When hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators were killed by the police, army and paramilitaries in the run-up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the students, who were the principal victims could at least claim that they had a justified, even a noble cause, ie demanding to know why a country mired in poverty, institutional violence and corruption could be spending millions on a sports festival.
In contrast, the riots in London and elsewhere in the UK, one year ahead of the Olympic Games 2012 seem to have been over nothing more than the right to steal jeans, trainers, flat-screen TVs and mobile phones; and smash and burn the looted stores afterwards.
By an unfortunate coincidence, the chefs de mission of over 100 countries’ Olympic teams arrived in London at the very moment that a wave of riots broke out.
The original riot in north London grew out of a peaceful demonstration by friends and family of a man shot dead by police in suspicious circumstances (still, thankfully an uncommon event in the UK). But what is abundantly clear is that the pursuant riots in other parts of London then elsewhere were nothing to do with public demonstration, except of the right to acquire something for nothing. Even worse, when a group of young men in Birmingham, of the same age as the rioters, attempted to defend their parents’ shops, three of them were deliberately mown down and killed by a speeding driver. Another man, aged 68, who was trying to put out a fire started by vandals, was then attacked by them, and has also since died.
The vast majority, though not all of the looters can reasonably be described as disaffected youth, that’s to say, people below 30, with no jobs, and few prospects; living at a time when things are unlikely to get better. But on the evidence of radio and TV interviews with some of them, as they seek their 15 seconds of fame (things have speeded up since Andy Warhol’s day), many of them don’t have two brain cells to rub together either; further evidence of that is the youth who has been arrested after posting pictures of himself with goods he had looted, on Twitter.
But of those who are vocal and unusually coherent, some make a pertinent point; which is that they see bankers and other financiers taking the world for a ride, ruining the economy and lining their own pockets with impunity; and don’t see why they, the rioters shouldn’t do the same thing on a much smaller scale.
Apart from the murderous fringe, it is hard to disagree with them at one level; because, apart from Bernie Madoff and a few of George Bush’s bosom buddies at Enron, nobody has spent a day in chokey for massive economic crimes and misdemeanours.
In contrast, the official and judicial overreaction in the UK has meant that a couple of youngsters have been banged up for four years, for inciting violence on social networks; violence which never happened, incidentally.
This is not to excuse such anti-social behaviour. Neither should police lies and brutality be excused.
Public mistrust of the police in the UK grew enormously 30 years ago when Margaret Thatcher used paramilitaries to quell the unrest during the miners’ strike. Subsequent ‘stop and search’ laws, which seemed to target the black community, exacerbated the situation. And knee-jerk lies from the police themselves have made matters worse. One of the most prominent examples was the lie about him potentially carrying a bomb, when an innocent Brazilian Jean-Charles de Menezes was ‘executed’ following the explosions on the London Underground six years ago; and in the case which started this riot – saying that the man who was shot in Tottenham, Mark Duggan fired first (when it later proved that he had not). Though community police do a good job of mending fences in their own area, as soon as unrest ensues, the paramilitary force comes in and sets things back again.
One of the most interesting responses to this wave of violence has been from a former young offender who had predicted such riots just one week beforehand, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper about cuts to youth services.
Eighteen year old Chavez Campbell claims that his own rehabilitation began when he joined a youth boxing club. “These coaches are like my parents. The same level of respect I have for my mum, I have for them. They love me, they give me good advice. If I started going down the wrong path, they would tell me to sort it out”.
Campbell, who went home to mum when he saw the violence breaking out last week, has learned to celebrate the far harder task of long-term sporting achievement over the adrenalin rush of immediate acquisition. And he reminds me of some of the guys, and a few girls, who had they not been in our running club when we were teenagers, might have been out throwing stones as well.
It’s a shame that more of Campbell’s peers couldn’t put their anger and frustration, and stolen trainers to better use; by taking them all and joining an athletics club; and using them properly.
Then we might all benefit.
(Thanks to my pal, James ‘Guitar Jimmy’ O’Brien at the New York AC, for suggesting the title of this piece, in memory of Joe Strummer and by far the best band of the punk era, The Clash)