Out on the streets this afternoon, on my journey back from work, everything seemed back to normal. The metal sheets have been taken down from the entrance of PC World on Tottenham Court Road, and the gay bookshop on Marchmont Street has already had its plate glass window replaced. The pub across the street from my place has its tables and chairs back outside. And while there are police on the streets, the streets are no longer lined with riot vans. And yet to be quite frank, and less eloquent than I usually try to be, I am more frightened tonight than I have been during the last several days, when the violence was actually occurring. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the aftermath of the events—the families grieving for the dead or the soon to be imprisoned, the politicians’ boilerplate statements, the nervous excitement of the wife of a vigilante—that seems, in its semi-everydayness, more disturbing than what came before.
I have heard David Cameron, the prime minister, announce himself as “the leader of a new moral army.” I have seen him give a speech in which he said that there “are pockets of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick.” He also said the following:
This continued violence is simply not acceptable and it will be stopped.
We will not put up with this in our country, we will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets. Let me be clear . . . Whatever resources the police need they will get, whatever tactics police feel they need to employ, they will have legal backing to do so. We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order on to our streets. Every contingency is being looked at, nothing is off the table. The police are already authorized to use baton rounds and we agreed that while they are not currently needed, we now have in place contingency plans for water cannon to be available at twenty-four hours’ notice.
I have seen police arrest a woman in Wolverhampton after Cameron’s visit. I have watched as the police pin her to the pavement as she writhes and screams abuse about her prime minister.
I have seen Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, gesture at a burned shop in Wolverhapton and shake his head. Miliband later spoke of a need for responsibility, “especially parental responsibility.”
I have seen a teaching assistant at a primary school arrive at court under a charge of theft.
I have seen a father with what I think is a Nigerian accent plead with a television reporter that his son is innocent because he is not a violent boy.
I have seen a restaurant worker say, “In Turkey, when there is some danger to your village, your street, your city, people come together.”
I’ve seen Tariq Jahan, the father of a man killed defending his neighborhood from looters in Birmingham, show a picture of his son as a boy. His son, now 21 years old forever, was driven over by a car, along with two of his friends. He says “I lost my son . . . Step forward if you want to lose your son.”
I’ve heard a broadcaster suggest that more violence may be in the offing, but “this time along racial lines.”
I’ve seen bouquets of flowers lain along the curb next to a petrol station—on the street where Tariq’s son was killed.
I have seen a picture that’s circulating around the internet of a man in Germany who had his eyes put out by a water cannon. His left eye seems to be gone altogether; the right hangs, crushed, from its socket.
I have read reports that there were rallies held by the white nationalist English Defense League in the London suburbs of Eltham and Enfield last night. The Eltham rally included around 300 supporters.
I have seen an article put out by Reuters, much to the approval of some of those whom I know in the student movement (I saw it via their Facebook posts), in which “rioters point to poverty and prejudice” as the cause of their actions.
Mandated by the enormity of the events of the last few nights and the attention that they have already received, the rolling news channels (there are two domestic ones in the UK, BBC and Sky) have been forced to do what they generally avoid. They have been forced to cover the actual outcomes and effects of the exciting and terrifying events that dominated their scrolling screens the past few days. And it is in these after-stories, to my mind, beyond the luridly frightening excitement of the past few nights, that we come as close as we can to the meaning of the events we have watched.
Leftists and liberals—of both the “public” and “student activist” stripes —have been incessantly asking themselves questions about the meaning of these riots and the pragmatics of handling them. Should those who have been defending the right to protest in the UK defend the rights of rioters who have looted electronics stores? Would distancing oneself from the rioters imply that previous claims of solidarity with the non-matriculating lower classes and the largely West Indian poor of Tottenham, Hackney, and elsewhere were only valid until the going got rough?
I’m not sure that these questions aren’t impossible at this point to answer. The only thing clear to me tonight, especially in the wake of the evening news, is that nearly everyone lost—and lost in competition with one another during these riots. Young people, many of whom are about to be affected by a double-barreled assault on their families’ social benefits and the funding of their own educations, were willing to gamble their future lives against the chance of acquiring a new pair of sneakers. Understaffed and underfunded emergency services have proven unable to maintain order, put out fires, or even protect the citizenry from itself. Shopkeepers and neighborhood residents have been thrown back on their own devices, given the inability of the state to provide them any support at all. What we have seen, especially tonight as the smoke has started to clear, looks quite a bit like a major step back towards the Hobbesian ring of all against all and each for himself, or at least his own.
The events of the last few days have not been marked by mass loss of life, and to be sure there have been far harsher tragedies, both manmade and natural, intentional and accidental, all over the world during the last several years. In the last year, just in England, I have seen my university occupied by my students, and some of my students return from battles with the police on the streets of central London with wounds. I’ve seen Molotov cocktails thrown and fancy department stores occupied by anti-austerity activists. But these riots, I think, make visible in a way that nothing else has here today the general direction of the nation—and likely of many other nations currently headed down the path of austerity.
I gave up on hysterical overreaction, I think, several years ago. I lived through the early days of the color coded alert system in New York, and like many of us, I spent my time trolling conspiracy websites trying to figure out what was going to happen next in the early years of the last decade. That said, anyone with the slightest bit of historical sense at all would be hard pressed to watch the BBC News tonight and not have an immediate sense of how thin the line is separating modern, if almost utterly debased, democratic capitalism from the horrors of the 1930s. A handful of deaths and several burning buildings, and we hear calls for martial law, racist banter fills the social media networks, and ethnic “neighborhood defense” squads begin to form at speed.
What I saw on the news tonight obviously plays most readily into the hands of the worst political movements and figures. Fear of violence, resentment of the poor, and racialized anger are easy buttons for the right to push. The riots and their aftermath represent a painfully clear illustration of one of the most demonically perverse historical tendencies: that right-wing policies hurt ordinary people and in doing so promote support for right-wing policies. Even if the riots have calmed for now, it is hard to come up with a good reason, given the grinding persistence of the starvation of the welfare state in Britain and almost everywhere else, why they won’t return as a newly perennial feature of life in London. If the left is ever to regain its footing, it might need to start with the montage of images I borrowed from today’s news and a simple fact about them as an aggregate: while many of the figures featured were in one way or another guilty of something, everyone—save of course for Cameron—was a victim to one degree or another of the dismantling of the British welfare state.