David Cameron says it was a ‘wake-up call’. Ed Miliband says that to seek to understand is not to excuse. They’re all right – only by understanding what’s behind the unrest in Liverpool and beyond can we seek to address it. But to what is this a wake-up call? And how can we understand a series of events that took everyone by surprise?
The most worrying thing about what’s been going on in the country is that everyone – even those involved – seem to be at a loss to explain why.
The most common response seems to have been that the nights of unrest in Liverpool have been about having fun. There don’t appear to be any ideological causes or community grievances behind the Liverpool riots, unlike 1981 where an understanding of the role police brutality and overuse of ‘sus’ laws meant we could recognise and then attempt to address the issue.
Last week we had apparently motiveless attacks against police, businesses and private property – a community apparently turning on itself for reasons no-one seems able to grasp. Not only did we fail predict it; we failed to make sense of it afterwards. And that seemed to trouble people even more.
Taking the train into work the day after the first night of disturbances I looked around the carriage. People looked genuinely shell-shocked by the events of the last 12 hours. Not one person spoke. A young woman sat with her hand covering her mouth, looking down and stock still – a classic expression of shock – for 15 minutes. Everyone seemed dazed.
On the way back home I walked through Derby Square to see a group of the usual emos congregating around the Victoria statue. They’re there most days during the summer and the most mischief they ever seem to get up to is a spot of minor graffiti and some inept skateboarding.
They’re white middle-class kids who look like they wouldn’t harm a fly but on Tuesday they seemed emboldened, more threatening. Groups of adults gave them a wide berth and stared at them, unsettled, unsure. A couple of special constables stood around looking a little nervous.
Already people were reacting differently to groups of children, as if they were noticing them for the first time. Our kids were Other – it was them and us. Not only did the adults notice it; the kids did too. There was a strange atmosphere; no-one seemed to know what might happen next.
A friend of mine had told me a little about the psychology of mob violence. “It only takes a couple of ring leaders to get the mob fired up and commit the first act of vandalism,” he said. “After that its a free for all.”
In the fractious, volatile atmosphere of Tuesday, with Liverpool One closing early and pockets of black-clad youths seemingly more evident, anyone of a certain age seemed to be a potential rioter with an army of potential followers.
I decided that ‘why’ was the most important question to investigate in the wake of Liverpool’s riots – a word I use advisedly.
I talked to a teacher and a young person’s careers advisor – both live and work in south Liverpool – to try and gauge what they thought was behind the riots and heard similar responses. Kids are bored; no respect for adults; nihilistic attitudes; genuine amorality.
“I suspect most are just using it as an excuse for causing mayhem without fear of reprisals,” said John, who advises school leavers on career paths.
The recent Toxteth 1981 exhibition at the Slavery Museum reported on how L8 residents felt a strong bond to the area. One of those questioned for the exhibition noted that while other Liverpool residents felt uneasy about entering Toxteth, those from L8 felt uneasy leaving L8.
“My view is that these kids don’t care about much – I’m not convinced by this quaint idea that they all care about L7, L8 or L15 – and can’t think far enough ahead to see any consequences of their actions,” said John.
That view, depressing though it might be, was largely echoed by Jane, a teacher in a south Liverpool primary school who has worked widely with teenagers in the southern suburbs of the city.
“I think that there are obviously people with a genuine issue… but couple that with bored kids and an excuse or opportunity to throw stuff at police, for which some kids need little encouragement, and you get last night’s problems.
A common response to the disturbances in Liverpool and across the country has been to appeal to parents, teachers, police or community leaders to keep children off the streets, engage with them or punish those involved. But Jane doesn’t see how.
“Appealing to their parents will not make a blind bit of difference as parents are half the reason their kids have the attitude that the police are all bad and never to be trusted. Even if their parents are decent people then kids don’t listen to them or any other figure of authority.”
It’s been traditional, during past social disturbances in the UK, for community elders to intervene to calm tensions and exert some control over rioting youngsters, but the suggestion that there’s an element of our youthful society that don’t have any faith, trust or loyalty invested anywhere – even in their own parents – is an alarming one.
It suggests an ignorance of – or ambivalence towards – a theory of civil society or even any moral framework: a shrug of the shoulders before hurling a rock at a policeman or torching a car.
“We heard kids last night asking each other why it was kicking off,” said Jane. “None of them knew but decided to go down and join in anyway.”
Rob, a 19-year-old student who lives near Smithdown Road, painted a similar picture.
“Its basically opportunist, I know a few who have gone up and joined in and it’s people seeing the chance of getting away with murder without getting caught.
If there had been racial or community tensions, or aggravation from the police, we would have been saddened but perhaps understanding; relieved even. Violence, rioting, uprising – all forms of protest we can recognise and rationalise. In light of these apparent mindless acts of violence on our streets we might have welcomed anything that approached a motive.
What would those youngsters rioting tell us? That it’s about the police? Hard to credit; modern police forces may not be perfect but we don’t have a situation approaching anything like Toxteth 1981.
Finally I talked to a Methodist minister who spoke of poverty and disenfranchisement – and something chimed. Certainly poverty must be an issue, but a feeling of dislocation, alienation from the rest of society struck me as believable; an explanation for the apparently indiscriminate attacks on society as a whole.
Austerity; the poor choices of political and economic elites that seemingly go unpunished; a media that pushes consumption and unattainable lifestyles, confusing acquisition with achievement; the lack of job prospects; the evident poverty of certain areas of Liverpool – they’ve all combined to create a heady mix that just needed a spark to ignite it.
Without an obvious alibi like police brutality – as in 1981 – we have to turn our gaze inwards, on ourselves. We’ve brought up a generation of kids on a diet of hedonism, consumerism, false entitlement – like a fast food meal, all empty calories – but failed to provide jobs and prospects for them at the same time. A part of society cut adrift from the rest of us and left to fend for themselves.
They are the poster children for a cultural theory of alienation; the living results of ‘greed is good’ and ‘no such thing as society’. Cheap credit and media bombardment with glitz, bling, stuff, have made people feel like they can have whatever they want. Not only that but they deserve it.
But youth unemployment has sky rocketed – a record high of 20.5% as of February 2011 – and a demographic of people has emerged who aren’t even working class because no-one within those family units, if there are family units, have ever worked.
As aspirations – the need to consume and acquire – have grown, prospects and spending power have declined. Many of these people may desire to work, but few will ever have careers. Marx would have called them the Lumpenproletariat – the flotsam of society. Shiftless, purposeless, jobless, hopeless.
We knew all about them. We made jokes about them – Vicky Pollard anyone? We even catered for them – daytime TV and more trash to keep them occupied. But we avoided, disowned them.
They didn’t overthrow the bourgeoisie; they burned out cars and looted a Tesco. It was an undirected expression of a widespread disenfranchisement, not simply from political processes, but from economic and societal norms – the acts of a section of society that is unable to live the life it aspires to.
I received a text at 2AM on Monday night from a friend, a former resident of Bootle, asking what was going on. “This is what comes of pretending the existence of an underclass doesn’t matter,” he said.
“We’ve tolerated the evolution of a generation of amoral, atavistic youths and are reaping the whirlwind. We’ve all hunkered down and avoided eye contact with these kids – individually and as a society. Now they’re running the table.”
It’s a terrifying notion and it reminds me of the way people looked on the train – and the way people looked hard at the kids in Derby Square. Something changed last week and we didn’t know why.
All of a sudden there was doubt, fear – the certainties of our world turned on their head. I saw it in the faces of people in town and it reminded me of something I saw recently on television; a repeat of the Cracker episode To Be A Somebody.
Robert Carlisle stars as Albie, a Liverpudlian and LFC fan driven to homicidal rage by the belief that society has turned its back on him and people like him:
“You’re looking at me and you’re looking at the future. See, this country is gonna blow. And people like me are gonna light the fuse. The despised, the betrayed. We’re gonna light the fuse and this country is gonna blow. This country is gonna blow.”
Last week Liverpool – and other cities across the country – blew. And the word that should be the start of any response is ‘why?’.
All images are by Ben Schofield
Names have been changed