For a third night, London burns.
What started as civil protest against questionable police action in Tottenham has rapidly spiraled out of control. As the government struggles to create a rhetoric on the issue, riots and violence spread sporadically into other areas of the nation’s capital, transforming usually peaceful suburbs into flashpoints.
The Metropolitan police and government have struggled to show the public a united front on this issue, with many away on holiday for the summer recess, a somewhat shaky Nick Clegg was left to face the cameras and denounce the violence – for that is all they can do.
I never saw much of the troubles in Northern Ireland, but I still see the flaky aftermath every week. Dissident Republicans remain fighting the last of their predecessors battle. Traffic disruption from suspect devices are regular. Most are fakes – occasionally, some are real. The police take no chances. The common theme throughout though has been the denouncement of violence by political leaders. When people take to the streets with burning petrol and covered faces, the words of politicians are weak by comparison, and almost always late to the party. They condemn the actions of the few as having 'no public support', and they don’t; but they are merely words.
I draw the parallel, for it is the same in London but with different motives. Much debate has occurred into what kind of person is involved in the London rioting. Initially at least, it seemed members of the public with genuine grievances over the seemingly unlawful killing of their friend had taken to the streets in a public outcry, as they have right to in our democracy. The situation of involvement however appeared to rapidly deteriorate over the following day.
The mainstream media had begun reporting that the sporadic outbursts in other areas of the city were delinquents with nothing better to do – that is, there was no agenda, they were simply out to cause trouble. The opportunists had arrived. Looting began, and shops burned.
Some discussion has occurred into whether or not they are anarchists. My opinion? they are by default. Any citizen who takes to the streets, burns down their community and attacks the state is by default, an anarchist. Their actions register them has having no vested interest in civil society. The question beckons, where do we go from here?
Journalists, pundits and politicians the country over can hypothesize the motives of the rioters; is it economic woes? Recreational rioting? Opportunistic flag-carrying anarchists? But what they should really be discussing is how the government is to react to uphold a civil society in which such destruction holds no place. The situation, although bad, seems manageable at the current point by the Met. But the worry lies in escalation. What if citizen revolution was not reserved for the middle east, but Whitehall has found very quickly just how easy it is to lose control on it’s own doorstep. What then?
My experiences of Belfast, even now, tell me that there is no definitive end to a riot. There is no one action that can be taken to stop it, no words a politician say or rapid increase of police numbers will have a decisive impact – the perpetrators must decide when to quit for themselves.
The end game for the government is therefore protection of citizens and their property, not to mention the good name of the city. Should the riots continue into the week; should they reach the Houses of Parliament or should they disrupt life at the heart of London, I feel the government must seize the opportunity to militarize the situation to some extent.
The idea that a bunch of youths with petrol and a match can take control of one of the greatest and most historic cities in the world does not bare thinking about, and as we have seen from the police reaction so far they simply aren’t fully prepared to deal with this kind of disorder.
In 1976, Sidney Lumet directed a film called ‘Network’. Although a critical satire of the mainstream media, one quote seems to sum up the current situation remarkably well.
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."
So, what if this is just the beginning. What if the wider public joins in deflecting their economic woes at the state in the form of a brick against a riot shield. As I write these words, The Guardian reports disturbances in Hackney, Brixton, Kilburn, Peckham, Lewisham – and worryingly Birmingham.
The trouble converges on the centre of London and the country receives it’s first disturbance outside the capital. As the disorder spreads, it’s time for the government to seize control of the situation through rhetoric and on the ground before it is too late.
It isn’t over yet, and London’s burning.