Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The London Riots: The Question of Why?

© Paul Coleman, London 2011

I bought a Greater London Streetfinder Atlas the other day.
Terrifyingly, it's already out of date. 
Sony's massive distribution centre in north-eastern Enfield shows up on page 105 as a big orange rectangle. 
But in the wee hours of this morning the vast building itself exploded and was raised to the ground in a huge fire set by looting arsonists.

Twelve hours or so later, at 1pm today (Tuesday, 9 August), bits of the building and its huge store of electrical goods - plasma TVs and games consoles and the like - continue to float past my window as dense smoke carried by the wind (click on photo to enlarge). Tonight, Londoners brace themselves across the city hoping to see 16,000 police officers visibly reclaiming the streets of London from these gangs of rioters.

Typically edgy is Enfield, where I live. 
Enfield normally runs shy of the news limelight. 
But, after the Sony centre fire, and Sunday night's now relatively minor skirmish between rioters, riot police and police dogs in sleepy Enfield Town, Enfield is now a familiar tag to millions who watch TV news.

© Paul Coleman, London 2011
Yesterday afternoon, Enfield even 'trended' on Twitter. But, after the worst devastation and fires in modern British history since the 1980s riots, the Blitz of World War II and the Great Fire of London in 1666, people worldwide are now also sadly familiar with Bruce Grove, Tottenham, Hackney, Lewisham, Peckham, Ealing, Woolwich, Colliers Wood, Catford, East Dulwich, Camden, Clapham Junction, Ilford and, perhaps most of all, with the two horrifying fires in Croydon.
   Mushrooming like Sony centre smoke hanging in this bright afternoon sky are several big questions, such as 'why is this happening' and 'why are they doing it'?  
Most politicians, senior police and pontificating pundits who've plonked themselves in front of cameras have struggled to find new ways to give old answers about 'inexcusable violence', 'mindless thuggery' and 'sheer criminality". 
To me, their dead-end condemnations seem pretty mindless, inexcusable and irrational.

However, some of you might've caught Dr Clifford Stott, an academic from Liverpool University, provide his take on these questions on Sky News. Asked what is the psychology of young people attacking police and looting, Stott replied: "We cannot understand the problem if we dismiss it as mindless. It's driven by particular meanings that those rioters have in their heads. 
   "We have to ask where do those meanings come from and what drives them," added Stott. "And that takes us, unfortunately, to questions of social context and social conditions. I populate a very difficult position because by talking about the way this behaviour is meaningful and linked to economic and social conditions, I get called an apologist - as if by injecting some objective, rational debate into the situation I am doing something wrong.
  "But I'm not," insisted Stott. "What we have to recognise is that these targets in terms of the expensive, high-end goods are out of reach of the vast bulk of the people involved in this kind of rioting. And they are using these riots as an opportunity to attack the society from which they are so alienated and marginalised from.
  "So, we've got to ask, how did we get here? How did we get to a situation where this group of people are so angry with the world that they live in, and so angry that they're capable of coming out onto the streets and to attack us in this manner?"
The sorry phlanx who might denounce Stott as 'an apologist' do us all down. These riots reflect more about the psychology of our own consumer-led, profit-driven society.  Sadly, our politicians can't see this kind of logic through the dense smoke of their own populist, sound-bite rhetoric. 

Postscript: Almost on cue, shortly after my original posting, Mayor Boris Johnson, speaking to angry riot victims on a Clapham Junction street, said: "It's time people engaged in looting stopped hearing economic and social justifications for what they're doing."

Photos: The last round? Enfield Civic Centre shrouded by smoke still swirling over north London from the Sony centre fire attack started by rioters several miles away.

Photos: Copyright Paul Coleman. No re-use without permission.

Paul Coleman, London, August 2011

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Paul, for helping us to try to understand these events.