London has been burning in a way that echoes the fires of three centuries ago, in a less damaging but more dramatic form. It was a real shock and surprise to see what transpired in the space of a few hours, igniting like a tinderbox to engulf other parts of the country, while exposing the frightening ineptitude of our current law and order system to deal with one main culprit: modern technology.
On the face of it, the trouble started from one trigger incident. Briefly, the police were trying to arrest a known offender in Tottenham who was being driven in a taxi at the time. He apparently had a loaded gun and the police initially said that there was an exchange of fire when the young man, Mark Duggan, 29, was shot and killed instantly. However, it has been proven since that the man's gun was not used at all and the only shots fired at close range was that of the policeman who shot him. Ostensibly, this was the trigger for the peaceful protest that followed and which escalated to the ugly scenes revealed in the media.
However, that was mainly superficial. Seething underneath that perceived unjust incident, and waiting for an airing, were six other key social factors, which could emerge any time and any place in our global world today:
1. Numbing poverty by people who have been hit hard by the Coalition's blanket coverage of cuts and austerity (mainly white), people who didn't have enough to start with, and now have to struggle even more to make ends meet. Couple that with the lack of jobs, hopes and aspirations, and there is really nothing to defend; for them nothing to lose. Combine that with other groups who have been invisible to their environment because of their colour (black), suffering years of acute prejudice and exclusion, with just hot air from politicians to deal with their situation, and the hardship and resentment would have been tangible. For example, almost half (48%) of all black youngsters between 16 and 24 years are unemployed in London (National Statistics, June 2010), compared to that of white youths (20%). With at least one million youths now unemployed with nothing to hope for after school, the spate of riots was almost inevitable.
2. Young people out of school and college with nothing to do, very little to amuse themselves with and time on their hands. In better times, there might have been jobs to occupy them during the holiday periods. Cuts and more cuts, with businesses folding mean there are hardly any these days. This leaves lots of bored youngsters hanging on street corners or roaming the streets, literally looking for anything to feel occupied and valued. Youth unemployment is standing at its highest level for over 15 years. As one report says, many of our teenagers 'lack hope' which takes away their feeling of responsibility. Rushing around on an orgy of destruction gave them a sense of empowerment.
Youth thrill and excitement
3. Organised gangs that have been flourishing in these austere times, who have their own agendas and grudges against the police, were not long in using the peaceful protest which followed the shooting as a cloak for their real intentions. Their actions immediately escalated the mood to something far more threatening and menacing. Once their presence was felt, it grew ugly pretty quickly.
4. The thrill and excitement of the development for the many youngsters who were involved. Once they realised how easy it was to do their worst, there was no stopping them, and the damage just grew more wanton and indiscriminate. It is difficult to comprehend, especially in a reserved society like ours, that technologically savvy teenagers were at the heart of this shocking disturbance. But is it so surprising? We have British kids today who live in a world of their own with their peers on social media, who are seldom listened to, or given the attention they need, from busy parents working hard to make a living for them, and youngsters who know far more about technology than older members do.
5. The unpreparedness and ineffectiveness of the police for what happened on the first day. They were totally caught on the hop through a combination of surprise at the sudden escalation, not enough manpower available (those darn cuts again!) and being at the mercy of the ready technological communication of the growing army of deviants. One has to understand something to regulate it and the lack of real appreciation of the power of technology in the hands of the wrong people, or for deviant ends, has evaded law and order so far.
6. Most important, modern technology helped to escalate the degree of damage and looting with the gang members and many youngsters signalling each other by text to inform on where police would be, or where they weren't, and looting shops at will. Many shop keepers were complaining that there were no police in sight when their shops were being attacked. but that was precisely the youngsters' aim: to keep the police away while they did their worst. The sight of young kids, barely into their teens, deliberately opening sealed shutters on shops and looting them of everything they had, especially electrical goods, and not a policeman in sight, was frightening to say the least. Naturally, by the time the police arrived on the scene they were long gone to somewhere else, 'shadows in the night', as one reporter described them, looting and burning with abandon as they went, and always one step ahead of the police.
Too old mindsets
There have been riots in England before, of course, but nothing on this rapid scale of development, or with the ferocity that had our own police force in retreat instead of on the attack. Technology has been a life changing force for our world, but the negative side of it was shown with full frightening force last Saturday and Sunday, especially with people deliberately using Blackberries to cause mayhem, which made their texts anonymous and untraceable. When the Prime Minister can put out a statement saying that, whatever their ages, as youngsters were "old enough to commit the crimes, they should be old enough to take the punishment", one can see the problem Britain now faces. Technological lawlessness on a disturbing scale.
What is plain to see is that the old mindsets of older folks around technology need to be replaced by something more relevant to our times. We clearly are living in a different world with different expectations, different priorities and different ways of doing things. A world which has evolved from the parents taking the lead in learning and socialising children to their youngsters being ahead in that respect, making parents feel impotent and inadequate to deal with their children's behaviour. The old remedies and mindsets just won't work, as the increasing lawlessness has proved. We, in Britain, in particular, need to accept that we are in a different world from the genteel 19th century, and different priorities for dealing with the consequences of that world are urgently required. In effect, only a 21st century law and order system, and parenting skills to match, will do the work required.
We have been in a time of transition over the past 20 years, in particular, with the advent of the Internet and the development of the mobile phone, in particular. Times of transitions are fraught with difficulty because the old order is receding, or increasing in irrelevance, yet without the knowledge or expedience of what to replace it with. Usually, new norms and mores slowly evolve into new systems as new forms of acceptable behaviour become apparent and accepted. However, we are changing too rapidly for that to take place and so developed societies are now in a state of flux, unsure of what happens next, yet feeling powerless to cope with, or influence, what's happening now. In the meantime, we helplessly hark back to the past for comfort, as the Republicans are doing in America now. But that won't have any effect.
Only open minds and seeing, as well as accepting, the true reality will provide the answers. But one thing is absolutely clear: what used to work, especially in parenting and public order, will not work anymore to achieve the ends we require.