I don’t think it’s being naive or ignorant to suggest that no-one really knows why there have been explosions of violence and looting throughout the UK over the last few days. At worst, some of the explanations put forward are facile; at best, the explanations that ring true feel incomplete, the key to the cypher missing and the reason for the riots remaining a terrifying enigma. It’s clear just from watching the news that this seems to be a war of two worlds; the problem is defining what those worlds are.
The most obvious explanation is that this is about the rich/poor divide, and it’s true that the majority of riots arose from poorer communities. This makes sense; throughout Britain’s poorer towns and cities are families experiencing third, even fourth generation ‘worklessness’, where low educational attainment combined with a lack of unskilled jobs have produced significant unemployment and all its attendant problems.
But wait – ask anyone working in regeneration and they’ll tell you that’s been the case for years. And for all there’s been condemnation of rampant criminality, as if the riots are being carried out by a subspecies of trolls who have emerged from their hiding place to threaten civilised humanity, we can’t ignore the fact that David Cameron and Boris Johnson have enjoyed, well, rampaging during their time with Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. Not quite the same as the recent riots, of course, but not all that different, and when you consider the number of impoverished people who didn’t riot, making this a rich/poor thing isn’t telling the whole story. After all, the riots were partly organised by Blackberrys and Twitter, if you can access these it’s debatable as to exactly how impoverished you are.
Ahh yes, technology. Hearing police and MPs discussing Twitter, Facebook and BBM was a slightly disconcerting experience. It’s not that there isn’t a conversation to be had about the role of technology in organising large groups of motivated people – look at the Arab Spring – but the way in which social networks were mentioned was, well, faintly antediluvian, like Marty McFly introducing rock and roll to the fifties a few years too early.
So maybe the two different worlds we’re talking about are those of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. After all, one MP wants Blackberry Messenger banned because it allows ‘unsophisticated’ criminals to ‘outfox’ the police. Of course, the proper response to this is to ask why the police are so incapable of responding to new technologies? Social Networking has been a part of life for a few years now, it’s time to get used to it, save we end up demonising Twitter users, like Barack Obama and National Treasure Stephen Fry.
Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, even those of us who are used to technology get confused by it. Back in the day, when I was at primary school, a rumour circulated that a gang from the local high school were going to come down and start bricking us all. It never happened, being a fairly standard urban myth that almost everyone has encountered at some time in some form or other. Yesterday Twitter was reporting rioting in a whole number of townships; most of this was rumour, getting out of control as people retweeted without confirming if their local Asda was really burning down. It was urban myth creation at the speed of broadband, and while it highlighted that reporting news is becoming increasingly social, citizen journalism could really do with checking its facts. Natives or Immigrants, we could all do with learning to curate the digital world. After all, native or not, it’s pretty stupid to pose on Facebook with a stolen PS3 and not expect the police to take a look.
What other factors? Race? No, communities seemed fairly well represented on both sides of the equation.
Police vs the Kids? Not an argument without merit, perceived or otherwise, but I wonder how many people rioting have even heard of Mark Duggan?
The Engaged vs the Disengaged? Well, define disengaged. While it might be fair to say the rioters aren’t exactly participating in their communities, it’s also true that senior politicians seemed reluctant to cut short their holidays while the capital burned, and still seem blissfully unaware of how badly the hacking scandal has tainted authority in this country. And how much respect would you have for the police if the only time you encountered them was when they were stopping and searching you for no good reason?
If I’m honest, it’s disengagement that rings most true to me – I could understand it just being criminality if rioters were looting other communities, but their own? Not fearing the police is one thing, but surely you’d think twice about reprisals from the bloke next door who owns the off licence you just looted. The whole thing looked like a bizarre, corporate form of self-harm – no, bear with me, some of the reasons for self-harm could be relevant on a corporate level – dissociation, lack of control, poverty, unemployment. But then some rioters say they’re having fun and just using the whole situation as an excuse to steal some new trainers, less a scream of repressed frustration, more an expression of greed. And it’s not easy to have sympathy for greed.
All of which is to say there aren’t any easy answers, and while it would be easy to blame Twitter or immigrants or a lack of hanging and flogging, it’s not that straight-forward. We know that, because whenever someone tries to explain the Weird UK Summer of 2011, they sound unfinished, or just plain wrong. I’m fully expecting the riots to stop as suddenly as they began, leaving us all blinking and muttering about mass hysteria and social contagion.
Perhaps this isn’t something we can’t explain, not without looking at every facet of England (and it seems to have been an English, not British thing so far). Are we prepared to stop and reflect and change to that extent? Or will we demonise and condemn and never quite figure out what went wrong during a very strange August weekend in London?