Before you tell me that the rioters are ignorant criminal thugs, please step back and ask the question: what motivates someone to riot in the streets?
I know people who have protested, rioted, and looted. I've met homeless people who bussed over 3000 kilometres to join a protest against the G20 (ie the most powerful people in the world). The reality is that protestors protest because they feel they have no other recourse against governments and societies that ignore their needs and treat them unfairly. Election after election, the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger, and supposedly democratic governments fail to improve the lives of those in need. When you feel the system has failed you and no one is paying attention to your plight, and your vote never seems to do anything, you run out of possible actions. So you protest.
And why do riots happen? Because the "peaceful" protests go unnoticed or they are misinterpreted. Let me explain.
I did a research project for a political science class last year where I analyzed the media frenzy around the G20 protests in Toronto. What I found, among other things, is that not a single mainstream newspaper actually asked why someone would loot stores. They also equated "anarchist" with "looter" in almost every case, demonizing anarchism as some sort of violent ideology (which it is not, but that's a conversation for another day). Most importantly, the only protestors who got to comment in the newspapers about why they were protesting were people who stood to benefit financially for being present at the protests. People like Naomi Klein, whose anti-capitalist books are best-sellers, and people who were paid to represent non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International.* Anarchists, homeless people, jobless people, people afraid of being identified by the cops, and everyday people who just joined in (in other words, the vast majority of the tens of thousands of people who protested that weekend) none of them were ever quoted by the news outlets. The outcome is that we never hear about the desperation of many of the people who are protesting.
My point is: we need to question what the media tells us about why people protest and who the protestors are. The media leaves out far, far too much of what goes on at protests. We need to think outside the narrow box that news outlets and governments give us.
So why were these Londoners rioting?
Quite simply, inequality.
This is pretty self-explanatory**:
Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)
Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.
The area where the protests took place is one of the poorest areas of the UK and a horrible history of police brutality**. So consider how they might be without other outlets to speak out against their government. It is easy for those of us who are articulate and highly educated to blog about how we feel about the government. I myself have close contact with political elites in my country. It is therefore very important to remember how far removed I am from the reality of the people who riot because they are poor in a society that treats the poor as if they choose to be poor.***:
Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.
Before we write these people off as crazy, we need to consider how these protest are linked to a greater political problem. Austerity**** measures are making the rich richer and the poor poorer all across the world, and people are reacting.
And before you say that it doesn't affect you, believe me, it does. For instance, if you're an american, your government just last week made a huge policy decision (allowing corporate tax breaks to continue) that lets rich people continue to get richer without giving back to a society that is already in turmoil. You and your children are paying for an enormous war that benefits nobody except the shareholders in these corporations, and has killed thousands, and possibly millions.
We need to stand with the people in London who are under attack by their government, because it isn't going to be very long before the austerity measures in our own countries start to hit us and our children, and then where will we be? We need to support the protestors, because if we don't stand up to our governments now, the economic situation will only continue to get worse.
*Not that there is anything inherently wrong with non-governmental organzations. But the idea that they are more legitimate than people who protest without any affiliation is rampant and undemocratic.
**http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/08/context-london-riots --> y'all should read it, it's a good explanation
**** Austerity is when governments use an economic downturn as an excuse to implement pro-business policies, at the expense of social services like public education and health care. To define austerity any other way is to play into the hands of the rich and powerful.