The UK press – and every other professional commentator – is in full steam analysis as to why people would destroy their own communities, destroy people’s businesses, loot, rampage, and commit arson. Every night this week sirens have screamed through my local neighborhood, friends send texts in the evenings with reports of riot police outside their homes, and some communities have decided to protect their own turf with baseball bats, wire and knives – because (in their eyes) the police are impotent to do anything.
Those who highlight the current inequalities between rich and poor (The Guardian newspaper cited that the richest 10% in the UK are now 100 times better off than the poorest) are ravaged online because, in many cases, it seems that the looting was opportunistic, organised and, sometimes, a bit of a game. The riots involved a range of people, brought together by the efficiency – and free messaging – of Blackberry Messenger, to outrun and outsmart the police. Through the courts have marched a company director's daughter, a primary school teacher, a youth worker, a university student. For some, the consequence of being caught was not a deterrent (a fine, an ‘anti-social order’, a brief prison sentence).
Blame the riots on government spending cuts, on education, on brands, on consumerism, on parents, on the lack of role models, on the police, on social media, on an obsession with celebrity, on an individualistic society… it all plays a part in UK society today and, to a degree, reflects societies the world over. However, to the outside world, the economically troubled UK – and 2012 Olympic host – must look like it is in meltdown.
But this is not a broken society: communities have gathered together to prove that unity exists. However, it is clear is that there is a massive disconnect on our own doorsteps: a disconnect between the generations; a disconnect between those who have money and those who have less; a society obsessed with consumption where the desire to have more outweighs our (or our planet’s) ability to cope; even a disconnect between those who ‘get’ technology and those who don’t. It has taken four days of rioting and four deaths to realise that these disconnects can no longer be ignored.
And the crying shame is this: London is a great city. It is a city that is integrated, where nationalities blend, where community is strong. In the aftermath of the riots, many people have come out to show that community matters – with brooms and cups of tea, using Twitter as a way to mobilise clean-up operations, to offer support and to get to know your neighbors (check #OperationCupOfTea – mugs not thugs). There is a social media driven ‘anti-riot’ movement and it is bringing people together.
Perhaps this is where things now have to begin – at the grassroots, among community leaders, at community meetings, where the voices of all generations can be heard. The outburst of positive post-riot action at community level has the potential to be sustained. It may also be more effective than calls for old-fashioned corporal punishment, military service and kicking people out of homes. But it has to be inclusive.