From the only perspective I can reasonably report – that of Twitter participant and online media reader – there seem to be a number of different bands out there at the moment, each working to outdo the other. When I say working to outdo the other, I don’t mean consciously or necessarily engaging in battle. It’s something different, something more nuanced.
Groups of “activists” are coalescing around several discrete points of interest. First we have the police and the rioters themselves – as one tweet pointed out this evening:
Fundamental problem Police have – they are fully trained for a Riot but not for Looting. Kinda like War vs Terrorism relationship #ukriots
Then we have the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London, who’ve finally cut short their holidays – although I’m really not clear whether this will have much of an impact. There have been murmurings that the photo opportunities of the latter were taking priority over clean-up initiatives. I even read that a certain Eric Pickles was trying to hijack examples of positive citizen involvement by describing them as the blessed Big Society in action.
Proof, that it to say, that Tory social policies were actually working.
And then finally we come to the two parties I find most interesting in all of this: the spontaneously combustible rioters on the one hand and the spontaneously virtuous clean-up brigades on the other. For in all the major cities where riots are now affecting daily life, a contra-team of socially conscious subjects has used the very same social media the rioters have taken advantage of, in order to communally combat the violent acts and pick up the pieces on the mornings-after which follow the aforementioned mayhem.
And it is this dynamic I find intensely interesting. Let’s just imagine the analogy of war versus terrorism holds here, and the police – whilst it takes them time to adjust their tactics and procedures to a new territory, enemy and environment – are unable to protect enough of the streets of England to dispel all doubts about their effectiveness in such a new landscape. This remaining doubt will allow the more active rioters to continue to hold sway over those who might otherwise be encouraged to give up on the activities in question – and so maintain the wave of disturbances for much longer than we might imagine.
Yet, every morning, the contra-brigade of determined subjects will be ready to clear up the mess the rioters are leaving behind. Vigilantes of a kind, then – but cleaning-lady and gent vigilantes. Peaceful vigilantes. A kind of almost Gandhi-like serenity, yet underpinned with contained fury, in their determination to show – through silent insistence and deeds rather than words – that they are more powerful in their ability to put the kingdom back together again than those who would have us destroy everything.
So it is we stand and watch and witness what appears to be an unfocussed and difficult-to-understand rage – difficult to understand, that is, for those who have most to lose here: that rest of us who observe shocked and bemused from the sidelines of utter incomprehension.
And yet some public figures are already being brave enough to look beyond simple expressions of anger. Some are being brave enough and laying out for all to see – even whilst the encroaching social meltdown takes place – the realities behind the rioting and looting of this marginalised underclass; the generalities that serve to allow us to understand far better what is taking place, even as the vast majority of politicians find themselves unable to provide anything more convincing than the wearily self-evident knee-jerk support for public order.
Is this, then, going to be a different battle soon? A different kind of riot? A different kind of war? A war where the police become rightly fearful of the power of the marginalised underclass, even as this underclass tips the balance in its own favour? A war which will escalate dramatically as rioters and the contra-brigade of cleaning-ladies and gents become locked evermore dangerously in a conflict where day unremittingly follows night – and whose end no one can predict? A war where violence and peaceful dignity end up sidelining the traditional means of the state, as they fight to win over an evermore terrified populace to their very particular messages?
And are these, then, the first crowdsourced riots of the 21st century?
If they are, this is perhaps the first time when the virtual world has spilled so completely back into the real. And it is time, perhaps, for us to become at least cautiously unsure. The history of the Internet, from open source to social media, has shown us that the power of the crowd thus channelled is very much more effective than the old hierarchical structures. Just imagine a modern state which is unable to learn these lessons in time – and finds itself on the wrong end of a virtual baseball bat of considerable proportions.
For aficionados of the Internet, this may be a sad day indeed. When so much good could be exerted through the use of new technologies, it seems it has been the turn of the violent to show us the true impact and potential of peer-to-peer technologies.
It remains to be seen whether the good men and women – those with the Gandhi-like serenity I mentioned earlier – can now successfully turn swords into shields.
History would seem to indicate this is unlikely to be any permanent victory.
More than likely short-lived, in fact.
Watch this space, I’m afraid.