A rhetoric of revenge will not rid streets of rioters
The Government can heal the wounds caused by the riots, but it must avoid an orgy of vengeance, says Adrian Hamilton
Published 12/08/2011 | 08:00
I don't know what they're going to do about this rioting," said a US newscaster on one of the local stations during the Watts Riots in 1966, "but I know what I'm going to do." And with that, he pulled a gun from his pocket and laid it on the table before him.
Riots, particularly those with any racial tinge, produce a visceral fear among the middle classes that the underclass will pour out of their estates to wreak havoc.
In Los Angeles, it was the nightmare vision that the blacks would break out of Watts to pillage Beverly Hills. In London, it has been the horror of a city taken over by looters using social networks to move around.
In 1966, there was open talk of war as the rioters were reported to have taken up the cry of 'Burn, Baby, Burn'. The National Guard was called in.
In Britain, there has been equal talk of calling in the Army. Vigilante groups have been formed.
In the end, the blacks of Watts never did fan out to invade the white districts. To that extent, it wasn't the race riot that everyone feared.
It's hard to see the violence of the last week across Britain as anything very different.
There isn't the same straight racial character to the outbreaks which have occurred in the last few days. But all the accusations of 'mindless violence', 'feral kids' and 'social breakdown' are pretty much the same.
If law and order breaks down, then people take advantage to take what they can.
The rioting tends to exhaust itself when the young have enjoyed the pleasures of destruction and theft, as much as because of the restoration of order by the police.
What matters more are the consequences.
The Watts Riots led to an intense bout of soul-searching in America and a good deal of action led by President Lyndon Johnson to improve conditions for the dispossessed.
Some of it did good, although the harsh truth of post-Watts America was that it was drugs which enabled society to ignore the ghettos once more as it provided a form of local economic activity which then justifed a police clampdown.
And in Britain? The rhetoric we have heard has so far been almost entirely along the lines of suppression, rather than about reconstruction.
In all the statements of ministers and London Mayor Boris Johnson there has been virtually no mention of communities and talking with them, only of cracking down on wrong-doers.
Humiliated by the ability of the rioters to circumvent them and appalled by the number of pictures of open theft on TV screens, the Government and the police have outdone themselves in talk of tracking down every last perpetrator.
A country which always valued property above human life is about to take full and relentless revenge, with the Olympic Games used as the excuse - a vainglorious tail that now wags the London dog.
Yet Britain is not nearly as divided, or as frightening, a country as America.
Sink estates exist side-by-side with posher streets. Gated communities are still the exception, rather than the rule.
Any reconciliation has to be carried out by building community relations between the underclass and their neighbours.
The one advantage that the authorities have now - unless they want to throw it away in an orgy of punishment - is that local communities are as appalled by what has happened as the Government is.
In Watts, many of the inhabitants, while deploring the motives, sympathised with the frustration. In Britain, where the looters have largely been made up of the young, there is a lot less sympathy.
Only a few weeks ago, people were proclaiming the virtues of social networks for the part they were playing in getting protestors out on the streets of Syria and Egypt. Now they are being condemned for their part in helping organise the looting in Britain.
The contrast between use and purpose could hardly be more depressing.