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London Riots: Last Night and its Backlash

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Why London is not Tahrir Square, how Ealing became a little scary and the practicalities of making new friends in a riot.

Honestly, I've had better nights in London. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn't the best time to choose to walk round Ealing Broadway, but then it hadn't been on the news when we left. And even when you've been watching something on the TV in the pub for hours, you don't really expect it to be between you and the car you're relying on to get home. Particularly not when 'it' is a schoolyard bully-mob, spilled over into London's streets, playing at revolution.

The first sign, one we ignored, was that Ealing Broadway tube stop was closed. The second, as we walked from the next nearest station, was the small group of riot police, silhouetted by a fire down the road behind them, their transparent shields like big lenses. In hindsight, we were very lucky. As we approached the broadway, one of the hundreds of young men in hoodies and bandannas warned us: "Don't go down there. You'll get beaten up. It's crazy down there. Police are hitting anyone, a taxi driver got stabbed. Seriously, you guys don't want to go down there." I'm no war reporter. I said "thanks," and he directed us down a side street.

As we and countless others tried to find a path through the maze of back-streets, the young people in hooded tops, the older ones in bomber jackets, some in sunglasses, most with phones ablaze, stood and sat around. Some looked scared, some just excited. You know that feeling. Being involved in a group activity you don't feel fully in control of. As we walked, we made a friend: a Japanese man just back from a holiday in Turkey, just trying to get home. Home was very near the station and the burning high street and the roaming (though mostly unthreatening) young people were in between. We suggested he stuck with us, as loud bangs of cars being attacked were followed by running footsteps and laughing behind us. All just a laugh. Who the hell knows what was offensive about that car.

After finding the car we offered to try to get our new friend closer to his home. We were not the only ones looking for alternate routes, and weary, wary travelers were not the only cars on the road. Mostly we drove slowly, turning at the barrier points and following the lead of cars ahead when they turned back. Around one corner, a car impaled on the pole of a large sign, driven through the windshield. Around the next corner, silhouettes again in the side-street. But not of police. Sticks raised aloft, an overturned industrial bin and car after moderate family car with every window smashed in. Something being smashed and lots of shouting, moving in our direction.

What I can't understand is what they thought they were achieving. Did they really think they were expressing the discontent of the underclass? By smashing family motors? By attacking independent businesses? What did they think it would achieve?

Some people have blamed the events of the last few days on police injustice, on cuts and on youth frustration with a society that offers them nothing. But this is not LA in 1992. Similar though it may be in the sense of mindless targeting of groups and individuals not connected with a gross miscarriage of justice. And while these young people may feel "angry and frustrated" as one rioter said, they need to realise they are not special. Every teenager feels that way. Hell, I feel that way sometimes. And perhaps the only reason I don't set fire to something is that I have a decent job and a reason to live. But it's also because I'm not a moron.

There are those who have tried to compare the London Riots to the uprisings in North Africa and the protests against the cuts. The London Riots are not only different, they are the opposite of popular revolutions and passionate protest. They target no idea, no institution, no symbol of oppression. No, they focus their mindless, selfish, stupid aggression on those that are simply guilty of being nearby, of having stuff that they want. Smashing up cars that aren't Bentleys? Breaking the windows not of banks that have defrauded the nation but of stores that sell trainers and cider and bloody immodium. Tahrir Square this was not. The London riots are the opposite of a genuine uprising, a noble revolution, a legitimate protest, not just because they lacked any righteous goal or focus, but because they will bring a backlash the likes of which we haven't seen in Britain. That's the tragedy. Already social networks are being blamed. Already mobile phone manufacturers are handing over data. Already people are talking about reconvening Parliament and sending in the army.

This country may have the capacity for producing mob behaviour in children but it has a far scarier tendency to produce it in its adults. And when the backlash comes it will be ugly. It will be ugly for the kids and adults involved in the riots and looting, make no mistake. But it will be uglier for legitimate protest movements, for the goals of revolution, for anyone who had an ideal worthy of civil disobedience. The public revulsion at what has happened these few days will be matched and then outstripped by government reaction. And that is the real tragedy.

Because we will all go along with it. We shouldn't, we mustn't. But too many of us will. Fear and anger will make us keen on a state of emergency, on suspending the usual checks and balances. We are not Norway, and we have a tendency not to react proportionately. Demonising young people will be the least of our worries unless we all take a deep breath tomorrow and chill the hell out. Take stock. Remember what it is we love about this country and, while not tolerating these acts of blind, stupid, childish violence, also not tarring all civil disobedience with the appalling brush of London in August 2011.

A comedian tweeted that the real revolutionaries were the rioters' mates who stayed home. He is right. I'm hoping that some of the frankly frightened looking young people I saw in Ealing last night let the doubts they're having take root. I hope they repent. I hope they do it soon, before it is too late.

We finally got our new Japanese friend to a friend's house. He gave us some Turkish delight. I like that about London. It offers a lot, even when it is bleeding. Or bloody terrified. We must be careful not to let that be destroyed, in London or anywhere in Britain. This country is not most in danger when it's burning, but when we're clearing up the ruins, letting bitterness cloud our judgment.