Sunday night I was at Dalston Junction in Hackney, London. I had been given a lift by a friend who was visiting another friend in the area. While I waited for the bus to Walthamstow, 15 police vans, all with sirens blaring, passed us, seemingly on their way to North London. Where? I couldn't tell. It was only when I got home I saw a report on the Internet that there were "copycat" riots in Enfield, Chingford, Brixton and my home town of Walthamstow. In fact, when I got to Walthamstow, there were more and more police cars hurriedly cutting through traffic. I knew what was happening before I got home. After seeing the 15 police vans driving past at Dalston, I called another friend, who had been stopped by police on Saturday morning for riding his bike in Hampstead Heath. When I told him what I'd seen, he didn't seem surprised. In fact, he seemed resigned to the inevitable-that there would be more and more riots.
When I woke up Monday morning I listened to the BBC news, and I heard Deputy PM Nick Clegg, the Home Secretary and the MET Chief of Police all condemning the riots as opportunistic violence that was in no way related to the riots in Tottenham on Saturday. How blind can they be? These riots run a lot deeper than mere opportunism. What happened on Thursday and Saturday was a wake-up call for the many poor youth in London who are from poor areas. Many people are saying that most if not all the looters are coming in from outside of these areas. But if we carefully look at the areas in question, these are places where policing of youths is heavy-handed, where mistrust is the only relationship that the youth have with the police, where there are youths from poorer backgrounds who believe that they have no chance to "make it" in this society because of the stigma attached to where they come from.
For example, if you tell someone that you're from Essex, they immediately form an opinion of you that is not flattering. Well, that's the same for these youth from Tottenham, Chingford, Enfield etc. I studied at Middlesex University from 2001-04 (labelling happens at university level as well) when the university had a campus on White Hart Lane in Tottenham. I remember being ridiculed by acquaintances who attended other universities because of where I studied. Neither my subject matter (philosophy) nor my final grade (2:1 honours) could convince them that the education I received was properly valid, solely because I had studied in Tottenham.In this country, labels are attached to people without justification, and these labels are then impossible to shake, no matter how hard one tries. To say that Sunday night's looting and riots were opportunistic is quite frankly easy.
Rizwana Hamid, a journalist based in Tottenham who also covered the riots in Broadwater Farm in the 80s, said Monday morning that a lot of the youth around London, especially those in disadvantaged areas, feel like caged animals because of their lack of educational opportunities, unemployment, the stigmas attached to where they come from and so on, and that the riots were an expression of them breaking free. She went on to say that what the youths did was no more opportunistic than MPs fiddling expenses, or police taking back- handers, or bankers virtually "looting" from society's coffers, who were doing so not because they felt caged but because they wanted to line their pockets.
What about the social significance of these riots? What about the failed system in this country and in most of western civilisation? Look at the financial markets. A total of £125 billion was wiped off the stock market last week in a global financial meltdown. Political, financial and social systems all over Europe are crumbling in places like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, and the UK is not far behind. The capitalist system, which has been lauded by many in the West, is the cause for all this social, political and financial upheaval that we see in the world today, and it has failed in its promise of bringing equality to all because it does just the opposite: the rich gets richer and the poor is supplanted into an ineffectual existence. With more and more cuts being passed in Parliament, especially cuts that affect voluntary and community groups around the UK, more and more youths will be affected, if they haven't been already. With much less employment to look forward to, and less constructive outlets for them to express themselves, quite frankly what do we expect?
Prof Gus John said on the BBC Monday morning that there needs to be proper investment of time and work with youth, and that society needs to talk with youth, rather than at them. This is a key criticism of the police and the system that gives the police their authority. In fact, the police are notorious for making it extremely difficult to work or even talk with them in certain areas. Sometimes you get the feeling that the police believe that if you come from a certain neighbourhood you are a criminal. The family of the youth slain by police (police were arresting him when the shooting occurred on Thursday) have called for calm from all youth around London, while they await the findings of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I think they are right. What would be best is instead of youths using social networks to organise riots (if this is true), they should organise themselves into one unified group, with a unified ideology that can truly stand up to the police and the corrupt malfunctioning system that they represent:
•A unified ideology that questions the actions of a system that would allow the development of youth to suffer by making cuts to education and community groups that help to give value to the lives of young people.
•A unified ideology that would question why every poor neighbourhood is awash with betting shops and fast-food chicken outlets, none of which helps to foster community, and destroys the fabric of family life.
Rioting will not solve the issue. In fact, all it does is give the authorities the impetus to act even more heavy-handedly than they do already, and when they've succeeded in silencing the mob, they paper over the cracks like they do with everything else, eg MPs' expenses, bankers etc. Dr Martin Luther King said: "The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility." What now?
• These riots run a lot deeper than mere opportunism. What happened on Thursday and Saturday was a wake-up call.
• These are areas where policing of youths is heavy-handed, where mistrust is the only relationship that the youth have with the police.