“A riot is the language of the unheard”

quote by Martin Luther King Jnr.

Have you ever felt bullied, oppressed or beaten down by someone? Have you ever built resentment over a period of time? Did you reach a crisis and engage in confrontation?  When you started to get the upper hand did a smile lick your lips, did you feel vindication and power?  Did you savour those moments, continue for your own satisfaction and return home, triumphant? You’re getting somewhere close to why hundreds of youths have run riot in the UK over the last few days.

For a few days, disadvantaged, angry, young people owned the streets. The Police, usually the commanders of ultimate power, had to stand back and watch while youths literally ran riot. A smile licked the lips of the newly powerful and these moments of domination were savoured.

What of the victims? Could anyone watch a woman crying, because she’s lost everything she has but was fortunate to escape with her life and not feel anger towards the perpetrators? I watched on TV the towering inferno that was once Reeves furniture store and the smashed windows of Rock Bottom music shop in Croydon with a knot in my stomach. They are independent shops that have been there as long as I can remember, Reeves is a local landmark that has been there for over 100 years. I felt angry, for a moment I hated those that lit the match.

But I’m brought back to the disadvantaged young people who I know so well . Oppressed by poverty, poor schooling, desolate neighbourhoods, lack of opportunity, high unemployment, low educational achievement, police harassment and discrimination on the basis of race or social background. Is it any wonder that when a glimmer of the upper hand was sighted, it was leapt at, wrenched into the open and frantically ripped and ripped until there was nothing left? Is it surprising that the opportunity to front riot police and not be moved was gladly taken up? My anger for the people who lost their homes and livelihoods has twisted into a tight knot in my stomach with compassion for socially excluded and demonized youth.

The things that have happened are deplorable and the misdirection of anger is galling. People have lost their homes, businesses and jobs. People from the same place as the rioters lost everything that they have and angry young people have turned their fury on their own communities. But this is nothing new, angry people always take out their frustrations on the people nearest to them, poor people rob poor people, disadvantaged young men kill other disadvantaged young men because they’re from the next street. The riots of the last few days are simply more spectacular, something more worthy of our attention than the day-to-day violence and destruction that happens in some places. Until we collectively turn our attention to the causes of everyday oppression and violence rather than just be surprised when it spectacularly explodes, we will always come back to this place. Note how The Guardian reported on riots in 1981 stating the mood of government and MPs “was overwhelmingly of bafflement ….. Suddenly, forces appear to have been unleashed which nobody knows how to control”. Sound familiar? Cut and paste for today’s edition?

The young people who took to the streets were making a statement. Denounce this as opportunistic criminality if you will, however there’s a message there too. To me, that message was; “F*ck you. For now, we will do exactly as we choose and you can’t do anything about it”. But why did they decide to deliver this message? Why did some of those young people behave as if they have nothing to lose? If we don’t answer these questions with anything more intelligent than “feral youth” we’ll always return to these terrifying scenes.

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3 Responses to “A riot is the language of the unheard”

  1. KC says:

    Well written.

  2. I have compassion for the disadvantaged. I feel anger towards the system that has built this bomb. Still I do not condone the violence and looting that is taking place in London, right now. The youth are cutting off their own hands and feet in the name of protest. Only those who live in the neighborhoods will suffer, the innocent. Government and the keepers of power will feign action but will stand by and watch saying, “let them destroy themselves. let the moneys burn don their homes.”

    If the youth want change, if they want to be taken seriously, they must organize and revolt in a way that has meaning. Preferably nonviolent. Storm the courts, the police stations, the parliament building. Demand that something be done. Use voting rights and buying power to force legal reform. These things take more work, no one will get a free tv or pair of sneakers out of the deal, but it will be much more effective than burning down Sally Mae’s bakery, and Hopton Browns’ music shop. All that does is put more economic strain on the community, more unemployment, more desolation. All of these are the opposite of what the rioters claim to be revolting for.

  3. Simon says:

    Love this piece Pat. Few people, especially on TV, put the point of view of the ones carrying out this violence so well. I can’t help feeling that the sense of relief leads to the almost carnival atmosphere (in the old sense) you see on the streets, which rather undermines the cause. It’s not a protest, it’s people having fun by stealing and breaking.

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