlessly for More-Youth-Centres, aren’t going to achieve dick.

People: it's a lot easier to get outraged in the short term – clear the streets! get everything back to normal! send in the army! - than it is to be curious in the long-term.

Why are the kids doing this? It's not because they're "scum". Nobody’s born evil, people; that's a lazy explanation. Think like that and you might as well join Littlejohn and his box of tissues, or Assad and his tanks. No. The kids are doing this because they've grown-up to think it’s the Right Thing To Do.
Why’s that, then?


John R said...

As they say across the Pond, fucking-A.

scribblercraig said...

Great read Si and you nail it. This is a problem that's generational to an extent. It's embedded. This didn't kick off with the Tories/Lib-Dems, it's an issue that comes from years of neglect into education, into giving people self-worth and of people seeing that there is more to it than nicking and hanging about in gangs. It's about showing people that there are possibilities out there.

Jane Chesham said...


Cunting Richard Littlejohn, with his hatred of immigrants and reactionary rhetoric is masturbating, as an immigrant himself, in Florida.

Simon said...

Bang on, Simon.

Andy said...

"Fetch the Engines" :o)

Terrific post, sir.