London Burning through a Syrian Telescope
As Syria’s teenagers fight on the streets for their basic freedoms, Britain’ s teenagers are spilling onto the streets to fight for their right to trainers, Playstations and, even, baby clothes.
As Egyptian youth have crowded onto their national squares to protest as peacefully as possible that their repressive government steps down, English youth seek to burn and destroy their own communities, without even being able to express why.
Free stuff versus Freedom. Politics versus Playstations. One society demands an end to tanks on the streets whilst the other is almost begging for tanks to fill the streets.
What’s wrong with them, everyone is asking? When did our society all break down?
A few, eager to push their own political causes, respond that their rights are not met, their needs are ignored. Perhaps this is true. Young men and women of job-seeking age in the inner cities unquestionably feel the despair of no prospects, no hope, no future, and the immediate pain of government cuts. But many of the kids last night were mere children, too young to seriously question their futures, interested only in what they could grab and run, without a thought for the damage done to life or livelihood.
Do the youth of Cairo and Damascus, with even less prospects, hope or future, seek to destroy rather than build?
Arab, Greek and Spanish recent riots have been entirely political, focused on a goal, people determined to ensure that they were heard. Riots are made by the unheard of society, said Martin Luther King. But away from the specific events of Saturday night in Tottenham which were at least in part triggered by the death of Michael Duggan, it would be a surprise if any or many of the kids rampaging through the streets last night, or tonight in Manchester, have even heard of Michael Duggan. What are the politics of these riots? True it may be that these rioters represent an unheard section of society, but last night was not about being heard. It was more about mentality of the herd, spread by BBM as they claimed streets and bicycles and flatscreen televisions.
It was not about shaping society, like in Tunis or Cairo, but puncturing it.
These balaclava-covered youngsters might hate the police, but they cant articulate why they prevented fire brigades reaching burning buildings. Perhaps we didn’t give them the tools to articulate why. Or the schools didn’t. Or their parents didn’t. Or the social worker didn’t. But, they knew that people might die if the fire brigades were blocked. And still they blocked. Are they the sharp-edge-symptom of a society that finds it easy to blame, and less easy to accept blame? Is British society to blame for the scenes more reminiscent of war-time Beirut, Baghdad, Bosnia or Benghazi than the leafy suburbia of Ealing or Clapham?
Perhaps our society has accepted low level violence as a norm for too long? Boorish British behaviour abroad, teenagers bandying about knives in schools or on buses, wars against other countries bearing the language of the enemy? Is that why these teenagers brought might London to its knees, so that we may have a taste of the civil strife we have inflicted on other nations? Not even the fiercest apologist could seriously suggest that. Given the age and greed-grabbing character of the rioters last night, morality was hardly a concern. So, whose fault is it?
Perhaps we, as a society, strived hard to pretend that the violent and impoverished estates on the back step to our grossly expensive houses did not exist. Perhaps we walked past without ever looking. Perhaps we collectively agreed not to make eye contact with groups of children and teenagers on the street when they passed, in case we “brought trouble on ourselves”, in case they were members of gangs. The gangs that terrorise each other in those violent and impoverished estates that can be found in every borough in the capital. Perhaps we ignored the boredom that faced these children as youth centres and libraries and social welfare programmes were cut, and cut and cut. Perhaps we never saw the irony of what it meant to be “at war”, as we fought wars away from home, not realising that the wealth of our democracy had not reached everyone. Perhaps we thought it was ok to have a society divided into where we could go, and where we dared not go. Perhaps we took our eyes of internal infernos after September 11th and placed them firmly on external ones. And most definitely maybe we forgot to notice the people who could not take part in our consumerist addiction, the consumerism on which our society is now founded.
And we could go on, and on , and on. We could blame ourselves, and we would be right to do so because societies don’t break down without participation from everyone, just as they don’t become cohesive without common glue.
But to blame ourselves without blaming these children, without questioning their parents and guardians, would be irresponsible and stupid. These riots were not about political alienation or what it meant to live on the fringes of society, even if that might form part of the story. The riots were built not just on greed, but on an utter lack of respect and value, for anybody else or anything else. They burned homes and communities, it seems, just because they could. Because they felt no respect or value or link to those communities. A shopkeeper in Ealing described the ravaging hordes as “feral rats”. Bands of boys and girls in balaclavas who actively set out to menace local populations and hold them to ransom whilst they looted for fun, and the thrill of it.
Make no mistake, we need to blame these children. Their stupidity, selfishness and violence have wrought destruction and despair on much of Britain over the last 48 hours. They need to be forced to take responsibility for actions conducted in the spirit of impunity on a lazy summer night. Their actions bear no resemblance to the fortitude and bravery of the youth of the Arab Spring, who have tried to force their leaders face up to the consequences of state brutality, conducted in the spirit of impunity.. We need to blame the parents too, and a culture in which a responsible adult is no longer entitled to question a child who is not their own. Anger, boredom and frustration are no apology for the behaviour of the rioters over these last couple of days, for there is nothing political about wanton destruction.
But then, once the blaming, naming and shaming is done, we need to ask the fundamental questions of our society and our political system. What does it mean for the fringes of our consumer society when they can’t get in, or climb in, or be allowed into the worship of goods that they cannot afford? Why and how have we built a society in which our teenagers do not need to fight for the right to vote but still feel disenfranchised to the degree that they can hold our cities hostage? And how have we managed to create, or allowed to stagnate, a section of our young population where respect and community mean nothing at all?
Down the other end of that telescope, however, Syrian and Egyptian teenagers must be scratching their heads and asking tonight: why are these people waging wars on their very own people? Why are they burning their neighbours’ houses and cars?
August 9th 2011.