Sunday, 14 August 2011

Something rotten in the state of... London

On the bright side, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is out soon.

What a week, eh? Without delving too far into the origins of the protests, they began when police messed up – and not for the first time. However, the legitimate complaints were soon hijacked by some very angry people.

One ubiquitous youtube video showed Fiona Armstrong interviewing Darcus Howe (She came a cropper in the media for asking "You are not a stranger to riots yourself, are you? You have taken part in them yourself." To which he replied, "I have never taken part in a single riot. I've been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict.”) What I found sad was that Darcus Howe apparently believed that the rioters were in some way politically motivated, as he had been when protesting in the 1970s. It appears to me that rioters were cynically using the death of Mark Duggan as an excuse for their own agenda.

At least some of the “protesters” made it clear they were not the champions for social change that some suggested, as this recording (sure to become a classic) indicates.

Apparently rioting is “good fun” and “it’s the government’s fault.... I dunno... Conservatives... whatever, who it is, I dunno....  It’s not even a riot, it’s showing the police we can do what we want... and now we have.”

And why were these radicals targeting local people?

“It’s the rich people, the ones that have got businesses..... that’s why all of this has happened, because of the rich we’re just showing the rich people that we can do what we want.”

That’ll teach you for trying to build a successful business, won’t it! No wonder the people who dared to have homes got them burned down, too. These girls have obviously never heard the sage old rabbi's advice: "don't waste time counting other people's money".

Perhaps wading into the crowds for some hand-to-hand combat would have caused more problems (and been near suicidal in some areas) but police seemed paralysed TV reports frequently showed little groups of them around the one person they had managed to handcuff. I imagine the threat of being sued "It's my human right to set fire to houses!" must be quite debilitating when trying to do your job. The questions floating around Facebook were direct: Where were the rubber bullets, the tear gas and water cannons? (It seems that we all lose our liberal views at the sight of a chav with a nicer iphone than our own). 

“Those people were fighting for something; for a cause. To them out 
there, this is just entertainment.” Michael Caine, Harry Brown

Hand-wringing about the state of Britain’s moral decline could wait. We needed to STOP what was going on, and NOW. This did not happen; chaos continued for days, and more innocent people lost their homes and livelihoods.

Of course, to your average rioter, smashing in a shop window and nicking a laptop is a victimless crime. Because those businesses make lots of money! (And you know that’s a crime, right?) While The Guardian claimed “There is a context to London's riots that can't be ignored”, it seemed that the only context was “People like smashing, stealing or setting fire to things that don't belong to them”.

Lee Jasper, a former adviser on policing, allegedly said that certain shops were attacked because they don’t create projects for under-privileged youths. He was quoted as asking: "When did Curry’s build a school?" Since nobody seems to have the original quote, it strikes me as hearsay (or hastily buried) but it’s the kind of thing an idiot in politics WOULD say.

Ed Miliband asked "Is it culture, or is it poverty and lack of opportunity? It is probably both." Exactly – until now we’d all lacked the opportunity to get away with looting a shoe shop.

Nina Power wrote in The Guardian; “Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear.”

Which would all be perfectly valid, if it wasn’t both patronising and insulting to the many people living in poor areas who DIDN’T riot. (You could also argue that she was suggesting most rioters were black, given the stronger history of conflict between black people and the police.)  As looters were caught, many people were astonished to find that, far from being the “betrayed youth,” they were often middle class 20 and 30-somethings with respectable jobs. They were just greedy morons. (And the context here would be: “It’s ok to like the products of your corporate foes, as long as you’re not giving them your money.”)

Why should we be surprised that, among others, a millionaire’s daughter, a charity worker and a graphic designer were caught stealing? For years we’ve watched politicians lie, cheat, and claim for bath plugs on their expenses. Selfishness and avarice is the culture, and it’s not exclusive to the ghettos.

Peter Oborne of the Telegraph pointed out that self-made millionaire Richard Branson was thinking of moving his headquarters to Switzerland to avoid heavy taxes, and “I couldn’t help thinking that in a sane and decent world such a move would be a blow to Sir Richard, not the Chancellor. People would note that a prominent and wealthy businessman was avoiding British tax and think less of him. Instead, he has a knighthood and is widely feted".

He also gives many examples of politician’s hypocrisy in lambasting looters, when “I find it very hard to make any kind of ethical distinction between (Hazel) Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the straight robbery carried out by the looters.”

Obviously, something has gone wrong in the moral landscape of Britain.

"The Opposite of War Isn't Peace, It's Creation" Jonathan Larson

Camilla Batmanghelidjh (pictured) is founder of the Kids Company and is generally an amazing person. She wrote “How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply "easily", because they feel they don't actually belong to the community.... In this false moral economy where the poor are described as dysfunctional, the community fails.”

So how have we raised a society with so little empathy?

Neuroscientists have learned that when we see or imagine the pain of others, we activate regions of the brain that are normally activated when we feel pain ourselves. Experiments such as those by Alessio Avenanti and Tania Singer illustrated that participants showed a greater response when seeing pain inflicted on someone of the same “group” – be it race or football team. Brain activity revealed that knowing someone is a fan of a different team is actually enough to shut down empathy for that person’s pain. So, someone who feels completely alienated from their community will have no problems turning on their fellow man, whether it's the police or their neighbours.

I know gamers hate it when people point fingers at the beloved x-box, but check out some youtube vids of State of emergency – it’s not a giant leap to imagine that a gaming addict could get excited when offered the opportunity to try out some well-practised moves in real life. (But most likely they were sitting on their arses when the riots went on anyway. Ho ho.)

In contrast to the total lack of compassion shown by rioters, one thing which makes me happy is the “spirit of the blitz” atmosphere which has emerged. Groups stood shoulder to shoulder and refused rioters access to their neighbourhoods. Clean-up operations transformed ruined shops in hours. (The only disappointing part is that the rioters weren’t forced to return to the scene of their crimes.) Incidentally, I was in the US at the time of the 7/7 bombings, and Americans would often tell me they thought the Brits’ “Keep calm and carry on” attitude was amazing.

I follow writer Naomi Wolf on FB – I enjoy her books, and mostly disagree with her politics (all the more reason to follow and get some interesting points of view, yes?). This week she was theorising about agent provocateurs, saying “Look closely at all these 'masked rioters' half of UK youths are overweight or scrawny from lack of exercise... these young men have been bench pressing. Their 'yob' clothes are brand new. Something is wrong with this picture..... people just don't show up dressed like a thug from central casting.” One fan replied “Oh NayNay... leave it to you to realize how cute the rioters are.” Wolf went on to point out that “NO ONE under thirty stands up ramrod straight, chest out arms at the sides except young people trained in the military. Seriously.”

Brand new sneakers and unimaginative clothing is not exactly incompatible with Britain’s youth (especially when JD Sports was no 1 on the loot list) and it seems unlikely that the police secretly mobilised riots spread across the country. (And all the looters I saw on TV looked skanky anyway, sadly adhering to Naomi’s first impression of British youth). But there were more theories popping up; Nay Nay’s supporters theorised that planned riots may be part of a “global blueprint” to make changes while the public is all of a dither.

The reality is that David Cameron has the perfect opportunity to bring in stronger laws (if I hear him say “robust” one more time, I might scream). There is also ammunition for those who argue in favour of more CCTV cameras – who needs privacy rights when you can catch criminals? (Activists who campaign against cameras always mock the phrase “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you won’t have anything to fear,” but I’ve never heard any of them explain why they think it isn’t true.)

I might also suggest that “next time” the police and press should make it clear that if you’re not a rioter, you should get off the streets whenever possible. People standing around with camera phones just cluttered up the place and unnecessarily swelled the ranks of the troublemakers. Not to mention the fact that some of those who have since been arrested have argued that they were just “caught up” in the crowds...

You know what? I’m starting to turn into my granny, because the phrase that springs to mind is “they don’t know they’re born”. I’m trying not to think about the fact that all of these poor, repressed youths have blackberries, and I don’t. (The irony is that without the privilege of expensive technology, they would never have co-ordinated their attacks on, um, all those black-hearted capitalists.)

These spoilt kids have the same sense of entitlement we see on X factor: “What do you mean I can’t have what I want? F--- you, then!”

If they had to live in any of the many countries in which police can and will beat you to death just because they don’t like the look of you, or where politicians have almost no restrictions on their expenses (try Italy for starters), they might realise that, imperfect as Britain is (never so clearly illustrated as it has been this week) it’s not such a bad place to live.

But now that the masses know they can rise up and own the streets, what’s to stop them from doing it again? And can we trust the police to protect us?

I suspect sales of baseball bats and inspirational DVDs such as Harry Brown and Dexter (recommended!) will go up.

I leave you with the wise words of Miranda Lambert. 

ETA: I don't mean for this piece to come across as overly critical of the police – when I say "Can we trust them to protect us?" I am talking about the fact that they are tied up in red tape which doesn't allow them to do their job as effectively as they'd like to. I know that they appreciate it when members of the public give them words of support on their toughest days; a "thank you" and a cup of tea and a jammy dodger go a long way.

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