A quick look back to the riots

Reading through tehgrauniad’s riots deep-dive, the impression that I get is that the whole “riots as an insurgency” idea wasn’t that far off. I’ve been indisciplined in that I took notes but didn’t keep links (a problem with paying for and reading the actual newspaper), so you’ll have to trust me on this. Obviously, blaming the whole thing on “criminality” is about as useful as blaming rain on “water falling from the sky”.

The first common factor that struck me was that pretty much everyone they interviewed had a grudge against the police. Not in any broad theoretical sense, but a grudge – a specific and personal memory of perceived injustice and especially incivility, cherished over time. Now, it’s in the nature of policing as a public service that nobody enjoys it. If you’re interacting with policemen on duty, it’s either because they suspect you of being a criminal, or because something bad has happened to you. Generally, everybody would quite like to minimise their lifetime consumption of policing.

There is something that motivates people to put up with it, though, and that something is legitimacy.

The second common factor was the attitude towards property. Quite a lot of the people the Guardian spoke to reported looting goods from shops, and then giving them away, or witnessing others doing so. Stealing goods is one thing, but immediately giving them away is rather different and very much a political act. So much so that there is a word for it (and I’m not the only one to notice this).

Of course, police legitimacy comes in a very large degree from their role as protectors of property, so this was a way of directly challenging their claim to provide security and to employ legitimate force.

Eyewitnesses often described a tactical, practical implementation of this – small groups of rioters harassing the police, in a sort of screening or covering operation, while many more looted or destroyed property. It’s very interesting that this could all happen so quickly.


  1. It’s very interesting that this could all happen so quickly.

    What amazed me about the Italian scene circa 1975-7 – what motivated me to write the book in the first place, and continued to amaze me as I researched it – was the sense of possibility, of a completely different world being almost within reach. Thousands and thousands of people, some with radical backgrounds but most not, just started living differently, and made a pretty good fist of it for a couple of years. And nobody could really stop them doing it, any more than the police could really stop the rioters (in Manchester at least), and for the same reason: “ye are many, they are few,” as the man said.

    There’s nothing nearly as hopeful going on here, but it’s interesting all the same. I wonder if the tactical nous will feed through into the next big demo – or if the looting will.




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