There is simply no doubt that the recent events in London and Birmingham have been vile, cruel and destructive. As someone who remembers only too well the 1981 & 1985 riots which ripped through our inner cities, I have been sickened by the images splashed across news media, Twitter and the internet. Indeed, the second by second, minute by minute coverage has only amplified people’s anger and ire. This anger – which I share – has reached a crescendo and, given the opinionated nature of the net, has pumped up both people’s language (de facto suggesting that the perpetrators are less than human) and calls for a very strong-armed police response.
I genuinely ‘get’ these responses: there is a huge part of me that wants to rip the gonads off the scrotes who have decided that this is the moment to help themselves to a lorry load of Nike Air Maxes and that burning down the livelihoods of committed, hard-working and often small scale businesses (including the stock of the marvellous Basick Records) is de rigeur urban behaviour. Nonetheless, I want to try to look beyond some of the responses and dig for something deeper. And no – this is no apologetic for angry, unreasoned and stupid behaviour. I am a sufficiently sophisticated liberal to understand the sociological and economic analyses and explanations for the rioting. I ‘get’ the post-Marxist, Liberation Theology critique of consumerism and what this turns people into (even though, in truth, I often think it may be a little crude). Others have commented on this dimension I want to explore another: who is part of our community?
My anxiety is this: that the immoderate, but understandable, way in which many of us (including myself) are inclined to talk about the perpetrators of the recent violence suggests that they are no longer part of our society; that their behaviour has revealed them as ‘sub-human’ and, as such, not worthy of anything more than having their legs broken or innards removed with a rusty halberd. ‘They behave like animals so treat them like animals’. The behaviour of a small section of society has made me extremely angry and tempted as I am to condemn them to the ‘outer beyond’ as a bunch of chavs, gangstas, hoods, whatever, they are still part of us.
Margaret Thatcher famously suggested that there is no such thing as society. For her there were only individuals and collections of individuals who band together for a common cause, good or ill. This kind of mentality has been almost impossible to resist in a culture which has emphasized the priority of individual desires (focussed primarily on buying and brands). On this picture, the rioters become simply an association of individuals ganging together for vile ends. And at one level that is true; but it also enables people to wash their hands of the situation or reduce the riot merely to a public order matter that needs to be quashed by any possible means. This picture is inadequate precisely because it lacks any sense of the patterns of wider society and the national community in which we all – in varying and differing ways – participate. A community which still seeks to value the damaged, lost and, yes, even the depraved enough to want to not only punish wrong doing but seek to reform individuals and redeem communities; to not simply take individuals who are seen as a canker and turn them into sausage meat. (That is the behaviour of totalitarian regimes and thank god we are very far from living under such conditions.)
So, once this situation has been brought under control – and yes, we should be supporting our police (who despite unresolved issues of institutional racism remain one of the world’s most restrained law enforcement agencies) and those seeking to stand up to thugs – there will be an extraordinary number of issues unresolved. Certainly, those who have looted and destroyed must be punished; but this must be proportional and dispassionate. But I remain concerned that punishment does not foster compassion and human empathy. One of the failures of our society, in certain contexts, is its regular inability to foster a vision of ‘the Other’ as fully human and therefore not to be abused, brutalized and treated as dog shit. How we can help each other become less aggressive, less driven by desire for things and so on is a great enigma.
Concerning the rioters and looters my instinct is not to punish with ‘extreme prejudice’, but to suggest that – alongside custodial sentences – they be exposed to the reality of living in monastic settings – Buddhist, Benedictine, whatever, I don’t mind. Absurd as this may sound, there is no doubt that the world of the monastery is a world where folk have to learn to get along with each despite vast difference and simmering anger and in which ‘what we own’ is much less significant than ‘who we are’. Take the piss out of me if you like, but given thirty years of failed government schemes and rampant consumerism, I suspect that in many cases it may yet be worth a try.
A Note on the Origins of the UK Riots:
The immediate catalyst for the riots which began in Tottenham, North London, was the shooting of British African-Caribbean man, Mark Duggan on Thursday 04/08/2011. A peaceful protest about police brutality on Friday, in an area marked by significant historical tension between community and police, turned violent. Since the initial violent incidents in North London (violence the Duggan family has sought to distance itself from), rioting and looting spread across the capital over the weekend. Groups of predominantly young men have engaged in widespread confrontation with police and have been responsible for significant destruction and looting of both major high-street shops and family businesses. On Monday 08th August, rioting spread to other major cities, including Birmingham and Nottingham, with police stations and major retail outlets being targeted. On 09th August, rioting broke out in my own city, Manchester, as groups of youths engaged in running battles with police and set fire to and looted city-centre businesses. The riots have generated immense anger from both conservative and liberal political perspectives in the UK and many seem unprepared or unwilling to explore the deeper causes of the violence.
Rachel Mann is Vicar, Poet-in-Residence at Manchester Cathedral, writer, poet and theologian.