Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Sense from Chaos

It's human nature to try to rationalise things, to understand them. It's an amazing skill which can be applied to anything from scientific research to creating works of art. So it's only natural that people would be trying to apply this skill to the things that are happening in London.

But the thing about riots is that they're inherently irrational - once you start trying to understand them logically, you've already failed. They're not a behaviour confined to humanity, either. My social rabbit owners list has had plenty of discussions about grumpy rabbits throwing food and water bowls around; there have been experiments done on rats that showed how they became aggressive and unstable when confined to a too-small place; cattle stampede when stressed in the wrong way. Small children throwing a tantrum will damage their own possessions, too - and self-harm is a common element of mental illness. Of course it makes no sense. The point is that by the time a population hits the tipping point into rioting, nothing makes sense. It requires a particular combination of long-term stress, frustration, disempowerment and helplessness. The UK is one of the countries with the highest level of inequality in the developed world, and also among the worst in terms of social mobility. There is almost no hope for self-improvement if you're born to the "wrong" family.

But the fact that they're illogical doesn't mean they can't be predicted. Writing in the Guardian on July 29, less than two weeks ago - but before the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan that sparked the original protest - Alexandra Topping says,

"Aaron is one of hundreds of youngsters in the north London borough of Haringey whose youth clubs were shut after the youth services budget was slashed by 75% after a cut of £41m to the council's overall budget. Hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the UK are affected.
Gang experts, MPs and sector workers are warning that these cuts – which have hit youth services harder than any other area of local authority spending, according to the education select committee – could have a serious impact on the safety of young people in urban areas."

(I suggest you read the whole article. It's pretty chilling, in retrospect.)

And it's not as though the police are regarded as holy figures who ought be immune from attack. Since 1998, there have been at least 330 deaths in police custody (two a month), but investigations by the IPCC have resulted in a total of zero convictions despite numbers that point at the very best to extreme negligence. Meanwhile, Tottenham is subject to frequent stop and search policies which result in weapon stashes in an attempt not to be caught with a knife, meaning that anyone can likely find a deadly weapon at any time.

I could, I guess, talk about the hypocrisy in talking about riots depending on where they take place and whether we're supposed to like the government that caused them (see: Egypt over the last few months, Syria, the French Revolution), or unpack things that have been popping up on Twitter like, "I saw 3 or 4 young women looting Tesco Express for nappies and milk tonight. Difficult and serious problems beneath this mess." I could disclaim the whole post by saying that I understand the visceral reaction to people destroying their city when we've been struggling with nature doing it to our own. But mostly I think it can be summed up thus:

Cuts to youth services. Cuts to education. Cuts to welfare. Cuts to health. Cuts to preventative programs to reduce crime or substance abuse. Cuts to jobs. Society has been telling these people for years that they are disposable, useless, a blight on humanity. The message has been reinforced so much that they've started to believe it. Are we surprised, now that they've started to act like it?

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