Riots in London have everyone talking today, although violence and disorder have been going for days according to reports. Causes and motivations are still unclear, and as with most crises they will probably remain so until after the fact. Whatever the reasons, youth in London and increasingly across England are tossing aside any sense of citizenship they might have had in favour of selfish, violent behaviour against a society which, judging from the quotes that are emerging, they perceive as having abandoned them.
Why is this spreading so far and so fast? Riots of this magnitude erupt when people are pushed to their limits, unhappy with a government which has betrayed them or does not represent them. We applaud when people demonstrate their desire for democracy with this kind of passion, and comdemn police who silence them. In London, however, the police seem to be determinedly holding to their responsibility not to hurt citizens – and in pro-democracy protests, rioters do not upload photos with themselves and the commercial goods they have managed to steal.
I find it very difficult to imagine even disillusioned youth succumbing to the kind of selfishness that is being reported today. If there was any idealism behind the initial protests, it is long buried beneath opportunism and a police-hating, entitled selfishness. Young people are reported not as angry, but as having fun – this is what strikes me. These are no longer crimes of passion, but rather crimes with a low chance of being caught. Whatever social pressures pushed people to this (and I believe that they must be deep-running, long-standing and widely underestimated), it is entirely possible that they will now be buried again, and all that the public will remember is that youth these days are violent, ignorant, lazy and disrespectful.
It seems to me that there is a certain mentality behind all this, now that it has its own momentum far removed from any single cause. Comments from others in London and England more broadly complain of the lack of respect the rioters have for their city, their country, and their fellow citizens. As well as looting, there have been many instances of cars and buildings set aflame, burning to ruins homes and business that are uninvolved in any greivance. This is not taking back what young people think they are owed; this is just destruction. This kind of violence hurts and angers people, because it is directed at equally innocent victims, but the rioters don’t seem to have any sense of kinship with business owners and the like. To them, society is something done to them, not something they are a part of.
Perhaps this kind of uprising is what happens when youth feel no connection to the government and other authorities that rule them. The rules of society (both the laws and, presumably, the unstated but iron-clad stereotypes and assumptions) might protect others’ interests, but only ever hinder them. Instead they are constantly told they can’t do what they want, their protests are invalid, and they are bad citizens. This is all speculation, but it’s based on my observations of a much smaller, less significant, but similar culture here in NZ. I’d sum up that culture in three words: “Fuck the police.” Certain sectors of society see the police and the authority they represent as nothing but an uptight hindrance to freedom, ruining ‘harmless’ (to them) parties and refusing to indulge high spirits. The same youths will tend to be the ones who swear at teachers, tag property, and indulge in illegal drugs – not all of these always, but they often go together.
If the police are nothing but an obstacle, and getting something by them without punishment is a goal to aim for, who wouldn’t join these riots? If young people don’t understand why they shouldn’t do certain things except by the fear of punishment, this is a golden opportunity. If youth feel that society tells them to work, but doesn’t give them the means or the opportunity (whether this is perception or truth), why shouldn’t they just take what they want and skip all that futile struggle? Social responsibility, might be the answers, respect for your fellows. This only works if young people are instilled with these values, and it seems that many are not. Many figure it’s every man for himself, and that anyone who appears to have more than him is a fair target for his frustration. Lawlessness is ideal if you don’t believe that the law does anything for you.
I’m certainly not about to argue that England’s youth are dispossessed, or that the poor are structurally doomed to remain poor, or that these riots are a natural expression of social pressures which have been building for a long time (others will). I do think that considering the underlying assumptions and impulses at work here is important, and I hope others more qualified will continue to do so. If this is how young people are feeling about their (‘supposedly’) democratic, free capitalist society, then we should look at why they experience their citizenship so differently to their parents’ generation, or their parents’.
As a final note, it disgusts me to see how many reports of these events include notes about how officials are insisting this will not jeopardise the London Olympics, or lamenting for the English tourist industry, or stating that the Prime Minister will cut short his family holiday as though that were a great sacrifice. I know, rationally, that the economy is an important part of the government’s business (and one which is relevant here), and that a nation’s appearance and reputation on the global stage are increasingly important in politics around the world. Nonetheless, you have either angry, frustrated youth or violent, unrestrained criminals – or both – running rampant in your capital city. It would be nice if you could all at least pretend to be concerned for the people involved.