Anatomy of the Lewisham riots

Shaun sent us six extraordinary eyewitness videos that show how rapidly the Lewisham riots grew up on Monday night, beginning with a sudden surge of people on to the streets and ending with smoke and fire. He writes:

I am a resident of Lewisham, right near to Albion Way where some of the clashes with police occurred on Monday night.

I was present, it happened around me as I was trying to navigate a friend around the high street when it was cut off and filmed what I could. I've got these videos online, I thought they wouldn't be much help as you were putting things out live as they were happening, but they might be insightful if you are building up a complete picture.

Here is one of the videos, that gives you a sense of being right in the midst of the chaos. You can watch the story unfold in video 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

The causes and meaning of the riots will be debated for months and weeks to come. If Transpontine is still blogging in 20 years time, we'd be very surprised if he isn't writing retrospectives on the topic. The nature of the riots may be new, but the nature of the people doing the rioting wasn't. Watching the interviews with young people involved, we were reminded of some of the people we went to school with and people we read about in English history.

England's underclass pre-dates spending cuts under Cameron, spending rises under Blair, Thatcher, the big bang in the City, the dismantling of the grammar school system, the neutering of the police, the de-industrialisation of the economy, or any other single cause that gets thrown around. Blaming any particular government policy is unhelpful. As the Economist argued, the narratives offered by the left and the right by way of explanation are (as ever) equally useless.

Just attacking the rioters, doesn't get us very far either. As Russell Brand wrote in his excellent blog:

However “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable” it might be, it has happened so we better accept it and whilst we can’t justify it we should kick around a few neurons and work out why so many people feel utterly disconnected from the cities they live in...

I should here admit that I have been arrested for criminal damage for my part in anti capitalist protest earlier in this decade. I often attended protests and then, in my early twenties, and on drugs, I enjoyed it when the protests lost direction and became chaotic, hostile even...

I found those protests exciting, yes because I was young and a bit of a twerp but also, I suppose, because there was a void in me. A lack of direction, a sense that I was not invested in the dominant culture, that Government existed not to look after the interests of the people it was elected to represent but the big businesses that they were in bed with.

Ironically, given that this sense of hopelessness was undoubtedly amongst the root causes, the riots themselves appear to have been fuelled by a sense of possibility. The rioters weren't a demographic, they were a psychographic, mobilising and self-reinforcing through networks - they knew their collective power as a mob and felt the collective weakness of society.

But as the flash mobs bearing brooms the next day showed, London society isn't weak. It's strong. We just have to work harder to demonstrate it, to reinforce it and to show people their positive place in it.

Some of that work involves stronger policing and enforcement of laws and regulations to show that society does have standards. It also means massive and unapologetic intervention in broken communities, through education, social work and funding for community projects. It means taxpayers having to spend lots of money on people whose personalities and behaviours scarcely merit it. It also means - god help us - listening to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith when he points the finger at family breakdown. It means a more Reithian (and sometimes tediously worthy) cultural agenda. In other words, it means doing lots of things that will stick in the craw of just about everyone of every political persuasion. The alternative is to live with this underclass for the next couple of centuries, as we have the last.

The challenge is not without some precedent.

In the wake of EURO 2000, Brockley Central's day job involved working with England supporters trying to purge the national team's following of hooligans. In a typical crowd a small proportion were really, really nasty people, without the intelligence or empathy to function normally. Most were just muppets, who took vicarious pleasure from being around danger. The sort of guys who would run forwards a few yards, then back a few yards - if they felt safe, they might chuck a plastic chair from distance. And then there were the apologists. A much larger group, not involved themselves in trouble, but always on hand to offer an excuse to legitimise the action - 'the police were looking for trouble', 'the other fans started it' and on, and on. Often, there was truth in what they said, but how they said it stoked tensions and energised the trouble makers. You can see a lot of same behaviours in the riots as you can in football violence.

The approach taken to change behaviour at England games required a whole range of measures. Primarily, these were:

- tougher policing and bans on travelling
- social engineering through a ticketing policy that encouraged new people including more women and children to follow England - and if you had the wrong type of criminal record, you didn't get a ticket. Tough.
- celebrating, rewarding and facilitating positive behaviour, whether that was through contributing towards positive fan initiatives or helping the media to find and interview fans who had something to offer other than nihilism
- it even meant building an online community forum, where fans could bitch about the moderator (us) in much the same way as they do on Brockley Central today - we told you the precedents were uncanny

To pay for all this, people's membership costs went up, as did the subsidy from The FA. Everyone paid and no-one liked it very much.

But the result was that - while things are still far from perfect - we went from riots in Belgium to congas in Japan within a decade.