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. Which is what makes them so uniquely frightening, and problematic.
To understand why the riots of 2011 pose Britain's explaining classes such a problem, it's instructive to compare them to another relatively recent, historically significant British riot.
Before the events of this month, the most significant riot in London for a generation was the 1981 Brixton riot. In 1981 Britain, much as now, labored under an economic downturn. Brixton back then was a neglected sink-area, home to a large African-Carribean community, and some of the most severe deprivation in the country. There was a long history of tension between this community and local police, and in 1981 that tension was aggravated by a new policy of aggressive "stop and search," in which 1,000 people, almost all black, were stopped by police across five days in early April. On April 10th it appeared to a gathering crowd that a policeman had stabbed a young black man, or, at least, that they were doing nothing to help him as he lay bleeding to death on the pavement. Thousands gathered on Brixton High Road, and the worst public disorder in Britain for a generation began: more than 80 arrests were made, and hundreds of buildings were burned or damaged.
The black people of Brixton thought that policing of their area was at best insensitive and inadequate, and at worst overtly racist. A subsequent public inquiry, the Scarman Report, found that they were in large part right. Recommendations contained in the Scarman report led to radical changes in the way that the metropolitan police deal with deprived, largely black areas in London.
The 2011 riots began, then, in a way that seemed eerily familiar. In Tottenham — another poor, disproportionately black part of London, where a young and poorly educated population feel the burden of a faltering economy — a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police after allegedly resisting arrest. It is reported that Duggan was in possession of a handgun at the time of his death. A peaceful protest march on Saturday 6 August turned violent at night, when a few hundred young people took to Tottenham High Road and burned down the post office. The next night the disorder spread to Enfield, north of Tottenham, to nearby Wood Green, and to parts of east London. By Monday morning, we were still in familiar territory: violent disorder across a contiguous area, sparked by a perceived injustice, fueled by a coherent grievance.
But by Monday night all that had fallen apart. Violence broke out in Croydon, a commuter town south of London. On Wednesday, some of the most intense rioting seen across the five days took place in Manchester, 160 miles north of the capital. By then, there was no doubt: this was nothing like Brixton in 1981. This was something else altogether.
The thousands who took part in the Brixton riot shared a rough understanding of the grievance that had drawn them to the streets, and many would have articulated that grievance in broadly the same terms. The same is true of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, sparked by the acquittal of the four police officers that beat Rodney King. Did the young people who rioted in Manchester (some, reportedly, as young as 10) have any idea what was alleged to have happened in Tottenham a few days before? Had they even heard of Tottenham?
On the Friday after the riots I met the British novelist Hari Kunzru, who had just arrived in London from New York. Our conversation inevitability veered onto the riots, and Kunzru neatly posed the question that loomed over everything at the end of that week. He said: "Are the riots properly political?"
This was the question that, under various guises, all manner of politicians, commentators and journalists were addressing in the days immediately after. Were these riots founded on anything like a coherent political agenda? Should we even use the word "riot" to describe them, given that this is the word we use to describe events such as those in Brixton in 1981, or L.A in 1992?
On first sight, the answer seems clear: no. The violent disorder that began in Tottenham did not spread the old-fashioned way, via the passing from hand-to-hand of a coherent, shared grievance. Rather, these were riots that spread via the 24-hour rolling news broadcast and the Facebook status update, and to people hundreds of miles away, who made no explicit attempt to demonstrate common cause with rioters elsewhere. Rioters who took to the streets in Croydon, Bristol, and Manchester did not do so because of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, or because of perceived racist policing in Tottenham. In the wake of the riots some commentators suggested that widespread and ongoing racial tension could explain the spread of violence nationwide: black people in England are still 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police according to the London School of Economics. But the vast majority of rioters in Birmingham and Manchester were white.
A further sign that the unfolding events were something unlike previous riots, something new, came elsewhere. Looting is a part of most riots — certainly it was widespread in Brixton in 1981 — but the 2011 English riots were defined by looting, so much so that some commentators have applied the phrase "the shopping riots." Time and again it was reported that rioters ran away from police (violent confrontation with police is usually something that angry rioters seek out) and towards high street shops, primarily clothes and electronics outlets. Famously, the most frequently targeted shop was sportswear chain JD Sports, purveyor of Nike, Adidas and Reebok tracksuits, which paid a high price for so successfully cultivating an image that appeals to young, working-class Britons. Total damage and loss caused by the 2011 riots is estimated at £100 million; theft from JD Sports accounts for £10 million. Here was acquisitiveness both naked and carefully targeted; and targeted not at those people the rioters most wanted to hurt, but simply at the consumer goods they most wanted to acquire.
In Hackney on Monday night, amid the worst of the violence in London, a video was captured of a middle-aged black woman on the street, delivering a ferocious, impromptu lecture to rioters. Posted on YouTube, the video became a sensation: a totem pole for everyone who might have wanted the riots to be overtly, "properly political," but who had to admit, in the end, that the facts of these riots simply could not be made to fit that ideal:
Low up [slang for 'stop'] the fucking burning the property. Low up burning people's shops that they worked hard to start their business. You understand? The shop up there, she's working hard to make her business work, and you lot want to burn it up. For what? So that you can say you're warring and you're bad man? This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham, this ain't about having fun on the road and busting up the place. Get it real, black people. Get real. Do it for a cause. If we're fighting for a cause let's fight for a fucking cause ... I'm shamed to be a Hackney person. Because we're not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker and thievin shoe.
As uncomfortable a fact as it is, the English riots of 2011 meant nothing to most of the people who participated in them. Most who took to the streets in early August simply recognized an opportunity to acquire consumer goods for free, and took it.
It's hard to escape the view that the riots of 2011, then, seem a new, currently uncategorizable kind of event: violent disorder that spread nationwide in a fluid, unpredictable way, that crossed boundaries of race and local community, that was not unified by any shared grievance that is easy to discern. That presents a problem of interpretation for everyone, other than the simple-minded right, who will argue only that there will always be bad people, who do bad things, and they should be punished, and that is all.
As for the rest of us, we cannot escape the uniquely problematic nature of the 2011 riots. We may accept that the riots had no explicit meaning: that they were not "properly political" in the way that the Brixton or L.A riots clearly were. But we surely cannot escape the instinct — nor should we want to — to make some sense of what has happened, moreover, to move towards explanation that suggests some course of action. We need a working model of the events of 2011.
Of course, the beginnings of such a model are not hard to assemble. Indeed, they have been catalogued thoroughly by predominantly left-leaning thinkers across the last two weeks. Their argument is this: "It may be true that riots were not overtly, 'properly' political, but this does not mean that they were not political in essence. In fact, they were an expression of inarticulate rage at an austerity that has seen state payments to poor people cut, and employment rise to 2.49 million. An austerity that would not have been necessary were it not for Britain's greedy and selfish elite, and which is being paid for by Britain's poor."
An article by Naomi Klein in The Nation, called "Daylight Robbery, Meet Nighttime Robbery," was characteristic. Klein wondered at those who could doubt that the riots were essentially political:
...As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G-8 and G-20 meetings, when the leaders decided, collectively, not to do anything to punish the bankers for any of this, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. Instead they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable. They would do this by firing public sector workers, scapegoating teachers, closing libraries, upping tuitions, rolling back union contracts, creating rush privatizations of public assets and decreasing pensions - mix the cocktail for where you live.
In support of her argument that financial crisis and austerity were at the roots of the English riots, Klein cited a precedent: the 2001 riots in Argentina, which brought down the government of Fernando de la Rua, and which were also marked by widespread looting.
But look closely at the comparison, and it only serves to highlight the inadequacies of an argument that seeks to root the 2011 riots predominantly in a consciousness, however inarticulate, of the 2008 financial crisis. The rioting that struck Argentina in 2001 was led by a disillusioned middle class pushed into poverty by government mismanagement of the economy. In Buenos Aires, the riots orbited around a crowd massed at the Presidential Palace. In Cordoba, civil servants set fire to the city hall. Where were the middle-class, politically conscious participants in the 2011 English riots? Where were the crowds massed outside the Palace of Westminster, or Manchester Town Hall?
It's an unavoidable truth that if the 2011 rioters won't supply us with a meaning for their actions, we are left with the need to make our own. But we must be mindful of the fact that in so doing we risk a kind of behavior that many on the left typically argue is a part of the underlying problem, and so part of the deeper meaning of the riots: that is, we risk telling the largely working-class, unemployed people of Tottenham, Hackney, Manchester, et al, what they should think, rather than listening to what they say they actually do think. Leftists and those at the center are bound to run first to an explanation that grounds the riots in a financial crisis brought about by greedy bankers, and an austerity package imposed on Britain by a right-wing government. But watching the rioters, it is hard to make the picture fit. Trying to listen to what they think, it's hard to hear anything else over the loud message: I want free stuff, and I'm going to take it. We need a model that accommodates that uncomfortable fact.
The development of that model will take time, and a willingness to think about our society in new and uncomfortable ways. The truth, surely, is that while roots of the 2011 English riots pass through the 2008 financial crisis, they run far deeper, into a society now so thoroughly atomized that it is hard any longer to know what we mean when we use the word "society." They run through Thatcher's Britain, through "greed is good," through the "Big Bang" in the City of London in the 1980s that turned the capital, again, into a vital, muscular world city, bringing enormous prosperity, but concentrated in the hands of a few. They run through deep, underlying socio-economic forces that have pushed us away from our families, from meaningful local community, and from lasting bonds of dependence on and obligation to others. The English riots of 2011 are the atomization riots.
Leftists often say that the central fact about those who came onto the streets in August is their perceived disenfranchisement: their isolation from a society in which they feel they have no stake. The truth is something else, something more. It is more accurate to say that many of the rioters of 2011 have little or no conception of a "society" existing around them at all. Rather, they have been thoroughly schooled by their elites in an every-man-for-himself way of being that encourages all of us to view life as a project in taking what we can, when we can. These people look upwards and see only a country filled with individuals doing the same: bankers, politicians, even civil servants, who, according to the right-wing tabloid press that supplies working-class Britain with an ongoing, hysterical commentary on current events, are only so many greedy, lazy self-preservationists.
The 2011 English riots had no meaning in the minds of the vast majority of those who participated because those participants cannot conceive of a social fabric that would be the necessary context against which any kind of meaning might be created. Why go out on to the street, and try to make a statement about how you happen to feel, or what you happen to think? Who would notice? Who would care? Likewise, why not go out onto the street, and take what you want? Who will notice? Who will care?
By committing such visible apolitical violence and theft — at a time when, in Britain, there is so much to be political about — the rioters have forced us to care. This, surely, is the lasting meaning of the 2011 English riots. Perhaps in a society as incoherent as ours is now, an apolitical act of this kind was, in some strange way, the most meaningful political act of all.