This is a guest post by Hannah. Hannah is a writer and activist in sunny London town. She blogs about gender, disability, and whatever else is sticking in her teeth, over at give the feminist a cigarette.
The top story here in the UK has been the same since Saturday night: riots are erupting across the capital, sparked originally by the death of Tottenham resident Mark Duggan by police officers. Unrest is now spreading nationwide.
Reactions are mixed – people living in the affected areas are nervous (the original riot took place two streets away from my house, a fact which makes me feel strangely important) and everyone is worried that their area will be the next in line. Some are observing that heavy-handed policing along with the Government’s policy of slashing public spending, removing opportunities for young people, and its failure to improve unemployment rates made something like this almost inevitable. The police, politicians and the right-wing press are decrying the events en masse. Some are even going down the predictable road of characterising events as a “race riot”, as if a bunch of folks woke up on Saturday morning and thought, “You know what, I really hate white people. Let’s smash Argos!”
But there is precious little nuance in these debates. No one seems willing to separate out the different strands involved: various motivations were in play, from the righteous to the selfish; various tactics were used, from the peaceful to the murderous. And the events themselves can be clearly separated into at least three different categories which must be considered separately.
In case you haven’t been frantically refreshing the Guardian website for the last 48 hours, let’s recap the events of Saturday night:
At 5pm, around 120 people – including the family of Mark Duggan – marched from the nearby Broadwater Farm estate to Tottenham Police Station to stage a peaceful protest, asking only that a spokesperson come out to answer their questions about the circumstances of Mr Duggan’s death. No answers were forthcoming.
At 8.20pm, two police cars were set alight. Violence escalated from here, with over 200 people in confrontation with a growing police presence.
At 10:45pm a bus was set alight. From then onwards, shop windows were smashed in and buildings set on fire; as the night wore on, groups travelled further afield to find better looting territory: there not being much to steal on Tottenham High Road, people went to shopping areas like nearby Wood Green and Tottenham Hale.
ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER.
Am I the only one who sees these as three separate issues? Interconnected, obviously; developing out of each other, certainly, but not one single event to be celebrated, explained or condemned wholesale.
1. The peaceful protest, which was legal, justified and a logical response to Mr. Duggan’s death.
2. The violence towards the police, which was illegal and unlikely to make community-police relations improve – but nonetheless understandable, given the history of policing in this area, simmering hostility towards the Met and the sense of disenfranchisement felt by the young.
3. The looting, which was illegal, hardly political, and ultimately damaging to the whole community.
Why is it people seem compelled to treat the night as one ugly whole? The moronic fist-pumping from armchair socialists is as infuriating as the blanket condemnation from the right: the rioters are either hailed as heroic freedom-fighters or pilloried as mindless thugs, with no acknowledgment that there were undoubtedly representatives from both groups on the streets, and that many people involved probably committed acts that fell into both categories.
Protesting =/= rioting =/= looting.
Even looting has different degrees. Can stealing from a multinational chain be considered as empirically evil as destroying the business that a family’s spent their whole life building? Is piling a trolley high with stolen TVs morally equivalent to the middle-aged woman who carried a giant chicken out of Aldi? I’m not making this judgment: I am pointing out that these questions, along with so many others, are just not being asked.