A month before London burst into flames, a young man was arrested at the end of my street. Two police vans had been dispatched, with at least eight officers. The man was maybe 20, white, wearing a stained sweatshirt and track pants, his hands cuffed behind his back. He was also screaming. How dare they arrest him! How could he possibly have a knife? Pigs!
The officers just stood there, looking around nervously. It made no sense. Why not put him in the van? Why let him disrespect their authority in full view?
But I'd seen this kind of thing before. And many British community and youth workers have too, so they weren't wholly surprised by the behaviour of the rioters this week. A small, angry portion of poor British teenagers not only hate the police, but seem not to fear them. Canadians would marvel at the lippy contempt some British citizens direct at their boys in blue.
The most common response has been to declare the mouthy teen thugs "scum" – not to resort to that class-warfare slur, "chav." It's hard to listen to schoolgirls brag to the BBC about smashing windows when it's so clear their rampages have seriously hurt other citizens. Tellingly, one of them, after waffling on about the pleasures of looting and drinking rosé at 9 a.m., suddenly said in a clear, decided voice: "It's about telling the police that we can do what we want."
All right, but why? Into that gaping hole, it seems every pundit is ready to spill a bucketful of answers. The fingers have come to point at nine main possible culprits.
1. Brits like smashing stuff
Subtitle: Always have, always will. This argument is appealingly cynical and concise. At best, it ascribes to the rioters a kind of nihilism lite. But while nobody who has attended a Millwall football match would dispute that there's a noble tradition of alcohol-fuelled destruction in Britain, the rioters weren't drunk – or no drunker than usual. Anyway, we all like smashing stuff, don't we? The question is why now. British tabloids know the answer …
2. We're too bloody soft on 'em
The police haven't brutalized the population enough. Social spending and open immigration have birthed generations of smirking handout-takers. The solution? Cut 'em down and lock 'em up. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised "swift justice," but also refuses to renege on his promise to cut police spending. There is talk of cracking down on social networks – you know, like China does. Surely, if only people had less freedom and social services, they wouldn't rebel. And discipline begins at home, so …
3. Bad parenting
Within the underclass – a.k.a. the people who got the wrong end of the stick when London shed half a million manufacturing jobs and gained half a million in finance – is a smaller, much darker pocket of what does actually verge on feral living. With alcoholic, addicted or absent parents (how's that for a triple-A rating?), many kids are left to roam, with no role models except their cousins in gangs, and no viable economic future they can visualize. We're getting warmer here.
4. Bad schools
Rather than guiding at-risk children, schools are failing many of them. Few observers dispute this, but there is great debate as to the causes. The Labour Party's legacy of constant exams and test scores has excluded many children; its rigid curriculum restricts teachers from tailoring lessons to individual students. In the quest to root out "streaming," cuts to vocational education have left the less talented test-takers with few options. And youth-outreach programs have been pared to the bone. Speaking of which:
Most of the planned cuts to social services haven't yet come, the tuition-fee protests happened peacefully, and the rioters haven't exactly been articulate about an agenda. Yet it's worth saying that many of the services that already have met the axe have been for youth.
Fenella Walker, a behavioural mentor in Camden, north London, says cutting outreach leaves many at-risk teens with nothing to do on their summer holidays: "A lot of them can't even imagine leaving Camden – their worlds are very small. Most of them steal already, and the rioting was just, I think, getting away with it easier.
"They steal because they have to look good to be accepted in gangs. The alternative is being bullied and living in fear. … People can say it's just vandalism – even most of the rioters would say that – but if you spend a day in the life of one of these kids, you realize the rioting is political." Suddenly the big one looms into view …
6. The class system, innit
Britain's need to address its caste structure is that strangest of debates – utterly relevant, yet considered so tired or futile that even now, with their country smouldering, Brits rarely mention it directly.
One of the few who has is Umair Haque in, of all places, the Harvard Business Review, who writes that getting a decent job in London today "depends, in my experience, not just on having gone to a handful of top schools (Oxford, Cambridge, LSE), but on having the right accent, postcode, and background." And that alternate path to social mobility, entrepreneurship, "is about as British as fish and chips are American."
However, Britain does have its own version of another U.S. phenomenon …
7. Gang culture
Gangs did most of the "organizing" of the riots. Shambolic British gangs might not be rich and regimented like their big American role models, but they do provide an identity for underclass kids who don't much care for the "urban trash" identity they drew first time 'round.
When you pull a hoodie over your head, all of sudden you have something you've never before had – a taste of power, and the fear of all those people who have the jobs and money and goods that you can't get unless you steal. Which brings us to …
8. Consumer culture
Writer Zoe Williams has argued that riots are a natural (if not inevitable) outcome when you rub people's noses in things they will never be able to afford. Rather than looting Tiffany's or Gucci, they stole from Currys electronics shops and JD Sports – "going in for things they demonstrably want" (notably leaving the bookstores untouched).
Most of us don't loot shops, in part because we might get caught, but also because if we work, we can buy what they sell. The looters do not have the same opportunities. Meanwhile, London is full of super-rich financiers flaunting wealth that almost everyone agrees was ill-gotten. This is not a recipe for lawful behaviour down the ladder: There has been a clear sense for a long time now among the British underclass of refusing to play a rigged game. Thus …
9. They have nothing to lose
It's here that all the tributary arguments merge: For a part of British society, all authority has broken down, whether familial, institutional or moral.
You don't fear being arrested if you don't think you have any future that being arrested could ruin. Can any of the pundits' culprits or solutions have any meaning if you don't think you're part of society in the first place?
Christopher Michael is a Canadian-born journalist with The Guardian in London.