Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riots and Fires and Looting, Oh My

The girls and I were in the car Tuesday morning listening to the BBC news about the riots in London. They talked to a shopkeeper, whose store was completely looted. He said, in an accent that I registered as not native London, that the last 10 years of his life had been wiped out. He said he called the police but they didn’t come. He was crying.

“Last night, when I was upstairs watching the news with you, they showed all those fires in London.”

It was Delaney, directly behind me, putting context to the anguish she had just heard.

“Yes,” I said, “there was rioting in London. People were angry and they were setting fires and destroying things, and stealing what they could get.”

At that moment, the BBC aired a 30-second or so interview with a bunch of teenagers who had been part of the riots. The interviewer asked them why they were doing this. There was no deep introspection in their answers. First they said it was the government’s fault; kids in the background could actually be heard yelling that it was the Conservatives who were in power who made them do it.  I wondered if they even knew what Conservatives were, or the policies they embodied. Then they said it was because of the way the police had treated them, and that it felt great to overpower the police. Then they blamed it on the rich people, the business people who have all the money and whose stores they looted.

“That’s not very responsible.”

It was Dixon, who apparently was listening as closely to this interview as I was.

“No,” I said, “it wasn’t. But they’re angry. And when you get angry enough, you take to the streets. This is a group of kids who have probably seen nothing but unemployment and poverty and just in the last few years have seen it get worse. Someone was killed by police, and the teens finally decided they wouldn’t take anymore. And then they blame the rich – or the people who they think are rich – because they feel like they need someone to blame, and they don’t understand the real reasons their lives are so miserable.”

I didn’t go into the real reasons these kids’ lives are so miserable, and my girls didn’t ask.

I also didn’t point out that they were doing exactly what rich people had taught them to do – focus on toys and consuming things, and breaking the law when they saw the opportunity. That is, after all, what Wall Street did in packaging so many bad loans and selling them to pension funds, or shorting their positions at the expense of their clients. My kids wouldn’t understand this, any more than they would understand Bernie Madoff.

But my kids do inherently understand consumerism. They understand what it’s like to see people with the latest in electronic toys or the latest American Girl doll and to hear the constant refrain, “We can’t afford it.”

Somehow, simultaneously, they understood the longing of the rioters to have things, but the also understood that it was wrong, that, as Dixon pointed out, it wasn’t very responsible.

My kids likely won’t end up rioting in the streets. They might be very politically involved – how could they not be with a mother who talks about changing the world all the time –  but it won’t be mindless anger.

But where does the mindless anger come from?

There are those among us who might say it’s these kids’ own fault. “These people” are shiftless and lazy and come from parents who are shiftless and lazy and they don’t know how to work or take responsibility. Then they go out and look to blame other people.

I think part of that is true. But it ignores the role that hopelessness plays in the life of the poor. And it ignores how people who have to go without, fundamentally feel when they see a society in which accumulation is the real religion.

I have sometimes asked people who take this view – and there are many representatives in a certain political offshoot party in the U.S. -  what they would do with all these shiftless and lazy people who have no work ethic and therefore no worth to society. The answers I get back are amusing, and sometimes frightening. “Make ‘em work,” is one refrain. Because, truly, in their view, the problem with “these people” is that they don’t want to work, not that there are no jobs for them, or not that the only jobs they can muster are designed to keep them in an endless loop of poverty. Another answer I get is, “I don’t give a fuck what happens to them, just as long as I don’t have to see them or deal with them.”

Right. Got it. “They can be poor if they choose to,” goes the refrain. “Just don’t shove it in my face.” I think I’ve heard that before in some other context.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone the “Clockwork Orange” behavior that the mob fell into in Tottenham and other cities and neighborhoods in Great Britain. I’m a shopkeeper at heart. I’m a small business person. I could have easily been that guy crying that his life has been wiped out. He’s certainly the one I sympathize with most.

But I do understand what drove them there. Hopelessness breeds anger, and it breeds a lack of regard for the social structures and rules we all live by. Those social structures and rules haven’t done anything for these kids. The cops harass them, often, I would bet, for no reason. They have no money or jobs. They feel as worthless as the people who ignore them want them to feel. But what many in the larger society don’t realize is how dangerous people become when they feel worthless. They have nothing to lose.

We ignore them at our own peril. We can say they’re “morally deficient”, but eventually we’ll have to wake up; eventually, they will show us our own immorality.

I was in a Facebook discussion forum last December when we were discussing tax hikes for the wealthy. One woman came on to say that $250,000 was too low to start tax hikes. She was a stay at home mom in Manhattan and her husband made just over $250,000 and if they had to pay more taxes then they would have to give up one of their vacations. And that was simply unacceptable.

I couldn’t help it. I asked her if she’d ever heard of Marie Antoinette. The next day, she dropped out of the discussion forum.

So in this context, I’m not really incredulous when uneducated and angry kids in London blame the rich for all their troubles. They may not understand who the rich are or what they do, but they do understand that the game is rigged, and that a smaller number of people have money, and a larger number don’t. And they understand that they – and many people like them in the U.S. – are largely invisible.

You can cocoon yourself in your nice house and your nice car and your cable television broadcasting “reality” shows and never see the reality around you. Until the riots start. Hopefully, we can all wake up before they become more widespread.

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