Friday, 28 October 2011

Riots and Reasons Revisited

On the 10th of Aug i posted a piece of writing that talked about individuation. I later removed the post but after watching Derren Brown's 'Remote Control' TV show this evening perhaps it is right to repost it....

The extraordinary scenes of violence and looting cannot go unnoticed. Every corner of the media is saturated with images, reports and video clips of (mostly) young men rioting and causing unimaginable damage to cities across the country, my hometown Bristol included. I have heard all the arguments; “They are filthy rats”, “Bring out the army, rubber bullets, water canons, etc”, and then the otherside; ‘Neglected youth’, “A product of the socioeconomic climate”, and so on. But what seems to be the overwhelming opinion of the average person is a sense of sadness. Sad that young people felt the need to do this, sad that people have lost their homes and businesses, sad that communities have been so badly affected.
One thing that struck me was the looting, people raiding shops for personal gain. I saw images of people carrying expensive flat screen TV’s from stores and jewellery shop windows being smashed and items taken, but also at the very other end a Tesco’s store was looted and an image caught of a man carrying bags of rice away whilst other stores in Ealing, London were looted and the haul left out on the street. It seemed that the ‘prize’ was fairly unimportant in the larger scale of the action being taken.
What is the point in breaking into Tesco’s only to steal a couple of pound’s worth of rice? Why smash a children’s clothing store window, grab the stock and dump it a few metres down the road? To the nation and the rest of the world these acts are quite understandably viewed as the epitome of foolish hooliganism.
So I asked myself what is the point? A burglar robs a house and steals items with resale value, a mugger takes cash and expensive items like mobile phones and jewellery from a victim, a shoplifter steals items that he knows he will be able to sell on – and in all these cases money is the motivation for the criminal act. But generally for these looters there is very little, or no financial incentive. It does seem mindless.

Rewind back to the year 2000 when I spent 4 months living in a squat in Sydney, Australia. One evening I ventured out to a club in the city centre where some English DJs – the Scratch Perverts were playing a set. It was an inspiring night with all elements of Hiphop represented in their rawest forms – an impromptu breakdancing battle took over the dance floor, graffiti backdrops filled the walls, MC’s freestyled in a cypher over muffled beats near the bar and of course the DJ’s displayed techniques never seen before. Whilst grabbing a beer from the bar I was drawn to the rappers who were laughing, joking and being very animated, so I took a step closer and stuck my ear into the circle to hear what was being said. Australian rappers had a surprisingly similar style to Bristolian rapping and I soon began laughing along with the rest of the crowd, but was soon to receive quite a shock.
One very tall lad aggressively pulled me to one side and asked me exactly who I was and what I thought I was doing laughing at his friend’s rapping. I explained that I was Acer, a graffit artist from Bristol in England and that I was impressed by his friend’s skills and how much it reminded me of my friends back home. He looked very suspicious, eyed me up and then told me to follow him…
He led me to the door of the nightclub and told me to follow him outside. Now I must admit at this point I had no idea what was going on and was on my guard just in case something untoward was about to happen and as he led me to a dark alley and my adrenaline started pumping I almost turned around and legged it. But as the lad stopped by a bin and reach behind it he drew out a rucksack which rattled with an all familiar sound – spray cans. He pulled out a can, adjusted the nossle and told me, “If you are a graffiti artist like you say you are, I want to see you tag…”
As intimidating as this sounds, I actually felt an immediate connection with this guy – he was obviously a dedicated Hiphop disciple that wasn’t going to let some young kid from the UK think he could turn up on his patch unannounced. So with that I took his can, dropped a large Acer FSH tag on the alleyway wall, and turned round to look him in the eye. He smiled, shook my hand, told me he liked my style and then took me back into the club to meet all the other graffiti writers that were there – about 20 in total. What a buzz! I was initiated and welcomed by them all as the tall and aggressive guy’s new Pomme friend…
So the end of the night drew in and I went to say my goodbyes, but it turns out I wasn’t going anywhere. The graffiti boys were going painting and they wanted me to come with them and so, I did. And off we rampaged, through the Sydney business district, tagging on almost everything, climbing up on walls to reach higher spots, each trying to get one up bigger and better than the next – it was an act of vandalism that I would not have usually partaken in, even 10 years ago when I had far less to loose.

And here I find some of the answers to my previous question of what was the point in looting for nothing? My usual morals and principles disappeared when I was part of a larger and more aggressive group for young men; the empathy for other people’s property and the guilt I would feel about defacing it was lost in the excitement of being in the group. I blended in with a load of other people who were doing it anyway, so I encouraged myself to join in. ‘Why not?” I said to myself, and I felt safety in numbers.
Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology regarding the loosening of social norms in groups, whereby people adopt the values of a group over their own usual identity and values. Whilst I always had an urge to go tagging in my younger years, I became more daring whilst around others. I can understand how when a young person is surrounded by peers who are all involved in a very exciting, albeit highly illegal, game of destruction, they can easily forget about appropriate behaviour and get caught up in the buzz of the crowd.
Combine deindividuation with the growing feeling of discontent in young people about unemployment, education opportunities and the lack of support in the form of EMA, and all the other income disparities felt by those living on the welfare state; is it really any wonder that these young people feel as if they have nothing to loose?

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