“People should be in no doubt that we are on the side of the law-abiding.” These were the words of our Prime Minister this morning and I think he has it wrong. There are some stories – quite a few stories – in which choosing a side is just too much of an easy answer. In this one, that there are sides at all is perhaps the essence of the problem.
Very little of what happened last night in London and across the country is worth defending – burning down people’s businesses, stealing what you can and directing violence towards police trying to protect passers-by are all ugly, vicious things to do – but the consistent – calculated – writing off of those involved as baddies can’t be useful to anyone. When you draw up sides and you write these people off, you refuse them their own back-story; you call them out as “mindless” and “ruthless opportunists” doing things which hurt other people because they can. And that, frankly, is not how people work.
People react. Keep calling them baddies, and they do bad things: tell them you don’t care about them, and they will tell you the same back: allow the gap between rich and poor to grow for thirty years and perhaps the poor will not like the rules which do the allowing, or the rules altogether.
And do be sure that it is the poor who are being villainized today. The adjective of choice seems to be ‘young’ people – perhaps because if youth is the problem then everyone can relax and rely on these people growing older as the solution – but the reality is that poor people were out on the streets last night, doing things which we can all see are horrible, and that isn’t correlation; that, dear reader, is causation.
The people who find themselves at the bottom of society – told by David Cameron that they are baddies, watching from afar as men like him have a free ride to the top and going to schools where failure is the expectation, not the exception – as it turns out, do not like what society has dealt them. What we saw last night was the people who don’t have the money to do what they want to do – who don’t have “freedom” – taking the chance to grab some last night.
As they did, news readers brought out their indignation voices. Various interviewees suggested it might be something to do with cuts to the public sector – cuts which affect poor people most and, like anyone with a bad argument, our impartial news makers acted appalled that there might even exist an explanation for “mindless thuggery”: “you mean these people setting things on fire are doing it because of tuition fees or cuts?” No, these were riots, not protests; something more raw, less logical than a protest.
The fact that people were taking the chance to steal food and water doesn’t mean that this wasn’t about being poor. When the rules of the game are stacked and stacked and stacked against you, breaking them – any of them; the easiest to break, first – isn’t a nice thing to do, but it’s a reaction that you just might come to.
What went on wasn’t nice, the people involved weren’t nice and it didn’t do anyone any good: all of which makes seeing why they happen more important. We should see that society creates baddies, who, yes, the men on the hill are right, did not have to do what they did last night, but who saw no reason not to – and that’s a hell of a problem. And it’s our problem.
When we decide that they were simply opportunists – baddies without a real motive – we take the easy way out. This shouldn’t be about sides, David: what happened to us “all being in it together?”
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