Early Sunday evening the police helicopter was loitering noisily above St. Leonard’s, the area of Exeter, very close to the city centre, where we live. Aware that London was experiencing more than a little strife, and with natural human curiosity, we scoured Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone knew what was going on. We found a couple of references to trouble on Cowick Street, a less salubrious but by absolutely no means underprivileged area of the town. The word “riot” was used.
It was absolute bollocks. A couple of people had been suspected of stealing from a building site on the grounds of a school somewhere near us. Ultimately it turned out that they hadn’t done anything wrong, and the Exeter police helicopter blog (so dull I shan’t link to it – you can google if you want to) stated they’d been given “some words of advice”, or suchlike.
Tonight, after work, we drove to B&Q to buy some compost for our allotment. In traffic at Exe Bridges we saw about five Police vehicles, lights on, weaving through traffic. The police are jittery in Exeter. One of them pulled into B&Q carpark in a hurry, did a loop, and drove out again. B&Q was quiet.
BBC News 24 is reporting that rioters are attacking fire crews. On FiveLive one reporter was audibly shaken because his cameraman had been attacked. My father-in-law is in Baghdad at the moment on business. He’s probably safer there than in Basingstoke, where he’d normally be during the week. They don’t attack cameramen in Afghanistan, do they? Not deliberately?
To someone in Devon, the riots are strange. We’re often isolated from nationwide news down here; London, Birmingham, and Manchester are all far away. Things occasionally creep to Bristol. News is like tour itineraries. They don’t reach Exeter most of the time.
Twitter has kept us feeling involved, to an extent. A friend is a policeman in Manchester; he’s reported tonight that he’s in full body armour and “heading into the warzone”. But Manchester have sent a swathe of their police to London to help out there, and tonight Manchester seems to be kicking off. The Manchester police are asking people via Twitter to “dob them in” if they know anyone involved in the rioting.
This is obviously about way more than Mark Duggan’s killing now. It’s also about way more than Theresa May’s repeated mantra of “sheer criminality” that she wheeled out again and again on the radio this morning. It’s about more than Diane Abbott’s “recreational looting”, a descriptor which feels, to me, to get closer to the heart of the matter than May’s soundbite; still not close enough. It’s about more than austerity measures, too, I suspect. I’m not qualified to say what it is about, but it seems to me that, though the individual acts of rioting, looting, violence, pyromania, and idiocy may not necessarily be political in nature, the culture that exists, that has existed for several years, if not decades, which has nurtured this sense amongst the rioters that it is OK to lash out, to steal, that it is necessary, that there is no other way, that no one and nothing cares about them, is political in nature, in that it is the job of politics to try and nurture a culture, at every social level, which does not condone violence and unrest, and which does not feel as if no one and nothing cares.
There’s an audio clip doing the rounds where a young girl exclaims that this is about “showing the rich people that we can do what we want”, complaining about small business owners as if they were the bankers who tipped this country into recession rather than people struggling with the aftermath of it. Whose cars do they think they’re burning? Who do they think they’re demonstrating against by tearing up the shops that make up their own communities? How are even big companies like JD Sports or Currys the enemy? I guess that’s the thing – they’re not the enemy. They’re the holder of objects that people covet, and they’re smashing them apart to get hold of trainers and iPods and so on and so forth. Because it’s about a fight, and an opportunistic theft, and about not having any fear of recrimination. Is it even about that? I don’t know. I’m sitting in a flat in Exeter, gazing over quiet rooftops, drinking tea, typing on my expensive Apple laptop. I’ve just been at my allotment. Last night I went out for a ride on my nice new bike. I have no idea what these people are rioting for. I don’t understand economics and I don’t understanding recreational looting. I don’t understanding raiding Cash Converters or breaking into Oxfam shops.
I do understand that the warehouse where PIAS keeps all its stock has burnt to the ground in London, that everything inside was incinerated, obliterated, that all the people at all the independent record labels that PIAS work with have had years of work and potential livelihoods destroyed, from sales reps to label staff to the musicians who recorded the music on the CDs that are now so much smoldering lino. I understand that all the copies of Patrick Wolf’s fourth album, The Bachelor, that aren’t in shops or bedrooms or livingrooms were in that warehouse; it’s not a big album, it’s a couple of years old; will it get repressed? Is it worth the bother? It was self-funded with donations from fans. How many other albums melted in that warehouse wont get repressed? Can’t afford to be repressed? Will be lost forever? It makes me sad. Maybe that’s solipsistic of me to think like that about records, but it’s something I love, an industry I know a little about and identify with. It’s just one aspect of one industry affected by this though. The furniture shops, the restaurants, the electrical retailers, the clothes shops, the flats above the shops, the houses next to the shops, the people who work in the shops, who live in the flats, who lived in the houses, who don’t have shops and jobs and flats and houses anymore. Heaven forefend, who might not have lives anymore if things get worse.
There aren’t many of these people, in the scheme of things, who are rioting, looting, setting fire to things. In a county of 60 million people or thereabouts it’s probably only a few thousand, maybe 0.01% of the population. How have we got to this point? I keep thinking about the Arab Spring; is our culture as oppressive, in its own way, as those of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain? Is this crowd of Blackberry Messenger-ites seeking democracy and opportunity, or do they really just want trainers and iPods and a fight? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.