This is a difficult post to write, not least because people are still trying to come to terms with the damage, and so I hope not to offend; but if I have I apologise beforehand and ask that if you disagree please do so with respect.
Britain is currently reeling from a series of riots that have hit many of the major cities. My local town centre was vandalised and robbed but my family have not witnessed the worst of the damage . Shops have been looted, historic buildings have been burned and innocent people have been attacked.
During my honeymoon violence flared in Paris. Two young men had been shot by police and the youth of the Banlieue’s took to the streets in protest of police oppression. The riots rippled through France but eventually order was restored. London was again fairly quiet last night but riots recurred in various city centres around the country.
It is impossible to justify the events of the last few days. The actions of these youth are wrong and they are criminal. Not only has the violence and the vandalism saddened me, but so has the way we have spoken about these young people. We have been too willing to use reductionist explanations for their behaviour. They have been described as ‘animals’ and ‘feral-like’ by politicians and others. Rather, it seems to me, that the processes of group psychology and the diffusion of individuality have been mixed with, and exacerbated by, youthful naivety and teenage rebellion. But these have almost invariably not been the explanations given. There is nothing particularly depraved about most of those involved, but you would not know this from the various reports heard thus far; in fact they could very well be related to many of us.
Some have expressed exasperation at how such individuals could damage their own local communities, and yet their alienation from these communities is all too evident. Not that their alienation has caused the riots but that a sense of connection with the community may well have reduced the extent of the damage. In fact, if that alienation was unconscious before the riots it has certainly been actualised in how these groups have been described. Their separation from ‘middle England’ has now been revealed and legitimated. As such, a steady barrage of facebook updates have used various colourful (and at times racist) epithets to categorise these teenagers. What was once latent is now allowed to be openly expressed. Their otherness is both complete and radical.
Does this justify their behaviour? It does not. Does it even explain their behaviour? No, their alienation is not sufficient cause for what these young people have done. Rather, what I see here is a symptom of a division which I find dissatisfying. This is not a call to government or to local citizens to reach out to the disaffected youth of our country rather this is an attempt to sensitise us to the way that we categorise and divide through our speech.
Within this narrative another sub-plot has also emerged. Social networking sites have gathered and connected well-meaning citizens who, in response to the trouble, have moved to repair and restore what had been destroyed. This sense of community, of re-integration, is an inspiring sight and one which illuminates something wonderful, but often hidden, in British towns: an unspoken commitment to moderation and altruism.
Surely the love of many has not yet waxed cold.
My fear is that such altruism will deepen the gulf further between those who assist with the clean-up and those who have broken the glass. That it will make these youth unintelligible. I hope we do not begin to allow this to mark our differences rather than use such moments to reach across these very real social chasms.
I suspect that many of those involved in the riots will come to regret what they have done and I imagine that this will not be the last time we see violence on the streets of London, or Paris, or any other major city. Therefore I do not think that we should focus upon, or reinforce the seeming incommensurability between ‘us’ and ‘them’ nor spend too much time ascribing blame to the government or to the youth; but rather we should do what these inspiring locals have done. We should pick our brooms, or whatever tools we have to hand, go to work with compassion and restore that which we have lost whilst being ready to resist easy and divisive explanations for the trouble in our world.
- Another post could be written about the various emergency services which have worked endless and gruelling hours over the last few days in response to the riots. But because of my own personal interest, let me pay tribute, in my own small way, to those police officers (my friends and family) who have struggled to respond to these events. They have been attacked with petrol bombs, bricks and glass. Others have had to wait long, tense hours for their loved ones to return unscathed. Although I am sure mistakes have been made it seems to me that they have been exemplary in these trying situations and I am very grateful for the work they have performed.