No doubt a lot of the people involved in the looting and rioting were motivated by opportunism, some of them were only kids; literally bored thirteen year olds jumping on a bandwagon which tempted them with the promise of shiny new things. They saw that something big was happening and didn’t want to miss out. While it is no excuse for their reckless behaviour, it’s important to put this whole situation into context.
The violence in Tottenham on Saturday may have been motivated by anger for a mysterious murder but out in the rest of London, this reaction ignited a different emotion. To say that people in their twenties, younger and some a lot older, were solely motivated by the thought of a new DVD player is over-simplifying to the point where the whole issue gets swept under the carpet on the basis that they were just opportunistic hoodlums out to get what they could. So huge crowds of people just felt like risking jail-time, getting into violent altercations with the police not to mention each other and becoming Public Enemy Number One because they saw the window and took it? They are the villains and we are all the innocent victims? Up to a point. No matter their own precarious situations, both financially and in other aspects, these people had no right to damage other people’s livelihoods, burning shops and putting people’s lives at risk. The fact that many of them barely understand the aspirations of these independent businesses; the fact that they have probably felt ignored and marginalised their whole lives; the fact that they can not see themselves getting the high-flying jobs which could eventually get them out of the crappy area they have gotten so used to that they won’t even discover another zone in London, none of that makes what they did right but it goes some way in explaining it.
The rioters, many of whom are teenagers, probably felt that they owed nothing to a society in which they had never really felt included anyway and which, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, seems increasingly unable to support them. Look at what they chose to steal and from where; the clothes, the trainers, the televisions I know that if I were in the same position, the last shops I would think of placing on my wish-list would be Argos or JD Sports for the simple reason that they are stores pretty accessible in my everyday life. Instead of dismissing these choices as merely selfish and materialistic, we should look at them as telling signs of a kind of struggle that many of us cannot even begin to comprehend. Able to access high streets up and down the country, luxury labels such as Louis Vuitton or Prada were left relatively unscathed whilst brands more familiar to the majority were ransacked with the fervour of a group of people who couldn’t believe their luck.
The opportunistic aspect of the rioting should not be taken as an answer with a full stop either. I live in an area of Central London that would be described as anything but ghetto, turn a couple of corners and it may be another story but you definitely wouldn’t imagine the scenes that were playing out on the news on a normal evening around here. Yet on the night of Monday 8th August, a small crowd of people were moving with purpose on the street outside my house. They knew better than to touch anything on their own doorstep, instead directing themselves to the posh shops a couple of streets up. They smashed some windows; businesses selling luxury diaries, a well-known bakery chain. This wasn’t about filling their wardrobes, it was a strike against the people who live so close, go to the same corner shop, walk the same streets day-in, day-out, and yet have a completely different, apparently unobtainable lifestyle to theirs. It was a reaction that spoke of isolation and resentment.
The wealthy and the disadvantaged live in close proximity in this area but whilst the former are able to make the most of the restaurants and glossy shops, leisurely lunches and shopping trips in boutiques are not available to all the locals. As someone who fits directly into neither category I can understand the looters view of the targeted shops as part of a world that they are constantly reminded of but never granted access to. Having said that, I have never felt such an intensity of resentment to want to physically damage those shops. It may be a world that I am not part of now but I have always felt that the option of dipping into it in the future is there for me. In my opinion, this is what tips the balance between mild alienation and the unleashing of anger: so many people see themselves to have very limited options.
We are living through an economically dark moment and for some this signifies the worsening of an already bad situation. If someone resigns themselves to the belief that they will never get out of a particular predicament, they will have no motivation to work for something more. Anger, repression, opportunism, reckless ignorance, whatever you want to call it, there is more to the rioting than simply a taste for anarchy. This may soon become old news but the sentiments will remain. The shopkeepers and local residents who bore the brunt were innocent victims of an eruption that found a dangerous outlet in the events of that week.
While there is no doubting the fact that unity, supporting each other in the rebuilding of communities, is crucial, we must also take care to avoid just dismissing the rioters, forgetting about them and abandoning them in a position so bleak that they saw this outburst of violence as an opportunity to reach better things.
It seems the government’s answer to the riots has been to come down hard and make an example of those involved, sifting through CCTV evidence to make sure that they punish as many of those involved as possible – and it is right that they do so. People need to know that there are consequences to such violence and destruction. What we should not be focusing on, however, is locking up every single kid caught and throwing out the key. This kind of reaction will only create a vicious cycle in which people will carry on living on the margins, ignored by the rest of us and resentful about the environment in which they continue to live. We need to be given hope, a belief that we all have the opportunity to make something more of our lives whether we are broke or well-off, whether we went to uni or not. We need to know that there is more than one path to success and actually change the meaning of that word so as not to be so focused on the materialistic aspect of life. We need to be motivated; community centres providing dance classes, lessons in martial arts, drama, these would provide incentives to keep kids off the streets and give them a focus that they would think twice about risking losing. It is a tall order but when there is such a serious social problem, it needs to be tackled, not locked away.
Written by Aisha Brown Colpani