As London battens down the hatches for another night of lawlessness, the media bristles with pointed fingers. Who is to blame?!? The liberal bleating of the broadsheets (police brutality! cutbacks!) is counterbalanced by the fizzing outrage of the Daily Mail, which, in a single news event, has all its scapegoats (kids, chavs, immigrants, hoodies, poor people, benefit cheats etc) in a row. It’s the same old same old, the class war dialectic rehashed from the 1980s.
However, this is 2011, the era of citizen journalism. In addition to the shock and scaremongering gushing from the mouths of traditional media outlets, individuals get to say their pieces too. Those caught in the thick of it are blogging, tweeting, posting images, videos, getting their personal view of events out there. The unifying characteristic of these unmediated posts is anger. Lots of it, directed against many different targets. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ explanation for the violence. We’ll never get one. What is emerging is a picture of a country in crisis, with deep gulfs scored between the haves and have-nots, the empowered and the disenfranchised, those inside the gates, and those waving flaming torches outside the walls.
Much has been made of the apolitical, seemingly purposeless background to these riots: the crowd weren’t demanding access to food, shelter, medication, clean water, a vote in an upcoming election. The rioters were those who had the first three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs nailed (Food, Shelter, Family), unlike many of their counterparts across the globe. So why were they rioting?
The top two levels of Maslow’s triangle are self-esteem, and self-actualisation, qualities in short supply in many of the UK’s inner city communities. Unfortunately, when the usual routes to self-respect (education, job, community service) are blocked or devalued, the easiest way to get to the top of the triangle is to smash and grab. Low self-esteem? Join your rampaging mates and prove you can loot and burn with the best of them – infamy leads to glory. Unable to realise your potential through lack of opportunity? Simply steal the consumer goods you would have bought with your wages.
This much is clear: frustrated citizens of a First World country have taken to the streets, bypassing the democratic process, eschewing law and order, and ignoring the social codes that usually prevent neighbour from turning on neighbour in the pursuit of individual wants.
So, whose fault is it?
Every individual who made the decision to join a mob, throw a brick, light a match, break a window or steal a trophy is culpable and criminal. These are bad decisions. The people making them are thinking only in terms of short term gratification and emotional release and not about the consequences of their actions on the community in which they live. This Hackney grandmother sums it up:
Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail expresses the same disgust. Could he be going soft in his old age?
This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising of dissent from the downtrodden masses, it was shopping with violence…This wasn’t a political protest, or a demonstration against oppression, it was a grotesque manifestation of our shallow, instant gratification, I-want-it-and-I-want-it-now consumerist society, coupled with an extreme explosion of the kind of casual violence which scars our town and city centres across Britain every weekend.
Despite Littlejohn’s anti-consumerist sentiments, the online editors of the Mail apparently have no sense of irony. As usual, their sidebar is filled with images of bikini babes, tittle tattle about Kate Middleton and J.Lo, and glorification of reality TV stars. The Daily Mail is all about celebrating consumerism and celebrity culture, propagating images of impossible body shapes and lifestyles, devaluing ordinary achievement and encouraging constant, unhealthy, upward comparison. No wonder frustrated DM readers seized their only opportunity to “get some London”.
Littlejohn gets back on track later in his article. He blames those he designates as ‘youths’, with the implication that most of them are black. When in doubt, turn to the usual easy stereotypes:
There’s resentment among the ‘youths’ against those who are perceived to have got on in life. Look no further than the Tweet from one of the looters which read: ‘F*** the electronics, them Turkish jewellers needed to get robbed.’
Unemployment is a problem, largely because so many of the poor, misunderstood ‘youths’ prefer to live on benefits and the proceeds of gang crime rather than seek gainful employment.
While they are posing for ‘gangsta’ photos on Facebook, most of the low-paid, but essential, jobs are filled by hard-working recent arrivals.
Littlejohn doesn’t seem to take into account that, with jobs scarce or non-existent, and the £30/week Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped from September, inner-city teens are all out of ‘gainful employment’ options. Still, at least he’s started referring to immigrants as “hard-working recent arrivals”(!!!).
It’s left to a 24 year old blogger to provide the most honest and clear-sighted assessment of the situation, describing it as “viral civil unrest”. I encourage you to read Laurie’s post in its entirety:
Panic On The Streets of London – Penny Red
Many commentators, especially those who experience inner city blight on a daily basis, have noted that these riots were horrifying, but not shocking. West Indian writer and Croydon resident Darcus Howe was interviewed by the BBC, and asked for his thoughts on the inevitability of events. It’s unlikely, as the poster says, that the BBC will re-broadcast the clip, as the 68 year old broadcaster and columnist had to take the presenter to task on the racist assumptions behind her questions.
The riots, and their representation, expose a near pre-Revolutionary gap between the Establishment and the masses. While ordinary people suffer from the effects of cutbacks in everything from policing to health services, the Prime Minister holidays in Tuscany. As the price of higher education spirals more and more out of the reach of ordinary families, Russell Group universities cherry-pick the best students from private schools, and those without GCSEs or training are condemned to the proverbial scrapheap – and castigated for fighting back. Individuals are jailed for drug addiction, while multinational corporations and banks flaunt regulations for decades and escape with a slap on the wrist (and a hefty bailout).
Those who’ve gained a modicum of self-esteem by carrying home a stolen trophy TV this weekend may find the laugh’s on them. They’ll be stuck watching repeats of Made In Chelsea, The Only Way Is Essex, Geordie Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a series of constant reminders that hard work doesn’t pay, the only way up is celebrity (not education), and that happiness resides in having the right handbag. No matter how much you try, you can’t loot an entire lifestyle.
If all that upward comparison does your head in, there’s always Jeremy Kyle, reinforcing a stream of negative stereotypes about ‘the underclass’ (or Littlejohn’s ‘youths’). The media is a mirror, and these riots have proved what an ugly, funhouse image it projects. Broken Britain: business as usual.