I’m writing this at 2AM watching BBC News and following the twitter stream about the riots that are happening in my country. Most of the violence has happened in London and mainly the poorer areas of London (although Ealing might be classed as an exception); but there have also been outbreaks in Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool (at the time of writing).
Lots of people have been on the BBC beginning to offer a reason for what has happened and I suspect the post mortem will go on for some time now. This is not a post that wants to offer an answer! This is a confused post that longs for an answer and offers a place where I begin. Firstly, I want to highlight those things that make me feel uncomfortable:
During the Arab Spring we witnessed the revolutionary movement of a people who longed for a better world. What we are witnessing here is a group of young people running a mock and carrying out looting and severe vandalism. Many tweeters have commented on the difference between the aim of the Arab revolutionaries in the beginning of the year and the scenes we are currently witnessing. And yet .. this began with the shooting of a man by a government sanctioned enforcement agency. Said this way it is deliberately provocative. I want to say here that I have nothing but admiration for the actions of the police that I have seen on the news this evening. All I have witnessed is brave and well disciplined women and men doing a terrific job in unbelievable circumstances. I also want to acknowledge that most of the rioters probably don’t even know the name of Mark Duggan. But we can’t escape the uncomfortable truth that this began in a place that, if it had been in a country whose political system we did not agree with, we would have been wondering if we ought to offer arms and money to the dissenters!
If this was a riot in Tottenham over the shooting of Mark, then it would almost be understandable – but what we have witnessed is ‘hot-spots’ of violence springing up across London and moving to other larger cities. There fight is not with the shooters of Mark Duggan. In fact, I doubt the fighting in Tottenham is about the shooting of Mark Duggan! But it happened for a reason! This has replaced a post that I was going to put on my blog about a recent trip on my holiday to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. The museum exhibited some amazing pieces of Picasso art from his earlier days, but what impressed me the most was the way the museum demonstrated the various influences on Picasso’s work. I wanted to blog about the way in which we are not blank canvasses that arrive in any setting untouched and hygienically clean from outside stimuli. From a young age we arrived as informed and influenced beings (for better or for worse). So my question is: what is the influence on these young people? What has formed them in this way? I am sure the Daily Mail will want to dignify that response with answers like feckless father, benefit grabbing mothers, immigration etc. but I just don’t buy it! We are yet to see but I suspect that most of the people rioting are 2nd generation and beyond Brits! These are my people (whatever colour). So what has shaped them?
I wonder how many of the young people rioting have a criminal record? It is hard to believe that England had an underground movement of young criminals that had never been caught but were running a firm and were just waiting for the opportunity to fight! In fact, judging by some of the clearly useless criminal acts (posing in photographs with a bag of rice!) I suspect that many of them have never done anything like this before. So what’s shaped them? When I was interviewed for my Venture FX job I was asked to describe the era in which we live. I was trying to describe my generation and the people rioting are most likely a younger generation. But I wonder if this resonates with others? And I wonder, if it is true of my generation, – what does it do to the next? I described my generation as a generation that had been failed: we were told to work hard at school and we would get a job – the education system failed us!; I was told to put my money in the bank and my financial situation would be secure – the banking system failed us!; I was told to eat certain foods and not to eat others, only to find later that the foods I ate gave me another disease and the foods I didn’t eat could have saved me from others – the health service failed us! I was told to vote and participate in making my country a better place – the political system failed us! I was told we were a developed country and that others were developing – then we bombed them when they didn’t develop into us – foreign policy failed us!
I’m not sure if the above is true – it might just be my misreading of history and shaped by those things that have informed me. But if any of it is true then the result of the next generation might look like the scenes I’ve witnessed tonight. I read a tweet earlier on that asked if we were witnessing the end of capitalism and (possibly democracy). As another tweeter commented – it would take more than this to bring down capitalism as we know it. But you can’t help wondering with the news flowing from the stock exchange, what we already know of the banking crisis, and the financial situation in Europe and America that we might be witnessing a shift in the way in which the West manages itself. Slavery and feudalism did not last forever – has the next political and economic system served its time? I have often been mocked (and called arrogant) for suggesting that the jury is out on Democracy – but in the face of ridicule I stand by it. Why? Because I see little evidence that Democracy produces the world we want to live in. This last three days might be a new generation telling us that they refuse to live under the conditions of the present regime. I suspect many people in my and my parents generation will want to end their illusions of a better world (after all – we could lose everything!) and we will use all the resources necessary to stop this nonsense. We will call them looters, rioters, maybe even terrorists (and don’t forget that the activity of the Black South Africans during the struggles was retold by anchor men and women as acts of terrorism!). The alternative will be to listen to them and take their (sometimes inarticulate and incoherent) protests seriously; and then to accept the role we played in creating the world they now live in.
The problem, is that despite offering some analysis of the problem (which others will certainly disagree with) I have no suggestion of the answer. I have neither the imagination nor the intelligence to offer an alternative to what we currently have. But I do know that those people do exist and they belong to different faiths and none, to different races, sexualities and languages. I look to them to inspire me. One of my heroes is Simone Weil a French philosopher who lived during the turbulent times of two world wars. She wrote a book called Need for Roots. In this book she offered a new vision for the way in which a society might be able to organise itself and hoped that the new France (after the second world war) might adopt it – they didn’t! And in the end Weil starved herself (or did she?) in a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent. I have no idea if Simone Weil’s understanding of society is workable or desirable. But what I am looking for, what I believe the majority of young people who were out tonight are looking for, is an alternative.
I want someone to imagine a new future; a future that is different and greater than the one I am currently offered.