The Reading Room

Smartphones help London burn

A third night of rioting in London, the worst and most widespread in the nation’s history, has seen thousands of youths outnumber and defy a largely powerless police force. Politicians have been caught napping, or in the case of the political leadership, abroad on holiday, seemingly without a care in the world.

This morning my home town of Ealing is among the 13 hotspots around the capital where families are waking up to scenes of torched cars in the streets, smashed shop windows, ransacked and burnt out buildings. The rioting has spread further to regional areas with ominous names from the past, the Toxteth and Handsworth areas of Liverpool and Birmingham that were the scenes of infamous riots 30 years ago when another Conservative Prime Minister reigned over a country simmering with tension amidst a recession. They have been joined on today’s list of shame by Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham, where the rioting spread last night.

This started after police shot a man Mark Duggan, 29, dead in Tottenham. A peaceful protest there on Saturday snowballed into violence as more and more disaffected youths took to the streets to both demonstrate anger at the police and then seize the opportunity to engage in opportunistic looting. That first night saw the violence confined to Tottenham, Tottenham Hale and Wood Green.

On Sunday night Enfield, Chingford Mount, Islington, Oxford Circus, Walthamstow and Ponders End were all affected by rioting.

Yesterday’s third night of a widening ripple of violence started in Hackney after a man was stopped and searched by police but nothing was found. This time they didn’t wait until dark with groups beginning to attack the police in Hackney at 16:20, throwing rocks and a bin at officers. As the night wore on Camden and Chalk Farm, Hackney, Peckham, Clapham, Lewisham, Woolwich and Croydon where among London boroughs coming under attack and set alight.

Shopkeepers have been beaten and robbed, businesses looted, homes burnt out while 999 calls have gone unheeded as depleted police, too few apparently with front-line crowd control training, have been spread too far and wide to cope, proving ineffectual when not absent, standing by waiting for reinforcements as the yobs pelt them with bricks and bottles. The level of defiance has seen many of the youths involved not even bothering to mask themselves as a feeling spreads among them that they are untouchable. What is clear is that many of the rioters actually view appearing in Sky News footage as a badge of honour, a way to grab their 15 minutes of fame without the trouble of having to audition for The X-Factor.

Twitter and other social networks were hailed as a cross between a communications channel and a catalyst when seen to help mobilise protestors in Egypt earlier this year. The same is true in England today, but now it is not being viewed in quite such a favourable light when, up to this point, we have enjoyed policing by consensus and our politicians are at pains to try and convince us the rioting here is not a “political” protest. At times like this they are keen to ignore Thomas Mann’s view that “everything is politics.”

Today buzz phrases like “copycat criminality” and “recreational rioting” are being bandied about as community leaders and media commentators wring their hands, bemoan the retreat of “respect”, talk about water cannon, plastic bullets and bringing in the army, picking over the pieces of what happened as the clean-up operation begins.

Thousands of youths are taking to the streets because they are bored, they see an opportunity to bring rebellious excitement to dull lives, get a buzz from running the gauntlet and waving two fingers at the police, maybe even benefit economically from looting while they are at it. They don’t mind smashing up their neighbourhood because it simply doesn’t matter to them.

David Cameron, finally back in Downing Street, chairs Cobra this morning as pressure mounts on him to do something effective to restore order to the streets. Right now, phone hacking and the Eurozone crisis are almost sideshows as he and his coalition government face perhaps their biggest test yet. The Home Secretary’s tough talk to the news cameras last night about unacceptable criminality and the culprits facing the full force of the law went unheeded. How’s your confidence in our police and politicians this morning? Will there be more rioting on the streets where you live tonight? AW

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