By Matthaios Tsimitakis*
Any social scientist would probably disagree with the comparison; but coming from the south of Europe and watching the chaos spreading all over London, waking up memories, it seemed unavoidable to me. If there are any analogies to be found, between the London riots and other cities where similar events occurred in the past ten years, then these are in Paris 2005 and the incidents in Athens in December 2008 when a teenager was shot dead in a confrontation with the police and the city drifted into chaos for about a month. Every social phenomenon is different according to its particular nature, yet it’s useful to compare and vary the context in which we attempt to understand it, as this sometimes reveals aspects hidden under the apparatus of shock we’re experiencing. So here’s what happened back in Athens:
On the night of 6 December, 2008, a minor dispute between a group of young people and a police vehicle – which was on patrol in the traditionally politically turbulent area of Exarchia, near the centre of Athens – resulted in murder. A policeman stepped out of his police-car and shot a fifteen-year-old dead, in cold blood. About half an hour later, a demonstration of about 100 people erupted into violent confrontation with the riot police. Twitter mobilized people who were trying to gather the facts of the incident and within a couple of hours the story was circulating around the web. It quickly emerged that the official police version of events was false. That led to an even larger mobilization where hundreds if not a few thousands participated during that first night. A mix of youngsters from the Athenian suburbs along with anarchists, leftists and angry citizens demonstrated, while some clashed with the police and others attacked banks and shops vandalizing and looting them. As days went by, not only did anger not abate but on the contrary, it escalated. The violence was unexpected for most politicians, the Media and the majority of the population, but it was also unprecedented in scale and intensity. The questions on twitter, the blogs and the press turned to the causes of the events, asking who the subjects that were wreaking havoc in the city were, and what could they possibly be demanding. This questioning however was in vain, since there was no one to genuinely represent the protagonists and make their case in public. We were left with interpretations and despair as we watched our city burning down.
Similar to what is happening in Britain now, in Athens three years ago, there were two main lines of analysis: The first expressed the need for more social order and discipline, while the other the need to understand the factors that created this – what we needed to change in order to avoid similar events in the future. It was evident that nobody controlled or coordinated the violent demonstrations while they were spreading throughout the country, though this was proposed at first. The Media were trapped in the empty stereotype of the hooded violent youngster who nobody knew, really, and the social scientists were at a loss. It was the international press that first pointed to the fact that the events in Athens 2008, could be described as the first insurrection of the global economic crisis, an interpretation strongly opposed by the center-right and the mainstream media. Twitter, Facebook, Indymedia as well as Al Jazeera, or the Guardian were considered to be faster or more reliable sources of information than the national media. When things went back to normal nobody had understood what this month of violent frustration in the streets of Athens and all the big cities in Greece, was all about.
But as time went by, we started realizing that it had all happened around a void that was in preparation for years. In the symbolic order of the events there were clear messages. A youth that couldn’t imagine a prosperous future, targeting mainly the banks; “Hidden” or marginalized social groups like some immigrants and some very poor people that could publicly show themselves now anonymously, express in a negative manner and return the pressure. A fragmented city in which more and more barriers and fear were sown, growing behind individualistic philosophies. Most people living in their consumerist bubble, not caring at all (that was later revealed to be the greatest lie of all). There was graffiti on a wall in Athens saying: “We are an image from the future” – immediately translated in the minds of all as a way of saying “No Future”. I was reminded of this while I was following the #londonriots hashtag trending on twitter, with hundreds of tweets posted every minute. Among the thousands tweets I read, there was one by a British teenager that said: “We are the future of this country. Are you going to jail us all”?
Well, are they, or are they not allowed to imagine themselves as the future of this country? This to me is one of the key questions in the social drama Britain is going through today. Apparently yes, the government is going to hold as many as possible accountable and justice will punish them. But what does this leaves the British society with, in the long run?
On Sunday night I took the bus to Clapham Junction in order to see what was happening with my own eyes. Hundreds of hooded youngsters wearing masks had created what the British social anthropologist Victor Turner would name a liminal space, where order was halted and different social imaginations were capturing the scene through violent ritualistic actions. Hundreds of people, mainly young boys and girls around their 20’s, walking around with masks, breaking in and looting, then transforming into observers and disappearing in the city. The community was looking behind closed windows, or standing on the pedestrian side of the road, next to the police, which didn’t move at all, while a destruction frenzy was trying to wildly articulate a message. That was the whole point, I think. The statement seemed like: “we can be your worst nightmare, come true”. And the question turns naturally then into “why”?
I was trying to figure out how to talk to them, relate somehow with them and it seemed impossible, as I didn’t understand the code of communication they use. In front of me there was a huge carnival of attacks against property, a performance that corresponded to the parallel social structures that these kids have developed while excluded. They were not simpy “looting”. They were giving themselves to the idea of the attack against the system and its symbols. You could sense that they were all together braking through the barriers of control and discipline. But isn’t that a clear message?
What happened in that liminal space, who needed to create it in the first place, are both questions that need to be answered in the terms, of the protagonists, not ours. It’s irrational to expect these kids to express their frustration in words and demands – in the language of the establishment, when they have already confronted its order – but it’s even more dangerous to reject them as plain criminals. These three days of chaos, was their attempt to speak. They demanded the attentions of society as a whole. Walking out of Clapham Junction I thought that this is the dystopic future I was warned about by some other youths, who behaved in a similar way, somewhere else. Then I realized that “somewhere else” was not just Greece, but so many places all over Europe and the world in the past three or four years, where people express their disenchantment and discontent with the order of things in their lives. Whether you call it “social causes” or “culture” as PM David Cameron wants to call it, it doesn’t change the fact, that in times of Crises, there are social disturbances, insurrections and riots against power. As some people in Greece commented, the riots in the UK were no longer a warning, but probably a forecast for the social unrest that follows, all over Europe, if not all over the world, because of the choices of Neoliberal policies that destroy traditional social institutions like the “family” or the “community”, as well as the wellfare state, which protects people from exclusion and alienation. But this is where analogies and similarities end, for you can only understand the future in its particular expression. So my question in regards to the recent riots in the UKis: Is anyone listening?
* Matthaios Tsimitakis is a freelance journalist