For three long nights in August 2011, London and other parts of England suffered at the hands of sporadic but substantial gangs of youths on a rampage of destruction. This predominantly involved looting and arson as well as intimidation and violence towards fellow members of the public and the police.
The mobs were mobilized, to a large degree, thanks to the use of social media and mobile texting services including BlackBerry Messenger. The speed at which rioters were able to communicate with each other allowed for mass gatherings to appear in specific locations very quickly, resulting in the images of chaos we saw on almost every news channel around the world.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron has singled out the Canadian smart phone maker RIM for its unique role in the week’s events. According to the Canadian newspaper National Post (19 August 2011) the Prime Minister said Thursday “he would consider restricting the use of social media tools such as BlackBerry Messenger in a bid to prevent the kind of rioting that has swept the country this week.” Cameron stated that “free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them”.
The intense emotional reactions of people all over England have been compounded by a real sense of fear that police are not equipped to protect them. There is a palpable sense of anger being conveyed not just towards the rioters but also the police’s ineffectiveness at quelling the mobs and not stopping the destruction, violence and intimidation sooner.
The response of fear and anger seem especially valid given the speed and numbers by which London and other parts of England, including Birmingham and Bristol, were overwhelmed. The physical damage is a PR disaster for London at a crucial time for the city’s credibility as host to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Putting a nation’s image and the imminent Olympics aside, the events have dramatically highlighted deep chasms of misunderstanding within British society as well as a severe shortfall in the police’s ability to protect its citizens. That the police have been taken by surprise is in part due to this new breed of crime, but it would be erroneous to believe that the force was adequately funded either financially or by way of human resources.
Social and cultural differences and their resulting tensions are not a new affliction in a society which is still so affected by very real class divisions and a colonial past. A British person’s class informs identity both on a conscious and unconscious level. The process of ‘othering’, of distinguishing ourselves from others – an ‘us’ and ‘them mentality – so ingrained in the British psyche, has served to intensify these differences. Long standing tensions between communities of different religion, race and nationality further complicates what is already a wholly complex issue.
The public’s mistrust of its government and police force has been growing in recent years, from the MP’s expenses scandal, the phone tapping saga coupled with allegations that the Metropolitan Police were complicit by association. All this following 3 years of financial turmoil and a decade of allegations of corruption and scandal surrounding Police Officers at the highest levels.
Cameron attempted to channel people’s anger against this new threat and relieve the fearful population by implying that the riots were only possible due to new technology. RIM is in danger of becoming a scapegoat but the incumbent government has fallen short of charging the smart phone maker with complicity. Indeed, Cameron’s rhetoric sounds precariously like a pretext for infringing civil rights and limiting communications using the platform of the recent violence as justification. Sound familiar? Think back to 9/11 – the subsequent actions of the US government hold many lessons of the damage that can be done through knee-jerk reactions and politically convenient channeling of blame, but as a counterpoint Britain was ill-prepared for last week’s violence.
Whether or not the British public is buying into Cameron’s take on the recent riots remains to be seen. There are many possible ulterior motives for wanting to restrict and control messenger services such as BlackBerry Messenger, beyond the pretence that it is to stop future violence. The misdirection of blame is a useful political tool aimed in part at empowering the government. It is hard to dispute that both the government and the police seemed distinctly lacking in power over the course of last week – a dangerous weakness for a country regulated by law and civility.
A willingness to entertain a dialogue with what appears to be such a disenfranchised and marginalized youth population seems a distant prospect. It would be wholly reductionist to think that the rioters did what they did just because they could or just because it was fun. Their communal criminal activity enabled a brief sense of power and adrenaline which was short-lived. Our youth seem to display a desperate need for a sense of power and of being noticed – albeit under hoods and masks. Is it up to our community to ensure that the role models are there to guide their energy productively? Is this responsibility solely up to politicians, the police, or the members of the communities in Britain? Is it up to all of us to understand the root of the problems and create a forum to discuss solutions?
There have been a few reactionary ideas on social networks – supposed solutions, mostly consisting of punishment and retribution. One such example is the e-petition circulating Facebook entitled ‘Convicted London Rioters Should Lose All Benefits’ which encourages people to sign in the hope that the 100,000 signature minimum is reached so it can be debated in the House of Commons. We already have laws in place – the events happened because of a social failure, not a legal one, but what is clear is that people want consequences for the law breakers. What is interesting is that this particular response was centred upon tax and the lack of willingness to support people who use benefits and then break the law at the expense of the taxpayer. Following the complete lack of responsibility taken by banking institutions after the 2008 financial crash, the importance of responsibility, consequences and the strong consensus that income and profit should be obtained by ethical means is at the forefront of our collective thinking and is part of a changing and precarious cultural identity within Britain.