It’s disconcerting to see photos and videos of the London riots, first of all because it’s London. How could it happen there? Books and movies have conditioned us to believe that Londoners are polite, reserved and well-behaved. These are the people who were so calm and brave while Hitler bombed their city every day in the Blitz. After the bus bombings in 2005 they did not freak out; they collected themselves and resumed their regular lives. Either something has changed (the Blitz generation is dead), or pop culture has lied to us again.
When I saw the pictures I was reminded of Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak, beautiful 2006 film, Children of Men. Based on the P.D. James novel, Children of Men is set in a grim near-future where society has collapsed and anarchy reigns. The human race is facing extinction: no one has given birth in 18 years, and the youngest person on earth has just died. Cuaron takes us through a London of smashed storefronts, burning cars, the wreckage of buildings, thugs armed with bludgeons. So last week’s events in London were oddly familiar.
Except that humans are still reproducing (particularly in the third world, including the Philippines, where population growth strains available resources), the British government is functioning, and despite the economic downturn the UK is still a rich country that many Filipinos, especially nurses, hope to migrate to. The people starting fires and looting shops in London were not starving, or they would be stealing food, milk, basic necessities. Graphic evidence tells us that they were looting electronics stores, athletic supplies shops, luxury boutiques. As one courageous woman told the mob, they didn’t come together to fight for a cause, they were just taking down a shoe store.
Some of the graphic evidence was provided by the looters themselves, posting pictures of their stolen goods on Twitter, selling the merchandise at big discounts on eBay. In wartime looters are shot on sight. In these cases perhaps the rule should be enforced in order to stop them passing on the stupidity gene. According to reports, the only shop in Clapham Junction that wasn’t looted was a Waterstone’s bookstore. Is that good or bad? As my friend put it, “Truly, the British Empire has ceased to exist.” It is too much to ask that looters read.
We know what triggered the riots—the shooting of a suspect by police in Tottenham—but as to the causes of the disorder, everyone has a theory. Social injustice, economic inequality, ethnic tensions, even lax parenting—it’s a complex and volatile mix and the blamestorming is on. We will hear many interpretations in the coming days, and after some weeks they will likely be forgotten. Our memories are shorter now that we have Google to remember our lives for us.
(Incidentally, a Google search turned up the information that there had been looting in London during the Blitz. Another illusion shattered like a shopwindow.)
Many of those involved in the violence and looting were young men from poor neighborhoods. No doubt the riots were a collective howl of the underprivileged and disenfranchised demanding society’s notice. However we fail to see what stealing iPods, Nike trainers, Gucci bags and clothes from H&M (Which looters reportedly tried on before filching because why steal an outfit that won’t fit) have to do with social justice. It looks more like a sense of entitlement.
Yes there were angry people and desperate people and there were people who felt entitled to take things. They had probably desired those music players, trainers and bags for some time. They had coveted but could not afford the things they wanted. (Not needed, wanted.) When the opportunity arose, they took them; the thought of getting caught and punished was not an impediment.
Every minute you are bombarded with images of things you are supposed to have in order to be happy and successful. To add insult to unfulfilled desire, you see them being flaunted by people who did nothing to deserve them. They didn’t earn their material possessions, they didn’t do any work. How can they afford these things? Why are they rich and famous? Because worldwide media has created an entire class of artificial celebrities—the people you’re supposed to envy and emulate without quite knowing why. They’re in your face all day, taunting you.
As for crime being punished, this is no longer a certainty. You see people getting away with much bigger crimes, people being lionized for screwing the system. Consider that no one has been held to account for breaking the world economy and causing the global financial meltdown.
When you make the list of factors that led to the violence and looting in London in August 2011, please don’t forget to add “Celebrity Culture and Conspicuous Excess.”
Here is a scary thought. It is so scary we hesitate to say it, but it is already on many minds. If it happened in London, could it happen here? Some would say that it’s already happened, except that the looters were not the underclass.