I write this now as the proverbial and literal dust has completely settled over the England riots that held media and public attention from 6th to 10th August 2011. There is a reason for this. We are now past a time where the causes of these incidents and recriminations for those involved were being debated. What once felt like Armageddon has now become a small piece of violent history. We can now reflect without the knee-jerk reactions shaped by prejudices about the deterioration and decimation of society.
Like the riots themselves, news on this event seemed to spread like a virulent disease touching everyone. They began in Tottenham taking in a large surrounding area. Then another one, equally as large, broke out across the River Thames in Battersea. Originally known as London riots, the trend was quickly picked up in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Popular historical commentary compared the whole event to the Brixton Riots of 1995, but the culture of social media helped turn it into something on a far larger scale. We are familiar with seeing rioting from one country or another, but there is a certain detachment many are likely to feel for these disturbing events. Seeing this happening in an industrialized and developed country was tantamount to the apocalypse for some. British culture still retains an underlying class stigma that seems deeply entrenched in its psychological make-up despite the liberal press trying hard to deny its existence within the intelligentsia. It is this psychological hang-up that comes to the fore when something like this occurs and can be heard in the reactions of most. The fear of all out anarchy, a type of End of Times for society, was clearly coming out in many who commented on the internet and also many who reported on the incidents. This was reinforced when it became clear that the riots were not going to be confined to certain areas of London. News commentators drew up impressive looking diagrams on the map of London showing how distinctly different the cultures of Tottenham and Battersea were, and yet how they were equally effected by the riots. The inevitable tabloid press screamed in shock at the teacher, millionaire's daughter and child aged 11 that were facing charges for looting.
On the last night of the riots I was in the changing room of the martial arts centre I do my owning training in, when I overheard a conversation between a boxing coach and a judo coach. These figures of discipline were clearly dismayed by what was happening. The judo coach spoke of how he had seen society break down since he left the army - he had apparently fought in the Falklands War. He remarked that the army no longer resembled the camaraderie he had experienced. Boxing coach, a man in his 20s or early 30s, then launched into a defence of Mary Whitehouse! He described her as if she were some mythic character from the past - I recall Mary Whitehouse very well - and how many, including he, used to mock her. However, he said, she was right about the decline of societal values. At times like this those of us used to working within disciplined systems tend to get nostalgic about the past. But is this really the physical manifestation of a society without values?
The riots began with a protest march in reaction to the shooting of Mark Duggan by a CO19 armed police officer. The whole incident is still under investigation. According to Police sources, a loaded blank firing pistol converted for live ammunition was recovered from the scene. Early reports came in that the Police had claimed Duggan had fired first. They apparently deny this claim despite it allegedly coming from a spokesman from the Independent Police Complaints Commission. When the initial ballistics report came back claiming that Duggan hadn't fired, Duggan's family issued a public statement saying that they couldn't believe "they could do this". If they had a justified belief that Duggan was about to endanger their lives then it is very easy that they can do this without fear of recrimination. See the Criminal Law Act 1967 3(1) and the precedent of Beckford versus the Queen (1988) that justifies opening fire pre-emptively.
As the riots took place theories as to why they had happened varied from area to area. Those in Tottenham had little sympathy. Quite simply those committing the violence and the looting were scumbags. It wasn't about the poor versus the rich as some had declared or a race war - looters incidentally were a mix of classes and races. Predictably the generally more well-off residents of Battersea felt a need to be a bit more sympathetic. Some explained the lack of youth centres and care in the community contributed to what we were seeing.
I think it is probably a combination of the two. Growing up on a travelling circus I have seen how multicultural society can operate in harmony and has done for a very long time. I have also met some of society's worst - rapists, murderers, thieves and thugs. I make research into criminology and psychology important if amateurish considerations to improve my work as a self-protection coach and writer, so I am not ignorant to theories about causes. Reasons are rarely simplistic. There are those that are brought up in environments immersed in crime and taught to distrust the Police. It is classic group polarization and we shouldn't be too surprised by the resentment and conspiratorial paranoia many have for the uniformed authorities. However, the maliciousness of the crimes and the general attitude towards them are difficult to excuse. When asked whilst looting why he was doing it by a TV journalist, an offender replied "Because it is fun". Another tried to justify his crime by saying he was getting back his taxes. A similar excuse was made for those questioned for destroying property - "It's insured". I don't know what is sadder the thought that these idiots might actually believe these excuses or the thought that they think it makes a good argument. The truth is some people need little excuse for doing terrible things. Some of these people have nihilistic philosophies to justify their actions whereas others just do it because they can.
The Worst of People; the Best of People - Real Self Defence
This type of event inevitably attracts media sensationalism. There were a good number of instances recorded both mobile phones and by the mainstream media that revealed just how low some members of society can descend. A popular example of this was the footage, taken by Abdul Hamid, of the injured Malaysian student, Asyraf Haziq Rosli, being helped to his feet by two individuals only to have his rucksack looted. Rosli had just suffered a broken jaw after someone had punched him in the face and stole his bike. One of these "Bad Samaritans" was apparently Reece Donavan who was later arrested for the offence. The vulture-like predatory premeditation of the crime just seemed to highlight everything that is in opposition to moral values that underlie any society.
One Sky News reporter first began his broadcast using his mobile phone when the recording was prematurely interrupted. The footage revealed more than just opportunistic looting. It revealed mindless wanton destruction of a hair dressing salon and other places that had no obvious material value to a looter. The reporter later reappeared with a professional recording team in tow to reveal that the interruption had occurred when someone had tried to steal the phone off him! He had then run to a nightclub, where a local doorman had allowed him shelter against the storm of rioting.
More serious incidents resulted in the deaths of five people. Four of these murders carry with them stories that seem representative of the malicious drive that characterized the riots. Three men, Haroon Jahan, 21 and brothers Shahzad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31 were all killed in a hit and run attack whilst they tried to defend their neighbourhood. Richard Mannington Bowes, a 68 year old man who had incurred a fine 10 years previously for confronting youths when they urinated outside his home, died from head injuries when at least two youths attacked him as he attempted to put out a fire that had been started in a litterbin.
These examples seem to reinforce are deepest fears about an ungoverned society. When chaos ensues human will attack human and those with a feeling of public service will trampled underfoot. It's like a script from any apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic movie. It's also the sort of the emotive story that would inspire vigilante wish-fulfilment films like "Harry Brown" and "Death Wish". But much of the reaction I saw on the social networks was of a nihilistic type. The media footage, both professional and that recorded by concerned citizens on their phones, depicted a world where the bad guys outnumbered the good. This seemed to be symbolized with scenes where riot police in several different locations backed away from jeering violent mobs, who celebrated their apparent domination over the custodians of law and order.
However, the bigger picture is very different. Society is founded by the cooperation and altruism of a highly sociable species of animal. I say this in acceptance of the consensus of our current scientific understanding and despite being a militant individualist. We have the civilization that exists today - you know the one that generally doesn't see carnage on its doorstep everyday - because most people are willing to help each other and work together. Don't believe me? Why is it then that most human beings do feel safe to walk the streets unarmed when the same couldn't have been said before the 20th century? Why is it that, in most instances, we can feel quite confident in asking the time of a complete stranger? Despite being told that the age of chivalry is dead by an aging older generation, opening doors for complete strangers without the motivation of being paid in some material way is still not an uncommon sight. Despite what doomsayers love to tell us and depict their films, most humans help one another in a crisis. We saw this with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we saw it after the South East Asian tsunami, we saw it after the earthquake in Haiti, we saw it during the uprisings in Egypt and Yemen, and we saw it in the 2011 English Riots - which is a rather smaller scale disaster by comparison. Dan Gardner's "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear" is sober reading for those who think that only laws and fear of recrimination make society function, as the impressive body of work of Steven Pinker. There is overwhelming historical evidence to suggest that most humans will help their fellow humans rather than prey upon one another.
Communities did band together during the riots of August. The social media networks coordinated massive volunteer clean-up operations and worked together to secure arrests. Whole websites were set-up to do positive things to restore order, repair damage and get justice. On the frontline there were reports of hundreds of people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder to protect their neighbourhoods. One person stood alone. Pauline Pearce has since been dubbed the "Heroine of Hackney" after she flew into a tirade of disgust at the behaviour of looters. She expressed her anger at how something that was supposed to have been about protesting the killing of a black man had turned into an excuse for neighbours to turn against each other. It prompted a round of applause and apparently helped stay the hands of looters about to throw missiles. The recording of the speech made its way onto YouTube and she has since won media acclaim for her stand, becoming a voice of the people.
Just as we tend to severely underestimate the work and desire to do good by the majority in society we also often seriously underestimate the harm that can be caused by small groups of people. In fact, we are often shocked at the sheer carnage wrought on a community and even the world by singular individuals. Less than a month prior to the English Riots, clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and militant right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a car bomb in Oslo within Regjeringskvartalet, the executive government quarter of Norway, and shot dead 69 people at the Norwegian Labour party's youth division's summer camp on the island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden, Buskerud. Again, I saw people pandering to this lone nutter's crackpot racist views on immigration. It worked off a certain media narrative that we see whenever killers go on rampages and murder innocent people. We look into our society for reasons, desperate for an answer. I am as bad as the next person. I want solutions and I want robust systems in place that might help us avert these terrible tragedies. However, once matters have settled down and these incidents are looked into more closely and with an objective mind, we find that the answers are frustratingly simple and irritatingly difficult to deal with. Humans do terrible things because they are either suffering from a mental disorder or they are responding to a type of peer pressure, perhaps even mass hysteria. Immigration laws had about as much to do with Breivik's crimes in one of Europe's most peaceful countries as the US Government's mishandling of the Waco disaster had to do Timothy McVeigh's killing of 168 people and injuring 800 in Oklahoma. Quite simply, these are very disturbed individuals that develop their dangerous urges and plans over years. Likewise, to blame the English Riots on the Police shooting of Mark Duggan, the protests that followed, the feelings of injustice in poor neighbourhoods or the pressures of society in general is to give those who committed acts of mindless violence way too much credit. On two sides of the river Thames in two totally different neighbourhoods idiotic thugs and parasitic opportunists that exist on the fringes of every sector of our society - regardless of class or income - decided to take advantage of a situation. It has always happened and it happens all the time. Identifying genuine mental problems in individuals at earlier stages of their lives might be the best lesson that can be learned from these unfortunate episodes. As for meaning, that's up to you, but it's not an avenue I want to pursue. I would rather do something a little more practical.
Shouting from the Bleachers
The next time you watch a football match have a good look at the audience if you can. If you are going there and watching it live you will have a better opportunity to do this. Notice the rather obese individuals - they will be in plentiful supply. You will note that the last time they kicked a ball was probably when they dropped the Edam cheese on their foot. And yet these individuals will love to shout advice from their comfortable bleacher seat. They will roar abuse at people as if they could literally do a better job themselves. It's a very easy thing to do. And when we look at them it's easy to see how foolish they seem. I think of these types of individuals when I see and hear others do the same thing in times of serious and violent upheaval.
Those who tried to wax political early during the riots were quite quickly told that this was not the time. However, critics of those on the frontline were not regularly checked. Police were criticized both on the ground and from afar. I don't know the precise details and I was not amid any of the areas affected by the rioting. However, I did have friends serving in forces in Birmingham and Tottenham. They had colleagues seriously injured in the riots and knew they would have to face the violence again the next night. This is their job. It's not an especially well-paid job and one that can carry a high amount of risk. We hear about deplorable examples of corruption, prejudice, negligence and criminal activity in the police force, but the reason why we hear about it because it is so rare on the whole. Without sounding like a naïve patriot, the British police force is the envy the world. Our largely unarmed servants of law enforcement put their lives on the line on a regular basis in order that we can feel safe. Unfortunately the numbers on the nights of the riots made the whole operation very difficult in London. However, Birmingham did an exemplary job of maintaining control. The ignorance displayed by certain critics would have been funny if we weren't discussing people doing a serious and very dangerous job. For example, many who have probably watched too much crime drama, could not understand why riot police were not arresting rioters left, right and centre. What they failed to realize was that several officers would be tied up in order to arrest and take an offender back to his cell, therefore taking more police off the streets. The next day was a different story when many house arrests were made, as CCTV cameras, eyewitness reports and other methods were used to trace offenders back to their homes.
Reaction and Aftermath
Humans are pattern seekers. This is the way we have evolved and we desperately need the comfort of knowing there is a reason for everything. I am not pained to do this and I do not require someone to tell me what good has come out of such an event. We can learn lessons and progress because we choose to do this, as we do with any experience. However, let's really try to pretend that this was meant to happen or had to happen or happened for a reason. Any reason that could be drawn from these riots was lost within the first few hours of the protest. After that it was a clear demonstration of the way chaos is a greater part of our lives than we care to admit.
Interestingly as the recriminations start, we see different groups again flocking to their preferred political or philosophical position. Harsh sentencing became the order of the day and seemed very much in line with the public reaction. Obviously those of the hard right persuasion were virtually calling for everything bar the death penalty. There were those in the minority, but as always, with the loudest voice who felt that the recriminations were disproportionate. As a friend of mine so eloquently put it on Facebook "Can't believe the same people who were last week trembling with fear and wondering where Batman was during the riots are now saying these little skid marks sentences are too harsh." From what I have experienced and researched, deterrents are short term solutions. They work hard and fast, but to a limited and small degree. They help dissuade the masses and the opportunists. My view is anyone involved in violence - both directly and indirectly - should be made an example of through a custodial sentence. They have proven themselves to be a physical threat to society and therefore need to be incarcerated for public safety. This is not to say that certain personalities, particularly those responsible for lesser violent offences, shouldn't also be brought to terms with damage they have caused - both through facing people who have suffered as a direct consequence of their actions, if said people are agreeable, and also through community service to be done in addition to the custodial sentence. Facing the offenders might help bring some sort of closure to those who have been affected. I put this to lesser offenders, as they are often the followers, the hangers on and people more likely to see the "error of their ways".
I think it is a fair summation that we need more police and better paid officers. I also agree we need to work more for a stronger bond between community and the authorities. After my initial sense of pride for the way humans banded together to protect their streets I was then saddened to think that this just did not happen enough. Unfortunately the police community officer is just not given enough respect today and I have seen then actively ridiculed even in middle class suburbs by those that should be more wary. The feeling is that they have fewer powers than even a normal citizen. On the matter, I feel the general public are not informed enough about their own civic duty and what the law permits. Matters could have been better controlled if we had more professional officers on the beat and a stronger all round sense of community. It's easy to blame the media, but I have difficultly pointing the finger elsewhere aside from ourselves as responsible individuals. No medium has sensationalized injustice more than the tabloids and the broadsheets are rarely far behind. Whenever there is a corrupt police officer or an instance of an "honest citizen" being convicted for defending himself against the forces of evil, the press are all over it. The education being fed back to those on both sides of the law goes along these lines: criminals have more rights than victims. It just isn't true. Read Mark Dawes's "Understanding Reasonable Force" and "Understanding Unreasonable Force" for concise descriptions of the huge amount of rights a law-abiding citizen has over a violent offender.
Despite the fact that rioting isn't common in the UK few governments haven't suffered from serious outbreaks of violent anarchy. I was amused at the debates I saw online revolving around politics. Again I saw the group polarization. One person even had the gall to say "There were no riots under New Labour!" He must have been living in a cave when the anti-capitalist protests turned into full scale riots in London or the multiple race riots of 2001 for that matter. However, it just goes to show how rare it all is on a relative basis. This is representative of the whole self-protection issue. When I teach personal security and self-defence skills I make my students aware that it is unlikely they will encounter interpersonal violence as an adult civilian. Part of my teaching is make sure they do not mistake paranoia for healthy awareness and I explain that statistics show that we are living in fairly safe times. However, the downside of living in safer times is that we are often unready when violence does inevitably erupt. I would say this is just such an instance.