Burning Down the House

“Social exclusion” is a real problem, but it doesn’t excuse the looting and lawlessness on the streets of London.

Riots continue in London for a third day

LONDON—Since moving to London more than a year ago, I’ve seen a woman toss a cat into a “wheelie bin” for no particular reason; a group called the Socialist Workers Party march on the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 84 percent publicly owned; and a man hurl a shaving-cream pie at a fallen news mogul in the seat of government.

Most Americans will have gawped in horrified wonder at the scene of masked and hooded rioters throughout London overturning cars, burning down hundred-year-old furniture stores, and looting shops as calmly as if they were regular shoppers—actually trying on the clothes they were about to steal. But it’s when you read that a posh restaurant in Notting Hill was stormed last night by burgling hoodies who were only frightened off by a kitchen staff armed with rolling pins that you begin to realize that quintessential Englishness means never having to account for deranged displays of utter meaninglessness. From this point of view, the collective comic sensibility of Monty Python, P.G. Wodehouse, and Mr. Bean isn’t absurdist; it’s empirical.

“Tottenham, you can understand, and everyone in Brixton likes a riot,” said a colleague of mine this morning, as she explained how her commute home to Balham last night was diverted. “But Clapham?” Here’s a neighborhood in South London known for its Aussie and Irish expats, hectic twentysomething bar scene, and quiet Sunday brunch spots. Picture Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens given over to mob rule. Another friend made the mistake of returning to an “Alan Moore dystopia” from the Edinburgh Festival:

I’m on this windswept, cold train platform with a broken-down rickety train approaching to take me back into central London. The train driver warns us over the Tannoy that we should take great care when exiting the train, as there has been “civil unrest” across London and some areas may not be safe. On the train, we stop at Croydon East for 10 minutes—and I can literally smell the burning.

The ostensible cause of the riots was last Thursday’s shooting of Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four, in circumstances that the London Metropolitan Police can’t seem to explain. A thorough investigation is pending. But if this is the Amadou Diallo moment for Blighty, then why are minorities and the working class the principal victims of “socially excluded” aggression?

In North London, Kurdish and Turkish shopkeepers have teamed up to form “local protection units” to patrol the streets and prevent the violence and looting that have plainly overwhelmed the authorities. (And how embarrassing that these riots coincide with the visit of some 200 senior Olympic officials, no doubt rethinking the wisdom of hosting next year’s Summer Games here.) “We do not have any trust in the local police,” said a “unit” leader in Green Lanes. “Our shops are next on the target list by the thugs who have ransacked Tottenham. We will protect our property.” This black woman from Hackney is appalled by the criminality: “You lot piss me the fuck off. I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person. ‘Cause we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause—we’re running down Foot Locker and thievin’ shoes. Dirty t’ieves, you know!”

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has made political hay out of the lawlessness. First he called for water cannons to be deployed against the masked Molotov cocktail-throwers, then he blamed their unrest on the Tory government’s austerity policies. “If you’re making massive cuts,” Livingstone told the BBC Monday night, “there’s always the potential for this sort of revolt.” Livingstone’s pompous summoning of Tahrir Square was politely contradicted by Shaun Bailey, a black Conservative community organizer, who said that this was not the time to score political points and that the whole affair was just about plundering merchandise. A much-watched video shows a young Asian man being helped up off the ground in a seeming act of kindness—only to be robbed by his helpers.

“I went out to Croydon last night to get my grandmother,” an Afghan-British student told me on Facebook this morning. “It’s about 3 miles from where I live. I saw a bunch of buildings on fire. The police were on the main road [and] then they all went away, and another crowd emerged. Loads of people with bags (probably filled with stuff they stole) were gathered around.” Another eyewitness in North London “heard two girls arguing about which store to steal from next. ‘Let’s go Boots?’ ‘No, Body Shop.’ ‘Hit Body Shop after it’s dead [meaning empty].’ “

Socially excluded these rioters may be, but that hardly justifies a BlackBerry-coordinated assault on commercial and residential property. Take it from Egyptian protestor Mosa’ab Elshamy: “Egyptians and Tunisians took revenge for Khaled Said and Bouazizi by peacefully toppling their murdering regimes, not stealing DVD players.”