Rioters are no riot

Posted by Laurence

The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility. -Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to the riots in Britain. There’s the complex issue of how they started, what the evolving meaning behind them is, and how it could have happened. There’s also the plain facts of criminality. When the riots broke out in the Tottenham neighborhood in London about two weeks ago, I was frankly shocked. England is seen as a stable, if not the most stable of countries in Europe. The breaking of the basics of social contract wreaked havoc on England’s confidence. It turned out that, indeed, the government was not really in control. And yet the worst of the rioting is that the “cause” is malleable, undefined, and hazy. I don’t mean to say that what started the rioting is unclear. The transition from a peaceful protest of a police shooting to general rioting is factually easy to follow.

Rather, what remains perhaps far too clear is that there is no singular motivation of cause behind the rioting and looting. The various forms that have cropped up across England all having looting, police attacks, and general rioting in common – but those behind the crimes span wildly in race, gender, age, and even socio-economic class. The left and the right in England both have it wrong when they try to explain the riots. The Left believe that the people riot due to public spending cuts. It is incredibly clear to any observer that these riots do not have an overtly political nature. The looters are not even trying to say that they are looting because they need the money or the support. And with all sorts of folks from a widespread of economic statuses doing the looting, there’s something else afoot.
The Right claims the riots are just people being criminals and thugs. This, too, misses something of importance. There are reasons why people do not normally form mobs and loot. These reasons include a sense of right and wrong, a need for a stable life in a stable community, and a desire for education, success, or safety. When push comes to shove, if people are forgoing these desires or qualities it must be because, as The Economist put it so well, the rioters feel they no longer have a stake in their country.

I quoted MLK at the beginning of this post because I think he, more than anyone in the political sphere of Britain, has captured the essence of these riots. These are not people looking to gain some sort of political win, nor are they just in it for the goods they are stealing from locally owned stores. They are people who feel they do not have a say, a stake, or even a chance. They are people who feel defeated, who feel futile, and have no other way to express that feeling.