We have a long tradition of civil unrest and rioting in this country. Even as far back as 1381, the Peasants knew when enough was enough, and tried to do something about it. In the late 1700’s, there were the Gordon Riots, opposing Catholics, and laws passed to increase their freedoms in Britain. Tens of thousands were involved in these riots, and hundreds were killed. Prisoners were freed, and a harassed government even believed it was a foreign plot to unseat the monarchy. At the start of the nineteenth century, Luddite rioters destroyed machinery in factories, fearing that it would take away the livelihood they had by use of their traditional skills. Their rioting and acts of vandalism were so widespread, that more troops were needed to quell their activities, than were being used to fight Napoleon at the time. A few years later, in Manchester, a meeting of over 60,000 demonstrators protesting about unemployment, lack of representation, and the Corn Laws, deteriorated into an all out battle after cavalry attacked the crowd, resulting in many deaths, and hundreds of injuries. This became known as the Peterloo Massacre, after the district where it occurred.
Moving on many years, to 1936, and there is the Battle of Cable Street. The British Union of Fascists,or ‘Blackshirts’, led by Oswald Mosley, intended to march through the Jewish areas of London, to highlight their anti-Semitic stance, and to deliberately provoke a response. Protected by a police cordon, they began their march, only to be stopped at Cable Street, by a huge number of opposition marchers, including Communist ‘Red Shirts’, and members of Jewish groups, as well as outraged Londoners, who felt this pro-German right wing group should not be allowed to march in this area. There were also Anarchists, and Labour Party groups there, all hoping to stop Mosley. The anti-fascist demonstrators numbered a staggering 100,000, and the ensuing fighting left almost 200 injured. Such was the shock felt by the authorities, that they passed The Public Order Act, requiring anyone wanting to demonstrate to receive permission first. This is still in force in a similar form to this day.
By 1958, the target of rioters was no longer the Jewish Community. Instead they chose to attack the recently-arrived West Indian immigrants, and they picked an area where many had settled, Notting Hill, in West London. Groups of white youths, stirred up by right-wing groups such as the White Defence League, began a series of attacks on black people during the late Summer. Over many nights, groups of rioters clashed with Police. There were many arrests, and numerous injuries. In 1990, large scale rioting was to be seen again in Central London, in the form of the Poll Tax Riots. The unpopular tax, levied by an equally unpopular Tory government, gave rise to protests all over the UK, culminating in a protest march in the spring of that year. Over 200,000 arrived, one of the biggest protest marches ever known, and demonstrators clashed with Police during and after the march; including many Anarchists, and Leftist groups, who it was said, had come specifically to cause civil unrest. Lasting almost twelve hours, the running battles were heavily televised, though sometimes cleverly edited too. Mounted Police made many charges into the crowds, and some protestors remain adamant that the police, not them, were responsible for the fighting. There were hundreds of arrests, and many injuries, as is common with this type of incident.
By the time we reach the Summer of 2011, things are very different. The Police are more wary of heavy handed intervention. There is widespread use of CCTV, and officers are being held responsible for their actions. There is less political unrest anyway, as the new young generation is more concerned with Facebook, fashionable clothes, and computer games. Demonstrations have to be approved well in advance, and the Police have introduced the tactic of herding the protestors into large metal pens. They also detain them after the events, to make it difficult for them to get home, or to get any refreshments, or to be able to use a toilet. Both ‘sides’ are by now less willing to clash, and there are few issues that are galvanising the people into action anyway.
Then, the Police shot and killed a small-time criminal in North London, claiming that he was holding a gun. This would not usually warrant more than a short news report, for a man with a criminal record, killed during the course of some suspicious activity. Very soon, rioters began to appear on the streets of North London; predominantly young black males, though later joined by other groups of all ages and races. Police cars were attacked, and the Police soon decided that they would use a new tactic. They gave up the streets to the rioting crowds, and just deployed a cordon around the affected area. At first, it was presumed that they were rioting about the killing of the young man earlier, and indeed, some had been protesting about that very thing, though not these individuals. It was soon obvious that they were not protesting about anything. There was no cause, no sense of outrage, justifiable or otherwise. It was simply an opportunity for looting. With the Police preoccupied and overwhelmed, these modern-day rioters took to some unauthorised shopping. They raided large warehouses, and even small shops. What they could not steal, they burned. Television cameras showed them struggling under the weight of huge plasma screens, or running out of clothing shops, carrying bundles of trendy sports wear. Aided by instant messaging, texting, Facebook, and mobile phones, the crowds soon grew, and the word was spread. This crossed the river, and parts of South London were affected too. It seemed as if the whole city would be consumed by looting and arson. Fortunately, the goods ran out. All the best stuff was stolen, and they went home, bored with the effort, and tired from unfamiliar exertion.
After these incidents, a lot of questions were asked about Policing in the capital. There were hundreds of widely publicised arrests, and the sentences handed down were harsh, bearing no relation to the cost of the goods, or damage done. Many of the looters were ‘named and shamed’ by the press. As usual, many turned out to be from well-off families, some claimed that they had just gone along for fun, and others claimed that the theft of a plasma TV was ‘political’, as they could not afford to buy one. The stupidity of many of them has become famous too. One woman re-entered her own place of employment, a shop being looted, to help herself to some goods. It was on CCTV, and she was still wearing the uniform supplied for her job. Others used their own cars to collect heavy items that they had looted, apparently forgetting that their own registration numbers would be easily read by cameras. Some people stole items that were so heavy, they had to drop them, smashing them on the pavement. Many tried to sell items on Ebay, advertising them as stolen during the riots, to add some kind of perceived value.
I was left mourning the passing of ordinary decent rioters. We had lost our traditional values of revolt and street protest. Before that Summer of 2011, whatever you thought about the cause, or the motives behind them, we at least had people rioting on our streets for a reason.
It is just commerce now, like everything else. Acquisition by other means.