I’m huddled in the front room with some shell-shocked friends, watching my city burn. The BBC is interchanging footage of blazing cars and running street battles in Hackney, of police horses lining up in Lewisham, of roiling infernos that were once shops and houses in Croydon and in Peckham. Last night, Enfield, Walthamstow, Brixton and Wood Green were looted; there have been hundreds of arrests and dozens of serious injuries, and it will be a miracle if nobody dies tonight.
This is the third consecutive night of rioting in London, and the disorder has now spread to Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Politicians and police officers who only hours ago were making stony-faced statements about criminality are now simply begging the young people of Britain’s inner cities to go home.
Britain is a tinderbox, and on Friday, somebody lit a match. How the hell did this happen? And what are we going to do now?
In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every single commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence, as if it were in any doubt that arson, muggings and lootings are ugly occurrences. That much should be obvious to anyone who is watching Croydon burn down on the BBC right now. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder “mindless, mindless”. Nick Clegg denounced it as “needless, opportunistic theft and violence”. Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, Prime Minister David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge – declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was “utterly unacceptable”.
The violence on the streets is being dismissed as “pure criminality”, as the work of a “violent minority”, as “opportunism”. This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart.
Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station.
A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.
Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.
Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of not seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news.
In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?
Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night, a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.
Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.
Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out. Structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables.
People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.
No one expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.
I’m stuck in the house, now, with rioting going on just down the road in Chalk Farm. Ealing and Clapham and Dalston are being trashed. Journalists are being mugged and beaten in the streets, and the riot cops are in retreat where they have appeared at all. Police stations are being set alight all over the country.
This morning, as the smoke begins to clear, those of us who can sleep will wake up to a country in chaos. We will wake up to fear, and to racism, and to condemnation on left and right, none of which will stop this happening again, as the prospect of a second stock market crash teeters terrifyingly at the bottom of the news reports. Now is the time when we make our choices. Now is the time when we decide whether to descend into hate, or to put prejudice aside and work together. Now is the time when we decide what sort of country it is that we want to live in. Follow the #riotcleanup hashtag on Twitter. And take care of one another.
Laurie Penny is a 24-year-old author and blogger from London, who writes for New Statesman, The Guardian and others. This work, originally posted to her award-winning blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.