I wandered back from my friend’s house at around 8pm on Sunday, through Brixton town centre, where people were still milling about on the streets and packing away equipment from the annual Splash festival, which celebrates the community’s diversity. I got a Chinese takeaway, went home, ate it, and if I owned pyjamas, this is the point at which I would have put them on. It was also at this point that a police helicopter searchlight flickered briefly through my window as it flew overhead, and some riot police gathered to make a line in my road.
Then texts started coming through asking if I was safe. It’s the kind of question that makes you wonder whether you know the answer yourself. But as I started searching for news on media sites and twitter, I quickly compiled a pretty coherent picture of what was going on, in Brixton at least. These were not the “Brixton Riots,” these were just some riots in Brixton. Young people had been out all day drinking at the festival, someone had mentioned that people had got away with looting in Tottenham the night before, they were bored on their summer holidays and they’d obviously decided that they wanted some new trainers (Footlocker) and phones (Vodafone), and needed bikes to make their getaway (Halford’s).
There are a lot of questions still to be answered, and opinions differ on who is most to blame. There is uncertainty as to the exact sequence of events surrounding Mark Duggan’s killing, and what the implications are; the police do not have a commissioner; perhaps unsurprisingly, communication devices were widely used when looters wanted to communicate with each other; the youth is widely implicated. Most people are in agreement that the current rioting, which has even spread to Birmingham and Liverpool, is not ideologically motivated so much as opportunistic burglary. What I wonder—and it is a horrible question to have to pose—is whether any riot ever consists wholly of like-minded, ideologically motivated people with a desire to make themselves heard through civil disobedience?
Most people seem to believe that the violence in their area is coming from people who are not from the area, and that therefore the looting is indiscriminate. But if all they want to do is loot, and if they are happy to travel, why aren’t they all meeting in Mayfair? It could be that although their actions are poorly targeted, often at local businesses, these incidents are happening in areas where a lot of young people are unemployed, where there is poverty and people do not feel that they’re being well represented by their government. Not that that really explains riots in Ealing.
Yet despite the nihilistic nature of these riots, they remain symptoms of disaffection and inequality. Riots don’t tend to happen in affluent areas: they tend to happen where there is deprivation, where there is no trust in government or its policing methods, or where the perceived gap between rich and poor seems to be widening. Doubtless, many of the rioters couldn’t give you a reason why they’re looting and setting fire to buildings, but that’s not to say there aren’t reasons why this is happening here, and now.