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

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Roving gangs of youths have been around in Britain for awhile. They even have a well-established name–yobs. The Nobel laureate Doris Lessing wrote a futuristic novel several years back where such roving gangs take over the country.

However, even as many of these youths are doubtless just along for the ride, some of them are articulate and have given interviews. One of the youths (possibly an organizer) said that if the bankers can loot taxpayers, then the youths could loot also. The NY Times reported last weekend that one youth told a reporter, “You wouldn’t be interviewing me, now would you, if it weren’t for the riots. It’s the only way to be heard.”

Posted by yoda911 | Report as abusive

Interesting. But the rioters are not all black. It is a large army of young people made up of all races including local English. I do not understand why “black” was pointed out. Most of the video feeds and news interviews have been young whites or a mix of all together. This type of article fuels the race issue in itself, when its really not about race/color at all. The shop and store owners taking losses are people of all colors. Very disappointing article.

Posted by Dahc | Report as abusive

Get real, they have a cause and they have been screaming about it for years without anyone listening. This is pent up anger for years of neglect at their economic status in life. The established power brokers are good at dismissing these actions but answer this one question; When was the last time economically ADVANTAGED people rioted? This is NOT going away. Now carry on and keep your head in the sand–idiots.

Posted by 2cartalkers | Report as abusive

The presence of a few asians and whites does not change the vastly greater number of blacks among the rioters. A major question is the viability of mixed race States, especially in Europe. Norway comes to mind. The USA comes to mind.

Some sort of solution other than long term suppression of poor whites needs to be found if these States are to exist. Pretending that they will be successful because a cadre of the white ruling class wants them to is foolish and clearly wrong headed.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd, you cannot see the rationale because you are invested in the ideological mainstream, what you — as media — continue to propagate.

These kids don’t understand you, and you don’t understand them. You wonder how unemployment can affect them when they are not of age to be in the labor market, but you don’t realize that they watch as their older brothers, uncles, and parents are crushed, and they can see what awaits them. You cannot feel their fear and hopelessness from your ivory tower.

Yes, it is distressing that these kids have attacked small businesses in their own districts, yes, it makes no sense to rob and hurt others who are subject to the same stressors. None of this is rational. It is a spasmodic expression of fear and alienation. It is regrettable. And it has been predicted.

I have posted over the past couple of years, sometimes vociferously, about the need for our society to WAKE UP before the inequalities created by our governmental and financial structures result in the disintegration of the order those structures increasingly attempt to impose through criminalization and militarization. And I have not been alone. Many, many others have issued the same warnings. When we do, we are marginalized, sometimes attacked, or more often ignored completely. Because what we have been trying to tell you people is not consistent with your accepted wisdom.

Well, your accepted wisdom has brought this world to the place it is today. We face an energy crisis that the MSM (mainstream media) steadfastly ignores, because it simply won’t do to explain to the public that billions of us may die rather soon when petroleum production collapses. I am considered a “doomsayer” for even mentioning peak oil. When I scream my objections about handing vast sums of middle-class production to the poor and the rich, I am not heard, because the MSM speaks much louder than I, and they are conveying the same message that everyone has always heard, and what the financial elites insist upon.

There was a BBC interview with one Darcus Howe recently. You can view that here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biJgILxGK 0o&feature=related Therein, your same confusion is echoed by the BBC anchor’s confusion.
How can this man not be “shocked” at the rioting? The rather vapid and disturbed anchor confuses Mr. Howe’s lack of shock with a condonation of the rioting, and attempts to shut her subject down … because he is not saying what she expected to hear. This is what I am talking about. This is your ignorance. If you tried to listen to Mr. Howe, he speaks with a wisdom and understanding that the MSM is entirely blind to.

You world cannot continue as it is presently structured. It is disintegrating before your very eyes, and yet the MSM sees it not. Because I see, I cannot be heard. Because Darcus Howe sees, he cannot be heard. Because you refuse to see, you are surprised and bewildered by the UK riots. We’ve been telling you this was coming, Mr. Lloyd. You just haven’t been listening.

The end of your world will not be a great, rational deconstruction. It will be a bloody mess. And it has begun.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

Columnists only continue to be employable if they present a picture, vision or interpretation of today’s society that is acceptable to the political class. That convention is completely disconnected from reality.

From my perspective, the rioters and looters do not feel the need for a reason (indeed, any reason) or cause. In much the same way, bankers, economists and politicians feel no need to explain to society BEFORE they get caught at misdeeds. Politicians and commentators applaud FaceBook for providing a vehicle for riots in the Arab world but cannot understand why the same communication methods and tools should be employed in disturbances elsewhere in the Western world.

Unfortunately, remaining perplexed or confused will not help the political class and their publicists in the media. The proverbial genie has been let out of the bottle – and the hollowness in our political leadership (whatever that means) will soon be clearly obvious to all those who have refused to accept the reality of the vacuum.

The only thing that matters now are solutions. How does one stop the riots? Simple – dismiss the political class. But who is going to do that and what should replace it? The obvious answer is that society needs people of integrity to lead: that concept died just after the end of World War 1 when the world realised that brute force was superior to political intellect.

The riots are simply reflecting that painful fact now.

Posted by Intrigued | Report as abusive

Is it utterly lost on readers that the looters and arsonists are using expensive, high tech devices to coordinate their behaviour? This isn’t the act of the poor and downtrodden – it’s theft, mayhem and anti-social behaviour with no purpose but self-aggrandisement (as mentioned in the article – hey, mates, we’re on TV!) and self-enrichment through stealing.

“It will be a bloody mess” if this was Syria…or Libya… or China. It’s not. Not yet.

Perhaps that’s what sets this apart from true repression that idealists bemoaning disenfranchisement don’t seem to grasp. It will be bloody if it comes to it. The live rounds available to the 16,000 trying to quall this lot would rather quickly dissuade the spoiled, stuck up little hooligans behind this. They don’t give a fig about peak oil nor does the price of anything other than a new iPhone really interest them. Implicit in the arguments of Anonymous, BowMtnSpit and others is that there is some more noble purpose behind random acts of violence and hooliganism – too many times watching farces like V for Vendetta and thinking it was incumbent on them to justify their lawless acts with tripe about a blow against ‘Them’.

Hogwash. Spoiled little brats behaving badly. Better stop before they catch a bullet.

Posted by scjohng | Report as abusive

Reporters without a clue? What a useless opinion piece, there is more information and observation in the comments. How are those extreme austerity measures working out in the U.K.? The U.S. is next and it will likely start in Detroit, perhaps as soon as this winter when people cannot afford heat because social services have been cut to the bone.

Posted by ebones101 | Report as abusive

These “kids” riot and loot because they can. An overabundance of immigrants that come to England , escaping from their home countries for the “freebies” coupled with a disadvantaged youth that has been cast off by a lack of parenting, education, and being part of a greater culture has resulted in apathy. It’s apathy just looking for some “action” to relieve the boredom….

Posted by searider | Report as abusive

I did not see any ethnic Chinese rioting or looting. Why? They came to the UK as easily identifiable poor immigrants but they never seek to overthrow our way of life ( as do many Muslims )or complain about being at a disadvantage ( as do many blacks) but get on and work and succeed. Again why? Because they have a culture that values eduction and hard work above all. Something that is sadly lacking in others. If they can do it so can others so let’s stop making excuses for the actions of immigrants in the UK.

Posted by pavlaki | Report as abusive

Completely and absolutely agree with you @pavlaki.

The government and Home office should worry about what do to with their own British born citizens. The videos and photos clearly shows the anarchy caused by a mix of BRITISH-BORN whites and blacks. British values are obviously going down the drain.

None/very few immigrants were involved (ala the commonly blamed ones – Muslims, Polish, Chinese etc – the unwanted ones) according to the media I have seen.

What are these immigrants doing? They’re WORKING HARD day in day out (many as you on TV are working in dodgy sweat shops), earning money, surviving, contributing to the UK economy, paying taxes religiously.

What does the government do? Embark on a policy of protecting jobs for British people. Curbing immigration to people who want to chase their dream, earn money and contribute.

Your own people don’t even want to work! Going to the job centre and over-claiming benefits seems to be their full time jobs!

PS: obviously this rant isn’t directly at most British people – whom I know many are very hardworking and intelligent.

Posted by KelvinLee | Report as abusive

Nothing happens in this world without a cause….these riots are due to the lack of “GOOD EMPLOYMENT”. Just “EMPLOYMENT” is not enough. People will go to great lenghts to maintain their standard of living. The level of uncertainty in the developed world will cause many such riots. Its time for the developed world to start living within their means and know where they stand. The dream with which every migrant comes to the developed world is itself a bubble that burst once there…I think the time has come that unemployed people in the developed world start moving to other countries like India, China, etc for employment. History has shown us that man has moved from one place to another for greener pastures. Somewhere down the line we have stopped doing that and are more towards “SETTLING DOWN” as things were coming easy. I think that time has come again.

Posted by Jonty1982 | Report as abusive

One of the other contribuants wrote down:

“You wouldn’t be interviewing me, now would you, if it weren’t for the riots. It’s the only way to be heard.”

Today’s remark from prime minister Cameron

“There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but are frankly sick.”

“It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and their actions do not have consequences. Well, they do have consequences.”

But……in the eighties his long way predecessor and an American movie star in the same role introduced supply side economy to the world…look in the shops, where do practically all the products originate from that we all spend our money on?

We (the financial economic establishment) have exported and, we are still exporting their chances on a job…. suitable for the non university student.

This has already been going on for the third generation going, could THERE be some reason of the underlying tension between poor and “rich” is this a new class battle?

More important…..would not it be wise to create an atmosphere that enables us to produce here what we need in this society…THE ONLY ANSWER!

Posted by Checksbalances | Report as abusive

And…that does not mean that we should reduce our standard of living to poverty wages!!! THAT IS FEASABLE!

Posted by Checksbalances | Report as abusive

A valid economic protest can only come from the adults who actually CONTRIBUTE to the economy.

By the way: Have British youths EVER had a reputation in the world as being polite or considerate of others? It’s too easy to default to the “rich vs poor” excuse. (I’m still having difficulty comprehending kids with Blackberries as being “poor”.) “Poor me! Poor me!” It’s also easy to destroy things that are not yours when you have never had to work to get your own material needs met.

Posted by JCnTN | Report as abusive

To “BowMtnSpirit” and Everyone Else;
It is very uplifting to be able to know that people like you: profound thinkers, unbiased and free, exist!
I´m an Eastern European by birth, however I´ve lived in several countries including Italy and Canada.
Currently I´m in Peru and observe how the society functions here.
Lima, its capital of about 8 million is almost a hell with very high degree of delinquency; a dangerous city to live in, what even most Peruvians admit.
Lima tends to copy the ways of life so well-known from large cities in Europe and the USA with all their consequences: high unemployment, robbery, despair…
Different situation occurs in the countryside, in small cities, towns and villages where unemployment is very high as well.
People do whatever they can to survive: they sell anything on the streets including cooked food prepared and consumed in appalling sanitary conditions.
The authorities can not do anything about it knowing that restricting it by administrative orders would mean shutting down the only economic activity they can have to be able to get an income and survive. There is practically no welfare here and everyone is on one’s own!
Obviously the results of this type of decision would be catastrophic to those people and the authorities!
Many people in Peru live only struggling for survival…but they are “normal” human beings in psychological terms and not stressed out so much like so many persons are in USA, Europe and elsewhere.
A multicultural society, as the history shows, never works in times of lack of prosperity!
Real calamities always unite a culturally homogenous society-Japan an example; divides even more multicultural ones..
You are right! The changes to the unsustainable social systems are coming!
And they will be messy, bloody and extremely painful to all of us…
Regards!

Posted by tawantinsuyu | Report as abusive

Lloyd appears to be a conservative Brit.

I have respect for quite a few things the British are doing, such as owning up to the colonial, and certain past historical facts that are extremely political incorrect by any modern standard. In some ways, the Brits are facing history more honestly than Americans, because America is still in denial that there were many past racist U.S. Presidents and legislative bodies that Americans still want to keep on pedestals.

However, the British government made some serious faux pas in handling the killing of the unarmed person by the police. It appeared that after the police killed the guy, the police tried to plant false news that the guy had a gun and shot at the police. Immediately after, the police who planted false evidence should have been placed under custody and charged. In America, several police did exactly the same thing after Katrina — killed an innocent guy, and then falsified that the victim and his brother had been armed and attacked the police first. Those police, both Afro-American and Caucasian themselves, are finally convicted recently.

The British police did the worst thing possible. They apologized, ie., admitting fault, and then did not discipline the police who killed.

In Oakland here in America, a police who killed an unarmed Afro-american, was tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, acquitted of murder. Even then, with a full trial, there was mild rioting afterwards, complaining that the sentence was too lenient.

I don’t know if the British police acted appropriately. Such kind of probes tend to take some time to unravel the facts. However, by apologizing, the British police admitted that an innocent guy was killed by police, and sent a message that the police will not be disciplined. The British police expected, that under the current economic climate and high unemployment rate, those poeple who identified with the killed victim, would be willing to take a “verbal apology” for a murdered person, and after the murderer tried to villify the victim to cover, police error. Perhaps it had started as an honest error on the street( I don’t know) but after the police tried to falsify info to incriminate their victim, they should have at least announce swiftly that a thorough investigation, and full justice would be delivered, if murder was found, or inadvertent error had occurred, how to avoid it in the future.

It’s no excuse to perpetuate violence as a form of protest, especially because many innocent shopowners, common merchants, are suffering.

However, the police chiefs, and ultimately Cameron, are liable for lack of show for justice, objectivity for holding police brutality accountable. This is at the very least, extremely poor leadership. At worst, it is intensifying the perception that the police, and the UK Government are corrupt and there, just to protect those well connected, like Murdoch. No matter how you look at it, Cameron is a miserable failure.

Posted by jo5319 | Report as abusive

@scjohng: Thank you for making my point, as a prime example of what I was pointing out. You read my comments and see a defense of the rioting by me. You have, therefore, safely tucked away my observations in a place where they cannot ever threaten your feathered little fantasy world, where law and order reigns, and kids say “sir” when addressing their elders.

And if that fantasy is ever threatened, well hell, we’ll just put a bullet in ‘em! For stealing a television. You might consider that the UK riots STARTED after the police put several bullets in one of ‘em.

See, scjohng, you are precisely the problem. I know these kids don’t give a “fig” about peak oil; they don’t even know what it is. Whose fault is that? It is YOURS. Because you won’t face up to the dysfunctions in our society in a realistic and thoughtful way.

You believe I see “a noble purpose behind random acts of violence and hooliganism” only because you don’t listen. Had you invested just nominal thought into reading my post, you would see that I justified or excused none of that violence. You believe that because I observed, I condoned. You are just as bad as that incompetent BBC anchor. You MUST think! You must quit pulling the covers over your head. I am not expressing a preference, I am expressing an observation.

So long as you and others like you keep drinking the Kool-Aid, you’ll keep being surprised when things like these occur. Until one day you’re in the middle of it, and you’ll still be saying, “How did this happen?” Except the time to listen will be over.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

@pavlaki: please before you offer an ignorant comment such as yours, think before you speak. Many of the successful businesses being routed and tore in the streets are BLACK owners, MUSLIMS, Asians, Whites alike who are all business owners and EDUCATED. Color has nothing to with it. So this notion of yours about parenting and education missed its mark, and has nothing to do with what’s going on right now. Many of the immigrants from Africa, Middle East and others have had to work hard all their lives and have been educated to succeed and apparently it has worked among many of them including the business owners. Russia Today (thank goodness for decent journalism) pointed that many of the young people are educated and very articulate, and a great number of them are white, not only blacks and orientals or muslims, immigrants. I’m sick of the whole color and education and parenting stuff itself being used as an excuse. What kind of education and parenting did these bankers and corporations and political people receive who the mass of the trouble is issuing from? This entire world is in trouble right now, caused by the so-called “educated”. Some of your most successful people who changed the entire world were your least “educated” by society’s standard i.e, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and many many others…keep that in mind

Posted by Dahc | Report as abusive

@ tawantinsuyu: Thank you for your kind words. I recently spoke to an American who was returning from Peru after 10 years there. Her experience differed from what you are describing, and she returned to the States with enough money to pay cash for her home. I think of those people you speak of, and wonder what they would say to that, the expiation of that production. But we also see a lot of expiation the other way these days, too, and it is increasing.

Ironically, the poor in Peru are in a far better position to meet the oncoming changes. They are already doing what very, very few Americans can even consider doing. We suffer from a hulking normalcy bias, continuing to feed on our myths about America, and believing that will never change. When it does change, it is going to hit America very hard indeed. We will not be spared, but neither will we be alone.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive