Rioters without a cause

By John Lloyd
August 10, 2011

By John Lloyd
All opinions expressed are his own.

On Sunday evening, a middle aged woman waded into a crowd of rioters in Hackney and shouted that she was ashamed to be black, ashamed to be a Hackney woman – because of the destruction and fear the rioters were spreading about them. But she went further. She said – Get real black people! I am ashamed to be a Hackney person! If you want a cause, get a cause! (See video below; contains graphic language.)

I had just spent a day, in Glasgow, with men who had had a cause. Forty years ago, workers at the Upper Clyde Shipyards in Scotland’s great old industrial city, where the workforce was being cut, voted to stage a work-in: a novel form of industrial action in which those laid off reported for work as normal, and continued to build ships. The action was led by two men, Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, both charismatic, both fighting for a cause – the right to work, the protection of the working class. They got huge support, in the city, in the country, even internationally. They won, for the shipyards on the Clyde, a temporary reprieve.

Both Jimmies are dead: the men I met, interviewees for a BBC program marking the anniversary, were fellow union representatives, well into their seventies. Yet, straight-backed and articulate, they knew what they were fighting for. As we talked after the interviews about the news from London, they expressed bewilderment: what were “the lads” fighting for? Why were they destroying their neighborhoods?

It’s a puzzlement shared in conversations across the capital. We can talk, still relatively lightly, about our lack of fear (except for those who have had a taste of it) based on the implicit assumption that the police will, tonight or tomorrow, take charge, show who has the power on the streets and bring the most egregious of the burners and the looters to justice. We exchange stories – of how near the riots got to us; of how we had friends caught up in it; of how shocked we felt. But beneath it all is the same puzzlement: what are they doing it for?

Most demonstrations have spokespeople, who sooner or later – usually sooner – seek to make their cause known and attract support to it. The cause might be, as in Glasgow, jobs and dignity; or it might be protests against racial discrimination, of which London has seen a few over the past three decades; or it might be against immigration. All of these, however much opposition they raise, had content  and demands.

But the London demonstrations, and those in Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham, have no spokespeople. They hide their faces, run away from reporters – or, as often, beat them and smash cameras. Journalists would love to come back to their newsrooms with an interview recorded or in a notebook: but they won’t talk.

Is it, as many voices in conversations and in radio phone-ins say, just theft – the discovery of being able to loot with relative impunity? If so, it is a new form of mass theft, organized by Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry messaging – the social media so recently seen, in the Arab Spring, as an agent of democracy and freedom, now used to cow large parts of a great city.

And does theft explain the anger, the sometimes-savage violence, the vast arsons in a ring round the central core of London? Against what or whom is the rage directed?

Is it contempt for the rich? It might seem so, from the attack on Monday evening on the two-Michelin-starred Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill, where the thieves smashed through a plate glass window and ransacked the dining room while demanding jewelry. Notting Hill is one of London’s most exclusive areas – where the Prime Minister, David Cameron has a home – as well as other prominent Conservatives, known as the Notting Hill set. If so, why is the Ledbury attack an isolated incident – with most of the looting and burning and intimidation in working and lower middle class areas – as Hackney, Tottenham, Enfield, Clapham?

Are the riots directed against the government, which is, to be sure, cutting public spending – the results of which are already evident in rising unemployment? If so, why are so many of the rioters and looters so young that they are not yet in the labor market? Why destroy shops and factories and warehouses if you want to work?

Why not have a cause?

The conviction grows that they do not articulate a cause because they cannot. That the anger, the violence and the destruction are pure activity, a bid to make a spectacle in a society which is organized round spectacles. When, in the beginning of my career as a reporter, I was based in Northern Ireland when the IRA campaign was at its height in the early-mid 1970s, it was a common observation that rioters would brave the police and British army in the evening – then go and watch themselves, with pleasure, on the late night news. These rioters, too had a cause – often a murderous one – but they also wanted to be somebody through violence. Shorn of a reason, London’s rioters are left with wanting to be somebody: to be big on TV.

The silence of the rioters; their ability to appear suddenly in an area, swarm over it, burn and loot and terrify it, then disappear; their hooded appearance; their sheer anonymity makes them into a ghostly force, swooping upon a London grown used to relative peace and plenty, wholly unnerved by the phenomenon.

But the next stage – if this continues – is easily predicted. If, as has been evident in the past few days, the police continue to be outnumbered, unable to force a return to normalcy, more widely seen as  useless or just absent, then self defense, wither individually or in gangs, will begin. If so, the British capital faces a further descent into mayhem. The rioters may not have a cause, but Londoners will find one: to banish the fear that now comes with the night.

51 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I understand all to well what the rioters are feeling.
Not all mind you but 50% at the very least.
I may not be the sharpest knife in the draw,but i can still see what is coming.
Since i was old enough to see the big picture.
I would sit and watch the tv, everything from Wars to starving millons to home grown affairs.
And which ever country it was in the news at the time (u.k this week) behind the scenes its always the same.
The pure greed and corruption of the ministers and police chiefs,fat cats,big wigs.Etc.
While the world carrys on blinded by
excuses and big talk from the silver spoon mob.
And they say why do people act like this, they are animals.
They talk of family values and respect when the majority of the goverment themselfs have not got a o/z between them.
Its a farce todays young read in the papers and watch on the news.
Top cop does this, minister does that,fat cat buys way out!
What shining examples they are….
Oh but they pay in the end no doubt ha.ha.ha , Poor beggers having to resign with a nice wedge in the bank.
OH and the fiddle money under the mattress.
Must play the back up.
What i watched over the last few days was know surprise to me, it will happen again, and agin im sure of that.
The other 50% where grabbing what they could, and they where taught by the best(fat cat politicians) they leave millons starving all round the world, when they destroy peoples homes and buisnesses with there bombings.
There is no difference.
I could go on and on.
I just cannot be bothered anymore it always falls on deaf ears.
God save us all. i doubt if there is one he will wash his hands of us lot.
Tibbse.

Posted by Tibbse | Report as abusive

@BowMtnSpirit: Excellent perspective – very well put and heard.

“Because you refuse to see, you are surprised and bewildered..”

Many of the calamities are preventable provided we take the time to understand the root-cause of the outburst and adress it compassionately.

Very few have the clarity to put things together, see the big-picture, understand the root-causes and act compassionately. This comes naturally to the few and sayings of these selfless few are profound and their thoughts are noble. The world (MSM or other) may try to run hectic but will come surely, to face the outcomes seen by these few even then, fail to see the root-cause nor the needed understanding.

I think you may enjoy reading a book such as – “The Book of Mirdad” authored by Mikhail Naimy, where an unprecedented level of clarity and synthesis of the opposites is presented against the ignorance of the selfish mainstream.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Old white man has things to say, doesn’t want to bother investigating into the root causes like a real journalist. Does that about sum it up? Did it ever occur to you that the “looters” who are supposedly too young to be in the labor market might be following the lead of the adults who have genuine qualms? I think you forgot to start this opinion piece with “Back in my day…”

Posted by EFirdawsi | Report as abusive

Uprisings don’t happen “without a cause”. People rise up against authority because they are unhappy with power structures. The greater the discontent, the smaller the precipitating event needs to be. And a “mission” isn’t needed at all – this is mob mentality we are taking about. Sometimes people can channel their dissatisfaction towards an obvious cause – that’s usually the case in countries with authoritarian regimes.

But other times, in countries where the real power structure (the “ruling caste”, if you’re a cynic) is so carefully disguised and protected behind the veneer of fair capitalism and democratic rule, people don’t have one person, one thing, or one institution on which to pin the blame. As we’re now learning, that isn’t enough to deter popular uprisings, it isn’t enough to stop people from sensing that they’re in the wrong team of a rigged game, and the stakes get raised with each passing day.

So now, we are closing in on the point where the slightest provocation is enough to bring out the claws on both sides – all that remains to be seen is who will go for the jugular first, the government or the people it tries to control.

Nothing drastic will change here because of these riots alone, but how the government reacts to this situation may well set the tone of popular opinion that either tips the scales towards balance, or chaos.

Posted by GusM | Report as abusive

Rioters without a cause are anarchist with small brains, no morals and big egos! They should be forced to work off every dime it costs the rest of us and treated like the criminals they are! These are not freedom fighters, they’re criminals, similar to terrorist! Shoot first and ask questions later if they threaten to harm you!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Yes, when you actually think of it, it probably seems somewhat obvious that even kids are more insecure and fearful when the global market is in the tank, especially but not only if the child in question has parents who are unemployed. I would bet even the family dog feels it. Economic insecurity translates to pervasive, societal angst; hence the societies with stronger social safety nets have lower social ills like murder, suicide, drug addiction, etc., and when the economy is bad some of those social ills increase.

Posted by dvstllrd | Report as abusive

It’s very simple: People with jobs that pay a living wage don’t loot.

Posted by Badjer | Report as abusive

You got it right pavlaki! The Chinese and Japanese usually work hard,enjoy their adopted country and do well in every venture they tackle, then when they are successful,the greedy blacks and whites try to take it away or belittle them.At least what I have seen,especially in Canada.The rest are trouble makers.

Posted by doleguy | Report as abusive

After reading many of the well thought out posts here Badjer sums it up quite succinctly.

Posted by seattlesh | Report as abusive

Let’s be clear; the vast number of rioters were from ethnic minorities, notably the Afro-Caribbean community. People who deny this haven’t been watching the same TV news,CCTV films or reading the same newspapers as the rest of us across the UK. There were some white, Asian and mixed-race youths involved but they were in the minority. Probably 80% of those involved in rioting, looting and arson were black. This is not being racist but being truthful (which the mainstream politicians and the media refuse to be).

Perhaps politicians ought to be addressing this issue, which is a reflection of the nihilistic, ‘Gangsta’, rap culture embraced by many young blacks and also by many working-class white youths these days. Dr David Starkey has pointed this but has been pilloried by the usual suspects on the liberal left for telling the truth!

Posted by Biggles | Report as abusive

I have read all the recent comments posted very carefully and as expected, there is a representative sprinkling of the usual left-wing liberal and Marxist apologists for the rioters and looters. Although I have mentioned the ethnicity of the rioters before, what no-one bothers to mention is that the rioters and looters are actually a very small minority of the population,(less than 1%) regardless of their ethnicity. The vast majority of people in this country are still hard-working, tax-paying individuals who respect the law, regardless in some cases, of the relative poverty of their situations and backgrounds. The looters were not ‘poor’ in the third world sense. None of the rioters were the shoeless, ragged, starving poor of Victorian times either. Many of them, I have no doubt, were simply spoiled,,unemployed creatures of the benefits culture, drug dealers and petty criminals who do not work because they consider it beneath them or simply ‘uncool’ and who live in council housing at the expense of those who actually do bother to get off their backsides to do an
honest day’s work.

Sorry to sound so negative but it’s about time someone actually started to tell the truth about the situation, instead of acting like breast-beating, hand-wringing liberal lefties, who will use any distorted sociological argument to excuse simple lawlessness and vandalising opportunism on the part of a disaffected minority who possess a wrong-headed and mistaken sense of entitlement (usually an ntitlement to other peoples possessions).

Biggles

Posted by Biggles | Report as abusive