- Published on Tuesday, 23 August 2011 10:00
- Category: Letters From the UK
Living in London, one becomes immune to the sound of ambulances and police vans rushing past your rented second-story flat. And the smell of fire is too often covered by that of the fumes from the kebab shop downstairs. Coming home to news of riots in London was hardly surprising, but it was confusing. Having taken part in peaceful student protests earlier this year and at the end of last year, I was initially dubious when I read the news reports about violent and volatile behaviour of these “protesters.” It didn’t take long, however, before it became very clear that this was protesting of a completely different kind.
London, and soon many other cities across the UK, were shaken by the not entirely surprising though not anticipated attacks on shops and persons. Thousands watched in horror as the news channels filmed the complete destruction of people’s homes as entire building complexes burnt down without there being the slightest attempt to put the fires out.
The report of three young men dying from a hit and run in Birmingham following the riots was shattering. At the same time the dignified response of the father of one of the victims unified the country as the citizens mourned the dead, the injured and the general state of the society. Many were moved to tears by Sikhs defending a mosque (as well as their own gurdwaras) as the worshippers prayed inside. While also reeking havoc, such events can also, fortunately, bring out the best of a community.
While the “rioters” might come from surprisingly different backgrounds – from an 11-year-old to a university student, to a teaching assistant, they are all symptomatic of the society that has been created- that we have created - it seems clear that what they have in common is not only a disregard for authority or consequences. What we have seen of the “youth” of today, some hooded and some completely indifferent to the concept of masking themselves, is that there is a disturbing hunger for material possession... possibly to fill the void that comes from having nothing at stake.
And when bankers who play with the economies – and thus with the lives – of practically everyone in the world without any serious consequences, the signal sent is unmistakable: take what you want, whenever you want, regardless of the (unlikely to occur) consequences. This only goes to show that there is a political context to this. While they might not be rioting on the streets demanding the scrapping of tuition fees, these rioters demonstrate what happens when harming actions are justified with “…but I want it now” (giving rise to the sadly catchy phrase “can loot, will loot”).
Interestingly, the riots have not been labelled as race related by the media or the politicians. While the riots were sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, a black victim of police shooting in Tottenham, images of youths with different racial background suggest that this weltschmerz has much more to do with a feeling of disconnect and disenfranchisement among urban youth that isn’t specific to race, but to class and social position.
While absolute poverty is rare in the United Kingdom, relative poverty certainly exists. Mass production has of course lead to enticing products such as Blackberries or portable computers becoming affordable even to those with relatively low incomes. But recent events might suggest that being comparatively more well off than people in “developing” countries does not necessarily instill a sense of “wealth” in today’s youth.
Brands and trends are fleeting and ever changing, so getting the pair of hot trainers you want might not feel so rewarding when your neighbour already has a pair of the next “very hottest” thing on the market. It is possible, in many cases likely, that the partakers in these heinous activities are not conscious of this feeling of poverty per se. But surely a sense of inadequacy is obvious from their actions. We live in a society where our peers’ possessions define them and their “happiness;” poverty thus manifests itself as a relative feeling. Relative to your surroundings, your community, and not always relative to the rest of the world, which is so far away.
The only trend that seems to be constant is that of endless greed. Attics and basements are filled with last year’s goods that now, though hardy scratched or even unpacked, are this year’s junk. Interestingly, it doesn't matter if it's "real" poverty, or just an illusion of poverty. As Zoe Williams points out in a comment in The Guardian, it is not essentials such as milk, bread and butter that are being looted from the shops. It’s material cravings such as iPhones and computers and alcohol, for the most part. These young adults need something bigger and more meaningful to occupy their minds.
It is therefore particularly disturbing that, as the riots have died down and hundreds have been arrested, the country’s leaders have decided on an anti-intellectual approach when dealing with the recent events. Prime Minister Cameron’s speech dismissing any sociological or political causes of or relevance to the riots is at best disappointing, though the typical tough-guy stance is hardly surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the bizarre realisation that an expat celebrity infamous for his drug abuse and promiscuity makes more sense than the country’s politicians....(or maybe not?). In a complete slaughter of the fatuous statements made by Conservative politicians, actor Russell Brand points out the failure of the state that, after all, calls itself a “welfare state,” in taking care of and securing the future of its less fortunate citizens. Young adults with the best of chances also “turn bad,” but youth with virtually no support system, minimal education, and an ever-unpropitious future have nothing to lose, and that is a danger to society. As Brand fervently points out, when left behind by the those in power who seem to have no interest in their plight, not before and certainly not now, it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that thousands pour out onto the streets only to smash windows and burn things.
It takes a lot of effort to build any society. It takes tremendous effort to build one with possibilities, with a cultural development that allows for the widening of minds beyond that of a voyeuristic existence where Big Brother watches everything, where young adults don’t find it acceptable to assault the corner shop for booze while the owner is wrenching on the floor with a stab wound. Last weeks’ events prove that such growth work is never-ending, and they should act as an alarm clock waking us up from the slumber that cost lives and ruined livelihoods.
News Coverage of the London Riots:
By Nora Shafe, Aslan Media Contributor