Making Sense and Nonsense of the Riots

August 23, 2011

Multiple Pages
Making Sense and Nonsense of the Riots

It all started, says Darcus Howe, as 

an insurrection of a generation of poor, primarily, black people from the Caribbean and from Africa.

Then it raced like a savannah fire from its Tottenham flashpoint to other areas of London and cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, and Luton. The racial ramifications became partially subsumed within a wider outlawry in which the political became personal and the personal a pretext for profiteering. Suddenly, it was not only the Wretched of the Earth who needed to be liberated, but also plasma TVs and the personal possessions of Malaysian students plucked by their “rescuers.”

Police were shot at in Birmingham, and five people died elsewhere—including three Asian men mown down by a car outside shops they were guarding. A 68-year-old man died later of injuries suffered when he was attacked for trying to extinguish a fire in Ealing—as did another man shot in Croydon on the Surreymost edge of London.

After riots always come reactions, then reactions to the reactions—a concatenation of vignettes and vindications, anecdotes and alibis, urban myths and scapegoats, dividing along predictable political lines. 

The dependably disgusted right demanded to know why dum-dums weren’t deployed against the dumb-dumbs, while Max Hastings wrote hyperbolically in the Daily Mail:

They are essentially wild beasts…My dogs are better behaved and subscribe to a higher code of values than the young rioters of Tottenham, Hackney, Clapham and Birmingham.

Meanwhile, the always outraged left felt mayhem and even murder must be seen in the context of Conservative cuts.

“After riots always come reactions, then reactions to the reactions—a concatenation of vignettes and vindications, anecdotes and alibis, urban myths and scapegoats, dividing along predictable political lines.”

The World Socialists are in the running for the Most Fatuous Comment Award:

The bourgeoisie is aware that it has entered a second stage in the global crisis of capitalism that will exacerbate the class divisions already exposed across Europe, the Middle East and internationally….

How odd so few other observers have discerned this cross-frontier classist conspiracy against the workers! Admittedly, it takes advanced dialectical skills to see the rioters as being workers, considering that none of them seem to have been employed.

The Socialist Workers’ Party offered a characteristically sensible response:

The Tories…are parading around the country spouting bigotry and trying to shift the blame for what’s wrong onto ordinary people.

Among those striving to realize international workers’ solidarity was a 17-year-old from Suffolk who issued an impassioned Facebook war cry:

I think we should start rioting…come on rioters.

It has to be said that this is not one of the great calls to arms, but at any rate no one hearkened to the pimpled Proudhon. 

Nor did the benighted bourgeoisie of Northwich, Cheshire opt to “Smash down in Northwich Town,” notwithstanding detailed Facebook instructions from one of the town’s more towering thinkers to meet “behind maccies [the local McDonald’s] to get this kickin’ off all over.”

Nor yet did the revanchist residents in that Stalingrad of Gloucestershire—Bream, Forest of Dean—who clearly do not feel quite as strongly about the local Spar store as the 19-year-old who suggested they might think about attacking it. 

In a widely anathematized BBC intervention, historian David Starkey said Enoch Powell had been correct in 1968 to warn of large-scale civil unrest caused by immigration. But Starkey noted that something other racial violence had occurred:

The whites have become black.…A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion…[which is] why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country.

Rather than all blacks assimilating upward to the habits of Kingston, Surrey, as multiculturalists pleasantly assumed they would, many working-class whites have instead assimilated downward to the habits of Kingston, Jamaica. 

Starkey’s comments elicited frustration from Dreda Say Mitchell:

Are the debates about “race” and criminality that were supposed to have been fought and won decades ago going to have to be rehashed?

Who “supposed” all this? And when were those “debates”?

Both she and her bête blanc Prof. Starkey may be too quick to write off the possibility of interracial conflict. While on the one hand black solidarity extended to a temporary gang truce, anti-black outbreaks were planned by Asians seeking retaliation for the three shopkeepers’ deaths—mercifully averted thanks to the murdered men’s families. 

Working-class whites (nastily nicknamed “chavs”) fared badly in all accounts. Those who weren’t accused of being bleached-out gangstas or brainless burglars were accused of white racism after some banded together to patrol Enfield and Eltham. While the actions of Asians defending their property were held up as examples of communal can-do, identical actions by these men were “vigilantism,” and the police broke them up. As Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill observed:

The riots have confirmed, once more, the gaping chasm between Britain’s elites and its white working-class natives. In the eyes of our betters and rulers, these whites are the true aliens.

Diversity is a gift that keeps on giving, and merely because ethnic unpleasantness is avoided on one occasion doesn’t mean it won’t recur on some other equally lively occasion. 

So far, almost 2,000 people have been arrested, and magistrates in some areas have been sitting all night to cope. Shaken and stirred, civil society has been cheered by the “tough” sentences handed out, with 70% of those convicted being imprisoned, as opposed to the usual 2%, and sentences on average 25% longer than usual for public-order offenses. As of August 19, the prison population of England and Wales was increasing by nearly 100 every day and had already reached a record level of 86,654. Ironic, under a government that wants to close prisons. 

Other crowd-pleasing government proposals seemed likely to run into the sand for lack of money or because they would clash with the Human Rights Act. The government must have been devastated that Tony Blair accused them of “muddled thinking.” No doubt the situation would improve rapidly if only the ex-PM could bring his Iraq-era acuity into play!

There is one thing lots of people do agree on, though, although few could it express it as succinctly as David Starkey:

The riots are the symptom of a profound rupture in our body politic and sense of national identity. If the rupture is not healed and a sense of common purpose recovered, they will recur—bigger, nastier and more frequently.

Iain Duncan Smith also predicted portentously in the Speccie:

This is our warning. That wasn’t the crisis, but the crisis is coming. We can’t let this go on any more….


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