Thursday, August 11, 2011

Time For Heroes

This week, England has been ripping itself to shreds, burning itself to the ground. Riots and looting have been breaking out across London and spreading through the country. You already know the back-story. It all started in Tottenham, following the police shooting of Mark Duggan and has since escalated. Images of burning cars and buildings are on a loop on news channels, while police sirens soundtrack city streets. reader Nicholas Jerzembeck, who lives in Wood Green, a mile and a half-from Saturday's original Tottenham riots, told us, "Sunday morning was absolute bedlam. The high street had been decimated, shops had been smashed and looted, cars were set on fire and the street was cordoned off. At 5.30pm that night people were being arrested still in the process of trying to loot. It was absolutely fucking terrifying. I didn't even want to put a light on in my lounge."

Few people would question there were genuine motives behind the original protests, but it is the subsequent days' events that have polarised opinion. Commentators on both sides of the fence have tried to rationalise, to understand, to explain what has been happening. Are the rioters selfish, brain-dead morons, hellbent on destroying their own neighbourhoods while looting for new ipads and Nike socks, or is it the natural reaction to years of cuts, unemployment, discrimination and a feeling of being completely disenfranchised?

Our eye-witness continues, "I can kind of understand Saturday's demonstrations. Living in the area, it's apparent there's a lot of question marks over the way the police behaved. The following nights of violence have been organised by opportunist parasites though. I've never known a collective fear like it."

As the riots continued, The Guardian was one of the few media outlets to speak with a level-head. They said, "Decades of individualism, competition and state-encouraged selfishness - combined with a systematic crushing of unions and the ever-increasing criminalisation of dissent - have made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Images of burning buildings, cars aflame and stripped-out shops may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media, ever hungry for new stories and fresh groups to demonise, but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and the context in which they occur."

This is a well argued point and, of course, society is at the core of all this. Rioters were not born to riot, but if society is responsible, then isn't it also responsible for the majority of people - who went to the same schools and were brought up in the same areas as the rioters - not smashing things up and stealing? Finding the source of the problem is surely impossible. There is no single starting-point. Capitalism, inner-city deprivation, parenting, the global recession, the aggressiveness of certain role models, the boredom of unemployment, the relentless insistence of advertising... where do you even begin?'s crime researcher at Civitas, Nick Cowen, suggests that simply witnessing people getting away with looting can be reason enough for others to get involved. "Cyclically, an outbreak of aggression makes potential offenders realise they are unlikely, as individuals, to get caught while the police are swamped. So they join in the looting and vandalism - thus making yet more potential offenders confident enough to have a go. Frighteningly, given the right context, a riot can almost become its own cause."

So, a genuine protest in North London turned ugly, wasn't quashed and has since been ambushed by the kind of opportunistic criminality which perfectly illustrates a time where actions and consequences do not marry. Take what you want, hurt who you choose. The individual rules. I defy anyone to justify burning your neighbourhood to the ground, looting and, for instance, trashing the place of business of an 89-year-old barber. Even if it is the result of being disenfranchised, downtrodden or simply the natural end-point of years of being told that being self-centred is okay, does it make it right to smash up a charity shop in Coventry or to pretend to help an injured person and then mug them? Absolutely not. I understand that any notion of a stable and supportive society is increasingly diminishing, but what statement are these people actually making by stealing a flatscreen telly before planning their next riot by tweeting from their Blackberry? And what about everyone else who lives in the areas they are destroying? Why should they suffer?

I hope that the rubber bullets and the deployment of tanks that some people are demanding are unnecessary. It is, in my opinion, a terrible idea. If you give aggressive people - who already, according to the interviews on BBC Radio 5 Live today, feel invincible - a faceless, stronger target to fight against then they will rise to the challenge and perhaps even perhaps gain unwarranted sympathy in the process.

But what is the answer? Another reader, Robert Kelly, says: "I do strongly believe that until we teach parents to start behaving like parents, until we lose this idea in society that unless you have a brilliant job, a flash car and the latest phone, you're some kind of pariah and until we ditch the sort of political rhetoric from the past year that has pitted everyone at all levels of society against each other (hate bankers, hate public sector workers, hate anyone out of work whether it's their fault or not) while still claiming to work 'in the national interest' then it's hard to see how we're going to make much progress."

So what now? Well, surely this is the perfect time for every single decent person to act. I'm not talking about going into the street Harry Brown-style and starting an us-against-them war. Rather, I suggest that - like the beautiful human beings who have been taking to cities with brooms and bin bags - we do the little things to help make lives better for the people around us, regardless of whether we live in an area affected by the riots. Visit an elderly neighbour for a cup of tea. Pick up litter rather than walking past it. Be extra polite to the person who serves you in the supermarket - indeed, say please and thank you to everyone. Give a bag of clothes to charity. Phone a friend that you haven't spoken to for a while. Buy a coffee for the person behind you in the queue at the cafe. Talk to someone at the bus stop - a conversation might brighten their day. If you receive good service in a shop - take the person's name and send an email to the company to express your gratitude. It's the little things that make a difference, don't you think?

Maybe all this sounds like a pathetic, hippy-dippy response to the violence that has occurred - fighting petrol bombs with flowers - but without access to the corridors of power and if all you have in your arsenal is a kind heart, then what else can you do? Making people feel wanted, happy, at ease and part of a functioning and pleasant society is surely the best place to begin rebuilding England, brick by brick.

I realise that most of us probably do kind things everyday anyway, but let's all go the extra yard to make our world a happier place. Now is a time for heroes. And heroism can come in the most unexpected places.

Words by Bobby Townsend. Email

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