#londonriots Looking for answers in the wrong places

August 10, 2011

If you want to know what’s really behind the rioting of the last few days in London and half a dozen other UK cities, all you need to do is understand the social dislocations, anger and cynicism that tell the real story of the numbers:

Unemployment statistics in Britain are sadly vague, but a reasonable estimate of youth unemployment just in Hackney is 33 percent.

The figure is from Michael Goldfarb an NPR correspondent who lives in the Hackney area. He goes on:

What happens after the rioting subsides is difficult to predict. Entry level jobs are in short supply these days, and as the government’s austerity measures begin to bite here, it’s not likely to get better any time soon.

Why London exploded last night

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard many commentators (liberal or conservative) talk about this. Instead we get lines like this

This type of coverage is not helpful

[anchorstooge] Many commentators say youth unemployment is behind the riots but [insert name of expert] from [insert name of rightwing thinktank] believes its just a bunch of sodding criminals who’ve been pampered too long by the nanny state

[expert, speaking in posh condesending tone that fits his double-barrel moniker] These young people come from intergenerationally dysfunctional families and they have a hand-out mentality. They don’t have to work, they just get pregnant or go on the dole. They are work-shy gangsters and by-the-way most of them are black, but we won’t mention that.

That type of commentary – criminalising the young rioters and blaming them for their existence – is underpinned superficial coverage (like in a warzone) by anxious-looking mainly white correspondents standing alongside police barricades in the early afternoon and vox-popping the gawking public.

It is stenographic churnalism of the worst order. It’s not good, but it’s understandable. The black, brown and poor white communities of the UK and elsewhere get almost no coverage of their daily lives. They live in estates surrounded by poverty, only able to secure low-wage jobs (if they can get work) and they live hand-to-mouth, day-to-day.

But then I found this little gem, recorded straight from the TV, but it’s brilliant.

I was pretty gobsmacked that Piers Morgan tweeted that the rioters should be treated like terrorists and shot, but it isn’t really that surprising. I guess it is his gall, under fire for phone hacking, and trying to rehabilitate his dusty image.

Then Darcus Howe pops up and gives the clearest and most eloquent defence of young people in the UK today. It is shocking when he mentions that Mark Duggan’s head was blown off by the police bullets. That’s yet to be tested, but the BBC anchordrone is clearly rattled and she should be.

Howe has a grand dignity and he let’s her know well and truly.

Fantastic remedy to the wall of BS.

Howe is right, it’s time to start listening to these young voices, but more importantly give them a future without random and constant police harrassment and give them work or education. Sure, many of these youngsters may be unemployed, but some are not. Some are also probably students who took part in other recent protests in the UK. They are not terrorists. But the Daily Star‘s front page is typical of what the British press is saying up and down the country.

The point is that the reasons behind what’s happening are complex and the broadcast media in general and TV in particular has so far not done a great job of analysing the causes. Instead it seems that large sections of the British media have fallen in behind David Cameron’s dangerous police-state rhetoric.

I’ve only heard one black voice on the radio (in Australia admittedly) making the absolutely valid point that all reporters need to consider. He said something along the lines of:

If the media is going to call this “mindless” violence, then it also has to ask the question: What makes these young people mindless?

He’s absolutely right. Part of the problem here is the news value of proximity. I don’t just mean physical proximity to the riots, but also social and cultural proximity and affinity between the reporters (mainly middle class and educated) and the ruling class. That’s why the very same correspondents who were four months ago covering riots and large protests in Cairo were telling a very different story to they one they’re telling about London.

In Egypt the media dismissed Mubarek’s ravings about rioting gangsters and focused on making the young people in Tahir square into revolutionary heroes and martyrs.

The lives of young men and women in Hackney is not that different to those of the same young people who so bravely chased off the (now) evil Mubarek regime.

The same root causes underlie both situations. The difference is that in Hackney the local political culture is completely flattened under media-driven consumer lust. The same issues and desires motivate the youth, their expression takes a different form.

Two other young black voices I heard on the radio this morning sum this up very well. Two women (17 and 18) were vox-popped. They had taken part in the night’s rampage and at 9.30 in the morning (Tuesday in London) were still in the street drinking from a bottle of wine they had looted. They’d been drinking all night and described what they’d been doing as fun.

But the telling comment they made was that the real target of their anger was “all the rich people”. That’s a pretty good gut instinct and it’s ultimately right. Unfortunately, these two women saw the local shopkeepers as representatives of these rich people. That’s a mistake, but it really only masks a deeper sentiment that does go toward explaining their anger and their sense of joy at the destruction they had helped to cause.

It was, in their view, no doubt an attack on the system that oppresses them.

That’s why the politics of this are so important.

Now the backlash will begin and it will be fuelled by racism. The Milwall fans who were supposedly defending their turf were all white and most likely target recruits for the English Defence League which recruits off the terraces (if not already members).

If the media continues to swallow and promote the spin from Downing street and the political establishment it will give the racists heart and the situation will get worse – a lot worse – before it gets any better.

The heavy police presence and aggressive pattern of arrests that will now rain down on Hackney and the other suburbs where disturbances occurred will only add fuel to the fire.