Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again?

Panic – The Smiths (1986)

There’s a lot being said on the internet about last night’s escalation of riots in London and Birmingham (and spreading). So much so that blogging about it feels like repetition and empty rhetoric.

But there’s a lot of things that need saying, at least to clear my head about it, and so that I don’t get into arguments on Twitter. It’s a fantastic medium for all sorts of things, but it simply doesn’t have the space to accommodate the necessary complexity that reflection and analysis about events like these requires.

And I think that’s the observation I’d like to bring to this: there isn’t any simplicity here. No simple causes and certainly no simple solutions.

That smile isn’t happiness

People were looting and rioting. This doesn’t happen when people are happy with their lot. It just doesn’t.

And yet, people are reporting the gleeful grins of (very) young people kicking in shop windows and taking X-Box games. This was as much a party as it was scene of mass destruction. I saw it compared to A Clockwork Orange on more than one occasion.

How do you square those things?

Well, I imagine looting is exhilarating. I imagine when you have been force-fed the idea that human value comes from material possessions, then actually getting your hands on those possessions after being deprived any opportunity to earn those things for yourself – especially when surrounded by noise and shouting and fire and running – would feel like… well, not winning… but at least not like the misery, hopelessness and desperation that you’re used to.

It was already broken when they got here

The violence and the damage is inexcusable. The behaviour of the rioters is an affront to everything decent in society. It has ruined people’s livelihoods, caused massive damage to people’s lives and, most importantly, caused physical harm to innocent people.

It’s virtually unforgivable.

Likewise, the political and economic context within which this situation occurred is inexcusable. The people responsible for ensuring equity, a decent standard of living for all and – most importantly – opportunity and hope have not simply let us all down, they have done so willingly, knowingly, cynically and gleefully.

They have done it in collusion with those with the greatest wealth and power and it is nothing short of widespread criminality on a scale that eclipses anything done last night by any window-breaking yob. It is not about ideology, but about simple greed – for money, power and control, at the expense of the poorest, the weakest and the most disaffected in our communities.

This, by contrast, is utterly unforgivable.

Politics devoid of an ideal

No, the rioters were not “protesting”, and nor did they have a political agenda or a point to make – but that doesn’t mean that these events weren’t political.

It means precisely the opposite.

This is not an enactment of some set of political ideals – it is the result of them.

Crime and punishment

And no, the rioters are not the victims here. This is not some woolly liberal plea for the ‘sweet and tender hooligan’ (to keep the Smiths thing going). The law should and must be applied to all of last night’s transgressors. But the point is, it will. These children and teens will be caught, arrested and punished.

The same is not true for those who lost all the money, took massive bonuses, shut down all of the youth services and centres, and created a political climate that offers no hope and still – despite everything – only values and promotes conspicuous consumption.

But that position of extreme elite power seems utterly unassailable. The public response to the violent events of last night will simply be to swing predictably and depressingly further to the right. To demand tougher policing, rubber bullets, community segregation, stricter immigration laws, the reintroduction of the death penalty… and so on.

Hopelessness begets violence. Violence instils fear. Fear fosters deep conservatism.

Social media is to blame

At every available opportunity, the mainstream press is asking questions (or making assertions) about the role of social media – specifically Twitter and BBM – in the escalation and co-ordination of the violence.

Not only does this utterly vindicate the value of studying such media, it also shows a gross (and again wilful) misunderstanding of communication technology. Yes, criminals talk to each other. Who’d have thought?

My own Twitter timeline is filled with helpful people wanting to assist with the cleanup. Encouraging others to shop with local businesses to help them recover in this time of crisis. Offering assistance to rebuild whatever infrastructure has collapsed at the hands of this gleeful angry mob.

It’s heartwarming. People are, basically, wonderful. Technologies that allow them to express that simply amplify that fact.

But at the same time I can’t help thinking that this positive action they wish to engage in feels like cleaning up the work of one set of criminals, so that the other set of criminals can go back to business as usual. And I find that kind of distressing.

I’m not sure I want to engage in that particular conversation, because what I want to say doesn’t quite fit in 140 characters.

I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps there isn’t one… at least, not one that can happen quickly. It’s complicated. Massively, frustratingly complex. This is the sort of thing that requires a fundamental change in our government, in our institutions, in our communities and in our people.

I do know that the answer isn’t more of the same – from either group of criminals.

But I also get the feeling that more communication, rather than less, is a good start.