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The London Riots Weren't the Product of a Disaffected and Volatile New Underclass - it's Flash-looting and Mischief 2.0

Posted: 12/08/11 08:00

If you ever wanted to know what a real zombie outbreak would look like, you only had to tune into Sky News on Monday night. Scenes of riot gear-clad police tentatively lined up on a deserted city street - the eerie silence lifted by a roar as a hoard of feral youths poured in from a side road, leaving in their wake upturned cars and burning buildings - could've been cut with scenes straight out of 28 Days Later without anyone so much as batting an eyelid.

London's seen its fair share of riots before. The student protests, in November 2010, soon descended into violence and looting - initially blamed on anarchists, but later on students themselves apparently radicalised by cuts. But what's different this time is that these kids aren't angry. In fact, they're positively jubilant - beaming smiles and posing for photos whether they're carrying flatscreen TVs raided from electronics stores or 30p bags of value rice from supermarkets. And that makes this a uniquely different kind of rioting, and one which has got commentators and politicians scrambling to try and find something to attribute it to.

The London riots escalated from disorder which broke out during demonstrations in Tottenham on August 6th, following the shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by Metropolitan Police. By the 8th, violence and looting had spread across the capital and beyond, to cities including Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham. By now, this had lost all traces of being a protest, and had simply become mindless, opportunistic anarchy, organised via Blackberry Messenger and social networks.

While people have tried to pin the blame on the usual media staples of unemployment, heavy-handed policing and poor parenting, none of these quite seem to fit what we've seen, how it's escalated, or why it's happening now. Martin Luther King Jr. once described riots as "the language of the unheard", but this is a riot, seemingly, without a message any more poignant than "it's rich people's fault" and "it's a good laugh".

And this leaves us with another possibility. In an age where the biggest cultural shifts are taking place through the mediums of smart phones and social media, adolescent rebellion simply went viral, and what we're witnessing is more akin to a socially irresponsible and egged on form of Flash mobbing. (In other words, the zombie analogy, complete with infectious, human-to-human transmitted virus - in this case a mind-virus, or 'meme' - actually still works, four paragraphs on.)

Of course, as evidenced in Egypt, and in the West's war on terror, you can't fight an idea the same way you fight people. We're not dealing with sides, but with a whole highly infectable demographic. Calls to shut down Blackberry Messenger and to bring in the army only risk turning mindless disorder into a real fight against oppression, and turning the situation into something less likely to fizzle out when people simply get bored.

If there's a better solution, it's to fight the idea itself. And this would start with minimising sensationalist news coverage. Iconic shots of masked youths against dystopian, flame-filled backdrops on every newspaper only fuels the sense of excitement. Focusing instead on the positive stories - such as communities brought together by actions like #RiotCleanUp - sends a completely different message, and takes the focus away from the rioters. While social media may have facilitated the outbreak, it's also facilitated the clean up, helped identify many of the perpetrators, and become a platform for musicians and media figures to publicly condemn their actions.

The real danger here is that these events will simply give government a legitimate reason to demonise children and espouse the dangers of under-regulated social media. And you can guarantee, once we accept these, they'll be used indiscriminately - our very own homegrown terror cells; the ultimate 'beast within' that can be leveraged at any time to enact all sorts of authoritarian ideas. "No one saw this coming", so how could you predict it happening again in the future, right?

But this isn't about a volatile and dangerous new enemy. It's mostly just about teenage kicks in the new information age. This doesn't excuse the actions of those responsible - on the contrary, pinning the blame on bad parenting, consumerism and immigration seems to go a long way towards exonerating and justifying it completely - but there will always be bad parenting, just as there will always be those who feel they're entitled to take what the next class up takes for granted, mob rule will never develop a conscience, and we'll always be despairing over an inexplicably rebellious and irresponsible younger generation.

Or, if you'd prefer, there'll always be larger water cannons to use on the streets and larger sticks to use in classrooms.

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint."
- Hesiod, 8th century BC

 

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