The riots that began a little more than a week ago in the ghetto of Tottenham, north London, and then spread to cities throughout England were, from the start, weird and entrancing. The troubles started August 4, when London police fatally shot a 29-year-old Tottenham man named Mark Duggan, and intensified during a protest over his killing two days later, when a teenage girl threw what was reported to be a Champagne bottle at a line of cops, some of whom retaliated by beating her. Though the nature of the missile now seems less clear (other reports suggest it could have been a rock), the image of a Champagne bottle quickly became legend, capturing as it did the curious shape the protests have taken: staged in the violent vernacular of underclass rage but mutating to betray a very bourgeois sensibility.
The riots quickly spread far from the ghetto, following the arteries of commerce, as the initial targets—police cars and stations—were abandoned in favor of malls. Many of the looters were brazen, declining to obscure their faces from Britain’s CCTV cameras, sometimes uploading evidence of their exploits to the web. The looting soon engulfed Ealing, “a comically respectable London suburb” in the Guardian’s description, and posh Clapham. Chefs and waiters at a Michelin-starred Notting Hill restaurant called the Ledbury employed rolling pins as weapons against intruders. In a smashed-up north-London H&M, a group of rioters tried on clothes before absconding with them; in Birmingham, looters descended upon the Armani store. “We’re not fighting for a cause,” one woman in Hackney scolded at the looters, in a video posted to YouTube. “We’re running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes!”
This has been a mute revolt, offering no political slogans, and the rioters represent no single race or class. Many British politicians have consequently dismissed the riots as empty. (“This is criminality, pure and simple,” Prime Minister David Cameron said.) But a relatively comfortable society broke down too suddenly and extensively to blame only criminals, or for the violence to carry no broader meaning. Something is happening here.
The politics of the street have been dormant for a decade, but since the Arab spring, they matter again. Even as those demonstrations continue in the Middle East, this summer has been full of mass public gatherings of young people animated by the disappointments of life in a contracted economy. In housing-crunched Tel Aviv, twentysomethings have built a massive tent city in protest; Chileans have staged hunger strikes, kiss-ins, and vast, confrontational rallies for economic reform. Even Philadelphia is now enforcing a 9 p.m. curfew for minors, prompted by sudden, disruptive mobs of young teenagers organizing online.
Perhaps the best way to understand the rioters in England is that, like all these protesters, even the ones in Egypt and Tunisia six months ago, they are caught in a generational trap: A globalized culture promised them a life that the global economy cannot currently provide. “This is what happens when people … have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it,” Guardian columnist Zoe Williams wrote. These are generational energies, and they have all the variability of the politics of young people everywhere. Sometimes, as in Tahrir Square, they can be stirring. But sometimes, as in England last week, they can be nihilistic, and terrifying.