Photograph: Bicycle London Riots 2011cc Matt Shaw
BRITISH METROPOLITAN POLICE MOVE over London in the Eurocopter EC145 helicopter. Two weeks ago, and for three consecutive nights, I was made extremely familiar with its particular, low, insistent thrum: on those three nights from dusk and into the early hours of the morning an EC145 repeatedly passed back and forth over my house, and sometimes seemed to stop and only hang there in the inscrutable darkness, as though pausing for breath. I listened and felt obliquely connected to the events that held my city, and the entire country, captive.
As it turned out, the night of Monday August 8th was the most violent among the five nights, starting on Saturday the 6th, that constituted the English Riots of 2011. In the south London suburb of Lewisham, about a mile from my flat, hundreds of young people stole from shops, set fire to cars, and fought with the police. But Lewisham — a neglected, overwhelmingly poor working-class part of the city — played only a minor role in a night that saw riots spread from Tottenham (also poor, and rundown) in the north of the city, through Hackney (ditto) in the east, down to Croydon, just south of London, where rioters burned the well-known House of Reeves furniture shop to the ground, and a 26-year-old man was shot dead.
If Monday was the most violent day, though, it was not the most surprising. As increased police numbers helped to dampen the violence in London, Tuesday and Wednesday night saw the riots spread outside London entirely, to Bristol in south west England, Birmingham in the midlands, and Manchester in the north, where buildings were set alight, looting was widespread, and police made over 100 arrests.
For five nights, then, England shook itself free from the shackles that are law and order. In so doing it revealed a part of itself that most of its middle class like to pretend does not exist. Social media and YouTube provided a new, mesmerizing window on this aspect of our country. That is, a country in which an unsuspecting foreign student can stumble upon a crowd, get mugged and beaten, lie helplessly in a pool of his own blood, and then be helped to his feet by a group of men feigning concern who hold him still while they steal the contents of his bag.
Now, two weeks on, Britain is puzzling over what has happened. In the sound of the metropolitan British middle-class — the politicians, the columnists, the activists — trying to explain these riots to each other, there can be discerned a strange, schizophrenic mixture of anger and uncertainty, a frustrating inability to get much beyond first principles. What caused these riots? What do the people who participated in them want? What do they tell us about the country in which we live? What, in short, do the riots mean?
Across the last two weeks, these questions have been the subject of much talk; they can accommodate so much talk because their answers are so elusive. Even the left's best attempt to imbue the riots with a meaning — the argument that contends that they were an expression of inchoate anger at the current austerity, and the mismanagement that brought us to it — is, on close examination, not satisfactory. And that is because there is a sense in which the English riots of 2011 mean nothing at all. Nothing, at least, to the people who participated in them. Whic...read more