Looting and property destruction have always been a part of rioting. Looting is a mass recruiter and maintains the momentum of the riots. Looters are often called the foot soldiers of a riot. Without looting, it would just be police confrontation and it could be easily diffused by the police either not reacting at all and waiting for the mob to get bored and disperse or violently reacting chasing them away or arresting them. In either case it wouldn’t generate much interest in the issue in the media, political circles or among the general public.
Arson too has often been a part of riots. The Swing riots of 1830 saw English farm workers facing layoffs and wage cuts burn farmhouses and barns to make their point (see map). There was widespread attacks and violent clashes. The hatred towards the affluent class by the poor farm workers was apparent (as in this letter).
Several riots since have too seen arson. Looting and arson are the catalysts in riots. In almost all riots, it begins with bottle and stone throwing, followed by looting and then burning. This is how riots happen everywhere across the globe for centuries. So why was there so much shock and horror?
And why are we so surprised that among the looters we find 'teaching assistants and grammar school girls'. Why are politicians and commentators using this to show that the riots have no legitimate reasons as 'these people seem not so poor'.
Several interviews conducted after riots everywhere show that many who take part in looting are otherwise respectable people who have joined the riots because there is a great emotional attraction and social magnetism for a collective response- to lend their voice to the cause. There are some opportunist too but that doesn't mean you label everyone that. Instead of using this to say the riots were nothing but 'greed', the diversity of people involved should be seen as a real cause for worry.
Experts have been saying that resentment towards the police has been simmering for decades. The poor economic conditions, large scale cuts and bleak prospects for the future have just added fuel to the fire. Were the politicians and society leaders so out of touch with their community that they did not see this happening? Or does it serve better to just call the young boys and girls who took to the streets as ‘criminals’ and ignore the underlying causes?
It seemed no lessons were learned from the experiences of the riots in 1980s. The underlying factors seem eerily similar.
One such factor - also the trigger to these recent riots was the death of Mark Duggan, a young black, father of four who was shot dead during Operation Trident (against gun crime). Interestingly another police operation in 1981 called Swamp (against robbery) was an important factor for the discontent in the Brixton riots (in pic below).
Between April 6-11, 1981, the police rampantly stopped and searched 943 people in the Lambeth area mostly from the black community. Lord Scarman, who the UK government appointed to hold an inquiry into the Brixton riots of 1981 reported that ‘Swamp 81 was a factor that contributed to a great increase in tension’ in Brixton and in short, ‘was a serious mistake’.
Two decades later, the police’s stop and search policy seems to target the same community and most of the areas where the recent riots unfolded find the youth there often stopped and searched by the police. It also seemed to be the reason for the clashes in Hackney on Monday. Darcus Howe, a West Indian Writer and Broadcaster spoke on national television recently about how his 15 year old grand son is often stopped and searched by the police and the effect it has on the young minds. He believes this is due to the colour of their skin and builds resentment towards the police- something that he says the white politicians would never understand.
As my work involves constant interaction with the disadvantaged youth in Tottenham, Edmonton & Enfield, I am aware of such incidences. I have written more about their hatred for the police on London Riots: A Generation Lost.
If you still need a good reason to delve deep into the youth’s grievances – then remember that you can prevent the mayhem today by putting 16000 officers on the roads but what happens tomorrow when we go back to one fifth of that number? Unless you nip the reasons for the riots in the bud, what stops the youth from doing it again?
A shorter version of this article is on Liberal Conspiracy: Looting? Arson? You shouldn't be surprised