Riot fever: how could this happen in our country?

Mass disturbances across England last week has left Britain in shock. We thought we understood our society; nothing led us to believe we were on the edge of mayhem.
Henry Porter
13 August 2011

This is a post written to American readers of Vanity Fair

London woke on Wednesday morning to the news that the city had been spared for the most part from a fourth night of riots and looting, but that the troubles had spread across England to Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, and—for Pete’s sake—the cathedral city of Gloucester. Five people have lost their lives and hundreds have been injured. The damage has yet to be assessed, but it is already clear that the riots, which were sparked by the shooting of a suspect by police in North London last week, have delivered a deep psychic shock to the nation that will host the Olympics next year.

Like everyone I know, I find it hard to explain why this sudden catastrophic breakdown happened. Crime figures have been on a steady downward trend for the last 15 years, and on the whole, people of widely different backgrounds seem to rub along pretty well in Britain’s big conurbations. If I had been asked to write about Britain for a foreign audience last week, I would have stressed, among other things, the nation’s basic values of tolerance, liberty, and justice, its fair record of integration, as well as a healthy national discourse. Yes, we had social problems with teenage gangs and a hopeless underclass, but nothing that led you to believe we were on the edge of this kind of mayhem.

On Monday, my local corner shop, run by a Sri Lankan man I have known for years, was looted. This became the rule rather than the exception that evening. The two-starred Michelin restaurant—the Ledbury, in Notting Hill—which is a few hundred yards from my home, was attacked by masked and hooded rioters with baseball bats. They told diners to get on the floor and hand over wallets, wedding rings, and phones. Halfway through the raid, the kitchen staff, led by the Australian chef Brett Graham, repelled the raiders with knives, rolling pins, and anything else that came to hand.

Londoners are no longer taking this lying down. In North London, Turkish and Indian shopkeepers formed a defensive line against the looters. In Clapham, South London, homeowners organised to protect their houses from the riot that ripped through the shopping district near Clapham Junction train station. And in Ealing, in West London, hundreds answered a call on Twitter (#riotcleanup) to clean up the mess left on Tuesday morning. In the absence of police, vigilante groups have sprung up and people are making citizen’s arrests, like the presenter of television history shows, Dan Snow, who tackled and sat on a looter in Notting Hill until the police took him away.

These signs are mildly encouraging, but I found myself staring at today’s newspapers profoundly shocked and completely lost for an explanation. How could this happen in our country? Where did the aggression and reckless disregard for people’s safety come from? And how the hell did the politicians and police let one local disturbance spread across the country?

A procession of sociologists, crime specialists, police officers, politicians, and commentators has appeared on the BBC shows Today and Newsnight, but they are struggling to make sense of it all. They repeat their particular obsessions about the lack of values, unemployment, or the government’s austerity measures, but eventually they all run out of words. They are silenced: we all are, because the events of the last five days confound the usual formulae.

You see, we thought we knew and understood our society, but it turns out that Britain has been seething with envy and has produced a heartlessness that are both really tough to acknowledge. As BBC TV news showed CCTV pictures of a young man, who had been injured in the face, being robbed by two larger men pretending to help him, I thought of the delinquent gangs in Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, a book I always thought was a little far-fetched. Looking at the kids on the street and hearing what they had to say from behind their masks to the TV cameras, I realised that his vision may, if anything, have underplayed the neuropathic lacks of reason and feeling.

The really worrying point is this—it wasn’t just the un-lettered, unemployable members of the underclass who rioted this week. Among those who made court appearances yesterday were a university graduate, an army recruit, a graphic designer, a youth worker, and a forklift driver, all of them with either a job or prospects. I have no idea why these people rioted and looted, and I am not sure they will fully understand their actions, either, but I do know that if it can happen here, it can happen in other countries too. Envy is globalised. All that is necessary for a rampage to be coordinated on Twitter, or by Blackberry’s BBM messaging service, is for an angry group of people on the street to test authority and find it wanting. Perhaps it is not more complicated than this—the British rioted because they could.

Cross posted with thanks from Vanity Fair.

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