Rioters without a cause
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.