Posted in Politics Social Justice

London Riots: the fuel is not the ignition

London Riots: the fuel is not the ignition Posted on 10 August 2011Leave a comment

Growing up in Nairobi, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen violence, or a riot. Burning cars, smashed windows, looting – I’ve seen it all before. But no riot comes out of nowhere. Violence isn’t an innate aspect that affects us randomly – it is sparked. And that spark starts a fire. But no fire runs without fuel, and unlike some politicians have tried to use, the fuel is not that which spreads it.

Across the UK, there has been violence, looting, burning cars, etc. They have involved hundreds of youths of all colour, predominantly men. The looting is no specific shop or area. It started in Tottenham where a black man was killed by the police, with no evidence that he fired at the police. These other riots have no connection to the Tottenham actions. The ignition is not the fuel.

So why are there so many young people out to cause a ruckus? If they are ‘feral youth,’ why are there so many of them?  Beth’s right to ask us whether this is really ‘mindless thugs’ and how this has become the battle of who can pull the best political spin out of the events as they unfold. And, as Laurie Penny explains, there is no such thing as mindless violence.

Yet, these are not the questions being asked. Instead, those who caused it are quite commonly perceived as “criminals” and the outcry has been to hold them accountable. But how do you hold a huge section of society accountable for a set of actions? Even in the most atrocious moments of history, where a section of society has killed another, governance has never come through punishment. It has always come through compromise, through understanding. That is why Rwanda’s genocide gacaca‘s are meaning more victims are running away from the country to save their fate than the other way round.

One thing is always certain about violence – it is always about power. In the midst of a riot, power comes from yielding that bottle you can throw at a police officer. In the midst of a war, power comes from those with the most destructive weapons. In society, power comes from those who can get away with it – and in our consumerist society is reflected by the wealth that we own. So is it so shocking that looting was so common? That a Plasma TV (which the looter could possibly never afford) serves as a greater source of power?

How many weddings have I been to that are mere displays of wealth? Where each elaborate dress is a way of showing off how much the bride’s family is worth? And as anthropologists are aware, this is explained brilliantly through the potlatch – where each destruction of high valued goods shows the wealth (and power) of the family involved. Power is expressed through wealth. Ownership of high value goods – branded trainers, jewellery, TVs – is a way of expressing power. These actions are not just expressions of violence, but a section of society that is braying for power.

In our society, young men are still those who lack hope for power. Employment gives young people responsibility and power and most of these youth don’t have high hopes for that. Not with unemployment figures for young men rocketing around 30 to 40%. And how is their violence dissimilar to those happily running our country right now, and have not had to pay for it?

If we are worried about violence, we need to look back at the structures of power that exist. These riots may be a visible face of a much darker set of inequalities that has taken over the country. The youth of this country as saying something without really speaking it. They are expressions of the cost of inequality –  inequality that is only growing.

This is not a lone incident. We’ve seen the same in Nigeria, in Kenya, in Chile, in Malaysia. And it will not be the last unless we tackle this issue, globally.

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