London: We’re all now used to watching riots and violence flaring from the TV – the Arab Spring (now Summer) is just the latest in a continuum of civic unrest whose eruptions occur around the globe in human civilisation’s hot-zones. But, on Monday, I had the unusual experience of watching in stereo.
On the screen in my home in Lewisham, south London, dozens of gangs of 10 to 50 hooded youths were marauding through London’s neighbourhoods, smashing shop windows, setting cars ablaze, burning homes and businesses, attacking the few police around, attacking other Londoners… Meanwhile, black-clad kids in hats and hoods were running down my street outside the window, shouting about “the Feds” (I’m clearly not the only one watching too much TV), fires and smoke could be seen from the high-street, sirens were blaring and helicopters droning. At intervals, huddles of kids, high on adrenalin, euphoria and alcohol gathered at the corner with bags of looted booty and loudly discussed their next move.
It was the TV images that won out that night, and the next: scenes of such distressing violence, cruelty and pointless vandalism that moved me from incredulity to sorrow to anger. Who were these animals, tearing apart my city, murdering their neighbours, shaming us all? Why did so many young men and women think it’s okay to smash shops and steal stuff?
The kids outside my window ranged from 10-17-years-old. When I was a teenager, I would never have behaved like that. Then, I thought back to myself at age 10. Would I have joined in? It never happened, but if a huge gang of my friends was going down the high-street shouting and making a scene, I’d have been thrilled to be invited. If they smashed in a shop window, and no one stopped us, I’d probably have accepted a dare to join in – like Ms Lennox, I love the sound of breaking glass, and there are a couple of shameful milk-bottle incidents in my past – and I’d have loved it. Would I have looted the store? I think not. Mainly, because stealing was in a different (worse) category on my childish moral compass, but also because I never really yearned after particular clothes, electrical items (although I finally got a walkman when I was 14), or was even aware of brands beyond foods. The only people who had mobiles (car phones), designer items and flashy consumables were Yuppies, and in the 80s, Yuppies were despised and ridiculed by most ordinary people.
Sometime in that last couple of decades, that changed. Yuppie values went mainstream: status, success, even happiness became defined by products and money. Women are told they are ‘worth’ a makeup or hair product, rather than the other way around. Television programming is filled with aspirational slots based on getting rich or looking ‘good’: by doing up your home to sell, buying additional houses to sell on, buying holiday homes, obnoxious ‘yuppies’ do well on The Apprentice, there are countless programmes on cosmetic surgery, and unfathomable airtime is given to people, like boob-model Jordan, programmes that elevate individuals to wealth and social prestige, based on nothing that they have done for their society to earn this celebration.
If what we look like, the brands we wear and the amount of things we own is how we have decided to measure the status of an individual within our society, then we have set large sections of our communities up for failure. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world in terms of wealth – we have one of the highest levels of child poverty, which has doubled over the past generation to more than 3 million now. More than 30% of 18-24-year-old men are unemployed.
I believe everyone has the right to earn respect in their community, regardless of their background. If success, self-respect and status in your community is measured by whether you own, say, a particular pair of pricey plimmies from JD Sport, it might be impossible for you to ‘earn’ that status, which drives a sense of entitlement to acquiring it by any means. If idiotic, unkind people are shown daily on TV, doing nothing to ‘earn’ their wealth, if politicians, the police and bankers are shown to be corrupt, if we are continually shown that the people who in other societies might be awarded social prestige – such as teachers, social workers, nurses – actually are some of the worst rewarded and most dispensable, then we should not be surprised that bored youths use the long summer holidays and their unemployment to demonstrate that they too have no respect for our social structures.
It seems that gangs orchestrated the riots using BlackBerry messaging and surely it was a minority that set alight houses, shops and cars, that attacked and murdered people. But they couldn’t have acted with such impunity had it not been for their swelled ranks of opportunistic kids along for the ride. Kids, perhaps not too different from me.
The vast majority of people obey the laws that are decided by a government we elect as the servants of the people. When so many people decide not to, we need to ask why they feel that the politicians are not their servants. We will not discourage this hooliganism through Cameron’s combative tone and suggestions of warlike police tactics – the language of some politicians reveals an intrinsic contempt and hatred for the communities they are elected to represent. Nor will we nurture trust in the police while they continue to harass Black boys and men and show a lack of respect for the people and laws they are supposed to be protecting.
We will only solve this “sickness” as Cameron calls it, by ensuring that the anarchic kids and opportunistic crowds of looters believe as individuals that it is unjustifiable for them to act in this way – that it is not worth it because they lose more social prestige by that behaviour than through abstaining. It means that we as a society must decide what is important for a good life and how different values should be ranked. If we decide that certain shoes or TVs or T-shirts are vitally important, then we should ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get them. But, if we decide that a decent education and the opportunity to perform a respected role in society, the right to a safe shared environment and to walk as anyone else down the street without being stopped unnecessarily by police is important, then this should be accessible to everyone.
Social forces are very strong in our species – they are strong enough to draw the usually law-abiding into horrendous acts of criminality, but they are also strong enough to allow our overcrowded cities, with a vast chasm between rich and poor, to run incredibly peaceably most of the time.