Friday, 26 August 2011

I Know Nothing About Them

A couple of interesting replies to my piece on the Hackney riot on the Media Lens Message Board.  Inevitably I have responded.  It seems a shame to lose it into internet oblivion….

The purpose of the piece was to suggest the riots were far more complicated and diverse than a lot of the commentary, particularly the media were suggesting.  It was a personal view: the damage I saw in Hackney was relatively little, and being quite localised tended to hit local shops; though not that many.

Because I suggest criminals are unlikely to be political active I am not writing off any community.  I don’t see any sort of political underclass that has some cultural (perhaps even biological) disability that stops them getting involved in the political process.  Indeed, I am not writing about any community at all – I know very little about the rioters; whoever they are.  This is the point of my piece: we should be wary of generalising beyond the events of that extended weekend.  For me it is a big mistake to suggest that the people involved in the riot are in anyway representatives of a wider community.  A kid in the act of looting and a criminal in the act of stealing is unlikely to be politically malleable, as suggested by Michael Albert in his piece.  Their brothers and sisters, parents and friends, may well be so; indeed they could well be active and highly moral citizens.  In the years to come when looters stop looting and criminals thieving they may act in a politically creative way.  A criminal is no longer a criminal when they stop stealing and go straight. 

Another of the points I made was that the situation produced the actions of the majority; a riot creates rioters.  It seems that the media are trying to portray all involved as some sort of barbarian caste, indelibly wild and lethal.  That is, they will be looters for evermore.  They were probably looters for one day only.  Hardly a massive crime.  The criminals who were involved are a different matter.  We shouldn’t feel sorry for them.  However, criminals can change.  Malcolm X, of the little I know, was not politically active when he was doing petty crime, but once he converted to the worship of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad he stopped being a criminal, and became a moral and political agitator.  Bad today, good tomorrow.  Although some never change, of course.

Looting the corporates?  But who are the real victims?   Most will be the relatively innocent kids caught up in the looting who are now targeted by a vicious government.  The other is the shop assistants and others who work in these places, and will have to deal with the actual mess the rioting caused. 

I read the links.  Apart from a radically different perspective what Max van Sudo describes is not that far away from my post (was there perhaps a typo in the response?).  The list of shops on the riotwiki suggests many things.  JD Sports and Footlocker seem a popular target, as do mobile phone shops.  Yes, there seem to be bookmakers and pawnshops, but also pharmacists.  One reason could be ready money and drugs; rather than resentment at local capitalist exploiters; though I expect there is an element of that too.  The others suggest copying, some organised activity, or a reflection of the life experiences of the looters: you navigate around the city through your family, friends, and visiting your favourite shops and public spaces.  It is thus natural to loot the shops you have some connection with. 

The Hackney report on riotwiki confirms other eyewitness accounts.  The comments about the café are silly – given that just about all the high streets in Britain have been colonised by franchises it is a bit much calling the Bon Appetite a corporate.  Surely if people had wanted to make a political statement about corporate control they’d have gone after the big ones like Marks and Spencers in the Narroway (outside of which the riot appears to have started).  When I passed it the day after the riot I didn’t see any damage.  However, if the account is true, the café seems to have been targeted because of an earlier incident.  This does suggest possible reasons for why different shops and business were attacked.  Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch imagined others: eg. people rejected for a job taking their revenge.  All this seems plausible.  In different areas different places are smashed up for a variety of motivations; few of which are political.  In Clapham estate agents; in Enfield a retail park.  This can suggest many scenarios: the chance location of the riot, and the different people involved: were estate agents attacked by the happy poor or the disgruntled middle class… Clearly there was targeting: some by political activists and some by criminals.

I think one has to make very careful distinctions when comparing soldiers killing the state’s enemies to criminals robbing a few shops.  Like is not being compared with like.  Of course the destruction of the former is far greater than the latter; and the resulting moral responsibility of the state infinitely worse.  That is, we have to make a distinction between the institutional context and the individuals involved; just as I do above, suggesting the riot produces rioters, and that the majority of the looters should be treated leniently; though not the muggers and criminal gangs.  And we can go further, by making a distinction between those who looted and those that didn’t, but who had the opportunity.  The latter are more moral; not only compared to the people who did loot but to the MPs who couldn’t resist having porn and champagne at the public’s expense.  Compared to them these innocent bystanders are exemplary citizens.  But I don’t want to go too far down this road, for it is to generalise too much.  I was writing about groups of people who were stealing stuff on a particular day, no more and no less.

Michael Albert’s piece is a good example of believing one’s own propaganda.  I replied to it.  My comments suggested that we have to make a distinction between the causes of the riot, particularly in Tottenham, and the subsequent rioting, which followed its own course.  I suggested politics had very little to do with these latter events.  We didn’t get on. 

No comments:

Post a Comment