The UK Riots - an Australian's view

by John August

During my recent trip to Scotland, I absorbed the saturation coverage of the English riots. Comedians were saying, "Look, now Scotland is the safest place in the UK". The Scottish first minister emphasised they were English, not Scottish riots. While OK for comedians, some felt it wrong for the first minister to say this. Perhaps he should have been showing more solidarity and sympathy for his southern neighbours. Still, the Scottish tourism brand was being tarnished through confusion with things outside its boundaries. Take your pick.

Being so close and an Australian, it gave me a different viewpoint. There was a lot of hand-wringing and comment that seemed to miss just what was important, or what was really behind the hand-wringing. It was tragic. But there's still a lot we can learn, and a lot we can misunderstand.

I don't think it had a single cause. Yes, there was the unfortunate death of Mark Duggan, and the lack of communication with his family. But there was the underlying environment, with social networking and the like thrown in. Perhaps if just one of those things were missing, we would not have had a riot.

Equally, it seems like it was waiting to happen, needing only a trigger. I think the UK was at 'riot less one factor' for a while. Something similar a year in the future, or a year in the past, might have triggered it. And, on the other hand, something similar in half a years' time might have stalled because of the cold.

While it may have started as a result of Mark Duggan's death, being an expression of frustration, I think it then developed in a riot with its own momentum, taking advantage of the developing state of lawlessness.

It's worth comparing it to blackouts in the US. Historically, the 1965 blackout was benign, but the New York blackout of 1977 prompted widespread looting. I think the UK riot developed into something similar, with the general ability to riot unchecked being the conditions of the 1977 blackout. These US riots prompted much soul searching. Are we so close to chaos, that the mere absence of order and regulations makes the demons rise to the surface ? Equally though, we can also stay calm. But we now realise just how close we actually stand to the primordial abyss.

Similarly, in the UK there's been a great deal of hand wringing; that all the norms which previously kept the UK together have disapeared. Perhaps that's a one sided view. There was the original 1985 riot after all. Then there's soccer hooliganism and general alcohol related violence (ARV). Australia does have its ARV. In the UK though, references to violence permeate comedy, and signs everywhere warn you about committing it ... it seems to permeate the culture in a different and deeper way.

But, we also have streets with house after house of well manicured gardens. Awards for for best grocer in the district, best butcher, best maintained toilet ... the list goes on. While it seems a minority rioted, a much larger majority emerged afterwards, wanting to clean up an return things to normal, with communities now more strongly bonded together.

And let's not forget : we had our own racial riots. Our own time for soul searching. UK commentators chafed that the Australian Government was warning our nationals to travel carefully in the UK. Each in their turn, I guess.

The point is that there were signs that the English ideal of civilised good behaviour, while notable and impressive in its way, only went so deep. And I don't think this undercurrent was particularly related to poverty. Yes, poverty and dispossession had its part to play, but this pervading violence seemed be there separately to poverty itself.

There was a range of criminal activityr; it's wrong to paint it all with the same brush. Some was raw destruction for its own sake - burning cars and shops. Some looted for private use - trying on clothes for fit first. Some looted to sell - large numbers of dyson vacuum cleaners were stolen, but it's difficult to imagine so many people struck by a sudden desire to give their units a good clean.

Some looting was from large retailing chains. Some was from smaller businesses run by individuals. Some was opportunistic, where someone else had broken the window. Some people committed burglary. Some individuals were mugged. And, lastly, some people were killed. That was a tragedy, we did have something way past property crime.

While some looting was done by "regular" criminals, some was done by "regular" citizens - including a schoolteacher and a high profile student participating in the Olympics.

This was a great affront - I wonder if it even exceeds the that of people dying. For me, violence will always trump property crime, and murder will always trump general violence. But, somehow, the fact that otherwise "middle class" citizens will commit such crimes has left people reeling. In times past, children who murdered toddlers were reviled like few others, perhaps because they were betrayed what childhood was supposed to mean. But, in all this, we forget the delight which which some boys are cruel to animals, and forget how bitchy girls can be.

What drove the rioters? Were they abandoned by the state and dispossessed, or were they the immoral and lawless ? This has been the object of much discussion, with people fighting to preserve or destroy the welfare state as the case may be.

But it could be more complicated. Perhaps if either there had been more welfare support, or there had been a higher state of morality, we would not have riots.

There's also the acquisitive consumerist culture, as noted by Dr Greg Martin. For the economy to pump out so many flashy clothes and other goods, and advertise them vigorously, being something so much of the population cannot afford, is like dangling something in front of someone and snatching it away. The very act of pandering to acquisition, of developing brands, can have its backlash. Yes, had the looters not been so evil, maybe it would not have happened. But equally, if there had not been such vigorous advertising, the pent up forces would have been smaller.

Turn back the clock a few decades, and younger people in Australia were mugging each other for their shoes. Reeboks and other trendy shoes at the time, if I recall correctly. It really seemed weird at the time, but it was a precursor of what we saw in the UK riots, particularly the looting of things you tried on for size.

And I think there was also resentment. Resentment of those with any degree of wealth. In the abstract, there's the resentment of the big stores, of anonymous grinding capitalism. But, along the way this morphed into a resentment of anyone with any wealth, including struggling shop owners who might have come from similar backgrounds to the looters.

At the same time, this resentment did reflect some reality. You can see the corruption of the elite, and watch the cutbacks to services around you, suggesting a mocking indifference.

So, I do see multiple factors motivating people. Yes, there was a personal element. But, equally to put it all on people's greed and criminality misses a lot of the picture as well.

Going onto the aftermath of the riots, the courts have considered participating in a riot as "aggravating", condemning people to harsher sentences. Someone who looted a bottle of soft drink may end up in jail. Whoah ! Are you kidding ?

I thought of punishment as being determined by : first, keeping the criminal out of circulation (prevention); second, operating as a deterrent to committing the crime; third, as an opportunity to reform the criminal; fourth, as retribution - as punitive punishment.

It seems that because riots are considered serious, judges have considered that anything done in the context of a riot is serious. But its not really clear how this fits into the four principles. The two best articulations I can think of are :

Emphasising deterrence : "It's a bit sad and unfair to you personally that we're locking you up for this long, but we need to prevent such behaviour in future and send a signal.".

Emphasising retribution : "We're locking you up for what would otherwise be a trivial crime because we think you're a real arsehole for stealing during a riot".

But, it really does seem that something has gone terribly wrong with the picture. Are we really trying to say that the smallest involvement in a riot makes you partly responsible for the deaths that also occur ?

The UK riots are something the UK will have to deal with. And they are the only people who can. It seems a lot of the comment is not really engaging with what happened, and what it means. But if we can understand the riots, we'll be the better for it.

John August is the President of the NSW Humanists  Society and the Convener  of The Sydney Shove.