I’m listening to Question Time talking about riots as I’m writing this.
Here in Swindon, for three evenings in a row there has been rumour and counter-rumour about trouble in the town centre. To my knowledge, nothing’s happened.
Shops closed early, the police officer numbers were out in force. There was just a feeling of fear, of flames being fanned. Even my kids picked up on it. It’s been ridiculous, it almost feels like we are tempting fate by creating fear of something that’s just not there – thankfully.
Clearly other places have had terrible scenes and there has been much loss. My heart goes out to the families of the three men killed for trying to defend their street in the Manchester area.
But who or what can we blame? Is there anyone to blame? Is it our social ills?
And now there’s something else to blame now – social media.
I’ve just listened to someone say that the speed of social media made the police’s jobs impossible. What? Social media is for everyone and is used by millions, including police officers. Social media is simply a tool that anyone can use and the police need to get to grips with it along with everyone else.
Let’s get real here.
People were behind this trouble – not the police, not social media, not the business people and individuals who were under threat, or who had businesses wrecked.
Individuals decided to break the law and others piled in and took opportunities to thieve and be destructive. The same happened with the student demonstrations. The same happened in the demos in the 1980s etc, etc.
A young black man died – was shot by police. We don’t know the circumstances for sure. But what part of the riots will make his family feel better? What part of the riots will cure the problems in which he may have been involved?
The police have come in for considerable flack and that will continue. I know many police officers and not one of them is incompetent, or ridiculous, or violent or lacking in dedication to my knowledge. All of them are men or women with families and the same hopes and fears as all of us.
Even with the best clothing, shields, helmets, truncheons etc facing a screaming mob is absolutely terrifying. This is something I do know about – because it’s happened to me.
Years ago, in a small Somerset town, I was out with the police as a newspaper journalist when we attended a disturbance outside a pub where there had been lots of trouble.
When we arrived, there were a group of about 50 people, many had been drinking heavily, and they were wound up. When the police arrived, I was told to stay in the car. The noise was so loud, bottles were thrown at the car. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice.
Some of these people I’d been to school with – I saw the mob mentality in action, some knew me and it made no difference. At one point a group grabbed the car and started rocking it up and down with me in the back. I’ve rarely been so terrified.
The whole thing probably only lasted moments, but it was all in slow motion – I can’t remember how we got out of it. I suppose they were dispersed.
I’ve often been told that individuals are reasonable but mobs are without reason – and I think that must be part of it. That night, in a sleepy backwater town, I saw the mob in action very briefly.
And it’s that memory that stays with me when I see what’s happened. I don’t know the answers but I do know what it feels like to face violence without reason.