Like many of you, I’ve been following the British riots with a mix of fascination, frustration and complete and utter sadness.
It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions range from utter disgust and disbelief to unmitigated empathy. But no matter which side of the fence you find yourself on, confusion seems to be the common denominator.
Why did these riots take place? What instigated them? Are these the actions of bored, nihilistic youths, basking in the “twisted pleasures of destruction” as a Globe and Mail editorial suggested?
Hardly! To view these riots in an isolated fashion is to fail to see how they fit into the larger scheme of overall social and political turmoil. To be baffled at what brought them on (as many politicians, too busy burying their heads in the sand, are currently doing) is to forget about the Belfast Riots of '81, the Detroit Riots of '67, the Chicago Riots of '68 and the circumstances that preceded those acts of civil unrest.
“One doesn't ask a young man with a Molotov cocktail in his hand why he wishes to burn the city down. One calls in the police,” the editorial continues.
True. But once order has prevailed, one has to ask: Why did these riots take place in the first place?
It’s too easy to claim that these were solely the actions of a few bored individuals with nothing to do and nothing to lose. That’s lazy logic. That’s the kind of math that can’t bear to add it all up properly, because to do so would require a hard look at what our society has become. And what it’s created.
It’s no coincidence that these riots took place in some of the poorest, most marginalized neighbourhoods in London. Neighbourhoods where institutionalized poverty is a way of life, where opportunities to get out are few and where hope has been long lost –if ever even felt- for many. Self-actualized people who feel they have a future and a stake in their own lives don’t burn down their communities and rage against the system with the kind of sheer hopelessness that makes the rest of us cower with fear.
Too many observers are quick to dismiss the events as callous and calculating, as opportunistic looting, but that’s choosing to ignore the signs of what, most likely, has been brewing for decades.
It’s too easy to claim that these were solely the actions of a few bored individuals with nothing to do and nothing to lose. That’s lazy logic.
“Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there,” wrote British journalist and author Laurie Penny.
She continues: “Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.”
I’m not condoning the riots. Who in their right mind would? But look around you. Millions of people in our privileged “Western world” are still without medical care, too many children are still going to school hungry, racial profiling is still alive and well, too many hard-working lower and middle class folks watched their investments disappear up in smoke, while being asked to endure austerity measures that are bringing them to their knees.
In the meantime, they watch their “leaders” strike up deals that guarantee the financial markets’ survival and fraudulent CEOs escape real punishment. As the “have nots” are asked to survive with less and less, they watch the “haves” negotiate tax cuts and financial loop holes, ensuring them an even bigger piece of the pie and even bigger inequality.
These riots were violent, destructive, raging and ruinous. But they sure as hell weren’t unpredictable.