The search for something to blame

August 17, 2011

The riots in Britain are being blamed on everything from gangs to social media--but their real roots lie in poverty, racism and alienation.

AT LEAST there's one way in which the police seem to be improving. If Inspector Yates--recently deposed as a result of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal--was still in charge, he'd have said, "I've had a look and can see no evidence there's been any riots, so there'll be no arrests."

The rioters might have learned from the News of the World episode as well, so when the police call around to ask where they got the five flat-screen TVs still in their boxes, they could say: "I don't recall seeing them before, and am as shocked as anyone at the theft of those items, and will do all I can to find out who took them."

That would be as useful as the comments by most politicians, in which they try to be more disgusted than the others about mindless criminality. One of them even referred to "Mindless mindless thuggery," and I expected him to carry on: "These people who excuse the violence by saying it's only mindless, and not mindless mindless, should hang their heads in shame." By tomorrow, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will be saying, "It's clear to me that these thugs are fucking mindless mindless," while Prime Minister David Cameron nods forlornly by his side.

But whatever else they are, the riots can't just be driven by criminality. Professional shoplifters are probably furious, as there's nothing left to steal. Nick de Bois, the member of parliament for Enfield North, insists criminal gangs organized the riots, "stashing the stolen goods in their Volkswagen GTIs." So that explains it--it's a mass robbery planned in advance by thousands of people across Britain, with help from the Volkswagen GTI owners' club.

It's more likely that he doesn't know, just as most of us don't know, why exactly this is happening. But everyone likes to have a guess. Some people are blaming BlackBerry phones, as if throughout history, it's not been possible to organize a riot without a BlackBerry. Before the storming of the Bastille, there must have been criminals across Paris sending messages such as "C u by drawbridge 2 mash da Kng shd b gr8."

One thing that's probably true is that the more stable and secure your life is, the less likely you are to smash windows and set fire to an assortment of buildings. For example, it's unlikely the managing director of an investment bank would announce to the shareholders: "Our strategy for increasing profits in the third quarter is to decrease investment in oil futures, and instead do in the windows of Foot Locker in Ealing and shove hundreds of trainers in a Volkswagen GTI."

A RIOT is usually a sudden realization that--after years of feeling helpless and rubbish with a growing sense you're being blamed for everything--if everyone goes berserk at once, they can do what they want for a couple of days.

The current violence has been contrasted with 1981, as if back then, there were proper, decent riots, with a political purpose and a Specials song. Now it's accepted by much of the establishment that there were genuine issues that enraged a generation. But at the time, as I remember, the news was packed with politicians yelling there could be no excuse for mindless criminality.

One difference with those times may be there were political organizations that attracted the angry. Black groups that identified with figures such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X had a big enough following to give a sense of direction to communities in the aftermath. Now those organizations have mostly collapsed and appear to have been replaced by the gangs, so the fury is more likely to be random and aimed at everyone and no one.

So we should force these mindless rioters to abide by the same rules as respectable people. We should insist they set up a body for self-regulation--the Looter Complaints Commission, with a procedure whereby people whose houses they've destroyed can appeal for an apology, which is granted or not, depending on how the rioter feels.

First published in the Independent.

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