A Potted History of Rioting and Looting in London up to August 2011
In August 2011 riots hit the streets of London. Civil society unravelled. Buildings were set on fire, shops looted and members of the public attacked. The scale and magnitude of the riots were unprecedented, at least in the living memory of the youngest generation of Londoners; London had not experienced something so visceral since the Blitz. The riots spanned four nights and on the third night, their scope stretched across three quarters of the city. During this time, and especially in the evenings, many Londoners, buttocks clenched to the comfort of their sofas, stared at the TV in disbelief, wondering if the mayhem would extend to their neighbourhood and, God forbid, their living room.
During the weeks that followed the riots much comment and analysis was offered in a bid to explain this hiatus in normal life. Much of the immediate analysis, soaked in the terror and excitement of events, departed on the premise that the rioting and looting that had taken place were unprecedented. This was because those doing the analysts were myopic, lacking the resources, will and composure to situate the events in anything more than a neutered understanding of history. Attempts were made to understand the riots in the context of the government’s current austerity measures and in reference to smaller incidents of rioting that had taken place in the 1980s, in Brixton and Tottenham. Furthermore, the analyses offered used a definition of rioting and looting limited to illegitimate forms, i.e. spasmodic public violence perpetrated by young people, young men mostly, from the lowest socio-economic demographic. Taken together early attempts to understand the significance and context of the rioting and looting in August 2011, and the claim that such an event can be considered rare, was unsatisfactory, uninformed and incorrect. As we are about to find out, rioting & looting are a common occurrence in London, and no matter whom perpetrates such acts or when they occur, the dynamics and raisons are usually the same.
This article, then, a potted history of rioting and looting in London, complements existing analyses by using an expanded definition of rioting and looting and by taking a longer, if not an exhaustive, historical view. It may be an indication of the limitations of this particular analysis that our point of departure for an understanding of “the riot” is Wikipedia. The online oracle states that riots are any form of civil disorder characterised by groups lashing out in a sudden rash of violence against authority, property or people. Here we expand the concept of riot to include violence, which is sustained. Wikipedia considers looting as the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory or during a catastrophe. Here we will take looting to include taking of goods by force, through the use of economic, political or bureaucratic force. Furthermore we will include within the area of goods which one might loot, human life itself, self-esteem and the right to determine what happens with one’s own body. At this point it is also worth making clear the relationship between rioting and looting. Rioting creates the conditions for looting. The destruction wreaked by a mob, the pacifying effect on a population subject to riot, clears the way for looting.
Using these expanded definitions to survey a larger sweep of London’s history allows us to see how rioting & looting are a common occurrence in London, driven by fear, loathing and avarice; carried out in circumstances where people feel they have little to lose, either because they think they can carry out such acts with impunity or because they are not worried about the sanctions that may follow. Furthermore, it should also be acknowledged that whilst the acts of rioting and looting are anti-social and uncivilised, they produce a degree of satisfaction in the rioter, no matter the satisfaction be fleeting. To riot, to induce fear, suffering and subordination in others, produces a sense of powerfulness, control and invulnerability, which is a relief, particularly to those who experience a chronic fear of subordination. Meanwhile, looting, it should be noted, brings with it all kinds of material advantages.
The analysis offered in this article finds that, if we scratch beneath taboos and official history, rioting and looting have taken place in London since its inception, they have made London what it is today, and the biggest riots and lootings have been carried out by alliances of powerful organisations. The history of the London rioter & looter is therefore as much about the history of the state, financiers and the police as it is about the history of loose associations of impoverished men with violent and uncivilised predispositions. It is as much about organisation, rationale and strategy as it is about hysteria.
Barely Supressed Desire for Loot: London’s Ceaseless Search for Wealth
If you took the word of politicians, police and news broadcasters, whose noise drowns out everyone else’s, London is of the view that rioting and looting are as wrong as civility is right. Broadcasters had a condemnatory tone running throughout their coverage of the August 2011 riots; they provided politicians and police with a pedestal to blow disapprobation. One Sky TV reporter, out on the streets of Clapham, where he lived himself, overcome by desperation and anger taunted the rioters on live TV shouting ‘Is this fun? Is this fun to you?’ Few it seemed, save for a handful of rioters allowed air time to spew their hysteria into the living rooms of the arm chair public dared to empathise on air. Darcus Howe, an exception, who attempted to provide a more considered and less condemnatory attitude, was attacked and slandered by the BBC presenter he was speaking to who said, ‘Of course you’re no stranger to riots yourself are you?’.
However if one dares to pinch their nose, take the plunge and ask the unaskable, we find London has an ambivalent attitude towards rioting and looting. To understand this better let us first massage the chin and muse on how the desire for material accumulation and status has driven the formation, development and make-up of London. Old Father Thames, a nexus through which goods can be transported, traded and accessed, has long been a beacon to the avaricious. The fantasy of London as a mess of trade, bartering and opportunity have attracted many an envious eye and one or two fingers eager to break into the deep filled thick crust pie that is London. The fabled sense of opportunity offered by London is best captured in the 14th Century myth of Dick Whittington, who arrived in London with nothing and went on to make his fortune and become Mayor of London. More recently, we recount the story of celebrated businessman Sir Alan Sugar, whose life began in the humble surroundings of a Hackney Council Estate, but who has now amassed a substantial personal wealth, and has his own TV show called The Apprentice. In this programme aspiring Dick Whittingtons and Alan Sugars compete in the hope of unlocking the key to the riches of London. London then is a city celebrated for making men rich. The towering immensity of London’s financial sector, the largesse of its villas and mansions and the grandiosity of its town houses are celebrated as hard evidence of the material achievement of the city’s denizens.
Wealth can be accumulated in different ways. Entrepreneurialism has been foregrounded as the key dynamic underpinning much of the success of London’s more wealthy citizens. Entrepreneurialism, a matter of applying one’s skills, creativity and work to create a successful product, implies the accretion of material gain can be achieved within a framework of civility and social order.
London is less celebratory, but by no means condemnatory of rioting and looting, as an alternative forms of attaining material wealth and status. In fact, London, it might be argued, is a cynical place, quietly embracing rioting and looting. Look for example at the name given to one of London’s foremost trading magazines Loot!. There is nothing about the magazine that advocates criminal activity, but the name suggests that within its pages there are items for sale at prices so cheap, that buying them will feel as good as having stolen them. There is also an implication, neither promulgated nor necessarily intended by the magazine’s owners, that one might find stolen goods at knockdown prices for sale, the exclamation mark adds celebratory tones. Certainly the magazine would be a good place for thieves and robbers to sell their ill-gotten gains at knockdown prices to cash buyers. The same name, Loot was used by the owners of a clothing shop in Wood Green High Road. The shop’s name seemed to glorify the act of theft, implying that buying clothes from the shop would make the purchaser feel as good as having stolen them. Perhaps the name was also a nod toward the modus operandi and preferred lifestyle choice of a certain sub-section of the population of Wood Green, a modus operandi and preferred lifestyle choice of which a fine exhibition was provided in August 2011. Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the August 2011 riots was the fact that whilst the clothes shop Loot found itself at the epicentre of the first night of looting, and whilst all the shops around were wrecked and looted, Loot survived intact.
Elsewhere, Sir Alan Sugar, de facto ambassador for London’s business community, in 2011, the year of the riots, celebrated the aggression of one of his contestants, in his TV game show The Apprentice, describing with admiration, how she would walk over anyone to get what she wanted, the defining feature of a riotous mob. Meanwhile an Easy Jet airplane departing Gatwick Airport the same year, advertised to every Londoner on board, from the back of every seat, an offer, which it promoted as ‘a steal!’ At the same time Adidas ran a London advertisement campaign, depicting and therefore glorifying groups or gangs of young men hanging out on the street with nothing to do, and were reported to have plans for launching an advertising campaign featuring gang member and convicted criminal Snoop Dogg. Three years previous vendors at a Sunday clothes market, a stones throw from Wembley Stadium, sold coats with sinister balaclava hoods, which had small circular tinted windows for the eyes to look out of, which one would only wear if they wanted their identify to remain concealed. Several August 2011 rioters and looters were seen wearing such items during their nocturnal foraging. In April 2013 visitors to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, were entreated to celebrate the ‘golden age of piracy’.
The point, laboured here, is that despite their best efforts Londoners cannot help but allow the desire for rioting and looting to seep up and find expression in and amongst their more civil behaviour. In practice we find that entrepreneurialism and looting are not so much arch enemies but bed fellows, strategies to be deployed depending on the circumstances, and where one is openly celebrated, the other is respected quietly in private settings, Freudian slips in sales pitches and knowing glances.
Riotous Greed: London’s Appropriation of African Lives
The greatest incident of riot & looting perpetrated by Londoners was violent, organised, lasted two hundred and fifty years and generated a level of wealth, which provided the infrastructure upon which the economic success of London is based. This incident, for want of a better word, is the current slave trade. Rebecca Taylor, writing for Time Out describes how the slave trade worked. London businessmen would strike up agreements with African traders, where the latter would invade African villages, use violence and intimidation to subdue and enchain the villagers, take them to the coast and trade them with London businessmen for goods manufactured in Britain. The London businessmen would transport the African villagers, enchained, to the United States and Caribbean, where they would be traded for sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, cotton and tea. In the United States, slave owners would put the one-time villagers to work, providing them with a subsistence level of living whilst benefitting economically from their labour.
The slave trade involved a good deal of rioting. The rioting, the infliction of violence, began when the African businessmen captured the villagers, was sustained during the villagers’ trip in the slave boats and continued as they started their new lives as slaves to American businessmen. African women would be violated, i.e. raped by sailors, the resulting children valued by American traders and slave owning families.
The loot was human lives, the right to self-determination, dignity and the right to determine one’s sexual activity. African men and women were overcome by force, denied their humanity, commoditized and traded. Rebecca Taylor comments an estimated
11-12 million Africans, a number of people equivalent to the population of London, were transported across the Atlantic for slavery. “Packed into tight spaces with little food and water, thousands died en route”.
It is worth stopping to pause and consider the looters and rioters in this particular instance. Instead of being young men from the lower socio-economic demographic, they were London’s leading financiers, politicians and dignitaries. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Beckford invested in and benefited from the salve trade. Fuelled by avarice, and arguably a desire to humiliate the people of other lands, London’s businessmen, protected by the world’s strongest navy, rioted and looted, because they knew they could do so with impunity. It was an orgy of violence that no-one stopped for over two hundred and fifty years. And London and some of its most prominent families benefited handsomely.
The status and grandeur of London is built, in part on the loot gained from the slave trade. Rebecca Taylor argues that: ‘London’s present economic and political power forms a direct link back to its trading prowess in the eighteenth century, a prowess that depended on the trade of millions of African men, women and children into brutal slavery.’ The Museum of London points out that two of London’s most prominent buildings in the city, the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange, were established to facilitate the slave trade. West India Docks, located in the east of London on the Isle of Dogs, was built to receive the products that were received from the Caribbean in return for slaves, and received many slave ships.
The legacy of the rioting and looting is palpable in the colour, culture and history of the people who walk the streets of London today. The ancestors of African men and women, enslaved in the Caribbean, arrived in the United Kingdom, in the 1950s and 1960s, to do the jobs that many British people did not want to do; to reconstruct Britain after it had been bombed during World War II. What second, third and fourth generation Black British people might find curious as they walk around the city where plans were devised and implemented to humiliate, exploit and brutalize their ancestors, and what anyone who takes an interest in this issue might ponder is the absence of any apology issued by Londoners for this behaviour. The British government has not yet officially apologised for the slave trade. Furthermore, as one walks around the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and West India Docks, there is no acknowledgement of the rioting and looting that these institutions were established to facilitate; or any sense of responsibility for, apology for and regret for the taking of the freedom, liberties and dignity, which these institutions were purposefully set up to facilitate and realise.
At first this might come as a surprise given the widespread condemnation of the rioting and looting, which took place in London in the summer of 2011. One might think that such a country, with such apparent moral standards, could not possibly bear to remain silent about far worse atrocities, carried out by its own people. Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine that Britain would want to do anything other than apologize for the slave trade, when it routinely goes through the theatre of abhorring the values and practices of Nazi Germany in the 1940s. However, it does not apologize. It is not apologetic. Neither were those who perpetrated this rioting ever bought to justice. The ancestors of those families fattened by the slave trade, continue to enjoy the benefits of a legacy of wealth, whilst the ancestors of those whose families were enslaved, by and large, continue to feel the pale of emotional, psychological and economic impoverishment.
Here then, we learn a lesson about rioting and looting in London. Those who are responsible for it are not always brought to justice, nor do they seek to repent for or acknowledge the deeds they have carried out. Londoners, then, rather than talking of institutions such as the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange as shameful institutions, instead venerate such institutions, as if the rioting and looting that these institutions had been established for had never happened, as if the lives of those whose dignity and right to self-determination were taken, continue to mean nothing or can be easily forgotten. The implication, the whisper in the air is that London, whilst it may profess to find the slave trade disgusting, is actually proud of what it did and of the financial legacy gained. It is something to similar to if modern Germany would subtly venerating the achievements of the Nationalist Socialists.
Lets put our fingers on the key points here. The historical facts of the slave trade and the aftermath add up to evidence that Londoners, if powerful enough, can riot and loot with impunity and tell us of London’s ambivalent attitude towards these activities.
Riotous Aggression: kicking the vulnerable out of their homes
Leading London financiers and their political associates have been as keen to instigate riotous behaviour and looting in London as they have in Africa. The history of industrial London, like modern day China, is littered with occurrences of the business and political classes, using riotous behaviour and looting, to evict poor people from areas of land earmarked for speculation and development. For example, in the late eighteenth century, in order for the Midlands Railway Station to acquire a plot of land in Euston and Kings Cross, to make way for its railway station, four thousand homes were demolished and ten thousand people evicted. Those evicted were not furnished with any support to find alternative accommodation. A church was also destroyed and a cemetery unearthed. Riotous behaviour, demolition and eviction, legitimised by the state was used to loot residents of their home, security, communal bonds and sense of belonging. This example reinforces the notion that riotous behaviour and looting is all the more likely to take place, when powerful associations are able to pool their resources, in this case financial, technological and political, to attack and loot less powerful groups.
Riotous Enslavement: the legacy of Jewish Exploitation
Whilst London’s financiers and their political associates have worked together to plan and legitimise the looting of African peoples and the poorer populations of London, they have also welcomed instigators of riots and looting from other parts of the world, providing those instigators are prepared to share a bit of their loot with the Treasury and Corporation. No better example of a corporate looter than UBS, a global banking corporation, originally based in Switzerland, which has several offices in prominent London City locations. Claire Doole, working for the BBC describes how during the 1940s, UBS owned a cement factory where Nazi SS soldiers forced prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland, to work. UBS it seems were prepared to take a share of the Nazi loot, i.e. Jewish slave labour, precisely because, like many rioters & looters, they expected they could do so with impunity. The Jewish people, at the time, were unable to defend themselves. UBS then, played a role in a process, which began with looting, and ended up with enslavement, exploitation and murder. This process is also known as the holocaust.
Interestingly, taking a walk outside and around the UBS buildings in London, we see no acknowledgement or apology for the rioting and looting, which, one would imagine, served to increase the profits of UBS’ cement factory, which forms part of the foundation upon which the bank sits today. There is nothing in the architecture of the UBS buildings, which acknowledges the lessons learned, i.e. which acknowledges the ease with which one can, when sitting in a position of power like the CEO of UBS does, disabuse others of their freedom and dignity. According to Claire Doole, the bank not only ‘exploited slave labour’ but up until 2000 also ‘prevented Holocaust survivors and their families from retrieving their wartime assets’. Furthermore it has been reported that in 1997 UBS attempted to destroy historical information in its possession, in particular, “ledger books with entries handwritten in fountain pen to decades-old contracts to lists of mortgaged buildings in German cities like Berlin and Breslau in the 1930’s and 1940’s”.
So if Claire Doole’s BBC report is to be believed, UBS, were collaborators in looting Jewish people of their freedom and dignity, and were determined to hold on to their loot for the period of fifty years between the 1940s and 2000. During this period, and in 1967 to be precise, UBS were welcomed to London with open arms. The dominant colour in the couple of UBS buildings that I have seen in London is black, little light escapes.
The Complex Loot: the financial heist
The biggest loot taken by Londoners in recent years was not taken by the August 2011 summer rioters but by a network of bankers, housing developers, homeowners, savers and the government. Together this loose association of powerful interests, in effect, looted taxpayers and those dependent on state funds of their income and livelihood. Many bankers benefited and continue to benefit from the loot, which if things had been otherwise, would have been in the hands of families, children, older people and people who need support to live. There were two instances of looting. The first is known by the misnomer ‘the credit crunch’ and the second is known by the misnomer ‘the financial crisis’.
The credit crunch came about when bankers, with governmental assent, started to loan savers’ money to people who didn’t earn enough money or have enough savings to ever realistically pay the money back, in return for a fee and interest payments. In effect bankers were giving savers money away and in return pocketed a slice of those savings in the form of commissions, interest payments, bonuses and wages, whilst the treasury pocketed a percentage in stamp duty and taxes. Whilst house prices continued to rise, and they rose in part because bankers, recklessly, loaned out increasing sums of money for the buying of houses, the effects of the bankers’ looting remained unfelt. During the time that house prices rose, borrowers who defaulted on their interest payments could always sell the house for more than they had bought it and return the money. However, once house prices started to come down, borrowers could no longer pay off the money they owed. Banks stopped receiving interest payments and their cash supplies began to dry up. On the 12th September 2007 Northern Rock was the first bank in England to refer to the Bank of England for a loan of money to pay savers for withdrawals. On the 14th September savers with Northern Rock queued up outside the bank in the hope that they might salvage their money. Savers were beginning to realise they had been looted.
Effectively, under the cover of arranging a mortgage, bankers and the state had stolen savers money. By the time the saver realised he would be bereft of his earnings the banker had already scuttled away with his fee and the treasury had allocated the taxes to a budget. This theft of savers money has been assigned the misnomer ‘credit crunch’. ‘Credit crunch’ refers to the fact that banks would no longer loan money to each other. Prior to housing prices beginning to drop, where a bank found themselves low on supplies of liquid cash, i.e. money that was not tied up in investments, they would commonly be able to borrow money from a bank that had an abundance of liquid cash. However as soon as house prices began to drop banks became nervous about whether they would ever get their loans back. With interest payments on loans drying up, more and more banks found themselves needing a loan of liquid cash, and virtually no bank was able or willing to provide that loan. The term ‘credit crunch’ focuses attention away from the act of looting, and on to the effects of the looting for the looters themselves, as if the looter was a victim.
Following the credit crunch, a second instance of looting took place, to protect bankers and politicians from the wrath of savers. The government knew that the savers, who had been looted, represented a powerful interest group that could inflict serious damage on them. So they decided to loot taxpayers and the recipients of state support to pay back the savers. Effectively they spread the losses incurred by savers to those who had no savings. The government did this by borrowing money on behalf of the taxpayer and giving it to the banks so they could pay savers their money back. This meant that the money which banks had robbed savers of was converted into a debt attributed to and to be serviced by the taxpayer. This led to a reduction in the resources made available to the beneficiaries of state support. Here then, to draw an analogy with the August 2011 riots, politicians much like the young people who broke into the shops in Wood Green, broke into the tax payers coffers, took the money that had been intended for the weakest in society, and gave it to the bankers. The bankers were as enthusiastic in handling this loot as the children and young people who loitered around Wood Green High Road were for picking up stolen goods that had been dropped on the street by looters. Of course savers are taxpayers too, so the looting of taxpayers was also a looting of savers, but savers would be happier sharing their losses with taxpayers and recipients of state support with no savings. These last two groups, by dint of their position in the economy and society, are less able to fight back against being looted, and so made an appropriate target for the government and their accomplices the bankers. The term ‘financial crisis’ was another example of how powerful looters, the government and bankers, came up with a concept, which attempted to gloss over the fact that taxpayers and recipients of state support had been looted. The term ‘financial crisis’ suggests a general economic malaise, as if society has been blighted by some unstoppable abomination. To some extent the creators of this term were right, no one was able to stop this second incident of looting, this picking off of the poor by the powerful. The term ‘financial crisis’ also suggests we are all in it together, when we are plainly not.
Riotous behaviour in 2009
It is a well-documented fact that some if not all members of the London Metropolitan Police have been the instigator of riots and a certain form of looting. On the subject of rioting, on April 1st 2009, the Metropolitan Police had the responsibility for policing a protest against the looting carried out by the banks and government, as described in the previous section. Two types of action, both riotous, characterised the Metropolitan Police’s actions that day. First, the police formed a cordon around the protestors, who had gathered around the Bank of England and Royal Exchange, forbidding them freedom to move out of the area, and kept them there for six hours, without provision of food and water or sufficient toilets. Adults and children had to urinate and defecate on the street. Pregnant women; people on medication, people who had jobs to go to were all refused the right to exit no matter their needs. The Economist reported from the scene, “One man pleads to be let through because he is diabetic and has no food or insulin with him. The officers are unyielding. It is an “absolute cordon” and no one is going anywhere. Scrabbling around in our bags and appealing to the crowd, we manage to scrounge together a banana and a chocolate bar but he is shaky.” What is clear, and irrespective of whether the European Court of Human Rights upheld the police’s right to engage in such practice is that the police effectively bullied and intimidated a group of protestors, the message being that if you want to protest you will face the punishment of containment.
However, the police were not just content to keep people penned in for six hours. They also inflicted random acts of violence on protestors. One example of such gratuitous violence reported by Peter M, who left a message on the Economist website, read: “The girl next to me was hit over the head by a baton and was knocked unconscious immediately. Blood was streaming from her head and the police kicked her to get up and continued to do so until people dragged her away, again being attacked by policemen. The blood dripped from her head as she was taken away. This was repeated throughout the day.” A second, more notorious example was the policeman who needlessly beat the leg of Ian Tomlinson with a baton, which led to Mr Tomlinson falling, and dying some hours later. Elsewhere, London Lite reported that, “Islington councilor Greg Foxsmith is among the complainants, alleging he was struck in the chest and thrown to the ground during the protests in the City on 1st April. The 47 year old claimed he was attacked by a balaclava clad officer after he witnessed him assaulting an elderly man.” London Lite went on to add, “Another protestor, Maya Oppenheim, claimed she was attacked by a riot policeman. The A-Level student, 17, was in Bishopsgate when she says she was hit with a baton and kicked while sitting…. Miss Oppenheim, of Hackney, said: “It was ferocious. It was completely out of the blue and absolutely horrific.” Finally the paper noted, “Student Tom Hibbins, 21, from Brockley, claims he was repeatedly struck over the head with a police baton, outside the Bank of England.”
The police subjected a second group of protestors to a second wave of riotous violence later on in the day. This group of protestors, who had gathered under the banner of ‘Climate Camp’ on Bishopsgate, a road in the City, and who had, by all accounts, protested peacefully, by sitting down and singing songs, were, just as it began to get dark, set upon, and physically assaulted by a co-ordinated movement of police. First-hand accounts explained how the police punched and kicked protestors, threw them to the floor, and inflicted injuries to their bodies.
In this case a loose association of people had gathered to protest at bankers and the government looting the taxpayers and the less fortunate. In response the Metropolitan Police took it upon themselves to exhibit riotous behaviour towards the protestors, looting them of their freedom to move and protest without sanction. It seemed as if the police were engaging in this humiliation and intimidation because they feared and hated the protestors, and believed the protestors were in some way sub-human and below the law. The Metropolitan Police may have also exhibited riotous behaviour because it made them feel good and they thought they could do so with impunity. On the point of impunity, I am not aware of any policeman being disciplined for the multiple gratuitous acts of violence inflicted on people who had come to protest. Interestingly a number of police chose to deploy a tactic commonly deployed by rioters, that of concealing their identity. Some wore balaclavas and removed their identity badges; seemingly in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of them being identified.
Looting people of their privacy
In the weeks up to the August 2011 riots news emerged that Metropolitan Police officers had been working in cahoots with the News International news agency for many years to loot hundreds of people of private information. Reports from the the BBC, Metro, The Guardian and Evening Standard indicated that officers had provided information about people collected for crime prevention in return for money and information. Information traded by the police included contact details of the Royal Family (see BBC report proving that whilst the most effective looters tend to be associations of the powerful, everyone, including the powerful, are from time to time, vulnerable to being looted. On this issue, it is interesting to note that a number of journalists have been arrested (see Evening Standard). However, no police officer has, to my knowledge, been arrested, charged or convicted for what amounts to a type of looting. Once again, it seems, we see how looters can, if they are operating amongst the more powerful strata of society, loot with impunity. This point has not gone completely unnoticed.
Riot of the Mayfair Superman: Exclusivity and Ridicule
In the clubs, bars and boutiques of Mayfair, the playpen of London’s wealthiest denizens, we see a more personalised and emotional kind of rioting and looting. Much of the services and goods offered in Mayfair celebrate exclusiveness. The Curzon Cinema advertises its royal boxes, which they say ‘add that touch of sophistication and exclusivity that will help your event sparkle.’ The Chesterfield, a hotel in Mayfair, writes, “Mayfair has a cachet that the rest of London cannot match. No other London address is as smart; no other area offers so much exclusive shopping.” There’s even a dry cleaners that claims it is ‘exclusive’. In Mayfair, the joy of exclusive consumption lies not in the aesthetics or nature of what one is consuming, but instead in the knowledge that one has the ability to command resources that one does not need, when there are others who do need such resources but who have no command of them. Exclusive consumption then, is a provocative act, an attempt to loot the dignity and the value of those who are ‘excluded’. It is sadism. Giorgio Armani, describing his attempts to introduce ‘men’s couture’ (the concept of tailor made clothes) to London, said, “The new breed of the super-wealthy are… clamouring for a personalised wardrobe… There is a certain client that refuses to lower himself to going into a store and picking something off a rack.” In 2009 London Lite reported that Mayfair restaurant Nobu, which sold blue fin tuna, an endangered species, to its customers, had put a footnote on menus saying, “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species, please ask your server for an alternative”. Leaving the fish on the menu with this footnote tantalises customers with the prospect of sacrificing the interests of an entire species, the environment, future generations and their children to their own personal pleasure that night.
The internet is full of people complaining about the obnoxious treatment they receive at the hands of bar staff and doormen in Mayfair’s clubs and bars. One reviewer, who claimed to have attended the Mayfair club “Mo*Vida”said, “First impressions of the club were good, the decor simply drips with glamorous cool. However this initial good impression was quickly shattered by an extremely rude bouncer turfing us out of our seats like we were members of the peasantry, in favour of some weasely looking males who has paid hundreds to sit in them.” In March 2007, an internet reviewer who claimed to have attended the Mayfair club Sketch complained that as he left the building the door man said, “thank you, will you be needing the night bus home”. The reviewer said that they would not be returning given the doormen, ‘don’t know how to treat people [properly]’. Arguably, the reviewer made a mistake thinking that the comment was due to bad manners. What he or she doesn’t understand is that the comment is part of a culture hell-bent on making others feel devalued in order to relieve the feelings of self-hatred and disgust the supermen and superwomen of Mayfair feel for themselves.
You learn from what you see and hear in Mayfair that civilisation is not so much moral standards consistent with the beliefs of the elite, but instead a social and ideological imposition which stops us from wanting to enjoy the excesses enjoyed, and most importantly the loot obtained by the rich. That is to say, the rich support the state and establishment, which sets the moral tone for us to live by, but then being above the law eschews those same laws; because they never believed in them beyond being an effective tool to control the masses. The Arab Sheikhs and Princes love the exclusivity of Mayfair, the relative privacy of the clubs, with their intimate spaces and lounges for very special guests. The exclusive apartments allow them the space and time needed to gorge themselves on the riches they have obtained from their lands afar, which they have systematically looted for their personal benefit. The more power, the easier it is to riot and loot with impunity, the more likely one is to engage in these behaviours, and the more perverse the rioting and looting. No better example than that of a Saudi Prince, a grandson of the king of Saudi Arabia, who in 2010, was convicted of beating and strangling his servant to death in London. The killing was reported to be the culmination of a campaign of sadistic abuse against the servant. According to the Guardian Detective Chief Inspector John McFarlane said: “The defendant used his position of power, money and authority over his victim Bandar to abuse him over an extended period of time.” Once again, an example of a Londoner rioting because he thinks he can get away with it. This time, however, the looter did not get away with it.
Riotous Consumerism, Nihilism and Opportunism: London’s Street Riots
So now, as part of our potted history of rioting & looting in London, we arrive to the August 2011 London riots.
The August 2011 riots & looting differ in several ways from the examples described so far.
Loose associations of young men
First, the riots were carried out, mostly by loose associations of young men, from a lower socio-economic demographic, whilst the rioters and looting described previously were carried out by powerful institutions and organisations.
Second, the August 2011 riots and looting were not as organised, well-planned, systematic and devastating as the African slave trade, the exploitation of Jewish slave labour and the destruction of whole London neighbourhoods and communities. Certainly, the loose association of rioters out on the streets in August 2011 did have an appetite for attacking authority figures, mainly the police, local businesses, a courthouse and probation office and journalists. Furthermore it has been argued that there was some organisation to some of the looting. An article in Time Out claims that flash mobs were used, flash mobs being groups of people who use social media to quickly gather and loot in one place before dispersing. However a great deal of the action seemed to be fuelled by hysteria, was weakly co-ordinated and lacked an objective to systematically dominate and humiliate a population over a long period of time.
Third, in financial terms, the size of the loot was nothing compared to what the African slave trade conferred to London and its dignitaries, or to what the exploitation of Jewish slave labour and the determination to hold on to Jewish assets is likely to have conferred to UBS, and certainly nothing compared to what the government and bankers managed to loot from the taxpayer and those who depend on states services.
But there were also some similarities in the behaviours of the rioters and looters of August 2011 and the rioters and looters of yesteryear.
Domination and sadism
In the same way that London dignitaries seemed to get some kind of enjoyment and feel some sense of power and superiority over denying the humanity of the African men and women they looted during the slave trade, so the rioters seemed to get a similar level of sadistic enjoyment, from causing pain and suffering to people in their local environment. The August 2011 rioting was carried out by people, who wanted to gain a sense of power from being able to dominate people with less power than them. The motivations of the rioters seemed to be similar to the motivations of the Metropolitan Police during their display of gratuitous violence launched at the people who had gathered to protest in April 2009. Just like the police, who mounted unprovoked physical attacks on people, and who humiliated and punished the people by penning them into a cordoned off space for six hours, the rioters sought to humiliate and degrade members of the public and owners of shops, by beating them up, robbing them and setting their businesses on fire. The fires, the destruction of Tottenham High Road carpet shop and the supermarket were acts designed to completely destroy the hopes and spirit of local people. They were acts of sadism.
The rioters wanted to feel dominant, invulnerable and in control; it seemed the only way they could do this was by depriving someone else of control of their own body. In Barking young men mugged a young Malaysian man. The victim was punched to the ground and punched so hard that later a metal plate was inserted into his mouth to help repair the damage. Several men then gently helped the stunned man back on to his feet, so they could get a better purchase on the bag that was strapped to his back. They softly undid the zipper of the bag and withdrew the contents. As the person who removed the loot walked off briskly, cowardly, although with a jaunt, he threw away the wrapper encasing the looted item, discarding it much like the man had been. The muggers had denigrated the young man, because to do so gave them a transient feeling of invulnerability, which allowed them to escape, momentarily, their feelings of discomfort and unease. One can draw parallels between the mugging of the Malaysian man in 2011 and the infamous incident during the April 2009 protests, when a police officer aggressively and gratuitously bullied a man, which led to the man’s death. The man had been stood peacefully, under a tree for some time, after having made several attempts to exit a police cordon. The policeman shouted at the man to move on. The man followed the instruction, but whilst he walked away, slowly, with hands in pockets, the policeman deigned to shove him with considerable force from behind, so he hit the floor head first. Minutes later the man collapsed and died. The innocent man was looted of his life, for the self-aggrandisement of a police officer, who could not or would not tolerate the anxiety of a situation where a person would not behave exactly as he wished.
Violence is often used in response to fear that overwhelms. You can imagine that the gratuitous violence of the young men involved in the August 2011 riots and the policemen involved in the April 2009 riots, both involved transference of uncontainable fear on to a vulnerable target, who was then attacked. The fears and anxieties of the August 2011 rioters had perhaps built up through their childhood, at home, at school and in life. They used the riots to temporarily transfer some of these fears and angers, projecting them on to businesses, passers-by and anyone who was weaker than them.
They tried to instil a sense of absolute fear in their victims. Nick Smith writing for Open Democracy described how, in 2011, a number of men, with objects in their hand, started to smash up a police van whilst a police woman was still in the passenger seat. Smith’s account conjures up an image of men, getting an intense high out of inducing what must have been an ineffable sense of terror in the policewoman. The April 2009 police rioters, maybe stressed by the day-to-day confrontation with violence and disorder, seemed to transfer their sense of unease and fears into the people who were protesting at the Bank of England. This was easy to do for the police given that the protestors were more vulnerable, not having come equipped with batons, shields and dogs. Having transferred their fears onto the protestors, the police rioters then proceeded to induce fear and trauma into the protestors, in the same way as the rioters described by Nick Smith beat fear and terror into the policewoman.
Another commonality was the fact that the looting was characterised by a sense of untrammelled avarice. During the August 2011 riots, in the basement of a department store, people were running around in complete darkness, looking ‘really greedy’. Some destroyed shop fronts without any regard for the owners, as a means of attaining what they wanted. There were several accounts of cyclists being mugged at different places in London for their bikes. The looters shared a loosening of a sense of responsibility to respect and care for others. Like the founders of the Bank of England and Royal Exchange; like the Chief Executives of banks like RBS, Lloyds and Northern Rock, so the looters used their physical force and presence, to take goods from clothing and IT shops, without any regard for the people who owned the resources they were exploiting.
Nothing to lose
Third, it was clear that the rioters and looters carried out their activities because they felt there was nothing to lose. Witnesses of the riots commented on the casual nature with which many people looted. Paul Lewis, of the Guardian, talking of the first night’s riots in Tottenham, reported that, “What surprised people, who observed the rioting and looting was how casual some of the looting was conducted…. with people taking their time to pick through items and, in one front garden, swapping stolen goods.” Two onlookers in Croydon, speaking on Sky news said that, ‘You could talk to these guys, say heh could I have a light and they’d give you a light.’ In one video shot early on Sunday morning in Wood Green, people were seen leaving H&M with a haul of goods, with others standing around JD Sports, queuing, waiting for their turn to take goods. One commentator noted how it was alarming how many people made no attempt at all to cover their faces. David Lammy commented on, “people trying on clothes before stealing them; thieves lining up politely to use de-taggers.”
Earlier on it was pointed out that rioting & looting are carried out in circumstances where people feel they have little to lose, either because they think they can carry out such acts with impunity or because they are not worried about the sanctions that may follow. It was not clear, which of these categories, the rioters and looters of 2011 fitted into. It may be that some of the people who got involved in the looting, and particularly those who had acted opportunistically to take goods from shops that other people had broken into, felt the sheer number of people getting involved, would lessen the chances of being identified, charged and convicted. Certainly it seems that a number of young people had gone initially to observe, but had, on the prospect of getting in on the loot, felt an irresistible urge to take a share, experiencing an ecstatic feeling of getting something for nothing. One young looter in Clapham described his experience: “There was some trainers I wanted to buy from JD, some white ones, and I was thinking: I can go inside and get them. So I just went inside and got them. Then once you do it and nothing’s happened yeah, you’re like: ‘Oh my gosh!’ And you’re like: ‘This is a once in a lifetime thing. You’re going to get everything you want for free.'”
Arguably the ecstasy to be gained from looting can be best appreciated by the generation of young people and adults who during the norties, and thanks to advances in technology, engaged en masse in downloading music for free, illegally and with impunity. Furthermore, it was interesting to note how the rioting and looting built up a head of steam, culminating on the third day, the Monday evening, during which time it seemed as if every person, who had a predisposition for thieving and stealing, had, for one night, realised two things, first, that the police did not seem to have enough numbers or will to stop the looting, and second, that the more people took part in these behaviours the less likely they would be captured. That is these people seemed to feel that they could, if they wanted, loot with impunity. So, looting started to take place all over London. The fervour of the would-be looters paralleled the fervour of bankers for giving away savers’ money in return for fees and interest, which they pocketed as wages, commissions and bonuses, which led to the credit crunch. It seemed that it in both cases the looters were buoyed by their early tentative looting, into more daring and larger scale operations.
However, it may be that some number of the loose association of young men who rioted in August 2011 felt they had nothing to lose because they had no fear of getting caught and being imprisoned. For many people with a stake in society, it is the fear of forfeiting that stake which stops them from engaging in riotous behaviour and looting. In the aftermath of the riots, a number of young people were interviewed, some of whom did not participate in the riots, of which some admitted to having been put off because they now had something to loose. One guy, working at a football academy in Islington, when interviewed on BBC news, commented, “two years ago maybe, but now, I’ve got this [my job], there’s too much to loose’. Another admitted, “I would have rioted before, but I’ve got a baby now, and a flat. I’ve got too much to lose.”
Hiding their identity
Fourth, some of the rioters, like some of the police who had used riotous behaviour in the April 2009 protests, used a number of methods for concealing their identity. Whilst the police had covered their faces with balaclavas and removed identify tags, rioters used hoods and scarves. One girl was in her shorts and her bra because she had her T-shirt wrapped around her face. Furthermore, apparently, the August 2011 rioters used Blackberry Messenger service to communicate with each other, in the knowledge that this particular messaging service would be difficult for the police to intercept and identify them on. Rioters also attacked journalists and people attempting to take photos or film them.
One key difference between the August 2011 riots & looting and those reported on earlier, is the way in which the state responded to the looters and rioters. First, unlike the riotous behaviour carried out by the bankers, state and police, the August 2011 form of rioting was considered illegitimate by the state, and so subject to prosecution. Second many of the rioters and looters, were not able to avoid sanction for their activities. This is in stark contrast to the financiers and bankers responsible for the African slave trade and the recent financial crisis; and for the police responsible for the April 2009 riots. Third, the victims of the August 2011 riots were promised compensation for the damages caused by the Prime Minister. This contrasts with the victims of London based firm UBS, the Jewish slave labourers and their ancestors, who at least up until the year 2000, were said not to have received an apology for their treatment or financial compensation. The same can be said of the African men and women who were victims of the inhumane plans and actions of London financiers. Even today their ancestors, who can collectively trace their relative impoverishment, in part, to the treatment of their ancestors, have not seen their ancestors receive a formal apology.
In August 2011 riots hit the streets of London. The scale and magnitude of the riots were unprecedented, at least in the living memory of the youngest generation of Londoners. However whilst London had not experienced something so visceral since the Blitz, a careful examination of London’s history shows that rioting and looting has been a large part of the fabric of London life. Furthermore there have been quieter and more imperceptible forms of looting going on in London for hundreds of years, forms which do not always take shape on the streets, but which are more significant in the amount of loot taken, and the scale of devastation reaped on victims. Looking at the personal psychological reasons for acts of rioting and looting, we can say that whilst such acts are anti-social and uncivilised, they produce a degree of satisfaction in the rioter, no matter the satisfaction is fleeting. To riot, to induce fear, suffering and subordination in others, produces a sense of powerfulness, control and invulnerability, which is a relief, particularly to those who fear subordination. Looting, meanwhile, brings with it all kinds of material advantages. From a sociological point of view we can see that all is needed for most to engage in looting are the opportunity and a sense that one can engage in it with impunity. For this reason, rioting and looting is more likely to occur when there is an imbalance in power between people; rioting and looting is rarely about the weak striking back at the powerful, but rather the powerful taking advantage of the weak. And switching to London as a city, we can see that if we scratch beneath taboos and official history, rioting and looting have taken place in London since its inception, they have made London what it is today, and the biggest riots and lootings have been carried out by alliances of powerful organisations. The history of the London rioter & looter is therefore as much about the history of the state, financiers and the police as it is about the history of loose associations of impoverished men with violent and uncivilised predispositions. It is as much about organisation, rationale and strategy as it is about hysteria.