Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London in chaos

I'm sure many readers share my own sense of bewilderment, disbelief and anxiety over the violence, looting and disorder which has swept across London in the last seventy-two hours. We are currently staying in Hertfordshire not far from Enfield where violence broke out again last night. Reports from where we live in East Dulwich say that rioters from Peckham, just a mile away, rolled up Lordship Lane last night, smashing windows as they went. In the light of what has happened in Ealing overnight, it looks like ED has gotten away with it very lightly. Who knows what tonight holds, however? The violence seems to be confined to shopping areas where looting and mass muggings can be carried out easily, but who knows what comes next?

Many people are pitching in to try to clear up the mess left by the rioters. The sense of grievance against the trouble makers in the communities where they come from is strong. One video from Hackney showed a black lady with a stick yelling obscenities at the looters who, she said, could have been fighting for a cause, but who prefer instead to attack Footlocker and Ladbrookes looking for shoes and money.

The old left-right divide of social commentary is drawing its lines predictably. The toothless Tory-Lib Dem government is talking about criminality and lawlessness, and promising robust policing in response. Some left-wingers are claiming that the riots are the reaction of a class of socially deprived young men without job prospects. Curiously, the Guardian blogging platform is unusually silent about the events of last night. Some right-wing commentators have seen in these riots the consequences of a weak and liberal education system that has looked on, powerless to control the violent gang culture which exists beneath the surface of many inner-city communities. Others have raised the possiblities of people fleeing the capital or of setting up their own vigilante groups if the police remain overwhelmed by the violence. Strategically, the police have been intermittently effective, but in many places they have been totally outnumbered and thus unable to deal with the crowds of looters. Fr Finigan cannot be the only person who feels that these are the desserts of a morally relativistic culture. A lot of people will be sat at home this morning, scratching their heads and wondering how this could have happened, and what can be done about it.

There are a lot of things one could say about all this, but let me just mention what I see as the most striking aspect of this unrest until now: the almost total absence of ideological justification. I know that the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by the police was the spark for the unrest, but the events have entirely outstripped Duggan's death. The rioters are not even pretending that they are unhappy about that. They are simply dismantling civil order, robbing shops in which some, perhaps many, of them were customers last weekend, and setting fire to property, homes and cars, with reckless disregard for the life and safety of others.

What we are looking at here is not 'anarchy' in its strict sense. I'm sure it is not even moral relativism, although undoubtedly moral relativism has helped create the atmosphere in which these events have occurred. Neither is it a total breakdown of the social contract, resembling a Hobbesian landscape in which all wage war against all; after all, many people are helping to clear up this morning in what appears to be a resurgence of community feeling across the capital.

So what is going on exactly? The explanations will be necessarily complex - social, cultural and criminal; the consequences will be far reaching, and the fallout is likely to affect London for years to come. More later.


W.C. Hoag said...


My heart goes out to England and my supplications to heaven for her needs.

I have jokingly said elsewhere these past few days that it is time to restore the Riot Act, but I am not certain that I would want such power in the hands of this current Government or a Labour one.

God bless!

Toby said...

Just some quick observations:

1) It's amazing what a small number of people it takes to result in an atmosphere of chaos. I always scoff a little when people mention about the fall of Western society due to moral relativism (obviously I think it is a sad and bad thing), but this has made me realise to a greater degree about how for society to function you really do need the buy-in of an incredibly high proportion of people to that society's values.

2) These are people who act like they have absolutely nothing to lose. They have no fear of consequences in this life or the next. This made me think when was the last time I heard hell mentioned in Church. If Christians and other relgious in this country lose our concept of consequences for our actions what are the likely repercussions. Does our human nature sometimes require incentivisation for good behaviour by stick as well as carrot.

3) The family unit of the kids concerned appears to be totally broken. My mother just wouldn't allow me out if this was going on (she'll probably even still call me and tell me I shouldn't go out even though nothing is happening within a mile of my flat and I will have to reassure her that I will be careful!) and I was still young.

4) Even those less wooly liberals, who do not excuse the violence, talk about creating jobs so that those involved do not feel alienated from society. I am all for job-creation, but should there be talk of forcing people to work? Or should unemployment and receiving benefits instead be an option which our society wishes to offer? Is the long-term unemployment environment of many of these youths circumstance or choice? I worry that the welfare state often becomes the hand pushes down rather than the helping hand up.

5) My mind wanders back to a previous post of Ches' on "community". This is one of those times where the word is most commonly used, e.g. after the initial Tottenham riots: "Community and police relations had improved so much; everybody is so shocked this has happened". Then the community leaders are rolled out to opine on the situation; people who I suspect most people in that area have never heard of because they only seem to work with the disenfranchised, not those who operate small businesses or just go about their day to day work in the area. These community leaders then explain why it was inevitable that people behaved as they did (implying that those they "lead" are somehow incapable of autonomous behaviour), but making it very clear that they do not condone this behaviour, but then listing the things that need to change in order to stop this behaviour. You never hear a community leader say, "I apologise for the fact that I have failed to show adequate leadership in these circumstances." Then there is also a new breed that I have heard about for the first time with these riots . . . "Community organisers". Now it appears that one these organisers organised the Vigil outside the police station. At no point has the press asked him or has he sought to address the question of whether it was responsible, in what was (as he should have known as a member of the community that he claims to organise) an inevitably tense situation, to organise a protest vigil outside a police station?

6) The PM and the Mayor have been forced to return early from their summer holidays to sort this out. The force behind this largely appears to be media pressure and the need to be seen to be doing something. What do we expect them to do? What can they do? I see that the decision has now been taken to recall Parliament. I rather like the idea that emergency legislation will be passed requiring heavily discounted entry at Thorpe Park, Alton Towers, Chessington and the like so that these bored youths can do something other than watch their newly acquired 42inch HD-ready plasma screen TVs.

Annie Elizabeth said...

Hey - we lived in ED for 13 years: we only left last year! I followed the SE22 trouble on the EDF and was sad to read about what happened.

American basketball coach John Wooden said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. I reckon that the rioters simply thought that they could get away with it, and hadn't had the moral foundation to know any better. If last week wasn't a wake-up call, I don't know what is.

Two local policemen I spoke to on our high street after things had quietened down were both planning to emigrate: they'd been thinking about it before but the previous few days had swung it for them. A small and unscientific sample, but it doesn't bode well for the country in the long run.