Sunday, 14 August 2011

Shopping with violence

It's been a week now since the riots. I hadn't wanted to rush to say anything about it - I'm happy to leave that to professional politicians, who are for good or ill expected to come up with something on the spur of the moment. My confused thoughts on the subject are gradually settling, though, and so I thought I'd have a go at trying to put them down.

One of the things that struck me first - on Monday night, in fact, as I cowered in my nice flat, with looters carrying bags of ill-gotten gains past in the street outside, was that the police had been overwhelmed and appeared to have messed up quite badly. Oh yes, no argument that we're grateful for them - when they finally got their act together - but everyone could see on Monday that their current playbook of riot tactics - kettling and containing - were not working. It gave the streets over to the looters, who - coordinated by mobile phones and Blackberries - were moving faster than them. Of course we only have ourselves to blame for that. After all, we are the ones who criticised the police for their handling of previous disturbances. The public gets what the public wants, as Paul Weller put it.

But anyway, the streets have been regained. Now everyone is searching for a cause. The complexity of what has happened has made it into a kind of Rorshach test for politicians - right wingers see the fruits of the nanny state and Permissive Society, the breakdown of families and lack of respect for authority, and left wingers see the end result of Maggie, consumerism, materialism, the creation of an underclass and "there is no such thing as society". Probably both are right, to an extent. The previous Saturday's riot in Tottenham was arguably about a very dodgy police shooting and some pent-up rage by the local black community. It's hard for me, as an affluent middle class middle aged white guy, to comment sensibly on that. All I will say is that locally I see a lot of kids in my own area getting pulled over by police in their cars, and in defiance of the demographics of the area, not one of them has ever been white.

But that has been obscured by the orgy (and I think that probably is the term) of looting that happened on the subsequent couple of nights, first in north London, then across the entire capital, and then across England. These were copycat crimes, fuelled by what people saw on TV, and maybe to an extent by social networking. There may have been gangs that were a bit more organised about it. But mostly it was sheer naked opportunism. And aside from the odd jewellers shop, and an attempt to break into a gold dealership in Camberwell, the shops they picked were the ones they knew best. There is something tragi-comic about looting a pound store. Yet in Peckham, my local shopping area, where the 'Peace Wall' of Post-it notes forms a touching community response to the events, it is on the boarded-up broken windows of Poundland. Apparently women were heard shouting things like: "get me baby-gros" and "I need Pampers". To put it bluntly, these people were looting places where they would normally shop; supermarkets for a bottle of booze, Mothercare, JD Sports. It was what you might call "aggravated shopping."

A lot of ink is being spilt over why people felt they could do that. But mostly it boils down to greed and a failure to think though the consequences, and that's part of a systemic problem. On this occasion, that old detective film cliche is actually true: society really *is* to blame. How we put that right I can't even begin to imagine. And how we put it right at a time that social programmes and even police numbers are being slashed, I doubt anyone knows.

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