To any insightful observer of the sociology of riots, the only thing that’s hard to understand about these extraordinary social phenomena is why they occur so seldom. As irrational as rioting may seem in terms of who bears the costs of the immediate damage and violence, there’s a difference between irrationality and senselessness. Riots tend to erupt without much historical consciousness on the part of instigators, so contextual disincentives (e.g., wariness of aftermath) are not fully in effect. In any case, something can seem irrational from the perspective of a distant observer, even while that same event can make total sense to the people engaged in the action (or for that matter, strongly sympathetic bystanders).
Riots and revolutions alike tend to be sparked by an incident or other concrete injustice from which moral outrage spreads. The differences between riots and revolutions, as two distinct types of uprisings, have to do with the level of organization of the response and whether the intentions are expressive or transformative.
In the current UK turmoil, it was the murder by police of a young black Londoner that set things off. The visceral, localized response to the frustration of never seeing injustices sufficiently addressed is understandable. In this case, it has spread to envelope people from many areas of England carrying myriad torches they believe are not being validated by anyone in position to make a difference. I doubt anyone has ever put it better than Rev. Martin Luther King Jr did in 1963:
When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty, and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.
Nothing fundamental has changed since MLK spoke those words. For all the social progress that has been made, governments still act on behalf of their wealthy sponsors and underwriters, and the most privileged race still sees itself as superior and specially deserving while pretending to abhor that very idea. Almost nobody in a position to be heard states the obvious: that wealth is power, and a system that fosters the accrual and concentration of power will before long so silence and disenfranchise some that they will seek to be noticed however they possibly can. Furthermore, it is easiest to disenfranchise an underprivileged class if that class is divided against itself on superficial lines of race, gender, age, and so forth, and when that class is kept quiet and complacent.
When it comes to articulating their discontent, the poor are reliant on the corporate news media to convey their plight. But mainstream outlets have a static handful of perspectives on poverty, youth, and race: ignorance, patronization, scapegoating, demonization, and distortion. In societies where media outlets mediate nearly all interfaces between the poor and the privileged, and where police conspire with geography to protect the privileged from those they exploit, the self-destructive orgy of chaotic looting and burning is one of the only available options for sending messages.
Here’s another apt quote that’s gone viral. An NBC News reporter asked a participant of the riots were achieving anything. He replied:
Yes. You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm; and you know what? Not a word in the press.
Of course, such rare glimpses of explicit conveyance notwithstanding, the message typically received by the voiceful when they look at rioting is, “Insulate yourselves from us so we can’t burn your house down or hurt your kids.” It’s doubtful that many people in positions of power hear the proper message: “Give us some justice and share your shit with us or we’re coming for it.” The power elite take their cues from the fire department during riots: stand back, maybe spray some water here and there, try to contain the blazes to the poorest neighborhoods.
The political and economic dimensions of the riots rocking British cities are too big to ignore, no matter how earnestly politicians and members of the media insist the events are acts of crazed criminality. Jérôme E. Roos assesses the “structural causes” of the riots in an excellent backgrounder:
While it would be ridiculous to use [youth unemployment and child poverty] statistics as a justification for the dangerous, irresponsible and anti-social behavior of the rioters, it would be just as foolish to simply ignore this crucial social context and only focus on the “aberrant behavior” of “deviant individuals.” The violence and thievery may be entirely indiscriminate and a-political, but the root causes of it are profoundly political and carry a very clear discriminatory component.
See Dan Poulton’s “Riot in the Age of Austerity” for more context.
The question in our minds shouldn’t be whether civil society will respond to intolerable conditions like wealth disparity, alienation, and discrimination imposed upon the populace by elites. The question is simply how will we respond? We can do it in an organized, intentional fashion, with preparation, cohesion, and foresight. Or we can do it in a chaotic climax of rage.
We will revolt. But will our upheaval take the form of organized revolution or spontaneous spasm? That latter, default option isn’t “pointless” or “senseless” as many would depict it. But it only achieves the goal of scratching an itch. Revolution serves that goal, too, but it also can exchange itchy, dead skin for healthy new flesh.
Still, given all that I’ve said about corporate media forming a status-quo-protecting shield between the privileged and the exploited, what is the practical alternative to rioting? Please, you urge, because you’re anti-lameness… don’t prescribe more of that passive demonstrating and those sniveling petitions! That stuff only reminds us that we’re itchy; it scratches nothing!
The answer is organized direct action. Premeditated campaigns of operations that are considerate and self-conscious, not merely reactive. Campaigns carried out in concert with a system for implementing a new mode of truly just and equitable social relations. Such is where mob rule yields to grassroots democracy. Easier said than done? Hell yes. Still easier than dealing with the repercussions of riot? Just maybe.
So if you expect rioting to visit your neighborhood as “austerity measures” and heavy handed policing increase, maybe it’s time to think about organizing to channel all that outrage toward productive goals using forward-looking strategies and tactics. Build recognizable alternative institutions that are precious so services and supplies can be maintained while previously dominant institutions of dependence go up in figurative or literal flames. Target only otherwise-unaccountable property and materiel that is itself used as a weapon of exploitation.
There will be revolt. The choice between riot and revolution is ours.
Top image credit: Phil Noble; Second image credit: Lewis Whyld.