The English riots

We’ve had riots in England since last Friday night. The facts are quite murky at the moment, but what we know is this.

First, last week police made a planned car stop to arrest a passenger. A scuffle or disturbance ensued, and the police shot their target to death. A gun (modified starter pistol) was found in the auto, but had not been fired. The police say that they thought they were about to be fired on. The dead man had been known to the police, but his family claims that he had never been convicted of a crime. This doesn’t mean he’d never committed any, mind you.

Second, the family marched to the local police station (in Tottenham, North London) to demand answers. They waited outside the police station for several hours and no police spokesperson came to meet them. The crowd became restless and a riot broke out. Buildings were burned and shops looted.

Third, over the weekend and through Monday the unrest spread to other parts of London. Youths who had coordinated their activities through smartphones roamed through shopping areas smashing windows, burglarising shops (sports stores were most favoured, followed by mobile phone stores). A family furniture store in Croydon that had been in existence for 5 generations was torched. Shops along the Walworth Road (just around the corner from me) were targeted.

Fourth, an extra 10,000 police were deployed Tuesday night in London. Therefore, rioting broke out in Manchester, Salford, Birmingham, and various other northern cities.

Now there has been a shitstorm of comment about this, on Facebook, Twitter, and in various blogs. But there are several points I’d like to highlight.

First, people tend to refer to the youths as “animals”. Children are not animals. They are complex human beings with needs, desires, and aspirations. They may not be very nice aspirations (I want to be a gang leader, for example, isn’t a great aspiration), but aspirations they are. We cannot write these young people off as “animals”.

Second, the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade is talking about shooting looters, putting them away for long stretches in prison, and generally removing them from society in one way or another. Not a good idea in general. While those who have committed crimes should be punished, if even one looter is gratuitously shot and killed the situation will be made much worse. This is especially true of people committing crimes against property. Last I heard, the death penalty for burglary had been removed in the 19th Century.

Third, those who would excuse the looting as “youth protesting against the way society treats them” are seriously misled. Yes, changes must be made. However, the best way to change society is not to smash the windows of your nearest sports store and try on trainers to steal. The best way is to become politically involved, vote the rascals out (or in), contribute to civil society, and do your best to expose the inequities of society through publicity, not through looting. The best way to ensure that your voice will be marginalised is to do a spot of looting. My guess is that the looters who were old enough to vote last year didn’t bother.

There is a lot of excess energy around. If these youths had devoted as much energy to finding a job or a place in education as they have to running around town centres looting, they’d all be employed or in education today. This energy needs to be harnessed, somehow. The energy is like the wind, which simply blows debris around until you use it to turn a turbine and produce electricity.

Similarly, the government needs to do more than denounce the looters as criminals, animals, and thugs. Most of them are probably thugs (whatever a “thug” is) and those who have committed crimes are criminals. But as a society we seriously need to consider what to let these people do. If we don’t find something for them to do, we’ll end up having riots whenever people get bored.

Private industry too needs to step up to the plate and help by creating more entry-level jobs for people, giving them on-the-job training and a road up through the ranks. With the mad dash for continuously increasing profits, those types of entry-level jobs have disappeared to India or to computing. We need to bring them back here and find ways of recreating those manual labour jobs that used to be the poor’s ticket out of poverty. If Sony had created more jobs in Enfield with their warehouse, perhaps those workers would have protected the warehouse rather than become rioters burning it. Of course, much of the inventory in there was CDs and the like owned by independent producers and musicians, many of them rappers. It’s all gone now, melted into a pile of goo.

If we’re not careful, the rest of us will be melted into piles of goo, figuratively. The time to act is now¬ótomorrow may be too late.

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