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Looting in London: The End of the Social Contract

Looting in London: The End of the Social Contract

Binoy Kampmark
August 9, 2011

Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause?
Tariq Ali, London Review Books, August 9, 2011

It took a killing in a north London reservoir, but these days where large cities are mere borders of angst and dissatisfaction, where unhappiness is the permanent condition, riots are perhaps not that surprising. The commentary on the death of Michael Duggan remains sporadic. Scattered comments exist in a vacuum of anxiety and bewilderment. There are holes of dark speculation. The synapses aren’t ad idem. Football matches have been possibly cancelled as a result of the violence – England may or may not be playing the Netherlands on account of the need for more security personnel.

London is now reading like an alphabet of violent disorder and dishevelment, where looting and burning has become prevalent. Peckham, Ladbroke Grove, Ealing, Catford, Bethnal Green, Chalk Farm, East Dulwich, Lewisham, Clapham and Croydon, the site of a fatal shooting.

We know that the British can, when they set their mind to it, riot with unreserved dedication. In 1958, a riot broke out in Notting Hill Gate after a domestic incident between a white girlfriend and her black lover. As the Independent records in a list of distinguished riots, ‘TV crews were accused of encouraging riots by staging reconstructions in the streets’. Humour can always be a fine prelude to violence. On a more serious note, Brixton and Bradford have seen their fair share of vicious flare ups, certainly through the 1980s.

The police have followed the script of any organisation seeking to restore order amidst chaos, and many will agree with their initial summations. ‘The violence we have seen is simply inexcusable. Ordinary people have had their lives turned upside down by this mindless thuggery,’ suggested police commander Christine Jones (Associated Press, Aug 8). Over 500 have filled the cells, and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh of Scotland Yard was apologetic – police resources had been extended ‘to an extent that I have never seen before’ (Independent, Aug 9).

That all said, the level of trust for the police in the city is questionable. How can one forget the fate of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005? Then, the hapless Brazilian was brutally gunned down by police at Stockwell tube station in a manner that was, to use the language of those describing these current riots, ‘mindless’. (Seven shots to the head might amount to some as an act of homicidal derangement.) False reports were circulated that the slain man was wearing a ‘bulky’ coat, making him a likely suicide bomber. The words of his cousin Vivien Figueiredo from that time are faultless and chilling. ‘He had no bulky jacket, he was wearing a jeans jacket. But even if he was wearing a bulky jacket that wouldn’t be an excuse to kill him’ (Guardian, July 29, 2005). The police were similarly covered in the stains of ingloriousness over the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009.

It is not clear whether the act of shooting the 29-year-old Duggan by the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident team, was justified. Did he fire the first shot from a modified starter pistol? The situation is blurry. There is a possibility – though this is yet to be confirmed – that the evidence from the National Ballistics Intelligence Service would reveal that bullet fragments could not have come from Duggan. We await the verdict on that score.

The killing is a pretext for a diffuse array of excuses and causes. Jon Day, writing for the London Review of Books (Aug 9), found himself being called by a few enterprising sorts as a ‘pussyhole’ and ‘dickhead’. Anger bubbles to the top, and then erupts. Tariq Ali sees it in a broad context: ‘institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life’ wedded as it were to such facts as ‘the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990.’ Ali himself is struggling to wonder about the timing. Why now? Why the trigger and build-up? ‘The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them.’ The trigger is eventually found – it only takes someone or something to pull it.

Some have argued that, like E.P Thompson did on the ‘moral economy of the English crowd in the Eighteenth century’ that this is a modern example of poaching, animal maiming of hayrick burning. Historian Richard Drayton is certainly keen to point that out on his Facebook profile for readers.
This, he argues, is ‘anger at the breakdown of an implicit social contract’.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar a Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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