This week London, Birmingham, Manchester and many other UK cities burnt. Like many of you I’ve been glued to 24-hour news channels and twitter watching in disbelief as mobs looted and rampaged in the worst unrest the UK has seen since the 80’s. The behaviour of the looters (I refuse to call them rioters) does not, and still does not, seem to make any sense to me. By Monday night as we watched Croydon burn and Clapham trashed it was clear that this had long ceased to be about the death of Mark Duggan. This was people taking opportunistic advantage of the breakdown in law and order to smash and grab whatever they fancied. Only the local Waterstones was left untouched. A sign in the window saying ‘We are staying open. If they steal books they may learn something.’ Buildings that survived the Blitz burnt to the ground, to distract the police while looters indiscriminately trashed their own communities. They attacked not just big businesses but small local business owners already struggling in the recession. Over 100 families were left homeless after their homes were burnt. On Tuesday night as 16,000 police deployed in London kept an uneasy peace we watched the violence spread north as the police fought guerilla warfare on the streets of Manchester.
What horrifies is the complete lack of humanity and empathy shown by many of the looters. I could barely watch the youtube video of Ashraf Haziq bleeding on the floor where looters under the guise of helping him up, then rob and abandon him. In Birmingham three men were mowed down as they protected their properties against looters. And what for? Designer trainers? The thrill of destruction? Finally getting the chance to stick the boot in the police? I can’t help but see these scenes in stark contrast to the brutal crackdown of the Syrian government. In the Arab spring people in the Middle East are rising up and dying for basic freedoms. In the UK people are rising up for a flat screen TV?!
To be very clear I think the police and the emergency services are doing a great job given their resources and the challenges they are facing. (I still can’t believe that at the time of the writing this, only four people have died.) But questions still have to be answered. Why did police so badly mishandle Mark Duggan’s family and the investigation into Mark Duggan’s death? Why were the warnings from local community leaders in Tottenham of the unrest spreading ignored? What is wrong in our families that they allow their 11 year old out late at night let alone during the worst civil unrest in over two decades? Why did it take three nights of looting before the PM and other key members of the government finally decided to call off their holidays and return home? Given the scenes of the police overwhelmed and outnumbered how can the politicians justify cutting 2 billion from police budgets? And perhaps most importantly this has happened once, what is to stop it happening again?
In a week in which we have seen the worst of the UK, I want to touch on the many examples of hope. Whether it is the Hackney woman bravely berating looters for trashing their own community.
Or people in Camden making tea for exhausted policeman, many of whom had been on duty for over 20 hours, using a riot shield as a tea-tray. Or the Turkish community taking to the streets of East London to defend their community. ‘Damned foreigners, coming over here stealing our jobs, defending our streets.’ (As an aside fuck you very much English Defence League, stop trying to turn this problem which defies racial lines to your advantage.) After social networks being blamed for allowing the looters to organise themselves, people on twitter showed how social networks can be a force for good as they organised a riot clean up. Hundreds of wombles took to the streets of Hackney, Putney, Clapham and Croydon brooms aloft in one of the most uplifting sights of the riots. Frankly their swift actions shamed the politicians, including bumbling Boris, who have seemed completely out of step with rapid moving events.
Finally the father of Haroon Jahan, murdered in a hit and run when defending his community, appealed for calm. His response was so dignified and measured, I still can’t watch it without crying. ‘I don’t blame the government, I don’t blame the police, I don’t blame anybody. I’m a Muslim. I believe in divine fate and destiny and it was his destiny and his fate, and now he’s gone.’ Later during a candlelight vigil members of the community refused to allow vigilantism to marr Haroon’s memory. This is our country, not these scenes of pointless destruction. As Alain De Botton said ‘The good tends always to outweigh the bad: it just takes longer to get itself organised.’ We are better than this. We have to be.
Tonight I hope this uneasy peace lasts. I hope that you, and everybody you love, is safe and well. I hope this ends soon. Stay safe lovelies and avoid seagulls!