London Riots and Structural Violence

Photo: Sebastian S. Fuller

Spent the last few days doing what most people in London avoided, going towards places where skirmishes were taking place. I wanted to see for myself exactly what was going down, mediated information is never the same and like it or not simplifies any extraordinary event into a single lens. Even the pictures that my companion shot that night seem somehow much more violent than the actuality of walking down the street. 

I cycled round the confrontations early on Monday around 6:30pm at Hackney Central and a large amount of people in the street just watching lines of riot police form and reform. The mood of the crowd was celebratory, with a mix of ages, races, genders. I saw veiled girls, lanky teenagers, council mums with their prams, older Eastenders holding a can of beer, hipsters on bicycles and a few groups of young guys in hoodies definitely looking like this was the most fun they've ever had. The only sign of political unrest was a single young guy with a swollen black eye and an agitated staffie at the end of a lead. He was shouting about police abuse, violence against minorities, lack of government help among other topics. I appreciated his anger and recognised at least here a cause and motivation. I cant say I saw the same power of protest in the fat teen who came past in a balaclava causing a group of teens to launch into hysterical laughter.

Nothing was happening really. Then about a dozen officers with barking German Shepards moved towards the scattering of people near St. Augustine's Tower. The most aggressive people there were the police so I decided to leave but quickly was boxed in. They began shouting at people to leave, actually many of us were trying to. One man who was walking through didnt realise what was going on and got yelled at by an over eager officer. At first startled he then got very upset and the situation easily escalated. I left it was clear that the antagonism would continue, the kids would break stuff up and run from the cops and the police would have a real field day.

Zooming out of the effect and looking at the cause:

and for a step-by-step of the match that lit the fire: 

But the prevailing sentiment heard on the media is of 'us' law-abiding citizens and 'them' the thugs who are rioting. The condescending tone of this BBC article is a prime example: 'What turns people into looters?'. Though the riots were not race-based at all (the kids I saw breaking glass came in all shades) it does feed into the white british fear of minorities. And how can it not, in a country where wealth disparity and racism is both rampant and unspoken. And lest the UK pride itself in how mixed the country is lets not forget the actual statistics, it is over 92% white and even these statistics when you navigate them are clearly coming from an ethnocentric point of view, an us and them comparison.

The most surprising thing to me is not that the riots have happened, its that anyone is surprised at all. When you punch someone in the face what do you expect? People seem startled by a burning car and smashed window but what about the violence of policy and budget cuts. This is a direct result of poor social policy of a government continually led by a core of well-funded individuals who have no experience with need, poverty or discrimination. 

I recommend Gilligan's book Violence: reflections on a national epidemic to begin understanding root cause and subsequent effect in the body politic. Though he is writing about the US prison system, his perspective on marginalisation and its aftermath are spot on. And I also keep thinking about Paul Farmer's take on structural violence in his book Pathologies of Power and how poverty fractures the social fabric. According to Farmer the capitalist division between affluent and poor, creates a series of politic manoeuvres which not only sustain the status quo but are violent in their impact on poor communities. Read this is a great article on structural violence and human rights for extended explanations on the topic. 

This is why it seems to me when as a governing principle you kick the most economically-challenged in a the teeth, you're going to get some broken windows and missing trainers... 

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