Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

London Riots 2

So yesterday’s article was a tad whimsical and here is a more serious  perspective. The question is who were the rioters and who is to blame.

Firstly, there is no excuse for vandalism and looting. There are laws and there are legitimate and more effective ways to express discontent. I almost stepped on a landmine speaking to a friend in the UK about this. In a time of economic distress, these actions have put a lot of good hard-working people either out of business or in more debt than they already face. Attacking the local ‘bobby,’ the policeman, with every intent of wounding him or her, is never justifiable.

For many, there are fingers being pointed to sheer greed and opportunism. The advertisers pound us with messages that we must have this electronic device and where these absurdly priced jeans or we are not cool is a terrible message to give a young, unemployed person, who is already suffering from low self-esteem and alienation.

The question is how to rein this in? The companies are just as desperate to sell their products to a public that can’t afford them. Business is business, but there is a larger price that all British taxpayers are going to pay for the millions of dollars of damage.

One of the owners of Big Green Bookshop, Simon Key, maintained that this was more about economics than pure consumer desire. “The people who were doing this were mainly going for phone shops, high fashion shops and HMV, looking for stuff that they could sell on,” he told The Financial Times.

Today, as the rioters spill into Britain’s courthouses, we’re gaining additional insight into who the young, enigmatic looters are and what motivated them to wreak havoc on England’s streets. The AP says that “the 1,000-plus people who have been arrested–some of whom are as young as eleven–share a deep sense of “alienation.” One 19-year-old looter who did not appear in court explains, “Nobody is doing nothing for us–not the politicians, not the cops, no one.” The AP adds that “the rage has appeared to cut across ethnic lines, with poverty as the main common denominator.” A BBC infographic today suggests the rioters are primarily young–anywhere from 15 to 24–and male.

An 11-year-old having his day in court - he was caught stealing a garbage bin. News.com.au

The New York Times points out that while the majority of those arrested are an “underclass of alienated young people, with no jobs and few prospects,” quite a few are affluent, middle-class, including “a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, and a forklift driver.”

Sky News highlighted a student from the University of Exeter and a daughter of a successful businessman. She reportedly stole $8,000-worth of goods from a Comet store (electronics). Sky also notes that many of these were first offenders.

I’ll finish with a story from The Guardian. When one looter saw a fellow looter reach for a hand-stitched wedding dress from a local fashion boutique, “an angry young black woman berated one of them. “You’re taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she’s built that shop up from nothing. It’s like stealing from your mum.”

Race, class, alienation – it is a sad lose-lose episode and one which leaves us all seeking a glimmer of optimism. One final thought – if most of these stolen items are going to find a market, will the same people who have criticized the looters have the principle not only to not purchase one of these bargains. Perhaps if the looters can discover that there is no market for stolen goods, they will think twice about taking this path in the future.

A final thought – why did this not spread to the continent? Why only in England? Any ideas?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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