Rioting in England

The past four nights have witnessed appalling scenes of rioting in London with extensive damage to property including cars being wrecked and buildings being looted and burned to the ground. During the last two nights, trouble has also erupted in other major cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Wolverhampton and Bristol; and there have been ‘copy-cat’ incidents in smaller locations such as Gloucester, West Bromwich and Salford.

Last night, three men were killed in Birmingham when they were hit by a car that, according to eye witnesses, mounted the pavement and deliberately drove at a group of people. It was reported that the police are treating the incident as murder. According to the BBC, 768 people have been, so far, charged with various offences.

On the news this morning, I saw a group of Sikhs were preparing to defend their temple from any mob violence that might ensue. With people seen to be holding cricket bats and other possibly improvised weapons, one person said that they were prepared to use all possible means to resist any attempt to damage the temple or their homes.

Demolition work has already begun on buildings that were burned out in London and are now considered to be unsafe. One businessman lamented the demolition of a building that formed part of his family business and had apparently withstood two world wars and a depression. Ordinary, decent people are left wondering about what is happening and why. Unlike previous incidents of rioting in the country, such as the Brixton Riots (1981, 1985 and 1995) or the Toxteth Riots of 1981, this time there appears to be no particular root cause.

Early reports suggested the shooting of Mark Duggan was responsible for the initial riot that took place in Tottenham, London. But this rationalisation does not seem sufficient to explain what is happening in our country right now, and the truth of the matter is that no one really knows. No doubt the police, or the army if necessary, will get a grip of the situation over the next few days. Politicians will appear on TV shows talking about how lessons need to be learned from the events and social scientists will analyse and produce their explanations about the underlying causes of the actual events.

Analysts will convincingly cite the government, the international economic crisis or the police as the main culprits and such debate is certain to run for months. There will be journalists who will eventually make programs in which some of those directly involved will be interviewed and the explanations provided by the analysts will apparently be vindicated because, by then, the perpetrators of the violence will have come to believe that society, general conditions, the government or the police were indeed to blame.

People will eventually relax thinking that lessons have been learned, policies (if not governments) have been changed and a blow for the least-privileged within society has been struck. The middle-class will debate things endlessly on TV programs such as Question Time, all the while feeling that now that we finally understand we will somehow be better placed to prevent, avoid or mitigate in the future.

And then, things will apparently return to normality.

However, if there is one thing that needs to be understood from this recent series of events it is that sufficient lessons have not been learned from previous occurrences, true underlying causes have not been found, let alone addressed, and the medicine of government policy seems entirely ineffective in the face of society’s recent cancer.

Personally, I am convinced that it is now time for a new kind of thinking if we are to break away from what is clearly a repeating pattern. However we attempt to address the current disturbances, we need to do something different because, as we all understand, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

We may not have real answers yet, but we must be willing to attempt a proper investigation in order to find them otherwise we are condemned to see a recurrence, not only of the same kind of violence, but also the same kind of impotent rationalisation that is certain to follow.

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