As I lay awake earlier this week listening to the sound of police helicopters above my Hackney street, I found myself thinking about ecosystems. I’ve been reading a bit about biodiversity recently, and one of the recurring themes is that ecosystems are usually more complex and intricately interrelated than they seem at first glance.
David Suziki provides a nice example in Sacred Balance. He describes how scientists spent years confused about why a forest was dying off in the north-west US. Eventually they realised that the immediate problem was a very unlikely one: falling stocks of salmon in the local river. Fewer salmon were swimming back to the forest to spawn and die. As a result, the nitrogen in thousands of decomposing fish was no longer given up each year to the forest system. And why were the salmon stocks dwindling? For a whole host of reasons, most of them to do with issues located far from the forest itself.
This elegant example of inter-reliance keeps coming back to me as I listen to commentators bicker over the causes of the riots that briefly engulfed my area along with so many others. The coalition cuts are to blame, claim left-leaning thinkers. No, it’s all about the absent fathers, say their conservative counterparts. It’s about stop-and-search harassment and police trigger-happiness, claim some in the black community. Nonsense, it’s about gangster rap music and the glorification of violence in youth culture, say others.
The truth, surely, is that it’s about a whole host of factors – probably including all of the above. Society is just as complex as any ecosystem, so it would be odd to assume that the blame must lie entirely – or even mostly – with one or two obvious factors. Apart from anything else, we’re talking about more than one separate problem: does anyone really think the teenager throwing a shopping trolley at a policeman is in the same category as the twenty-something who decides to take advantage of the situation and grab some clothes through a broken window?
No, the riots themselves are multifaceted and so, surely, are the causes. A whole range of societal issues have conspired to create the conditions for the riots – from the rise of mobile internet and our popular culture’s obsession with expensive brand-name goods to the fact that the only social group which it’s okay to publicly deride are chavs. As members of that society, we’re all in this together, and we should all take some responsibility – or at least give some thought to how our lives fit into the bigger picture. Certainly as a Hackney resident I feel that I’m indirectly bound up in it all, for lots of reasons. Here are just a few examples:
My Brompton and Bugaboo. Hackney is a very divided place; poor estates stand side-by-side with leafy streets of expansive mid-Victorian terraces. The latter are mainly populated by relatively wealthy, relatively successful people like me. We’re everywhere to be seen around here, supping expensive coffees while tapping away on £1000 Apple laptops, with our overpriced bikes and buggies at our sides. Do the angry kids long for our particular shabby-chic way of life? Of course not. Do they hate us in particular? Apparently not, judging by the fact that our two communities rarely come into conflict, and that – to my knowledge – no boutique coffee shops were trashed earlier this week. But surely the aching inequality in Hackney can’t have helped the situation – especially given that it’s an inequality not just of wealth but of prospects. Those of us with the Bromptons and Bugaboos not only get the material goods that we want; we also get the easy self-confidence of people who have a stake in the world and lots to look forward to. Others around here have little more ahead of them – if they play by the rules – than an insecure minimum-wage job and a council flat. (With people like me driving up the house prices by a few hundred percent in the last decade, they certainly won’t be buying anywhere.) With no prospects, these young people have to find other ways to achieve and showcase the kind of self-confidence that some of us are born into – and I think that comes across in the riots. Yes, we can throw bricks at the police, the rioters seems to be saying. Yes, we can take the stuff from this shop. Who’s fucking well in charge now, hey?!
The fact that I sometimes shop in chain stores. Although a local newsagent did get pillaged in the looting, in general the targets appear to have been chain shops. That might be irrelevant – an obvious consequence of the fact that it’s the chain shops that are full of designer sportswear, mobile phones and the other most sought-after booty. But I think there’s something else going on here as well. In a country that’s pretty-well given up on religion and politics, our only significant public spaces are our high streets – and yet they’re not really public at all. Even American writer Bill Bryson was surprised by the sheer extent of chain-shop dominance when he first travelled the UK, where every high street looks identical. I think this is relevant to the riots in two ways. First, in a sociological sense: it’s part of life being commodified and systematised, and high streets becoming places that represent a faceless system. Second, in a simple practical sense: the dominance of chain shops means that few people are invested enough in the high street to want to protect it. I’m not saying that chain shops are evil, but I can well believe that by supporting them and aiding their endless roll-out we help make the country just a tiny bit more prone to the kinds of riots we’ve seen this week. One rare example of a London high-street not yet dominated by big brands is Kingsland Road, which is full of the independent shops and restaurants of the Turkish community. When the looters arrived on Kingsland Road, they were chased away by the shopkeepers and restauranteurs, who came out in force to defend their businesses. The fact that the Turks felt able to stand up to the mob is partly because they do genuinely have a local community in the area – which isn’t true for everyone. But I don’t think that community could exist in the same way if it didn’t own its own high street – and even if it could, it’s hard to imagine that community bothering to protect a bunch of corporate retailers. (But make no mistake: the chain shops are coming. Hackney Council’s regeneration plan seems to be largely based on the idea that Dalston will be complete when the Turkish fabric shop is replaced by a Gap, who made the jeans I’m wearing as I write this.)
I’m too cowardly to stand up to kids on the bus. Everyone Londoner knows the feeling. You’re sitting on the top deck of a bus but your head is hurting thanks to some kids at the back who are blasting out aggressive music through a tinny speaker on a mobile phone. Maybe a few people actually like this shrill sound, but usually it seems clear that the music isn’t being played to be listened to; it’s being played to make a point. “Just try asking me to turn it off”, the kids seem to be taunting, correctly predicting that 99% of the time no one will dare. That’s not hard to understand: after all, who wants to pick a fight with a ballsy kid who makes a point of holding his hand in a pocket in a way designed to highlight or suggest the presence of some kind of weapon. At the same time, though, how can it be that a whole busload of adults allow ourselves to be held hostage by a sixteen-year-old? The answer, I think, is that no one trusts the other passengers to back them up – which is sad, and not just because it subjects us to the humiliation of sitting in silence while a teenager taunts us. Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that the riots would have been avoided if everyone stood up to antisocial kids on public transport, but I do feel the two situations are related. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t pick a fight with me personally”, is the message we collectively seem to give out every time we all sit there quietly, wishing they’d shut up.
We journalists aren’t good enough. While lots of people have made the possible link between the riots and current social service cuts (which I don’t find wholly convincing, given that most of them haven’t gone through yet), the broader political context has been largely absent from the discussion. Perhaps that’s because most of us assume that the rioters and looters aren’t interested in anything as arcane as politics. Certainly it seems unlikely that the young people smashing windows are glued – like most journalists – to Twitter, soaking up an endless drip-feed of news. But you don’t need to be a news junkie to have noticed the persistent message coming from the serial scandals of the last few years. The London police? Corrupt to the core, with all the top-brass standing down. Politicians? All thieving from the the tax-payer to buy designer kitchens and still not getting punished. Banks? Screwing up the economy but still serving up fat bonuses to Ferrari-driving traders. The mass media? A bunch of criminals too – and for good measure they’re in bed with the prime-minister and the police. The result is a powerful sense that the system is not just unfair but fundamentally corrupt and rotten – and collapsing. If politicians, bankers, police and media are engaged in “pure criminality” – as Cameron and others have described the riots – then who’s to say that everyone else shouldn’t grab what they can as well? Of course, I don’t blame myself and my colleagues for the financial crash or MPs’ expenses, but I do think that, as a whole, journalists, campaigners and others in privileged and important jobs could work harder to keep a check on power and stop scandalous or irresponsible behaviour from taking hold in the first place. (Nick Davies excepted.)
I could easily list more reasons, but I hope that’s enough to make my point. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that no blame lies with the rioters themselves. Of course it does. I’m just pointing out that the UK urban ecosystem is complex and interconnected. We’re all part of it, and we won’t solve our problems until we take that to heart.
Posted by @theduncanclark