We didn’t start the fire

© Dominic Lipinski, AP
By Carly Nyst

As the streets of London burn, politicians and pundits alike struggle to diagnose, through the clouds of smoke and piles of broken glass, the origin of this chaos. Shock is the order of the day, and from it stems genuine confusion and palpable fear. The media seems anxious to find the right box in which to place these unfamiliar events, and have been trying on a number of explanations for size – ethnic tensions, negligent police practices, high unemployment, general thuggery – without much success. Of course, efforts to analyse a crisis while the rocks are still being thrown are inevitably futile, even irresponsible. These riots are symptomatic of problems so big they cannot be pinpointed in isolation – deepening disadvantage, scarcity of opportunity, and increasing inequality.

The conditions of disadvantage, frustration and hopelessness in which too many Britons live were neither the creation nor the objective of Cameron’s Big Society and existed long before the global financial crisis hit. Yet, despite being completely removed from the origins of the crisis –Tottenham and the City are both 7 miles and yet a million miles apart – the poorest and most disadvantaged have suffered the most, and the austerity measures introduced in its aftermath have served only to exacerbate that, by perpetuating and deepening persistent inequality.

As discussed previously by Emile Parrotta, it is neither coincidental nor insignificant that the riots began in one of London’s poorest boroughs and spread quickly through areas challenged by unemployment, poverty, and marginalization. Research clearly demonstrates that disadvantaged communities are far more likely to be involved in rioting (McEneaney, Olzak and Shanahan 1996, p.590). This is not because people living in such communities have a preference for violence or nothing better to do but because they face insurmountable obstacles in having their voices heard otherwise.

The reality is that in British society – in all of our societies – there is structural dismissal of and disdain towards the poor and disadvantaged. In myriad ways, we ignore them, belittle them, segregate them, humiliate them. Without the education to provide sufficiently eloquent opinions, they are disregarded by their media; without the income to offer sufficiently rigorous political support, they are sidelined by their political representatives. Their communities are poorly serviced, under-resourced and plagued by unemployment. Because the poor and excluded experience far higher levels of engagement with the criminal justice system than the rest of society, disrespect and distrust is deeply entrenched in their interactions with police. In a devastating cycle of the-chicken-or-the-egg, the best nurses and teachers steer clear of the worst hospitals and schools; for many children, the first lesson they learn is the absence of hope.

As with other riots, such as those in Los Angeles in 1992, or those in Australian indigenous communities (there have been three in recent memory, each of them initially in response to the death of an Aboriginal man at the hands of police), the actions of London’s rioters can be viewed in a context in which the alternative was to continue to be “subjected to social and economic racism” and “accept their situation through the more acceptable and pitied role of the demoralised but pacified fringe-dweller.” (Birch 2004, p. 20) This is not to say that the rioters have been cognizant of this choice, or even of the underlying motivations for their outbursts – undeniably the violence and destruction has been levelled, for the most part, by youths who seem to have no greater objective than to break and steal things. Yet their behaviour need not be organized and disciplined in the conventional manner or in the sense of a revolutionary movement in order to symbolise a political struggle (Broadhurst 1997, p. 414). Their anger is directed, not randomly, but at the symbols of their oppression – of the state, of authority, of affluence.

One cannot defend the tactics of the rioters, whose actions have not only caused fear but have contributed to the destruction of livelihoods, perhaps even lives. However, one can seek to understand them, and in doing so begin to repair the fractures from which they stemmed. For too long, we have deprived many members of our societies of the respect which is an integral part of human dignity. We have taken away their voice, and now they speak with violence and fire.

The challenge, then, is to respond not with further exclusion, but inclusion; not by placing these riots in easily-labelled boxes, but by taking on the big issues, and with them the challenge of overhauling our societies. This implies a range of actions by a range of actors, including governments who must recognise the punitive effects of fiscal policies on the already deprived, and the media who must become more aware of their role in perpetuating negative stereotypes. Most of all, it demands a significant change in societal attitudes. After all, it is not that disadvantaged communities don’t have things to say; it is that we don’t listen to them.

Further Reading:


About the Author:

Carly Nyst is a human rights lawyer and research associate at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She provides research assistance to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Currently, she is working on issues related to the penalisation of poverty and access to justice.

1 comment:

  1. Even after the smoke clears I imagine a clear-cut reason behind the general looting will be difficult to find as this series of riots seem to encompass a (heartwarming in a way) mix of ages and ethnicities. As the first arrest reports come in they also appear the economic/vocational backgrounds also differ, not simply an underclass revolt but a high level of opportunism combined with the spillover from marginalised areas. You have to remember that a lot of English cities have the rich and poor living right next to each other, even in Notting Hill.
    England may be experiencing a unique twist on the similar month-long French riots of 2005 and once we get better information we'll be able to temper the Left/Right mud-slinging we're getting right now.

    Nice blog BTW, colour scheme's a little muddy though

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