Rioting may not be justified, but it isn’t senseless either

Police cars burnt out, shops looted, the police attacked. Memories buried for a quarter of a century are suddenly re-awoken like the zombies in a clichéd horror movie. And those aren’t the only clichés given a new lease of life. Police commanders, politicians and journalists alike line up to condemn acts of wanton vandalism, to declare that no grievance can possibly justify rioting, to dismiss the rioters as criminals without a cause, and to draw the sharpest demarcation that they can between the dignified vigil in the afternoon, and the appalling violence of the evening. It was ever thus. Brixton, Toxteth, St Pauls, Broadwater Farm, and more recently the rioting in the Asian enclaves in our north-western towns, all these upheavals have met with the same, dogged analysis.

It’s become a touchstone for determining whether a commentator is to be applauded or condemned. Broadly accept the analysis, and you’re in the respectable camp of those who soothe the body politic. Dare to question this consensus, and you’re a dangerous subversive, bent on excusing the inexcusable, and committed to the undermining of decent society. But make no mistake. This complacent analysis is part of the problem, not the solution.

We find it difficult to distinguish between justifying something, and explaining it. They are very different things. Justifying rioting is impossible, not because there are no eminently demonstrable causes, but because to do so implies that rioting is an effective and sensible means of dealing with those causes. It clearly isn’t. In fact, it serves merely to perpetuate and to underpin the very analysis that I’m suggesting is part of the problem.

So what are those causes? Just to repeat myself, in positing cause I’m not offering justification. But the causes are social and economic. They are forged in the inflammable combination of racism and poverty. What do the present time, and the Britain of the early 1980s have in common? A contracting economy, the doleful (literally) effects of which are not distributed evenly, but visited with the greatest and most corrosive consequences upon those who are already our society’s poorest. From this mixture of race, class and exclusion arise, as they have always done, crime, gangs, violence and despair. The police are then charged with containing the consequences. In attempting to do so, they are perceived as adding to the pressure, as agents of social discipline on behalf of society’s more fortunate members. It doesn’t help that often they bring their own racist stereotypes with them, but in my judgement these are consequences rather than causes.

These conditions create a tinderbox. Like a casually discarded fag-end in a drought-stressed forest, it takes only a spark – such as the killing by police of a young black man – to set the place alight. Admonishing the flames as an “unjustified” response is no more effective for our society than it would be for a fire-ravaged forest. At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, if we want to avoid the fire, we must both stop the drought, and stop casually throwing our cigarette butts away.

We seem to be incapable of doing either. To end the drought, we must stop correcting our fiscal imbalances by further impoverishing the already impoverished. To stop the sparks, we must stop shooting at people. But in truth, the latter will not happen until the former is addressed. Blaming the police, either for unnecessary shooting, or for not acting with sufficiently heavy hands when the riots began, is pointless and unfair. If young people, black and white, are to see work and responsible behaviour as more productive than rioting, we have to make that true. The problem at the moment is that for far too many of our young people, especially our black young people, it is not true. We can point at individuals who’ve made it, who’ve overcome their circumstances, but that’s no answer for the mass of their comrades. It’s like saying that anyone can win the lottery, or become President of the United States. Of course they can, but inevitably the vast majority will not. Individual heroism is no answer.

These are difficult problems to address. It’s so much easier to dismiss those involved in unrest as criminals, to pontificate on how rioting is never justified. That’s true, but not for the reasons of morality the condemnations imply. Rioting isn’t justified because it simply doesn’t work. What might work? Politicians having the courage to break out of the impasse in which they daren’t speak the truth about causes for fear of being seen as “soft” on the rioters. Acknowledging that rioting is not senseless, but merely ineffective, would perhaps free us to ponder about what would be effective.

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