London rioting

I live in Haringay, the same borough as Tottenham, where the riots started that have since spread across London. If you take the 41 bus from the corner of my street, you’ll be in Tottenham in 15 minutes or so. But Crouch End, where I live, is a middle-class enclave, popular with families, full of cute little cafes and bakeries. It’s a world away from Tottenham.

So it irked me when I went out to a pub in Crouch End today and heard everyone talking about the rioters with such certainty in their voices. The rioters were lazy, ungrateful, greedy, badly parented, yobs just looking for an excuse to do some looting. The solutions were simple – stricter policing, bring in the army maybe, have a curfew, tougher sentencing, bring back national service.

As I left the pub and went around Crouch End doing my shopping, I heard the same views expressed with the same certainty. Yet of all those people I very much doubt if any of them had any idea what it was like to grow up on a deprived council estate in Tottenham. In fact, I doubt they’d even met anyone who had any idea what it was like to grow up on a deprived council estate in Tottenham.

Of course, they’re entitled to their opinions anyway. But it saddens me that there was so much certainty, so much unanimity, so much self-righteous condemnation of people they didn’t have a clue about. It seems to me that putting forward so many easy explanations is often a way of avoiding the true explanations, which may be unpalatable. If we wanted the true explanations, we’d have to show an interest in the lives of the people we normally just blank out. We’d have to move out of our middle class comfort zone and go to uncomfortable places and perhaps discover uncomfortable things. We’d find out what makes someone feel so marginalised that the only way they can express themselves is by burning down a carpet shop. We might find out a lot of other things too. Maybe that’s why we never ask.

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There are 14 comments

  1. Thanks Sarah, glad you liked it! To be honest I struggled with how to write this post – I don’t pretend to have any great insight into the lives of marginalised people myself. It just annoys me when people refuse to ask why something is happening, and just focus on blame and punishment. That way you never move forward. We had a similar spate of rioting in the inner cities in England 30 years ago, and there were lots of inquiries and investigations, but nobody ever really listened to the people involved, and the problems remained unsolved, and so here we are all over again…

  2. Totally unjustified. No sympathy from these idiot petty criminals. Destroyer private property, stealing, attempting to murder police. Violence is not the way.

  3. Andrew, I too am 15 mins away from Tottenham on the 41 and although I pin the blame for the social ills on the Thatcher years and the ‘me,me,me’ culture that followed and can certainly see how the recent government cuts have further incited a breakdown in society and people feeling stuck on the fringes, with no access to the things we take for granted such as good education and vague careers prospects something has to be done to restore order. Some people probably think there is nothing to lose so loot anyway but where is their sense of right and wrong? Parents are moral guardians and should be instilling this in their children…Something needs to be done NOW to stop the breakdown in society. I am perfectly happy to pay higher taxes (and I don’t earn much above national average) providing it goes back into helping the poorer members of society improve their lot. Make the billionaire tax evaders pay their share to. Let’s all pull together to creat a better society where children do not thisnk this is acceptable behaviour and have a greed for material goods. I’m afraid the army or some formidable mothers and fathers need to step up the to mark to instill some fera into these looters who clearly have no respect for the police…

  4. Hi Donald, I’m certainly not saying violence is the way. What I’m saying is that it would be good to understand where that violence is coming from. If we ignore the causes, we just ensure the same thing will happen again at the next time of economic/social stress, and nobody wants that.

    Hi Helen, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with a lot of your analysis. You allude to inequality being a major cause of the unrest, and I certainly agree with that, and also with your solutions around pulling together as a society to fix the problems. We need to do a lot more of this kind of thinking, and perhaps more importantly listening as well.
    You’re right, something also needs to be done right now to restore order, and as I understand it plenty is being done. The police are working around the clock, and more are being drafted in. I just think that we can’t expect it to be over instantly. We’ve created the conditions for this to happen, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and we can’t just make it go away. Instilling fear may be a temporary solution, but we also need to look beyond that, to listen to people and get to the real cause of the trouble, if we want to avoid being back here again in no time.

  5. I’ve been hearing about the looting on the news and I certainly hope that order can be restored. I agree with your post. While I’m not in England and we don’t have widespread looting here in the US what you propose could begin to wake us up to reality and hopefully we can begin address the inequity that exists in this country as well. The problem is that here there is a general mentality that anyone can make their own way so long as you’re willing to work hard enough. This pull yourself up by your boot straps mentality is so highly politicized. Conservatives see the poor and marginalized as a burden on society which needs to be weaned off of the “welfare state.” Politically and socially we’re not interested in understanding let alone embracing those living on the margins. Being poor is un-American. It seems that seeing people as humans first is just too much to ask.
    So many people have their pet causes working to end poverty any where in the world but we’re not willing to help lift our neighbor.

  6. Very well put, I completely agree. I’m a 17 year old teenager and I completed my secondary school education last year at a state school comprised of children from many different backgrounds, including a large number of working class. My school has seen problems in the past and still is not considered highly in my city, however, it is improving. The main thing I feel after completing my education, is bitterness, at the amount of inequality of opportunity we see in this country. Why is it acceptable for children to have their education, and essentially their life, paid for by their parents? Up to a certain age (I would suggest 16-18), we should have the same opportunity, the same education, and after that, we then take responsibility for what we want to do in life. Until we have that equality in this country, I’ll dismiss any of these simplistic arguments as invalid, because they are. This society is our responsibility. We have to work collectively if we want to make a significant change.

    The problem is, how many people actually want change? How many people actually care about poverty and inequality?

  7. I was reading in the evening a couple of days back when I heard about the London riots. I went and watched the news, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was very sad and scary. Glad to know that you are safe and there is no problem in your locality. I hope things are calming down now and everyday life becomes normal soon.

  8. The self-righteous!!!! Oye vay!!!

    I agree Kinna and of course the reverse is also true:, “bad” citizens are not born, but created.

    I recently read about similar riots that took place in London in 1381. Then the rioters, who were also made up of the economically and socially marginalised, not only burnt and looted but also killed a very large number of Flemish shopkeepers and piled their bodies in the streets.

    I often think there is absolutely no hope for the human race. Our capacity for tremendous hate dominates our capacity for tremendous love.

    And how does one begin to wrap one’s head around the hypocrisy of citizens who cry, ‘Violence is not the answer’ but support a state that has engaged and continues to engage in the wanton spilling of blood across the globe. Citizens who for centuries have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the ill-begotten fruits borne by that global spilling of blood without batting an eyelid.

    A giant meteorite is my hope!!!

  9. Wow, thanks for all the great comments! It really cheered me up reading these.

    Phillip, thanks for stopping by. Personally I don’t think that’s the answer – I see it as another way of trying to fix people rather than really listen to what’s making them so angry and deal with that. But I admire your enthusiasm and wish you luck.

    Hi Charles, good point! The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is admirable in many ways, but it ignores the reality that not everyone can succeed. Economists have long since recognised that full employment is, in our current economic system, impossible. So what do you do with those who fail? If anyone can supposedly make their own way, then the implication is that if you’re poor you just didn’t try hard enough, hence the immense political capital to be made out of depicting poor people as lazy, immoral, etc. I agree, we need to move beyond the myth-making if we are to truly help people and progress as a society.

    Serina, thanks! You make some great points. Another interesting thing about the people who are passing such easy judgment on the rioters is that all of them benefited from access to a free university education, often (in an earlier generation) with generous grants. All of that has been swept away now, along with many other social programmes, and young people simply don’t have the opportunities they did. There was never real equality before, but there was at least an attempt to make things fairer. Now there’s a much more blatant disregard of young people, particularly poor young people, and whatever aspirations they may have. I love your idea of giving people an equal start! It’s hard to do because inequality is so ingrained in the way we have structured things, but I agree it’s important. And unfortunately, not enough people care right now. I think the simplistic explanations of the causes of the riots are a way of continuing not to care, not to feel, not to think. Just lock them up and forget about them. Not helpful in my opinion.

    Vishy, yes I’m safe thanks – Crouch End didn’t see any trouble. Everything is pretty much back to normal now. Thanks for your concern 🙂

    Hi Kinna, “Good citizens are not born, they are created.” – absolutely, couldn’t have said it better!

    Hi Nona, yes, there’s a long history of rioting and revolt in this country, and we tend to forget about it. It’s amazing how the reactions of the more comfortable classes are quite uniform across the centuries, and often it’s only much later, when they’re writing history books, that they start to look at cause and effect. The Luddite revolts of the early industrial period, for example, looked like mindless vandalism to people at the time, but now there’s a much greater understanding of the effects of industrialisation on traditional artisans etc and their many reasons for wanting to smash the new machinery. Hope it doesn’t take us as long this time! I don’t share your cynicism about the human race, but I can see how you got there. Certainly agree with your point about they hypocrisy of accepting state violence but being appalled by individual violence. I still think we can do some good things before the meteorite hits, and each of us can contribute, even if only in small ways.

    Thanks again for all the thoughtful comments – I enjoyed reading them and thinking about the points you raised 🙂

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