‘I forget a riot, I forget a riot’
Two years on, it is almost as if the London riots never really happened.
Two years ago this week, one of two things happened. Either London descended into anarchy at the hands of feral youth involved in a viral ‘gang culture’. Or a generation of angry young people staged a ‘political uprising’ against inequality and unfairness. It all depended on which version of the London riots you chose to believe (if any). In either case, we were told that something momentous was happening.
There is little unusual about that clash of interpretations, of course. History is always a battleground between rival opinions. What is remarkable in this case, however, is that both of those interpretations now seem to have disappeared from the public arena. It is almost as if the 2011 riots that began in the capital and spread to other English cities, which we were (wrongly) told at the time were ‘the worst civil unrest in modern Britain’, have somehow been erased from history.
So it is that, in a culture normally obsessed with marking recent as well as historical anniversaries (‘three-month anniversary’, anyone?) there has been little media or political discussion of the events of August 2011. The pundits from both sides who thundered about those portentous events two years ago are now whistling and looking in other directions, rather like religious cranks whose prophecies of the imminent end of the world have not come to pass. Indeed, one of the few serious commentaries about the riots published this week concedes that ‘two years after one of the most frightening and depressing social disasters of my lifetime, we seem to know remarkably little about what really happened. We have moved on smoothly, leaving it all behind.’
The sound of the summer has apparently moved on from ‘I Predict a Riot’ to ‘I Forget a Riot’, the events of 2011 evaporating along with the top-level taskforce the government announced to sort everything out post-riots. How to explain this widespread outburst of political amnesia? Partly it reflects the fact that both of the mainstream interpretations of what happened, and their dire warnings of what was to come, have proved almost entirely false. But it is also because the political-media elite is still unable to face up to the deeper underlying problems which the riots did expose.
As spiked argued at the time, the mainstream versions of the riots bore little relation to reality. Instead, politicians and media pundits tended to project their pre-existing agendas on to the unrest, effectively using the rioters and looters as ventriloquists’ dummies to voice their own prejudices.
So, Tory prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband both blamed the riots on a viral ‘gang culture’ allegedly taking control of Britain’s city streets, and conservative voices predictably called for more law and order, family values, etc. On the other side, more liberal political and media commentators claimed the riots were really a protest against all of their favourite targets, from Tory spending cuts to bankers’ bonuses.
Two years on, these self-serving interpretations look like Hollywood fantasies. Our cities have not been taken over by the feral Gangs of London or Manchester. And neither is there any sign of a political uprising by angry youth. Two years ago, the first riot in Tottenham, north London, was sparked by protests over the police shooting of Mark Duggan. By contrast, the second anniversary of Duggan’s death was marked quietly by a statement from the IPCC that it had found ‘no criminality’ in Duggan’s death, and a low-key vigil by his family staged for – and largely ignored by – the media.
In reality, and in contrast to the riots against police racism in the 1980s, the outburst of looting and arson in the summer of 2011 did not have any wider or grander social or political cause. From the rioters’ perspective they were essentially about nothing – or nothing more than, in the words of one of the infamous inciting tweets splashed across the media at the time, ‘pure terror and havoc and free stuff’. That is why they have left no real mark on society, beyond some ruined buildings such as the hulk of that big furniture store we all watched burn down in Croydon.
But while the riots did not really match the headlines about either gang culture or political uprisings, these events and the reaction to them did reveal two big underlying problems in our cities. It is the inability of the elite to face up to these problems, never mind solve them, which largely explains why they would rather try to forget the whole thing.
The first of these is the hollowing out of any real meaning of community, especially in the cities. The undermining of a sense of belonging and commitment to a community, and the consequent collapse of the authority of local adult figures from parents to teachers, helps to explain some of the most depressing aspects of the riots. It was why some young people proved willing to smash up and burn down shops and buildings in the areas where they live but which they do not see as their own. And it also helps to explain why many of the ‘rioters’ seemed mostly concerned with nicking some trendy designer clothes and trainers – things which matter less as a sign of their rampant consumerism than as a mark of identity in lieu of anything more meaningful. One arch villain in this destruction of community ties has been not gang culture but the culture of welfarism which makes people more dependent on the state than on one another.
The other deep problem revealed by the riots, which is equally unpalatable to the elite, is the effective collapse of the authority of the state – primarily embodied by the police – in London and other cities. When the trouble began in Tottenham, the authorities panicked and the police retreated. The withdrawal of the police from the hotspots acted as an invitation to others to get involved in the looting and arson, apparently without any risk of being arrested. What one senior officer described as the ‘impotence’ of the massed ranks of the militarised Metropolitan Police in the face of a few hundred looters symbolised, not the strength of the rebellion, but the paralysing weakness of the state’s authority and control.
In the past two years, neither of these underlying corrosive issues has been addressed. The more politicians talk about ‘community’, the less it seems to mean in urban areas. Meanwhile, the police have tried to rebuild their reputation, first by launching a high-profile post-riot ‘crackdown’ on those they spotted on CCTV (though they had to admit this week that several hundred such suspects remain at large), and then via PR policing stunts such as the pursuit of a few pathetic internet ‘trolls’. The Met is clearly happier pursuing thought criminals on the tweets than real ones on the streets.
Faced with problems that they can neither comprehend nor do anything about, it seems that many in politics and the media elites would now rather put aside their shallow fantasy analyses of the August 2011 riots, and pretend they never really happened. To coin a phrase familiar from those few hot summer nights, they should not be allowed to get away with it.
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