8 Aug 2011

Today’s silliest question on the riots

Riots in London confuse us. They don’t happen often enough for us to have much understanding of them. I am very wary of anyone who claims to know what is really going on.

Riots in London confuse us. They don’t happen often enough for us to have much understanding of them. Community leaders warn of tinder boxes ready to blow, some politicians condemn “mindless” criminality while others blame urban decay and unemployment, the media questions the police response while local people are angry and upset with pretty much everyone. The second night is even more peculiar – we normally expect these things to die out after one mindless night, we don’t expect them to spread. That’s the kind of thing that happens in other countries. 

December 13th 1995 and I was in a pool hall in Islington with some colleagues (I remember because I had never been to a pool hall in Islington and have never been since). My BBC News Correspondent pager went off and I went to my car to call the desk. They told me to get to Brixton – things were kicking off after a protest outside the police station about the death in custody of a young black man called Wayne Douglas.

By the time I got there some colleagues and a satellite truck had been attacked. A cameraman walked past me with a bloody face and told me not to go far on my own. The police in riot gear screamed “stay back” anytime I went near one of their lines. It was a cold and slightly scary night clutching a radio microphone, without any of the safety gear or colleagues we are supposed to take with us these days, hoping my normal popularity (relatively) with “youths” stemming from my days on Newsround would hold.

I survived intact, but cannot claim to have had much insight – I talked to anyone who’d talk to me and the next day did the obligatory report about why people burn their own doorsteps (which is obvious in hindsight – it is the place they know their way around). But I was unable to get anywhere near why precisely it kicked off that night – and didn’t see anyone else manage it either.

The bigger analysis, after the event, is more plausible. We can examine why young people feel angry, unoccupied, resentful of other’s weath, lacking a stake in the places they attack.

We can look at police tactics and attitudes, how community structures are being eroded, how politicians can be out of touch. The long term report, or academic paper, feels credible – but I remain wary of those who claim to know what’s going on as it is happening. Will there be more copycat disturbances tonight? That’s the silliest question you will hear on the media today.