Friday, August 12, 2011

The Last Week in London

Well, it's been an interesting week. When the city you live in gets the kind of global news coverage that has recently been reserved for Cairo, Tripoli and Damascus the temptation is to comment and perhaps try to moderate the excesses of the global - and worse still, local - media. This is my modest attempt at some sort of perspective.

I'll try to avoid commenting on events elsewhere in the country which despite being related (in a copycat manner) to the events in London were in places I do not know well and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.

The first thing to point out is we do not have a revolution on our hands which is how I believe events were portrayed in certain parts of the media around the world. What we had was certainly a civil disturbance on a significant scale that was initially and very tenuously motivated by the police shooting an individual in the course of his arrest. He had a loaded and functioning weapon which was not fired. Other details of this event are still unclear. It may be worth mentioning that UK police are not routinely armed. As far as I am aware, police only arm themselves if they expect to attend a scene where they believe they will encounter armed resistance.

London is a big city. Very big. What you saw on your tv screens were major and significant disturbances but these were generally contained within small pockets of the city as a whole. Within these areas a small but critical mass of individuals managed to outnumber the police to the point where they could pretty much roam with impunity and do whatsoever they pleased facing little or no resistance. This manifested itself in gangs of mostly teenagers and young men - but also women, attacking innocent bystanders, looting shops and setting fire to buildings and vehicles.

The looting of shops was comprehensive with small independent local businesses targetted as well as major multinational chain stores. Local people attacked their own area. There was no anti-capitalism angle to this looting. Shops were looted solely if they were expected to have goods of value within them. The prime targets were electrical goods, alcohol, tobacco and clothing. In one area, apparently the only shop to remain undamaged was a bookstore - go figure.

The initial media response was to attribute this behaviour to the inevitable tensions that build up in the deprived and non-affluent areas of a city that generally portrays itself to the outside world as overtly prosperous. Some people tried to defend the actions of those involved suggesting that they were a deprived underclass who had been excluded by society as a whole and were simply expressing their justifiable anger at their inability to share in the prosperity of London.

What quickly became apparent however was that whilst the earlier shooting may have been a trigger to riot, the subsequents looting and other criminal acts were the realisation of the mob that in sufficient numbers, the police could be easily outnumbered and therefore they could do as they pleased. Once word got around that it was open season on the local high street others joined in the looting. Whilst I suspect the majority of people involved were simply making the most of an opportunity to steal from shops without any police intervention, it was also apparent that certain sections of the group were also taking the opportunity to commit acts of violence and intimidation on any innocent individual that passed before them. This was and is the most worrying aspect of recent events. Violence directed at the police or state, whilst distasteful is I suppose understandable. Violence against innocent bystanders is not.

At time of writing this there have been about 1,600 arrests relating to these events. These people are currently being fast-tracked through the court system and prosecuted. What is becoming apparent is that whilst many are habitual offenders a small proportion are from a section of society that you would not normally expect to see before the magistrates. So far this has included a member of the teaching staff at a primary school, a graphical designer, an organic chef (who apparently decided to trash a budget chain restaurant), privately educated university graduates and bizarrely, a ballerina.

Most of the theft commited during these disturbances was opportunistic. The realisation by individuals that given the opportunity to steal and not be confronted doing it, a large number of people decided this was an acceptable thing to do. Underpinning this was a more sinister core of individuals who were intent on committing acts of violence and firestarting for the same reason - they were unchallenged.

There were five murders. As far as I can tell this was murder for the sake of it (if such a phrase makes sense). Innocent people going about their business finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is not over. There will be more events like this, perhaps not on the same scale, but they will definitely happen. A certain section of society realised this week how easy it is to organise and commit co-ordinated acts of mob crime. For every individual that was caught and prosecuted there will be ten people who got away with it and right now the people who got away with will have a new idea to ponder - crime, for the moment, pays. As I sit at home right now, 7:30pm on a Friday evening, I can hear police sirens in the distance.

These were not race riots. These were not anti-capital riots. There was no political justification. They were however - and this is a surprise to no-one except apparently politicians - a realisation that a large number of people in this city seem to have little or no hesitation in commiting crime simply if they think they can get away with it. It was mostly however motivated by that most basic of human failings - greed.


Terra Shield said...

This is a very enlightening post, and it's great knowing the story from an inside POV.

The Malaysian news channel I watch keeps showing one of the attacks on a bystander (the Malaysian student who was beaten, and then robbed), and fires, and broken windows, and people running.

I do have a lot of admiration on your police force, though as they just stood their ground despite being pelted (I heard this from a friend on Facebook), unlike our police that went full force with tear gas and water cannons on a peaceful street rally just last month.

King of Scurf said...

Terra: Everyone here was shocked by the footage of the Malaysian student being robbed. It is one of the defining events of the last week. His compassionate words have touched many people. The perpetrator has been arrested and a fund was set up to compensate Mr. Rossli which has now reached £22,000 - approx 110,000 ringgit.

A few people called for water cannon and possible military intervention but both these options would have been unprecendented on the UK mainland. The police have faced a lot of criticism recently over other events but their reputation was enhanced after this last week.

nursemyra said...

"In one area, apparently the only shop to remain undamaged was a bookstore - go figure."

Why am I not surprised?