This article first appeared at the website of The Nation.
LONDON – Perhaps the whole point of a riot is to defy explanation: it’s an eruption of the irrational, a shattering of glass and boundaries, a testosterone-fueled roar that briefly flips anger and emptiness into something like ecstasy. What’s in the minds of the young men (and women, too) in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool who’ve sent great sheets of flame rising into the August night, devouring local businesses that it took years to build; who’ve turned plate glass to spiderwebs with one crack of a brick; who’ve gone home with their backpacks stuffed with cell phones, Nike trainers, X-boxes and Wiis? Well, wouldn’t we like to know, we middle-class types with access to a blog and an analysis, a “network” and a future?
Today Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson returned reluctantly from their vacations to confront the arson and looting that have spread through Britain’s cities over the last three nights, like a pair of Eton prefects summoned to contain the fifth form. Parliament has been recalled for the second time this summer (the first was over phone hacking by Murdoch’s News International); 450 people have already been arrested; Cameron has promised 6,000 more police on London’s streets this evening. But will it be enough?
The blue touchpaper that lit the conflagration was the killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black father of four, by armed police in Tottenham, one of London’s poorest boroughs, as he rode in a minicab; he had a handgun but there’s been no claim that he made a move to fire it. A small crowd of local residents gathered at the police station to demand explanations; though the protesters were peaceful, the police were not forthcoming. By nightfall, against the wishes of Duggan’s relatives, rioting had broken out in Tottenham and elsewhere. Police cars and a double decker bus were set on fire and shop windows were smashed, mostly by teenage boys.
What began as an outburst of anger against police violence soon morphed into an orgy of nocturnal “shopping” as kids broke into sports and electronics shops, cellphone stores and supermarkets. A brave woman in Hackney gave a streetcorner sermon amid heaps of litter, excoriating the rioters for turning grief to greed: “This is about a fucking man who got shot in Tottenham. This isn’t about having fun on a riot and busting up the place. Get real, black people, get real. If we’re fighting for a cause let’s fight for a fucking cause.” But in the deprived neighborhoods of Britain’s crumbling cities, consumerism is a more accessible dream than commitment or community.
But it’s taken years to brew the toxic mix of hopelessness, frustration and disenfranchisement, envy, anger and boredom, greed and selfishness, humiliation and recklessness that’s erupted in Britain this week — years in which the gap between rich and poor grew wider, racism was allowed to fester, consumerism and celebrity culture replaced community. While we in the middle classes got on with our oh-so-busy lives, averting our eyes from the poverty just a few blocks away, sending our kids to schools where there are other “motivated parents,” talking politics, we allowed the rifts in our own neighborhoods to deepen until they became almost unbridgeable.
This morning, down the road, people stared at the broken shops, shaking their heads in disbelief. “It’s mad,” they said. “Just mad.” Small groups of women set out with brooms and dustpans to sweep up the broken glass. There is a kind of solidarity taking shape, a wish to protect what we have, now that it’s under threat. People are talking to each other, asking if everything’s all right. The challenge, when all this dies down, will be to stay awake, to keep on doing that, until solidarity spreads.
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation’s London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications, including the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and Grand Street.