I remember as a student listening to speakers at the anniversary of Lewisham 77. The idea of people seriously taking to the street to fight injustice, riots and fighting police seemed more like recent history to me than anything else. The LA riots of 1992 were still in my memory, but they were distant and obscured by the fact that I was a child when it happened. The Seattle riots of 1999 ignited my teenage activist sensibilities, but they were tied to the greater anti-corporatist globalisation/culture jamming movement and so seemed another platform of all the activism that was occurring at the time. Riots happen more in England, but to me after the 70s and the ruinous Thatcherite years, they always felt vaguely anachronistic, as if they were reenactments of different times. This weekend saw the return of rioting to my vision, in places that were deeply familiar and hardly known. London has finally erupted in a year of savage cuts, corruption and constant uncertainty after the tipping point, the killing of a man by Metropolitan Police last Thursday.
I am uncertain how to feel about the riots. The rage is understandable, the riots originated in places that are economically deprived and hard hit by the cuts. Being ignored by the police about a possibly unlawful killing was the catalyst to areas constantly ignored by local authorities (though I must say that the family of the man killed condemn everything that has happened over the weekend). But much like the LA riots, the destruction of neighborhood businesses, places which gave people jobs, community and livelihoods, just felt ugly and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Destroying your own neighbourhood is counterproductive when trying to express anger at how the government has treated you. It just gives them ammunition when denying you even more funding and assistance. The brazenness of looters and total negligence of police forces to handle the situation also put a lot of innocent residents, including those who were pregnant and ill in harm’s way, since there was no way for them to seek help safely.
I am a strong believer in political protest and taking to the streets. The Arab Spring has shown the world that rioting can be an effective short term solution to forcing social change that benefits the oppressed and voiceless. But this wasn’t political. People have a right to feel furious at the circumstances that have led to a economy and society that feels like a step back to the early 1980s, complete with idiotic white nationalists and soaring unemployment. We should all be angry at what is happening due to government and corporate corruption. But taking this anger and twisting it into something as self serving as looting the place where you live is idiotic at best and dangerous at its worst. Fight back, but do it in a smart way, in a way that unites communities and actually forces our governments to listen to us and our needs. Stealing a pair of trainers and destroying historical buildings is just feeding in to what Conservatives already think you are. We shouldn’t give them that pleasure.