Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Hang the DJ

Exactly one week before the riots started in London, I was enjoying a very peaceful and picture perfect afternoon in the garden of friends who live just on the fringe of where some of the most senseless violence has taken place there. My friends' neighborhood is charming in the same way that you'll find very nice pockets just a few blocks away from rather dicey neighborhoods in New York. Most everyone living in this part of London are people of relatively limited means, separated by degrees that probably seem insignificant to the super wealthy and powerful.

My friends are fine, if, as one noted, a bit "nonplussed." This violence seems to have sprung up from nowhere. Speculation on the cause (and few think the violence outside Tottenham is even remotely related to the man the police shot there) runs from most of it being simply teenage summer boredom run amok to perhaps small-time organized crime taking advantage of the situation, but as one friend noted, even that would point to deeper social problems.

Everywhere I went in London at the end of July, cabbies and waiters and friends were commenting on how many bloody tourists had descended on the city this summer. "It's the weakening of the pound," one cabbie told me. "They had been staying away because it had been too expensive, but now they're flocking over." Indeed, the biggest fear before this weekend was that you might be trampled to death by the morning hordes of camera-wielding tourists rushing to gain entry to Buckingham Palace before the queue got too long.

"We will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain's streets and make them safe for the law-abiding," Prime Minister David Cameron has said in Downing Street, returning from his holiday to manage the riots. My first thought upon reading that was "I would have phrased that a bit more specifically." To truly make them safe for the law-abiding might require some serious social re-engineering.

The threat of violence is no stranger to everyday life in London. I was just a little over a week ago riding the train from Charing Cross, alone, in the middle of the afternoon, when three largish drunken lads coming from a football match (at which their team had lost) sat down around me and began provoking a reaction, commenting on anything they could to get a rise out me. I played it fearless if clueless, "What's wrong with such and such? I don't understand." Eventually, after they declared American Football nothing more than "Rugby for girls" or "Rugby for guys too afraid to get hurt" and American baseball as "Rounders for girls," I asked "And so, what is Cricket?" One boasted, "A man's game!" Which caused them all to laugh and the moment was diffused. We wished each other well as I departed at my stop. But as my friend confirmed when I later recounted the encounter, it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Not that we in the US (where a Giants fan was severely beaten) have any room to talk. Terrible violence is never far from the surface here either.

Which brings me back to Cameron's promise. I suspect to meaningfully restore order will require looking below the surface. Looking more closely at the deeper social problems.
Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
Not that I have so much empathy with the rioters that I think they shouldn't feel the full force of the law coming down hard on their heads, mind you. It's just that something cultural has connected the dots between London and Bristol and Birmingham and Liverpool and (just this morning I read on Facebook) Chalk Farm...I mean really? Riots in Chalk Farm? What are they protesting for, more espresso???.

One thing seems clear. Something cultural has encouraged the copycats to risk arrest. Yes, that urge can be tamped down by more police presence, but it can't be erased. For Cameron to deliver on his promise will require understanding that "everything possible" probably means reconsidering the severity of their
austerity measures approach in the emerging context of more and more social unrest.

Not that any reasonable student of history couldn't have predicted this, mind you.

Labels: politics, UK


Anonymous Gam said...

a scary thought is that the copycats are just copying different leaders. (the old lemmings tale) That in reality, our civilisation is in large part made up of the same copyists - people being civil only because they are copying others.. That our culture is just a veneer in too many spots. Tomorrow they'll simply copy somebody elses lead, leaving the choices to be made to others once more ... - who knows, maybe this is fashions dong?

"..it's going to be a long hot summer from now on ..." (i think that lyric was from a UK group back in the 70s)

8/09/2011 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking from Camden (London), a scene of one of the smaller riots, I'm not sure of there is much of cultural connection between what is going on in London and the rest of the UK beyond pure greed and criminal opportunism. Sunday night trouble was related to death of the man shot by police in North London. The subsequent looting yesterday of footlocker, T-mobile etc etc has been done by bored schoolkids - because that is what they are, mere kids, some young as 11, and it's no coincidence it's the summer holidays. I'll grant you that they're all from poor areas and while the coalition govt has probably not helped in this regard, their cuts over a year in charge cannot be claimed as an underlying cause.

8/09/2011 03:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent Smiths reference...

since it appears to be spreading, you should include these lyrics as well

Panic on the streets of London
Panic on the streets of Birmingham
I wonder to myself
Could life ever be sane again ?

But in all seriousness....not making excuses for what is some pretty loutish behavior, but I did hear one theory that there is much rage at what is perceived as an increasingly unequal and unjust society. Sounds plausible to me.

Something to think about on our side of the pond, what with all the austerity measures.

8/09/2011 10:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

Even if boredom is the major impetus for the rioting, why are so many so bored? Because they don't have jobs? Because both parents are working multiple jobs to stay afloat? Kids everywhere get bored. I certainly did. But smart societies funnel kids' energies away from violence - into sports, into activities. But that costs money and effort...

8/10/2011 07:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also maybe about gaining a voice, any voice to try to compete with manufactured relationships of social media, and the separation of classes and human experience. Kinda like a toddler who gets naughtier and naughtier. Maybe crying out for some attention from or connection to other arenas of life.

8/11/2011 12:07:00 PM  

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