An Essay by Thomas Hüetlin
Ashraf Haziq is 20 years old, a student from Malaysia. He was fasting during Ramadan and had the misfortune to be cycling on his bike in Barking, an area in East London, last week.
First there was a gang of kids. They threatened him with knives, broke his jaw and stole his bike. As he sat dazed on the sidewalk, staring at the blood that was dripping from his face onto the ground, the next gang appeared. Its members were older; some were masked. One helped him to his feet and supported him, but this supposed aid was merely a diversion as another helped himself to the contents of the injured man’s rucksack at the same time; throwing away some of what he stole and pocketing the rest. He grinned broadly, prancing with joy.
It was pictures like these that disproved the theory that the riots were protests, or a youth rebellion like those that have taken place in other European countries against government austerity packages.
It was nothing of the sort. The events which unfolded on the streets of London and other English cities last week were brutal and full of an enthusiasm to inflict the greatest possible damage, even on mere passers-by who had the bad luck to get in the way. It was as if the gang from Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “A Clockwork Orange” had left the screen and become real, only this time armed with BlackBerrys.
The victims included, for example, three sons of Pakistani immigrants who had stood on a sidewalk in Birmingham in order to protect a friend’s gas station, but who were then mown down by a car and killed. There were other victims, like the 68-year-old man in a plaid shirt who had tried to put out a fire started by rioters and who was subsequently so badly beaten that he later died from his injuries. Then there was the old black woman who, standing on a litter-strewn East London street at night with her back to a wall smeared with obscene graffiti, scolded the rioters: “You lot piss me the fuck off! I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person. ‘Cause we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause — we’re running down Foot Locker.”
A Sale from Hell
In other words, it was like a sale from Hell. The greedy paid not in pounds, but with the destruction of their own neighborhoods.
Above all, the rioters zeroed in on brand name products, and if they could attack a policeman or two while they were at it, all the better. “Everyone up and roll to Tottenham,” someone calling themselves “English Frank” wrote on Twitter. “Fuck the 5-0 (police). I hope 1 dead tonight (sic).” Meanwhile, someone called “Sonny Twag” tweeted: “Want to roll Tottenham to loot. I do want a free TV. Who wudn’t (sic).”
No sooner tweeted than done. But the looting could get even more expensive than that. In the London borough of Camden, a mob broke through the windows of an O2 shop and stole mobile phones, singing as if they were at a soccer match: “O2, O2, O2, O2.” In Manchester, phone store T-Mobile, clothes shops French Connection and Miss Selfridge, department store Marks and Spencer, jeweller Swarovski and the newly-opened boutique owned by former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher were all looted. In Clapham in South London, an entire shopping center was taken apart — the only business that was spared was a bookstore. Not because they wanted to protect the books, but because they had absolutely no interest in them.
People with a romanticised ideal of revolution couldn’t believe their eyes. This was not “destroy what is destroying you”, but the Marxist idea of commodity fetishism in its most toxic form. Some even tried on looted clothes before stuffing them into their designer bags.
As the inferno raged, politicians, the media and commentators rubbed their eyes in disbelief. At the same time, there were critics who had heard David Cameron declare, before he became Prime Minister, that Great Britain in the first decade of the new millennium had become a “broken society.” Once he was in power, however, he didn’t want to know.
Education grants for children from low-income families — abolished. Also abolished in many areas were youth centers and help centers for the unemployed and pregnant. In the Lewisham area alone, five libraries were closed. What happens next? Where does it end? What is the limit? There is none. In the London borough of Haringey, which includes Tottenham, 75 percent of funding for youth services will be cut over the next three years.
So can the ” broken society” be repaired?
There is an awful lot to be done. Great Britain, a country where the gap between rich and poor is wider than almost anywhere else in the Western world, can still be a miserably tough place to live, especially for the children of the poor. According to a UNICEF study, the UK is ranked as the most child-unfriendly of 21 major industrialized nations. There are 3.4 million children living below the poverty line in Britain, a seriously distressing number. And for anyone who has the misfortune of growing up in a bad neighborhood, beatings and assaults are merely part of everyday life. Some 60 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 become a victim of crime at least once.
“Fists to Knives and Knives to Guns”
The average age of those for whom such a violent confrontation is deadly has declined form 24 to 19 in recent years. The escalation of violence among teenagers in inner cities is “like evolution”, according to one veteran gangster from Nottingham, “from fists to knives, from knives to guns.”
The causes are inane. Often it is to do with drugs, a cell phone or simply a pair of sneakers. This dramatically lower threshold for violence can affect anyone including innocent bystanders, like for example the young man who found it unacceptable that youths had thrown a half-eaten chocolate bar into his sister’s car. He confronted them, and was promptly stabbed.
The list of such incidents goes on and on, and it is hardly surprising that the British police already advise people to avoid confronting violent youths. Those who do it anyway, like London writer Andrew Anthony, not only suffer the rage of the thugs attacking them, but also the anger of other passers-by. Anthony had intervened when he saw ten girls attacking the face of another youth with a broken bottle. When the gang had taken flight, he asked another bystander why they had not done anything. The answer came back: “Leave me alone, you pompous arse. Why should I get involved? This whole thing has nothing to do with me.”
“No One has Ever Given Me a Chance”
This miserable life of drugs, loitering and weapons in neighborhoods which were devastated by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and never fixed by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, is the fate of those dubbed “NEETs” in the UK. It stands for “not in education, employment or training”, and there are about 1.2 million people who fit the description. They rule their local areas under the law of the jungle, with a deep sense of uselessness in a world where almost every recreational activity costs money; money which they don’t have.
Louis James is one of these “NEETs”, and reporters from the New York Times spoke to him after he had stolen a pullover worth 120 pounds during the looting. James, 19, lives in North London. The state pays his rent, and he gets 77 pounds jobless benefit every two weeks. He has given up looking for work, he left school at 15 and has only been able to read for the past three years. His mother has barely enough money for herself and her other children, and his father, a heroin addict, is dead.
“No one has ever given me a chance; I am just angry at how the whole system works,” James said. “They give me just enough money so that I can eat and watch TV all day.”
The values that once made Britain an example for the rest of the world were never instilled in James: personal responsibility, individuality, common sense, stoicism, understatement, discipline. Who could have taught him them? His parents? His friends? The elites, who shut themselves off in expensive private schools, then get 70 percent of the well-paid jobs and would probably prefer to visit a leper colony than Tottenham?
The true public tone of the past 30 years has been set by one man: Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul who has shaped modern Britain more than any British politician, businessman or intellectual. Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher together broke the power of the trade unions in the 1980s and forged ahead with the liberalization of the markets. Flanked by the resurgent financial sector in the City of London, Murdoch made greed socially acceptable and turned the Britons into a nation of shoppers in which only one thing counted: “Loads of Money.”
Everyone Afraid of Murdoch
Everyone was swept up in this loud, raucous consumer culture. The bankers, of course, with their yachts and helicopter landing pads, but many politicians as well, as the scandal over MP expenses a couple of years ago showed. Labour MPs claimed expenses for glittering toilet seats and silk pillows. It led to the first resignation of a Speaker of the House of Commons since 1695 — because he had claimed 4,000 pounds worth of taxi trips which his wife had used to go shopping.
They were all scared, not of the voter but of Murdoch and his media empire. When former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was told by the editor of The Sun newspaper that it would run a dubiously-researched article about his son’s serious disease the next day, he and his wife spent an afternoon in tears. But after that it was back to business as usual with the Murdochs.
“Get rich quick.” “You are what you buy.” That was the swirling, money-driven nihilism that descended on London like the infamous fog of former times. Few managed to escape its lure; not the royal family, not parliament, not the police, not the talented singer Amy Winehouse. She too embraced the Paparazzi; fame was an additional drug for her.
“Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it,” says Alex Hiller, a marketing expert at Nottingham Business School. “What we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the last two, that contract doesn’t work.”
So they just went shopping anyway, like the Beckhams. Except they were wielding a flamethrower rather than a black American Express card.