Riots, stigma, name calling and zombies

A little over thirty years ago the Clash released a song called ‘White riot’. It’s an anthemic rallying call of fury and frustration:

White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own

It talks about the idea that the white community is too ‘afraid’  to exercise some ‘power’ on the streets – noting:

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!

Along with other Clash songs, such as ‘London’s burning’ I dont think White riot will be getting a lot of air play any time too soon. But a look at the lyrics demonstrate that many of the frustrations of the time are still those voiced today:

All the power’s in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it…

Are you taking over
or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?

I saw at incredibly close hand the ‘race riots’ of 2001, indeed I was the first journalist on the scene as Oldham erupted into violence. I could sense even then the amazing otherworldliness of seeing yourself as pitted against the forces of oppression and injustice, and taking out your anger with bricks and petrol bombs. I will never forget the blistering heat of an unattended police van burning on an empty street, or the feeling of adrenalin as I accelerated my car to get through a makeshift roadblock.  I can even understand why people would suddenly think  ‘they can’t stop us, we can do anything we want!’

But what Strummer and Jones in 1977, the Asian youths of Oldham and Rochdale in 2001, and the rioters of 2011 all failed to understand was that they were never going to prevail against the system by force, because we’re all part of it.We are effectively oppressing ourselves by buying into a worldview which prioritises aquisition and answers ‘wrongs’ with violence.

I read and hear a lot of people talking about ‘feral scum’ – I suppose in some ways its a natural enough desire to lash back and to try and hurt those who have hurt or offended you – but really name calling does nobody any favours.

In fact the ‘feral scum’ label is more or less meaningless. The rioters are no homogenous group of disenfranshised youth fresh from smoking drugs and giving each other diseases in a bed sit, they are a range of people, from 11-year-olds to professional people, who have fallen for the lie that the individualistic consumer is king.

Seemingly sports goods and flatscreen teles are the two ‘must loot’ categories – both of these being two of our best examples of ‘conspicuous consumption’. We have bred a culture where we to consume is good, if you dont have the cash to buy stuff, you are the underclass. I’m afraid that looting and rioting is not simply attributable to ‘feral scum’ but is the result of a cocktail of circumstances, all underpinned by a worldview or culture of individualistic consumerism.

The best way I can conceive of this is to reflect again on a metaphor I used a little while ago, that of zombies. The zombie is a perfect image of the individualistic consumer, and its no coincidence that our streets have seemed more like a zombie movie than the ‘real world’ recently.

So my hope is that we can stop pointless namecalling, call a halt to arguments over who is to blame, and accept like GK Chesterton that for any of us here, actively involved in our society which is built upon greed and injustice, the answer must be:  ‘…What’s wrong with the world? I am.’

I grieve for those who have lost loved ones in this mess, and feel great sympathy for those who have lost livelihoods and livings at the hands of criminals. Adding layers of stigma and calling names while failing to realise that as a society we have been breeding this kind of problem for decades however, will not solve anything.


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