Rioters? No, these are looters, thieves and vandals

It was inevitable that copycat idiots would hit the streets in Bristol and other cities, having followed shocking events in London.  In the age of 24 hour TV and social media it is all too easy for a situation to escalate and for delinquents to prosper.

The first duty of all politicians and leaders of society in this situation is to appeal for calm and perspective.  This is violent disorder by a criminal minority.  It’s not widespread social unrest.  It can and must be brought under control.

What we have seen in London and now in Bristol is not legitimate political protest spilling over into violence and disorder.  That would indeed be a riot.  We’ve had riots in Bristol, in 1980 against racism and what was seen as police and official disregard for peoples’ human rights and dignity.  We had them in 1831 when half of Queen Square, the Bishop’s Palace, the Mansion House and the local prison were torched as part of protest demanding the right to vote.  There are some excellent displays in our new M Shed museum on these events. Real social problems where people in despair turned to violence.

But what we are experiencing in 2011 is not rioting with a political or social problem as the direct cause.  Instead, we are seeing mindless criminal activity motivated by a selfish desire for personal enrichment.  Stealing jewellery, designer clothes or electrical goods is theft, not protest.  Setting fire to a shop is arson, not protest.  We are seeing looting, not rioting.

What’s different from 1980 or 1831 is that actions can be in real time, known around the city and flashed around the world in an instant.  Some just want to be part of what is “kicking off”, having been egged on by the twits on twitter, with the action being captured on your mates’ mobiles for posting on You Tube…while that police helicopter buzzes overhead filming you as well.

So if there is any social cause behind this looting I think it is selfishness.  Regard only for yourself and disregard for the community.  A generation has grown up over the last couple of decades in an age of rampant consumerism.  Everyone wants (or feels pressurised to want) the latest designer trainers, mobile phone upgrade or some other ephemeral bling that doesn’t actually make you a better person.  Tabloid newspapers and round the clock trash TV push this desire while also giving us an insight into the feckless behaviour of B-list celebs as they stumble around their chaotic lives with too much money and not enough sense.  Everyone wants to be rich and famous, without wanting to work hard to reach those otherwise acceptable ambitions.

So I think the prime motivators behind the looting are greed and jealousy, rather than sorrow and anger.  Basic human failings that have been around forever.  Not contemporary political gripes but certainly contemporary social malaise.

That’s my quick diagnosis of what is a complicated social problem.  But what’s to be done?  Well immediately the Government must ensure the police are able to bring the streets under control.  The police should be able to identify many of the ring leaders and take them off the streets.  But it’s also a duty for every citizen not to allow our freedom to be threatened by a tiny minority of people.  Every potential looter has a parent, partner or friend who could tell them to think again.  You really don’t have to mindlessly follow those who want to cause mayhem.

But once the fires are out and the windows are repaired there will be deeper issues to address.  We need to have a good hard look at the direction in which our society is heading.  What values are being taught to children by parents and schools?  Whether values of respecting others and taking responsibility for your own behaviour are being undermined by our media, broadcast, print and social alike?  This should not be a political football.  These are deep issues which everyone who cares about our country should be able to address in a calm and rational way.

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