These Empty 21st Century Riots

A feeling of tension and apprehension hangs unspoken in the air around me as I walk down Brixton Road.

A feeling of tension and apprehension hangs unspoken in the air around me as I walk down Brixton Road. The majority of shops are boarded-up or have their shutters down, offering a grim backdrop to the fully uniformed police officers loitering outside the tube station, and curious local residents stand around observing Sunday night's damage. The usually thriving market is all but deserted and the sound of sirens peals threateningly through the streets. The ravaged Foot Locker store is cordoned off, its smashed windows and burnt-out interior a potent reminder of the unpredictability of the current situation, and of the fact that we are teetering on the brink of more chaos tonight.

This was the scene that greeted me when I arrived home to Brixton on Tuesday afternoon, and it seemed perverse to get off the tube from my daily commute and to wander home as though nothing out of the ordinary was really happening at all. To some extent, life has to go on, rather than us giving in to a seemingly random reign of intimidation. But my day was no ordinary day and it was disrupted like everyone else's - my colleagues and I were sent home from work early for fear of further violence, and my local league's netball match was cancelled.

To me, the most chilling factor of these, now widespread, riots, is the utter meaninglessness and hopelessness of them. I am too young to have experienced the full force of the '80s, and was growing up in leafy suburbia in the '90s, but I know enough about the histories of London and Liverpool in particular to gather that historically, the UK's infamous riots were localised and tended to happen for a reason, whether or not that reason is justifiable. Violence is violence and destruction is destruction, but it is very possible to understand a raging anger against something, and that people sometimes go to great lengths to have their voices heard, to raise awareness of their point. In other words, we can understand the drive if not the action.

This time, though, I think it is fair to say that nobody - probably least of all the people involved - seems to know what the point is. Yes, the Tottenham riots followed a protest about the death of a young man, seemingly at the hands of the police, and this is how much social unrest begins. But it is highly unlikely that every one of the current rioters throughout the country is so passionately interested in this man's case that they will destroy their own communities to express their disgust. People throughout history have stood up for what they believe in, and when they feel injustice has been done, they fight ever harder. But to my mind this situation is not about that - it is more like an eruption of an undefined frustration, and the unleashing of a desire to cause destruction, whoever it hurts, whether it be the bosses of multi-million pound businesses or close neighbours. If these people were targeting the banks, or simply smashing the windows of McDonalds and Tescos, it would still not necessarily be condoned, but in the current circumstances it would make sense. It seems that our disaffected youth are no longer simply disaffected, but completely lacking in any direction, conviction or hope.

The images of the looters strolling casually away with their expensive prizes give us the very clear impression that they care very little about making any political point. Many of them seem more jubilant than angry, more nonchalant than outraged. It is this that chills me to the bone.

To add to this gaping absence of principle amidst the disorder, there is the unnerving sense that the police are as scared as we are. Usually an intimidating and provocative presence in Lambeth, the officers on the streets seem belittled, and somewhat resigned.

These riots are truly 21st century riots. The instigators ripping our beloved urban communities to shreds are not political protesters, or idealists, or young people with a burgeoning conviction that their lot in life is unfair. A new pair of trainers and a chance to defy the authorities is enough to lead them to turn society upside down. You can blame the recession, the Government cuts, the general breakdown of parental control, or the police, but none of those can be held completely accountable this time. In the longer-term, we are all responsible for righting whatever has gone wrong on a deeper level. But what lies at the root of the riots this week seems to be a devastating mixture of blindly materialistic greed and contempt of a system that has made material things harder to gain. And perhaps most heartbreakingly and terrifyingly of all, a belief in nothing whatsoever to replace the system they seek to destroy.


What's Hot