The most surprising thing about these riots is that anyone is surprised. Here in Oxfordshire, youth workers have been predicting for months that things would kick off this summer. Of course there are riots. Of course there is looting. What else did they expect?
Some say that these are not political riots. What does that make them? Apathetic riots? This absurdity perhaps gets to the core of the misunderstood alienation of today’s young people better than I have ever seen. When young people sit at home and quietly don’t engage in democratic structures which they have never seen work for them, we are told that they are apathetic. And so when these same young people rip apart their communities and plunder the shops on their own streets, we are told that these are not political acts, that they are apathetic acts, a-political acts.
And that is absurd. I don’t know the intentions of each of the people taking part in the riots today. I don’t know for sure what the intentions of any of them are. But I do know this: every act is a political act. Whether it is intended to make a point about the government’s macro-economic policy or intended to allow a pair of trainers to be stolen, the smashing of a window is a clear demonstration of a refusal to buy into society as it stands. However an arsonist explains their flames, whether they burn a building for fun, or with the intention of bringing about revolution, they are saying this: “The world I find myself in is not one in which I have a stake. It is not one I was allowed to help build. It is one which I am happy to burn”.
I am sure that some of those who stole TVs did so because they wanted a new TV. I am also sure that there is widespread anger at the murder by the police of black teenagers, rage at the closing of youth centres, fear from the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance. These things have ripped apart the lives of so many. But even those whose only expressed motivation was that they wanted a new TV were making a profoundly political point: they were saying that they have been so alienated from their own communities, and that they had so little to lose if they are caught, that they are willing to smash up their local shops and risk time in prison to add a few extra inches to the width of the machines which deliver their daily opiate.
Of course people feel they have nothing to lose. We have record youth unemployment. We have young people losing services on which they have relied for generations. We have seen almost as many deaths in police custody in the first half of 2011 as we saw in all of 2010.
And of course people are alienated. Power has systematically been removed from communities – handed from local councils to Parliament, from Parliament to government, and then privatised from the government to corporations. Those we elect no longer make decisions for us. We certainly have almost no role in making decisions for ourselves. People have stopped voting because they no longer feel that their vote makes a difference. And so of course people have started to shout in the ‘language of the unheard‘.
Of course, they haven’t only just started to shout. The student protests in November consisted largely of the same people we see on the streets of London today: inner city FE students, desperate with rage at the government and fear for their future. I will never forget the tone of terror in the riots I saw outside Whitehall on one of those days ‘They’ve taken away my EMA, how am I ever going to go to college’. If rioting is the language of the unheard, then their voices are loud and clear today. Whether they are protesting or plundering, they are saying the same thing: society is broken. Our communities are not ours. They are of the elite, by the elite, for the elite. It’s time to rebuild. It’s time to start again, and this time, all voices must be heard. Because riot is the language of the unheard, and no one is unheard forever.