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On the riots

August 13, 2011

Everybody else is taking this opportunity to talk about the riots as confirmation of their own particular opinions and/or prejudices, instead of actually listening to what the violence is trying to tell us. So I have decided that I will do the same. I am even to going to give some anecdata as evidence of this.

I live in north London, just off a busy road that serves as an important north-south conduit. Despite being close to Wood Green, Tottenham and Hackney, my immediate area has remained largely unscathed. My landlord even said it was the ‘safest place in London’, although we can take this with a pinch of salt as he has a vested interest in my housemate and me not freaking out and moving to Surrey. (Not that this is remotely an option, but he may not know this.) Busy Road itself is largely dominated by Turkish supermarkets, restaurants, hardware shops etc. Near the station, is a retail park with several chain stores including a mobile phone shop, Argos, Sainsbury’s and a sportswear shop. One reason the latter was looted and the former were not is that mobile phones, clothes, the TVs in Sainsbury’s and so on are high-status items and have some retail value. Fresh fruit and veg largely does not. Another reason, which was made much of in the media, is that the local shops were defended by men standing around outside them with large sticks and doner knives. Unlike these small, family-run businesses, no minimum-wage employee at McDonald’s or Homebase is going to put themselves on the line to protect their corporate employer. The CEO lives in the leafy suburbs somewhere miles away. Any losses from stolen goods or business lost by closing early is a drop in the ocean.

This is what happens when businesses a) sell expensive consumer goods we don’t need (although we think we do) instead of useful stuff like tomatoes and fresh bread and rawlplugs, and b) are no longer embedded in local networks of social and economic relations. Stuff gets smashed and looted. Because there is no longer the threat of vigilante violence. So, er, hurrah for people taking the law into their own hands. Hmm.

I recognise this is not a foolproof theory. One of the local jewellery shops on Busy Road had its windows smashed in, although this does happen on a not infrequent basis. And that furniture shop in Croydon still got burnt down.

But there are reasons the looters went ‘from retail park to retail park’ across north London, and were able to go into my nearby Sainsbury’s and take all the TVs while the one, very shaken security guard just let them get on with it, and why other shops were left entirely alone.

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