Thursday, August 11, 2011

Protesters, rioters, or looters?

I have been noticing a real slant in most news media coverage of the violent unrest in London this week (which, thankfully, I have been far away from), and in tonight's Evening Standard found such an array of viewpoints that I wanted to share.  Generally, there has been a LOT of blame placed on the civilians involved, a group that started as protesters (after a police officer shot and killed civilian Mark Duggan on Saturday night), rose in pitch to become rioters after police took a peaceful protest as a threat, and ballooned to become looters, violently and savagely raiding everything from large chains such as Coral and Debenhams to local mom and pop groceries and shops.

I still cannot take a side, but I think in part this is because the news media is using the words "protester," "rioter," and "looter" interchangeably, when they actually appear to describe very different aspects or perhaps stages of unrest.

As far as I have been able to learn from any news outlet, the killing of Mark Duggan was unnecessary and a display of unfathomable brutality.

And in communities which already felt disenfranchised (for a number of reasons -- I've heard everything from poor job prospects, to social programming cuts, to teen pregnancy, to poor parenting, to... um... generalised "problems in the black community," which seems like a broad and dangerous scapegoat...), I can understand frustration, anger, disappointment, and a greater sense of disconnect from the "haves" of English society.

So here are some viewpoints I found particularly interesting from tonights Standard:

Ed Miliband, in an epic display of political seesawing (perhaps actually an attempt to acknowledge the complexity of this situation?  Benefit of the doubt?) said:

"No two disturbances were quite the same, but all of the violence and vandalism shares one common truth: there is no excuse for it.  No ifs, no buts, no justification..."  

to which I have to ask what he considers the needless taking of a civilian life by a police officer.  He continues with 

"It was mindless, it has harmed some of the most vulnerable people and businesses in our capital..."

Agreed.  Busting down your local shops to loot does immense damage to community.

Then... this:  "These were individual criminal acts.  But the question we have to ask why we have people in our society who are willing to go out and commit these acts?  How do we have people among us who think it is OK to go and harm and despoil their communities in this way?... A few weeks ago I talked about the need to change a culture of irresponsibility in our society from top to bottom -- from the boardroom to the benefits office.  In the wake of phone-hacking scandal [sic], the banking crisis and MPs' expenses, that seemed essential.... The wanton greed that we have seen in the looting of the past few days, the take-what-you-can culture, must be tackled."  

Whoa, Ed, okay -- let's think about this one. If you are willing to go out and destroy your community, maybe it's because it isn't your community?  Either you came in from some other area because the mob mentality took over like wildfire, OR the disenfranchisement and general disappointment with your lot in life has led you to feel a profound disconnect form your neighborhood and supposed "community"?  Maybe any community that police walk into and commit true violence within already felt like it was not intact.  Then there's the attempt to broaden this into a larger message of irresponsibility.  I don't agree with putting privileged people with a great deal of cultural influence such as MPs or Rupert Murdoch in the same group with poorer, frustrated communities.  In one case, poor behavior was likely facilitated by the inconceivability of true consequences; in the other, poor behavior might have well been facilitated by a feeling that one will face negative consequences one way or another, so one might as well behave badly (and the consequences I mean here might be unemployment, losing a home, lack of educational prospects, lack of inclusion in society...)

An editorial said, "There is now real goodwill for the police..." 

which I have perceived to be true.  I will give the police force credit, in that after Duggan's death, they have behaved with, as far as I can tell, great professionalism.  I am worried, though, that this "goodwill" might extend into an extension of powers, such as the proposed social networking ban for those convicted of crimes, use of water cannons in future incidents, or the curfew I mentioned in my last riot post.

Dan Jones: "Mass riots do not happen solely because cities contain bad people.  There is always a catalyst, and usually a set of acute underlying grievances."  

Nail on head, folks.  Duggan's death was a catalyst for an explosion that was sadly not impossible to predict.  HOWEVER, that said, I cannot condone looting ever, or violence as it has happened here.  Looting does nothing to help a cause, and it has caused millions of pounds' worth of damage (one of the saddest stories I've heard was of a shop with a sign saying "I have no insurance.  Please don't break my windows.").  Today's Standard also had a story about a man left with just 25p to his name after his shop was destroyed.  The madness of it all, the senselessness, is heartbreaking.

"Tory MP for Enfield North, Nick DeBois, is not convinced by claims that poverty is an excuse for rioting.  On Sunday night in his constituency he saw rioters get into their Golf GTIs to speed off when the police approached."  

Okay, okay.  Here is a great example of mixing up our words, kids -- no excuse for LOOTING.  I was watching the BBC yesterday morning (sorry I don't know which show, just my morning toothbrushing background noise), and a panelist said that "There is no poverty in the UK," a statement I found truly ignorant and dangerous.  True, we're no Somalia, experiencing widespread famine and illness (I think that was the point she was making...) -- however, anyone with an economics background (ahem) can say that it is relativity that affects consumers most -- you don't have to be absolutely poor to be unhappy, just relatively poor.  And vice versa, which is I think why so many folks are getting so smug here.  There is definitely poverty in the UK, and there is also apparently a widespread media culture that shoots down voices that try to recognise that poverty.

"The BBC has already been criticised for called some rioters 'protesters.'"

Thought this was a nice one.  The BBC attempted to use a less extreme word for the protesters/rioters/looters, and has been under fire for that choice -- apparently a mass decision has already been made about how these events are going to be portrayed, and the BBC better toe the line.

And my favorite, that I think actually does convey some of the complexity here: "Former mayor Ken Livingstone calls for calm in today's New Statesman: 'The first priority of any London mayor must be to restore calm and establish security.  What has happened is heartbreaking.  People's lives have been turned upside down.  They have lost homes and livelihoods and have been threatened and attacked.  As David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, pointed out, justice also requires calm, including calm in investigating the circumstance's of Mark Duggan's death.'"  

In reading about the hundreds of cases trying to get pushed through the courts in the last 24 hours, the overcrowded prisons, and the widespread anger at the perceived laxity of sentences, I completely agree that we all need to step back, breathe, help our neighbors clean up their shops, make sure they have a home and income, and just cool it on the vengefulness -- it's never made for good justice before.

It IS heartbreaking, what has happened here.  Three young men died in Birmingham protecting their community from violent rioters, Mark Duggan is dead, businesses and homes are destroyed and people are scared -- we owe it to each other and to them to make sure these events are analysed carefully, objectively, without trying to create hero or villain narratives.  

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