Reading the Riot Act
With the summer soon upon us, some thoughts will turn to the likelihood of witnessing that occasional British pastime of rioting. Such cultural events are arguably inexcusable in modern Britain but, with a little reflection, they may contain some interesting and informative points.
The most recent reference point we have are the riots of 2011 where we saw the spectacle of barely controlled street violence igniting across Britain and enthusiastically reported by the various media conduits. Whether watching television, reading newspapers, or trying to keep up with the torrent of commentary flowing through the ether in the form of blogs, Twitter and other amateur observers, for a brief moment in time, the disorder seemed like a national plague contaminating one urban centre after another. The scenes of shops being looted, buildings being torched, and battles being fought were relayed as if a ‘theatre of anarchy’ to be watched from the comfort of one’s own home. The irony, missed by some, noted by others, was that the aforementioned invisible networks managed to not only report and condemn but also facilitate the spreading of the disorder. Thus, as the images were broadcast and the commentary spewed out, what occurred was what invariably happens during scenes of social disorder of any form and the rioters were unanimously elected the newest members of that de facto national society of anti-heroes; the Folk Devils.
From Present Day Folk Devils to Historical Symbols
For all the brouhaha caused by the riots there was, in the cold light of day, something strangely familiar about them. These scenes of disorder, and others like them, had been performed by different actors on different stages many times in post war Britain. In the 1950s, the Teddy Boys had fought each other in cinemas and the initial rumblings of multi-racial Britain occurred in the Notting Hill riots of 1958. In the 1960s, the Mods and Rockers fought their pitched battles on the beaches of Southern England while the 1970s witnessed the prototype of the modern day riots in West London (1976) and the punk movement providing the media with their Folk Devils par excellence (1977) as they caused aesthetic chaos through their clothes and music. The 1980s saw the Brixton, Toxteth (1981) and Broadwater Farm (1985) riots and football hooligans rampaging across the nation’s terraces, while the turn of the 1990s saw Acid House ravers embrace a peaceful disorder as a matter of course and the Poll Tax riots (1991) occurred under Nelson’s nose in Trafalger Square.
With the luxury that hindsight affords us, we can see that what has happened in the majority of these cases is that these events have been gradually reduced to being represented by what become highly familiar images and sounds as the media and agit-prop artists ongoingly recall them. In turn, this repetition ensures that the events are not only detoxified but also slowly metamorphose into being able to be depicted by cultural shorthand that is retrieved and repeated whenever the subject is raised. This repetition contributes to a process whereby the events, actors and props are able, eventually, to be referred to via simple symbols and graphic gestures. As George Melly observed as early as 1970, ‘what starts as revolt finishes as style’.
The Teddy Boys may now be hinted at by simple images that depict a quiff. That symbol depicting the blatant refusal of a society serviced by the short back and sides with the commensurate challenge to what was deemed masculine loaded within. The Mods, with their sharp suits and scooters, demonstrated that teenagers not only now had disposable income but also intended to spend it in conspicuous consumption by adopting styles more usually seen on the Continent. The punks, with their rips, tears, crops and cuts, reflected back to society just what state it had been reduced to while the ravers of the Acid House era, able to be depicted by nothing more than a yellow smiley badge, showed that what really mattered was not what you wore or listened to but a single tablet called an E. It is also worth noting that this reduction did not only happen to the more contumacious groups. For example, were we to be shown four black mop-top style haircut symbols we would almost certainly recognise that the gesture was referring to The Beatles.
Menace and Disguise or Humiliation and Shame?
With this idea that contumacious groups often become reduced to little more than symbols and that these symbols may tell us something, what may, for example, the riotous events of 2011 contain by way of symbols on display. What could the rioters be reduced to? There are two symbols that stand out, the hood over the head and the scarf across the face.
The covering of the head with the ubiquitous hood must be the most obvious sartorial symbol of the modern riot. The extant footage clearly shows that it was the garment of choice for the well-dressed rioter and the out-sized hood, pulled well down over the head, brings to mind the monastic cowl, only in this instance with the wearer proceeding to an office of disorder. The condemnatory epithet ‘hoody’ has been widely applied to describe both the garment and the wearer and has become a synonym for those who, supposedly, aspire to cause trouble. However, the hoody is not reserved for wearing to riots alone and they are de rigueur in many places, particularly the more deprived. What we need to ask is, is it possible that these garments unconsciously transmit more than just the desire to outwit the omnipresent surveillance camera? In the first instance, the covering of the head has historically been used to refer to a state of grief, but it is also clear that it can be used to convey more than just sadness. It can be the act of the one who recoils into their head covering in a gesture of withdrawal due to a sense of dejection and unhappiness at their personal predicament. We may condemn the ‘hoody’ as the uniform of the one who wants to create a miasma of menace but it may also, subliminally, proclaim a retreat from a society that condemns them as feral and betrays a certain despair at the state of their lives and the years to come. When we recall the circumstances that many of those involved in the riots live this gesture of retreat and despair seems both understandable and predictable. A declaration that they know they are the twenty-first century ‘flowers in the dustbin’?
The next symbol self-evident during the riots is the scarves pulled high over people’s faces. These coverings appear to be designed to protect the identities of these post-modern highwaymen as they insist their targets ‘stand and deliver’ as they rob from the rich (the other) to give to the poor (themselves). But are they simply a device to dodge the all-pervasive surveillance camera or do they betray a little more? As with the hood, we do not only encounter them solely during disorder. The barrier of the scarf provides a pseudo-religious symbol of belonging to this outlaw group and constitutes the ‘veil’ of the one who wants to belong to the riotous sect and thus betrays a little more than we may first think. The covering of the face is not simply the badge of impending guilt. It is the opposite of proud. We are familiar with the word ‘shamefaced’ and it may well be the unconscious mark of the one who has no future but, more profoundly of those who carry a great sense of shame at their status in a society that worships what they are not. The covering of the face may well defer detection but it may also be the mark of those who know they are, very likely, condemned to a life of grinding servitude and poverty and of those who are aware that they are regarded as little better than a feral race and feel the concomitant shame.
Reading the Riot Act
I am not suggesting that by looking two cultural symbols in the way that I have can act as an infallible and trans-historical semiotic decryption manual for all to use as a resource every time there is an incident of public disorder. What I am saying is that, if we look carefully, we may find potentially revealing symbols that may in turn help us understand one of the more challenging and complicated expressions in our nation. There is clearly great merit in many of the other subjects that are offered as contributory factors for riots and social breakdown. The failure of the courts, the example of those in power, gang culture, government cuts, family breakdown, social disenfranchisement and sense of oppression at the hands of the police. They may all, to a greater or lesser extent, figure when people ask why. What I have sought to do is offer an alternative approach that is not designed to be concrete, nor exhaustive, but perhaps asks for the employment of the imagination and a more creative way of looking at things that may provide tells of who people are and what they do.
Recommended reading & bibliography
Brown, C. (Gen, Ed.) New International Dictionary of New Testament, Volume 3 (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992)
Cohen, S. Folk Devils and Moral Panic (London: Routledge, 2008)
General Synod, GS 1873. ‘”Testing the Bridges”: Understanding the role of the church amidst the riots, disturbances and disorder.
Hebdidge, D. Subcultures: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 2006)
Johnson, D. H. ‘Logo’ in Green, J. B. and McKnight, S. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: England, 1992)
Lammy, D. Out of the Ashes – Britain After the Riots (London: Guardian Books, 2011)
Loy, D. R. ‘The Religion of the Market’, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 65/2
Melly, G. Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain (London: Penguin Press, 1970)
nsley, J. ‘Rene Girard’s Theory of Violence, Religion and the Scapegoat’, (Dec 2003) http://www.jeramyt.org/papers/girard.html
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