Maria MargaronisBack to OpinionMaria Margaronis

Anarchy in the UK

Firefighters fight a blaze at the Sony warehouse that was allegedly set alight, early Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011 during unrest in Enfield, North London. Photo: AP/Karel Prinsloo

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?

 
In the deprived neighborhoods of Britain’s crumbling cities, consumerism is a more accessible dream than commitment or community.
 
Missy, who works at a small shop selling jeans and sneakers down the road from where I live, shrugs when I ask her what she’s going to do tonight. The metal grille was down and properly locked yesterday; “they” trashed the place anyway. “They know the shop,” she says. “They went straight upstairs where we keep the expensive stuff, the £300 jeans.” A few blocks on, outside a smashed-up cycle shop where twisted bikes lie like skeletons on the pavement, a forensic expert carefully dusts glass with fingerprint powder. Does she think she’ll find anything? Another shrug. In Dalston, next to Hackney which saw some of the worst rioting, the Turkish Kurdish community have taken charge themselves, standing guard outside their shops, some of them with baseball bats.

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.

 
There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.
 
And so it has gone on, night after night since then, frightening, unpredictable and uncontainable. The police are overwhelmed; the politicians nervously continue to plough their furrows. “Sheer criminality,” says Home Secretary Teresa May, as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage would imply condoning it. Labor politicians flirt with the temptation to blame government spending cuts, as if such fury could build up in a matter of mere months. Of course the cuts don’t help: they are the final straw, the irrefutable evidence that the poor are now dispensable, outside society. Nor does the larger sense that nobody’s in charge, that the economy’s in free fall, that bankers have been looting the public purse for years, and that our leaders have no idea what to do about any of it. There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.

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.

 

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=518522027 Lee Bradley

    “…toxic mix of hopelessness, frustration and disenfranchisement, envy, anger and boredom, greed and selfishness, humiliation and recklessness…” 
    No instant gratification and soundbite quick fixes in this article…read carefully and set an example….

  • Anonymous

    He is a crook, he had a gun. He was not a little school boy. What did he have a gun for ?
    All the people who complain about how bad the cops are should really
    spend some time with the thugs that cause so much pain and suffering in
    the community. I guess the only way to make some folks happy is if he
    had shot a few police first and then after a few meetings maybe just
    maybe a stern warning about how bad it is killing folk and pretty please try not to do it again.

  • Anonymous

    He is a crook, he had a gun. He was not a little school boy. What did he have a gun for ?
    All the people who complain about how bad the cops are should really
    spend some time with the thugs that cause so much pain and suffering in
    the community. I guess the only way to make some folks happy is if he
    had shot a few police first and then after a few meetings maybe just
    maybe a stern warning about how bad it is killing folk and pretty please try not to do it again.

  • http://live.xbox.com/en-US/MyXbox/Profile?gamerTag=FinderKeeper FinderKeeper

     ”No instant gratification and soundbite quick fixes in this article”

    Except the header.

  • http://live.xbox.com/en-US/MyXbox/Profile?gamerTag=FinderKeeper FinderKeeper

     ”No instant gratification and soundbite quick fixes in this article”

    Except the header.

  • Rayman365

    cool, tax me more ,because ive got myself a job ,and want to build a better world for my family ,and allong with feeding them,clothing them, supplying  a home,and pumping millions into their community’s …we should supply them with the latest blackberry’s too ..!   

  • Anonymous

    as strange as it may sound, I wouldn’t for a minute be surprised to hear is was Murdoch’s minions fueling this, just to get a different headline in the papers. He is very good at media manipulation.

  • Upholdthelaw

    This is what blacks do and everyone gives into them instead of fighting back. For those who want to blame the police…I say walk in the footsteps of the police for a month and you’ll all see what it’s like to try and uphold the law against a race of people who will use any racial excuse to blame anyone but themselves. I’ve walked in those shoes in the roughest parts of Baltimore, MD and speak from 1st hand knowledge….do not fall for the race card and punish as you would anyone else!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bryan-L-Jones/580634358 Bryan L Jones

    “Eve: All this riot and uproar, V… is this Anarchy? Is this the Land of Do-As-You-Please? V: No. This is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means “without leaders”, not “without order”. With anarchy comes an age or ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order… this age of ordung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung that these bulletins reveal has run its course… This is not anarchy, Eve. This is chaos.” — Alan Moore

  • Dnkane

    I think people are just looking to score some stuff and are using the “riot” as an excuse

  • Scotthulls

    @ upholdthelaw, ironically you sound like a racist. It’s more of a human condition than black. The blacks have been exploited more than most races by the whites, so they have more resentment and uprising within them. You must be a republican.

  • Wiccanpixie

    Excuse me but when are people with a shade darker skin than I sport going to give up the monopoly on being exploited.  Do you have ANY idea what the Jews have been through for millenia…or the Irish.  “Irish need not apply” signs were prevalent in Colonial America before the settlers even knew what a Saracen, Moor, or African was…get over yourself and recognize that this is a HUMAN condition….The erosion of humanity is a sad human condition.

  • jujubee

    oh please.  This is the same crappy kind of mentality that was used in Vancouver a while back after a major game was lost.  People, who had nothing to do with the game fans decided to go all out and have a major night of anarchy looting for the “fun” of it, destroying beautiful parts of Vancouver in the process.  These are very connected anarchists as the fact that they are connected via their Blackberries, something I can’t even afford.  If they are welfare recipients than they better shut up because they are living better than most middle class who pay for their stupidity and whose lives they are destroying.  In America, at least we can still arm ourselves, in most places anyway, against thugs like this. 

  • Stoptheinsanity

    PLEASE stop apologizing for the so-called “Middle Class”! I am sick and tired of working my fingers to the bone to make a better life for myself and my family – only to be beaten over the head with my “success”. Most of us don’t have because it was given to us – if we have anything it is because we worked, and because we worked, we appreciated what we have. I am too busy trying to keep my family fed and clothed and pay for health insurance to be able to smash storefronts and loot. Shoot those animals and leave the rest of us in peace – because if they come to MY house, I assure you that’s exactly what I will do.

  • Stoptheinsanity

    PLEASE stop apologizing for the so-called “Middle Class”! I am sick and tired of working my fingers to the bone to make a better life for myself and my family – only to be beaten over the head with my “success”. Most of us don’t have because it was given to us – if we have anything it is because we worked, and because we worked, we appreciated what we have. I am too busy trying to keep my family fed and clothed and pay for health insurance to be able to smash storefronts and loot. Shoot those animals and leave the rest of us in peace – because if they come to MY house, I assure you that’s exactly what I will do.

  • guest

    What happened in London is outrageous. No one knows who these people are. Probably some are welfare recipients; some others may be unemployed or living off of food stamps and free lunch. It is lack of education that creates chaos in the first place. These anti-social elements should be put behind bars and they should do hard labor for damaging and looting
    public properties. These people do not work; they get drunk and waste their time as well as others’ valuable time. It is lack of discipline that makes them indulge in unwanted and unacceptable behavior.
    Once they do hard labor, they get purified and  their mind and body would not think about abusing or misusing or destroying public property.

  • guest

    Upholdthelaw?
    We must uphold the law and protect the law abiding citizens but what happened in London has nothing to do with the race. Those who indulged in violence and damaged public property by looting the stores should be caught and punished accordingly. Nobody is above the law. It looks like these anti-social elements have no education, no respect, no discipline, and no employment. They should go to prison and serve the public through hard labor. They should not spend time in jail using taxpayers’ money.  These culprits should earn their living on their own.
    That is why countries like Malaysia and Singapore are clean and have the lowest crime rates. Why? Their punishment is severe. Due to the tough laws and punishment, criminals become normal and would not indulge in anti-social activities.

  • http://twitter.com/S_T_E_E_L Louie

    Prime Minister David Cameron I wanted to address my deepest condolences and wished to share some comments with regard to the London Riots that has brought national coverage across the globe. I do not live in London, but the first thing I suspected being very intuitive about the root cause for rioting are the acts of the frustrated. The acts of the frustrated are rebellious and appear to seek to create change by the use of force. When there is inequality and a disruption in bringing peace and prosperity to a nation, country, city, and town there are consequences. 

    Leaders around the globe must understand political directives that exacerbate the balance between peace and prosperity will tend to breed a fighting spirit; and in some cases some will not stand down which may result in chaos, riots, war, and plots to upend government officials.

    We all play a role in our world and we are like interconnecting parts that function together to advance society to create global prosperity. Some of us do not think this way and believe competing and undermining each other is the right way.

    Like many nations and world leaders you have not reinforced the ideals of creating and sustaining peace and prosperity. When we hear a story we hear one side, but never address or talk about the plight of others and there acts.

    Even in my own nation political policies such as deregulation, sub-prime lending, oversight bodies that do little to protect investors, and the out-sourcing of opportunities depress a nation’s ability to function efficiently. It spawns an unbalanced society where some prosper while others are denied and stripped of an opportunity.

    I have continued to search for answers regarding the London Riots and came to the conclusion that this problem can be addressed when world leaders solve the ever growing problem of income inequality.

    A young London journalist wrote, “The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain.”

  • Shiningskh

    Well thought out reply.