I’d just like to say I do not condone these riots

Posted on August 10, 2011


A number of platitudes have emerged out of the discussion of the riots. You can find them in Facebook debates, newspaper column inches, politicians’ interviews, everywhere. But what do they mean?

First of all, to get one thing straight, I have only seen one person (who is not a rioter) actually coming close to condoning the riots in London, Birmingham, Manchester or anywhere else across the country.

Daniel Harvey, writing in The Commune (a magazine for “emancipatory communism”), called for “radicalised” (ideologised) rioting. “The rioters are simply not radical enough,” he wrote. “We have to radicalise them further, we have to politicise them and turn them against the real targets of our alienation and poverty – not working class homes, but the faltering capitalist regime.”

Harvey’s top-down revolution seems in direct contrast to the magazine’s ethos of “communism from below”. The “we” and “them” of the article sounds manipulative. But even Harvey’s approach to the violence of the riots is a qualified one – as seen in his editorial below:

For the sake of clarification, I should say that what I am suggesting is not an uncritical acceptance of violence […] moral outrage at this can be part of redirecting people to more appropriate actions, and awakening a sense of political consciousness in those who had no awareness of this before. But nonetheless, it is loyalty to the outbreak itself we have to retain, and not begin calling for a restoration of order under same terms as before.

So, what we can safely say is that nobody condones the riots, the violence, the burning of homes and businesses – except may be for the rioters themselves.

And yet the platitude now is that anyone discussing the riots, and especially those claiming their “political” context grounded in social exclusion, poverty and cuts, must say: “First of all I’d like to say I do not condone the riots.”

At first it seems innocuous enough. A bit of harmless rhetoric, a platitude. Surely there’s no harm in someone stating their disgust, whether they’re politician, police or citizen?

But now this phrase – and others like it – have been used so platitudinously that they obscure the discussions of which they are a part. It becomes a competition for who distances themselves from the riots the most, who hates the riotous scum the most, who is most willing to enact retribution on them. There are no prizes.

Not for the losers, anyway. Yesterday Darcus Howe delivered a passionate and acerbic interview with the BBC in which he said he was “not at all” surprised that the riots had happened. The response: “So Mr. Howe, does this mean you condone what happened in your community last night?”

The platitude became an attack, an attack on a well-respected and visibly affected commentator touting that dangerous and reprehensible liberal-left view that the riots had a political context. Howe said nothing of the sort, it is a reflection on the project of State-led marginalisation currently in action that his words even sounded remotely like it.

We must remember that the more we distance ourselves from, and marginalise, the riots, the more likely they are to continue and recur later. We have a “sub-class”, “under-class”, “lumpen-proletariat”; a “lost generation” in this country, whatever you want to call it. Simply dismissing its unacceptable displays of punch-drunk aggression, and sweeping it under the carpet of the class system will do nothing to help us, or them.

There is a difference between explanation and justification. Rather than overlooking the contributory factors of the riots, we should be investigating them, and discussing them. Perhaps there’s plenty to “not condone” there instead.

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