Just after ten o’clock on Monday night, there was the first intimation that trouble was coming: sounds of a mass moving up the street outside – a sense of heavy presence. Turning off the lights, I looked out of the window. Down below, some sixty people were milling about. The constituency of the crowd was mixed: some white, some black, some Asian, though mostly young men. Many of them were hooded, their faces further hidden behind bicycle breath-masks, bandanas, or more improvised devices: scarves or knotted t-shirts. The crowd gave off a kind of expectant and menacing energy, an anticipation of irruption. And then it kicked off: from somewhere on the high street came the keening of an alarm and the crack-crash of a shop-window caving in (a Sainsbury’s Local supermarket, as it turned out). A group of men surged around the corner bearing a cash-box that they took turns to hurl at the pavement until it shattered. Then they bore it away, spilling small change in their wake, which others scrabbled to pick up. More youths ran by holding looted bottles of wine, spirits. In the distance, a kid flickered across the street, tossing boxes of cigarettes to the people he passed.
For about an hour, the climate outside was one of isolation and chaos. Chalk Farm Road, a street ordinarily busy with bars and restaurants, had become a desert, empty of traffic. The crowd owned it now, and they exercised their new-found powers by breaking into other businesses: a Domino’s Pizza takeaway, a minicab office, a bike shop. Men and women skipped past with their prizes, all smiles and gleaming wheels.
Then, abruptly, the crowd dispersed, melting into the side-streets, and the reason why quickly became clear, as a squad of riot police went charging past.
What was most evident was the imbalance between the two sides, both an imbalance in numbers and a disproportion between their respective capabilities of movement. The police, outnumbered by the looters, were marked out by slowness: slow to arrive as well as encumbered by their body-armour and hampered by a centralised system of communications. The looters, by contrast, were able to operate at speed; an emergent and acephalous network, they adopted rhizomatic tactics, sharing information by means of BlackBerry Messenger.
But beyond this issue of capacities, what absolutely demands attention is the question – one simultaneously sociological, political, ethical – the vital question: Why? What sense can we make of this?
There are some, of course, for whom the question is already cut and dried. The rioters are just ‘thugs’, ‘yobs’; simple symptoms – as David Cameron said today – not merely of a ‘broken’ Britain, but of a ‘sick’ society. But, as is already emerging from the court appearances, those charged so far have a variety of backgrounds, occupations and ages: one is a graphic designer, another is a youth worker, still another is a teaching assistant at a primary school, and one is an eleven-year old boy. (The disposition to run riot is not the preserve of a single class. Recall that both Cameron and Boris Johnson, the current mayor of London, were once members of The Bullingdon Club, a society at Oxford University that engages in drunken and destructive behaviour.)
Kelvin Mackenzie – ex-editor of The Sun newspaper – put this blinkered position most eloquently. As he said, quite straightforwardly, on the BBC yesterday: ‘There is nothing to understand’. This is bunker epistemology, digging in and walling off thought from any possible confrontation with complexity. And make no mistake, the causes of these events are complex. The precursor of the riots in Tottenham (north London) was the shooting by police of a local man, Mark Duggan. But there were surely other conditions of this initial riot’s emergence. And by what mechanisms of affect, what imitative means – operations of mimetic contagion – did it spread to other parts of London, and to other cities – Salford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester?
A provisional and partial answer is possible to one of these difficult questions: the question of conditions. The gap between rich and poor in this country is now greater than it has been since the 1920s, a result – as the historian Tony Judt has recently written – of Britain’s ‘unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unravelling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.’ This is a commitment which the present coalition government has slavishly reaffirmed, with the tripling of university tuition fees, the closing down of community centres, and no remedy to suggest for the shocking levels of youth unemployment.
There is no doubt that the violence and destruction were truly terrible, but we must surely realise that there is something to understand, and this understanding goes well beyond the superficial operational choices of whether or not to deploy water cannons or baton rounds. For these events took on a particular force and form, ‘like a flash of lightning,’ as Foucault writes, ‘which…gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies, which lights up the night from the inside, from top to bottom, and yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation, its harrowing and poised singularity.’ If the riots are like the lightning, then they illuminate the dark night of inequality which gives them their blazing definition.