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the times | Thursday August 11 2011


We’ve got to toughen up if we want tough policing Camilla Cavendish Page 25

Not alienated, just on a power trip. As ever
We have chucked resources at these rioters. But violent young men will always be with us, so let’s not panic
David Aaronovitch
actually took part in rioting, looting or violence since Saturday? I’ve been wondering about this since I accidentally stumbled on the original demonstration outside Tottenham police station that was supposed to have been the birth moment of the Week of Shame. Actually standing in Tottenham High Road, blocking the way, I’d estimate no more than 100 people. Standing in doorways and on pavements, I’d say another 100 or so. Bear in mind that I’d just come from a Spurs pre-season friendly match attended by 25,000. The highest realistic estimate I’ve seen for rioters in one place was 200, and pictures of that event suggest that it was too high. It also seems that one must make a practical distinction (if not a moral one) between rioters and looters — people who entered shops already broken into to steal goods. There is some evidence of the same people moving from one location to another. With the number of arrests at about 500, I seriously wonder if many more than a few thousand people were involved in rioting. This is important because it tells us two things. First, we are not dealing

Duggan) had just about no resonance outside one area in North London, tells us a lot about the motivation. In short, at the weekend — the word spread by 24-hour news, social media and messaging — a section of society discovered that they could do something and that the something they could do was a lot of bad fun. They could go on the streets, create havoc, make money, be violent, get drunk, behave as if they were the tyrant kings of an area — the mini-Sopranos of Enfield or Croydon, the gangstas of Chalk Farm — and there would be no immediate retribution (immediate being the only kind of anything that means something to a 16-year old boy). They had the thing that in their own lives they lack — power. Just as a gang of black-flag anarchists has when it stones a police line into retreat or — before Heysel — football hooligans had when they “took” the other side’s end and sent the opposition into flight. Because, yes, we have been here before, with a relatively small number of young men, high on violence and low on personal skills, finding a way to drive the rest of us mad. This analysis is both gloomy and hopeful. It suggests that, short of a world war to send them to, difficult and violent young men will always be with us. The numbers matter, of course, and we can and should whittle away at them with firmness. But we won’t eradicate them altogether, and if improvement is always slow and adapting difficult, we can — of course — make things worse quickly, by reacting with impatience, prejudice and stupidity.


olitically committed people of very different beliefs can take exactly the same events and discover in them a precise vindication of their own original worldview. And so it has been this week. A certain kind of rightwinger fits the riots into the pattern of moral and social decline that she imagines has afflicted British society since the 1950s: multiculturalism, soft policing, family breakdown (ie, sexual tolerance and feminism), liberal teaching, welfare dependency and immigration are all part of this elaborately imagined world. In the other ideological corner the causes are alienated youth, “cuts”, police harassment, unemployment, poverty, tuition fee increases (which, if the poverty explanation holds, none of the rioters would have to pay), and neoliberal economics, which allows bankers to earn bonuses usually described as “obscene”. Remarkably, a Guardian reporter on the fringe of a riot even found “a bystander” to weave reaction to the Iraq war into the reasons for the looting. Not that either position is entirely wrong all the time. But none of us escapes our prejudices easily. Vicars blame materialism. And I, pursuing past battles against the civil liberties lobby, rail against identity-obscuring head and facewear and am inclined to demand more CCTV and a rethink of the scrapping of identity cards. But imagine that we came to this innocent of all beliefs. Suppose we looked at events since Saturday and just asked the basic questions of who, what, where, when and why. So first, who? And how many people

Part of society found they could do something and that it was a lot of bad fun

They could become tyrant kings with no immediate retribution
with a mass criminal insurrection. And second, that a remarkably small number of people, if they are mobile and use surprise, can cause mayhem out of all proportion to their numbers. I was told this by Tony Blair once, in the context of terrorism, and it’s true. Even so, who are these few? They’re mostly (but not entirely) teenage boys from poorer areas, black from black areas, white from white areas, the same demographic as that for gang violence, street robbery and vandalism. In other words, their actions are a spillover into

the “nicer” world of what is already going on in theirs. (The links between pre-existing criminality and looting are suggested by reports of vans and cars turning up as stores are emptied, and by gunfights over looted goods.) This is important too, because it simply isn’t true that they have, in the past few years, been affected by cuts, lack of attention to their education or lack of investment in their areas. It is pretty likely that they attend (or play truant from) newly rebuilt schools, with highly motivated teachers who put significant emphasis on citizenship and social responsibility. They will often return to estates that have been improved out of all recognition since the riots of the 1980s. They are very much less likely than their fathers to have suffered from police harassment and violence. Far from their being forgotten and marginalised, a lot of time and effort has been spent on them and their peers. What we haven’t managed to do is to persuade them

into qualifications, or unglamorous starter jobs. It’s not for lack of trying. Then the “what” and the “where”. The looting has suggested to many that this is a form of self-Sherwooding, a white-goods redistribution from rich to poor. Especially as some of the on-street self-justification has been of the “we’re poor, you’re rich” variety. Well, what would you say if you were a slightly guilty looter? Intercepted looters’ messages, not designed for third-party scrutiny, seem to show few such heroic inclinations. And there’s another clue. While some have clearly gone for upmarket stores, others have been completely undiscriminating about which shops they’ve emptied. And while a few symbolic targets have been selected for vandalism and arson, most had no symbolic value at all. In other words it is not what they represent — but what the act of destruction represents. This, and that the ostensible cause of the rioting (the shooting of Mark

OpEd Live, from 1pm Watch David Aaronovitch on how the riots revealed Britain’s subculture thetimes.co.uk/opinion

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