Many years have passed since I last sat in a university sociology seminar, but there’s one thing I can tell you categorically: if people don’t want to be governed, they won’t be. Prisons, for instance, are balanced on a precarious knife edge between order and anarchy. To a large extent, the warders rely on the inmates accepting their authority and taking on the role of the prisoner. In return, the prisoners come to expect certain kinds of behaviour from the guards. It’s an uneasy and difficult relationship, but 99% of the time, it gets played out satisfactorily. When the delicate balancing act collapses, we get to hear about it, because it usually results in violence and disorder.
A feature of any riot is that the accepted norms have broken down. Historically, people have often protested at brutality and oppression and the outbreak of violence and lawlessness symbolises to the authorities that they will no longer accept the status quo. If we take the Brixton riots of 1981, for example, they were a response to perceived harassment of the Afro-Caribbean community in an impoverished part of London. Using the so-called ‘sus’ laws, officers stopped and searched black youths on suspicion that they might commit crime and there’s little doubt that there was a large degree of what we’d now describe as ‘institutionalised’ racism in their actions.
The Brixton experience was shocking. The police had no formal riot training or protective gear. There was an obvious racial dimension to the clashes. A huge amount of devastation was caused to an already very poor area. But out of the riots came a new kind of accommodation and politics, thanks to a report from Lord Scarman. I later became involved personally with one of the initiatives he recommended – a scheme called lay visiting (today, independent custody visiting), where members of the public are authorised to arrive unannounced at police stations and check on the conditions of detainees being held in custody. It added a level of transparency to policing which had never previously existed and was one step along a long road to more sensitive, community-focused law enforcement. Although everyone would want to avoid the bloodshed and upheaval, it is difficult to deny that it resulted in some kind of catharsis.
What made the recent London riots different? Well, beyond Tottenham, they had no political dimension whatsoever. The core participants were looking for the thrill that comes through battle and having the run of the streets. Hangers-on opportunistically saw an opportunity for theft. In many ways, the psychology of these riots is more akin to the organised violence between football ‘firms’ than the politically-motivated riots of the 1980s. We’ll meet you at such-and-such a railway station at 6pm and it’s all going to kick off. (The profile of some of the defendants in court, incidentally, mirrors that of the football thugs. They’re not all lumpen lowlife. Many have – or aspire to – decent jobs.)
The areas affected were unpredictable and not necessarily reflective of the capital’s pattern of wealth and poverty. Ealing is a prosperous suburb. Croydon is very socially mixed. In today’s Brixton, the traditional Afro-Caribbean community shares space with young professionals and newer waves of immigrants. The fear that Londoners felt on Tuesday morning could be summed up as follows: the violence can happen anywhere; no one is safe from the mob. If they can smash up Clapham, they are getting too close to the respectable middle classes.
The other thing which obviously changes the nature of the riot is the use of instant messaging via smartphone. In the past, one advantage the police have always had over the rioters is the availability of sophisticated communication channels. This allows them to organise tactically and keep one step ahead. In recent years, the people causing the disorder – whether for political or hedonistic purposes – have had access to more sophisticated communication channels than the police. They are highly mobile and can appear and disappear almost at will. And let’s add in another dimension. Their mobility is aided by the fact that they don’t necessarily have any clear objective other than to cause maximum mayhem. Compare this to the old-fashioned march on a police station or government building. Predictable and largely static.
These various factors have led to a great deal of confusion. Londoners have been confronted by technologically savvy, fast-moving gangs who have no clear objective other than to maximise the amount of trouble they cause. Overstretched police officers have tried to confront them with tactics designed for political demonstrators in a bygone era. Unsurprisingly, the forces of law and order have come up short. This is why there was such a stench of anarchy wafting from that burning party shop in Clapham Junction and the furniture store in Croydon. And it explains why Londoners were probably more dazed and confused than they were even in the aftermath of the 2005 bomb attacks.
For me, one of the more fascinating trends to emerge from the ash, rubble and broken glass has been the reactionary commentary from previously liberal young people about town. A few weeks ago, they would have been crying into their Chardonnay about a bloke being pushed over at a G20 demo and bleated about students being ‘kettled’ by cops at a demonstration. But as soon as their own world is threatened, they want the police to use water cannon and plastic bullets.
Am I too cynical when I say that some middle-class Londoners have for too long taken pride in living in ‘edgy’ parts of the city, showing faux solidarity with the dispossessed urban youths of nearby council estates? They laugh off the problems of knives and guns and drugs, for instance, because it’s cool to live in a city where this kind of stuff goes on. Your friends admire you because they think you’re oh-so-urban. In reality, you’re sipping cappuccino and drooling over Grand Designs. You’re a few streets away from the action geographically and a million miles away in every other sense, because that’s the way you really like it.
Suddenly, the Metro-reading, gym-going, bike-pedalling classes have had their bluff called. Peaceful co-existence with the locals has been blown apart. The chavs have taken over and smashed things up. And no amount of brooms will ever sweep that fact away.