Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Much Ado About London Riot

I generally don't like using a "straw man" argument in my writing. It smacks of intellectual laziness. Still, I think addressing this opinion piece in Al Jazeera is a good way to start this analysis:

"Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out. Structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables.

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything - literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

No one expected this. The so-called leaders who have taken three solid days to return from their foreign holidays to a country in flames did not anticipate this. The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain't Twitter."
In short, structural inequalities are the root cause of the riot and London riot is just another way of social empowerment, it's a revolt of the weak. This is London's "Arab Spring."

The argument, however, is simply hogwash. Claiming the London riots as another "Arab Spring" is a huge insult to the reformers and political activists all over the world, especially those in the Middle East who had to brave themselves against regimes that were willing to kill their own citizens. Declaring the London riots another struggle for equality is giving legitimacy to a bunch of looters and robbers.

People do not riot because they feel angry due to inequality. Were this the case, there would be many more riots all over the world. In fact, compared to the rest of the world, European states, including the Great Britain, have much less inequality thanks to their generous social welfare system. People also do not riot because it makes them feel powerful.Were this the case, virtually every authoritarian government in the world will experience daily riot.

People riot because there are two important factors present. First is opportunity, when a government shows signs of weakness. The Arab Spring exploded after both the Tunisian and Egyptian government fumbled in dealing with the rioting. When the Bahrain government, supported by the Saudi government, decided to clamp down hard on the protesters, the "Arab Spring" in Bahrain simply wilted.

In London, the British government was completely caught off guard by this riot, because the rioters were organizing themselves using Twitter and Blackberry, and managed to form and disperse quickly, catching the police off guard. It is an urban blitzkrieg, in which the police, accustomed to conventional confrontation, was outmaneuvered by a bunch of youths with hand-held devices. That's why the riot exploded to this degree. The rioters, seeing the police's response as ineffectual and slow, managed to outwit them and escaped unmolested, emboldening the fence-sitters.

The second important factor is organization. There must be a group of people who organize themselves, creating a small nucleus of protesters that will provide a sense of invulnerability (due to the numbers) and protection (due to anonymity).

The type of riot depends on the organizer. The "Arab Spring" is an "Arab Spring" because it was done by a diverse group of people, representing parts of the society. The London Riot, however, is simply criminal violence, done by anarchists and thugs. There is nothing about inequality or racism. A movement against racism would not have attacked a minority neighborhood. A true movement against inequality and capitalism would not have burned stores and assaulted journalists. It is simply a carnival of crime, wrapped under the so-called idea of "justice," taking advantage of government's weaknesses and a social event that distract people's attentions and giving a fig leaf of legitimacy to these criminals.

The claim that the government had "take(n) away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures" might be true. Yet, it was not a direct cause of the riot. The fact that the majority of the British population remain unwilling to join in this carnival of crime, and in fact, working together to clean up the mess shows that this argument simply cannot hold the water. It is true that there's something deeper going on, but it ain't what that AJ opinion piece claims to be.

Let me give you a hint: It can be found here.

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