UK riots: To understand is not to condone

If questions are not asked as to why the violence happened, the next riot will soon be upon Britain.

Boarded shop window in London
Pleas for peace cover a boarded-up window of a looted shop in Peckham [GALLO/GETTY]

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of the crime” was the Blairite mantra in the run-up to the 1997 general election.

A comma had appeared where a full-stop once was. While the Conservative Party had been simply tough on crime, this new approach meant an area of policy traditionally dominated by conservatives became one which progressives could contribute to.

It was recognition that treating the symptoms of crime was not enough; that if the government was serious about reducing crime in the long-term, the causes must also be addressed. That the Labour Party did not do enough to address those causes is apparent to all, but it was nevertheless a position that appealed to the public.

The recent riots that have occurred in London and across Britain have led a number of commentators on the left and right, and indeed large parts of the general public, to question the worth of that comma.

Understanding the problem

The callousness displayed by many of those involved, and the sheer scale of the disturbances, has understandably caused a great deal of anger. As a result, many people have chosen to reject any debate over why these riots are taking place at all.

The impression appears to be that the crimes committed were so great and so senseless that to try and understand them is to condone them.

Fresh upon his return from holiday in Canada on Tuesday, the Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson stood amid a crowd of residents in Clapham, which had seen serious damage the previous night and declared: “It is time that people who are engaging in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications for what they are doing.”

The word “justification” reflexively follows the words “economic” and “sociological” – not because anyone had tried to justify the actions of the looters, but because according to Mr Johnson, any mention of those words is to do so.

Similarly, blogger Guy McEvoy over at Dale and Co.warned that “Pseuds will over-analyse” the possible reasons behind the clashes “and offer them as ‘excuses”. 

It’s a trend that spans the political spectrum – with liberal commentators joining calls to abandon the comma.

Guardian journalist George Monbiot wrote on Twitter: “People keep asking me what I think #UKriots mean. My answer: not much. We should not try to force meaning out of them.” Similarly, blogger Sunny Hundal wrote: “I think ppl need to stop trying to understand it – it harms our cause.”

Any discussion about the potential causes of the riots become indistinguishable from excusing those who carried them out, and those who attempt to analyse become apologists.

Default to ignorance

By this logic, the crimes committed over the past few days are distinct from any other crime, and deserve special treatment. The same people would probably not object to trying to understand the cause of many other, perhaps more severe crimes. But they seem to have decided that these particular crimes, committed en masse across Britain, are not worthy of further thought.

It is an appealing position to take, primarily because it requires little effort.

It is easy to ignore the fact that the areas worst affected by looting and rioting are among the most deprived in the country (according to a report on deprivation by the GLA; Hackney, Tower Hamlets Camden, Croydon, Ealing, Enfield, Lewisham and Newham rank among the 50 most deprived local authorities in England on at least one summary measure of the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2010).

And that these same areas are the most affected by gangs (A 2007 police report identified the areas with the largest number of gangs were Hackney, 22 gangs; Enfield, 13; and Lambeth, 12).

It is easy to ignore the voices of those who work with the communities affected by rioting, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh, who has spent decades working with poor and disenfranchised youth. She writes of those looting: “Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit.”

It is easier still to ignore young people who live in areas like Wood Green, interviewed as recently as July, who said after the closure of youth clubs in Haringey: “I used to go to a couple of youth clubs […] now there is just nothing to do. We are just out here with nothing to do. We’re just out here getting up to no good.” And another, who warned: “There will be riots.”

It doesn’t require a tremendous stretch of the imagination to consider that these things might not be a complete coincidence. Conversely, to say these are the only factors would be wrong, as it has become clear that those rioting were not exclusively young people from the aforementioned communities.

However, it should not be so difficult to understand that listening to those who live and work in the communities affected by the riots is not the same as condoning the actions of the rioters. Quite the opposite, it is necessary to prevent the same thing from happening again. 

It is possible to condemn those people who have destroyed livelihoods and risked lives, demand they be punished to the full extent of the law, and try to understand what led them to believe these actions were acceptable.

It is also possible to believe that poverty, lack of opportunities and the exclusion of certain groups from society are underlying causes to these disturbances – among many others – and to say that they are entirely responsible for their own actions.

We are left with a choice: either we arrest and prosecute everyone involved and carry on as normal until the next riot, or we arrest and prosecute everyone involved and try to address the causes which led to them in the first place.

To put it simply, that comma is more important than it seems. 

Richard Hall is a journalist based in London. He was formerly the International Editor at The Daily Star in Beirut. His work is focused on human rights, labour rights and the far-right.

Follow him on Twitter: @_RichardHall

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.