Friday, 12 August 2011

It couldn't happen here. Or could it?

Over the past few days, American and European friends alike have been asking me: what on earth has been going on in London?

I really have no sensible answer to give them, other than "Your guess is as good as mine,". Because I really don't have an explanation for the riots of earlier this week - what was it that caused so many people to go crazy, feral and lawless in the spate of a few hours?

You can blame poverty, bad parenting, or a lack of police presence. All of those may well have contributed (although, as one commentator pointed out, if all these kids were communicating by Blackberry, we're talking about a different kind of 'poverty' here). But it's not the only explanation. I can only think that it was a sort of near-hysterical copycat phenomenon, where people heard what was going on and got sucked into it. I'm sure there was some hardcore gang culture at the heart of it, but not everyone rioting came from that kind of background, or so I've read in UK newspaper articles like this.

For once everyone in America seems to know about it. When we had our UK election last year, nobody asked me about it, and when Europe was paralysed bhe the whole volcano/ashcloud saga, hardly anyone I know was even aware of it all. My 'mom' friends were interested in the Royal Wedding, yes, but the recent Norway shootings went unmentioned by most people. But these riots are on everyone's lips. And the unspoken question is: could it happen here?

America has, of course, had its fair share of rioting in the past (the 1992 LA riots are an example). And there was looting on a grand scale after Hurricane Katrina. But would we ever see gangs rioting in the middle of Manhattan, rampaging down Fifth Avenue? There have been some violent mobs in Philadelphia recently, but they've introduced a curfew to sort it out. American police are always armed, and look quite hardcore (except around here, where they mostly hang out in the ice cream shop and supermarket carparks, occasionally putting on a blue light to catch someone speeding). Not that I'm advocating armed police on the streets of the UK - and I'm certainly not an admirer of America's gun culture.

Anyway, I'm rambling. My personal opinion is that yes, it could probably happen in America - people are people, and when lawlessness takes hold, people can act like animals. But would it be stamped out more quickly? I'm sure most Americans would think "yes". But then, up until last week, we British would probably have thought "it couldn't happen here". And on that note, I'll leave you with this Pet Shop Boys classic.


14 comments:

Kelloggsville said...

The police in London are armed. They shot someone (also carrying a gun) but a group of idiots decided it wasn't fair if the police shot first and started a protest. Then the 'me society' scum joined in and decided they could do what they liked because everytime the police here shoot someone or even get close to heavy handed there is an outcry. and off the ball rolled until no one could stop it. There is poverty here, there is hardship but these people were setting fire to charity buses and stealing waste paper bins not nappies and food. I would say 'yes, it could happen there': it could happen anywhere where there isn't an oppressive government that is allowed to stamp on inciting behaviour in a hardline way. So maybe the riots are an indication of a country that whilst it has dreadful issues, still has democracy and justice at it's heart. Now watch all the little shits going through the court system, 1600 of them today!

Expat mum said...

I think it could happen here but it wouldn't be on such a scale and it would be stamped out pretty quickly with water canons, tear gas and real or rubber bullets.
Remember the Stanley Cup (ice hockey) riots that broke out in Vancouver of all places? That was total mayhem and all because Boston won. Here's the link - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Vancouver_Stanley_Cup_riot
I don't think it's a symptom of poverty, otherwise it would happen in other countries and people would be making off with food instead of designer jeans and huge plasma TVs. Not quite sure what motivates them but it' becoming more and more common in places other than the UK and it needs to be met with a firm hand. (Sorry for mixed metaphor.)

MsCaroline said...

I've been following this quite closely, and was really touched by Haroon Jahan's father speaking with such grace and dignity despite his son's senseless killing. As a high school teacher, I have seen plenty of senseless 'herd mentality' behavior and it is completely within the realm of imagination that a few angry hoodlums could spark off a wholesale riot that others would join in with for no good reason or for reasons that made no sense. I agree that the police in the US would have pulled out the big guns (metaphorically speaking)a little bit sooner, but I am curious about the underlying anger that motivated this whole thing. Obviously if you are unhappy with your situation in life, stealing and looting and burning is not the way to make a change for the better. One of the eyewitnesses pointed out that the looters were destroying and burning local businesses, not the big conglomerate chains, which doesn't make sense to me if the underlying emotion was really an 'us vs the establishment' thing. Very troubling and no good answers to any of it.

TheMadHouse said...

I have far too much to say about this in a comment so really need to do my own post about it. But I think that this could happen anywhere in the world at the moment. It just seems that the world is shifting on its axis

About Last Weekend said...

This really is unnerving. I guess I hadn't really realised how serious this all was. Is it frustration from the rich getting richer and poor on the other side or just an opportunity for violence? Seems there is opinion on both sides. Riots easily spring up here in Oakland, not sure about elsewhere in the US.

'Cross the Pond said...

I think it could definitely happen in America. People are people, doesn't matter where they live. A mob mentality is human nature - to get caught up in the moment and going with the crowd. The difference is America is better equipped to deal with it immediately. I'm not knocking Scotland Yard, but America just seems to be more organized when it comes to crowd control and nipping things in the bud - even if it means bringing in the Army. Remember France 2005? That took a while to get under control. So I say - it happens. And it will happen again. However, I sincerely doubt that it would have gotten as out of control in Manhattan - New YOrkers don't take crap from anyone and in emergencies they band together (think 9/11). That being said, I'm glad London is calm again.

Lynn said...

It did happen here in the 60s in most of our major cities. I remember.

Anonymous said...

It certainly could happen in certain places in America - very easily. I was visiting family in 1992 when the riots started. A really frightening time and it took nearly a week to bring under control and I think more than 50 people died. Unlike others I am not so convinced that the police are that well equipped to cope with an outbreak anymore than the British police, at least not in the cities that are most likely to be affected.

Peter Bond

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

I think it could happen in the States and as your rightly point out, it has. My impression is that perhaps it would get stamped out more quickly in the USA, but as Peter contests, maybe this is not the case. Some have been criticizing police in England saying they did not act forcefully enough, but I think that they did quite well in a situation unfamiliar to them, working within the parameters laid out for them by the government and actually making a fair number of arrests.

The reason for all this mess in my view - a lack of respect/moral breakdown, lack of education about detereents in place that might have stopped so many jumping on the bandwagon, social divides more than pure poverty and in some cases mis-placed and not as effective support mechanisms as there could be to address these divides....

nappy valley girl said...

Kelloggsville - a good point about democracy - we didn't send in the tanks (despite some calling to do so).

Expat Mum - I'd forgotten about Vancouver - just goes to show it can be one small thing that sparks it off and then people just go mad. Now it's over, it's beginning to seem more and more like mass hysteria and summer madness rather than a symptom of any underlying trouble, but I agree, it should be met with a firm hand.

MsCaroline - yes, his speech was very moving and really called those senseless thugs out.

TheMadHouse - will be interested to read your post!

ALW - I didn't know there were riots in Oakland - I tend to think of San Francisco as a peaceful, hippy-type place but maybe I am completely wrong....

Cross the Pond - I hope you're right. I think our police probably did flounder - and it didn't help that so many of the top police had resigned over the phone hacking scandal, meaning they lacked strong leadership at the top.

Lynn - and it happened in the UK around then, too. Maybe we've just been living through more peaceful times since.

Peter - interesting, I wonder if you are right. Let's hope they aren't put to the test.

Tanya - definitely true about the lack of respect. But how to address that is quite another problem - it's going to take a whole generation, if it happens at all.

Dumdad said...

I guess it could happen anywhere. But it was a huge shock - no political agenda, just rioting and looting and mugging. I don't know the real causes and I certainly don't know the answers. Meanwhile, I'm hiding under my duvet . . .

Metropolitan Mum said...

Yes, I guess it could happen anywhere. But I doubt very much that the police would be forced to stand back and watch. May Day riots are happening annually in Berlin. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,691988,00.html However, the police is not afraid/hindered by legislation to hit back.

In my opinion, part of the reason why is 'because they could'.

Iota said...

Hm... Since we've been back, people have asked about the riots. There seems to be an interest in the Engish riots because they're English. I guess we have such a reputation for our stiff upper lip and our phlegmatism and our decorum, that seeing us riot is like seeing a supermodel trip up. You don't want to enjoy it, but you can't quite help it.

As to your question, could it happen here, yes, it could, but the police would be much more heavy-handed in dealing with it, so it would probably be stamped out pretty quickly.

geekymummy said...

Love the video. I think many people in the US are fascinated by it because they mistakenly assume all British people are quite well off and middle class, since those are the Brits they run into over here in the US. The for want a better word "Yobbo class" don't really descend on the US as tourists or get transferred here for their jobs. I think it is surprising for Americans to realize that Brits are also often poor, uneducated and non white, just like Americans