London’s Burning

Written in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 London Riots…

The flames are dying down and the media hysteria is switching over from apocalyptic prophecies of dark hordes of ferral youths destroying the fabric of society to tired cliches from politicians. Declaring their terror and disgust at recent events and promising to crack down on anyone and everyone they can find in possession of a hoodie or some nicked Tesco’s own brand vodka. The local gossip, which for about two days was running rife across South East London has also died down to a lazier, less tense dissection of events over pints and cups of tea. The hyper-aware proliferation of imagined mobs marching on largely unscathed areas of the metropolis suddenly seen as the implausible excitability of people who, for the most part, wandered half dazed and half excited through the whole event.

So far, in the aftermath, I’ve heard numerous calls for harsher sentencing, national service, plastic bullets, tear gas and even a few knowing nods towards American style policing which, apparently, carries a more fitting level of brutality with it as far as some people’s perceptions go. The facts of their staggering prison population, generally culled from the poorest and blackest in their society hardly seems to merit a mention in the tumult of retributive outrage. Fortunately, however, there’s a standing divide between what I’ve heard from Londoners themselves and what’s been heaped on us from the outside world by way of analysis and judgement. Safe within the limits of the M25 reactions and realities have erred towards the pragmatic and away from the elated condemnation of politicians and journos with a nice moral line of their own to follow.

That the riots were pointless in their randomness and opportunism no one’s denied – despite the usual bubbling Left-Right juxtaposition over what, if any politics recent events have carried with them. But that view’s routinely been accompanied by a nervously smiling London shrug (a bit like a gallic shrug only better) and an unsurprised acceptance that a load of kids with limited opportunities, no money and trapped in a city which for all intents and purposes has no commercial need for them and therefore no need for them at all (mixed in with another thousand causes and reasons which’d require a fistful of dissertations to explore). Burning down Carpet Rite and looting Londis may be a confusingly disordered reflection of that and certainly one which has stirred up some really righteous indignation. As opposed to the cod-outrage being spread by point scoring politicians and social commentators but with increasing unemployment, massive government cuts and a culture largely operated as a consumerist haven how much of a shock can it be? Especially when it’s not just a youthful minority who’re aware of it but a vast chunk of the population, a fair few of whom have seemingly spent the last week half-willing the rioters to take out the nearest Tesco’s or estate agent as a manifestation of how screwed we all feel before instantly disassociating themselves when word came through of a family being burnt out of their home, or a local shop being looted.

Still, in my part of London the condemnation retains that ring of doubt, no less full of disdain for the random arson and theft and certainly no more forgiving of those perpetrating it but tinged with an edge of understanding that things are getting worse and that it’s not right; a feeling which hints that a riot focused on whatever people perceive to be the right targets would have garnered a wholly different reaction from people who, unlike the media and political institutions, are just getting angry enough to not blanche at the thought of a real reaction to the way we’ve all been treated.

For now though the expectation is that it will happen again, sooner or later, at least it will if the problems endemic in our society and political system aren’t faced up to and dealt with and chances are it’ll be even more random and widespread as the general response from above proves to be one of reactionary outrage and crack-downs. Especially when those reactions (like sentences of six-months for six bottles of water) are being fuelled and encouraged by politicians whose own attitude towards theft and looting are those of acceptance, as long as it’s couched in the formal terminology of government and the losers firmly on the other side of the power divide.

Until that next time though the stoical, aware majority of Londoners are stuck with over-dramatic declarations form the media, rehearsed ‘strong man’ sound-bites from politicians and a further theft of their city as it’s held up as a totem for every mouthpiece with something to say. So it’s a good thing that we’re Londoners really, all this could drive a lesser city to rioting and outrage.

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