Nearly forty years ago Maurice Stein’s classic book The Eclipse of Community stimulated a debate on the meaning of community. This followed from his argument that in contemporary or post-modern times we are witnessing the end of community as we know it. More recently Anders Breivik, the far right, self-proclaimed “Marxist hunter”, guilty of the murder of 69 Norwegians, proclaimed the 1950s as a time of community: “Our homes were safe…public schools were excellent…most men treated women like ladies”. It seems every generation melodramatically and conservatively laments the end of familiar forms of social organisation and ways of life to which they are accustomed. People seem to fear social change and they imbue the idea of community with a comfortable and wholly positive familiarity. However, social anthropologists such as Anthony Cohen, have long told us that while community consists of a sense of belonging and inclusion we think of as positive, it is at the same inherently exclusionary. People who do not live in Birmingham are excluded from the local community of Birmingham, those who don’t attend church are necessarily excluded from church going communities, and non-Europeans are excluded from the European community if indeed there is such a thing.
Reviewing the media response to the August riots across England we hear constant references to community and multiple overlapping uses in the same news story. For example in the one place, we have heard of the Sikh community (religious), the Punjabi community (ethno-linguistic), the Southall community (regional/residential), the British community (national), and the civilised community (ethical). It sounds like we have a lot of community rather than a lack of it. Old and new media alike are littered with references to the response of “the community” with regard to the clean-up of Britain’s streets by ordinary people following the riots. Here, as in general popular usage, community is seen as something inherently positive, inclusionary, and something of which we generally morally approve. However, this conceals that belonging and social bonds are often formed through ways of life which we do not approve of and amongst individuals we may detest. One thing overlooked in popular debates on the riots is that gangs are a type of community: social groups with a sense of belonging, cohered through face-to-face contacts and the use of Blackberry messenger services in this age of global communications. As far back as 1927, sociologist Frederic Thrasher wrote in The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago that gangs were characterised by “meeting face to face, milling movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behaviour is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory”. Group awareness or belonging, solidarity, and attachment to a local territory are perhaps the fundamental bases of community. The speed by which gangs were able to move from one looting site to another in huge numbers connected through Blackberry exhibited both organisation and solidarity. What appeared to be gangs on Bethnal Green road chanted “Bethnal Green” as they looted Tesco. Residents of Ealing Green recounted in interviews how gangs from other, less leafy parts of Ealing chanted the names of their housing estates as they set fire to local pubs. It’s just that the media don’t feel comfortable calling gangs a community because their behaviour is often illegal, seen as negative, and in conflict with other, more ‘palatable’ forms of community, such as church-goers. One may be uncomfortable with the behaviour of ‘gangs’ but we cannot say these examples do not display a sense of belonging and attachment to where one is from. It displays a pride in one’s ‘roots’ albeit in a very different way from those who chose to sweep the streets of Britain’s city centre shopping districts following the riots.
It would seem a huge impediment to understanding why this happened as it did and when it did if we fail to look at how this sense of belonging emerges, how it brings people together, and why people choose it over other communities. Prior to the riots, Barbara Wilding, chief constable of South Wales police described entrance to these gang communities: “In many of our larger cities, in areas of extreme deprivation…many have experienced family breakdown, and in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established". In other words, people have a need for belonging and when they do not find it at home or are excluded from it elsewhere due to deprivation they will form their own community based on its own rules. Joining a gang and partaking in its communal rituals of violence cannot simply be attributed to bad morals (they are at best a symptom not a cause). It is how some people who have to survive or feel they must succeed in specific social environments fulfil their need for belonging when other outlets are unavailable. It may be reassuring to ‘blame the parents’ such that it absolves oneself of blame but people would be less likely to join a gang if their social environment was such that they were included in communities of a different kind.
In many interviews with local residents of riot-affected areas we heard BBC and Radio 5 live presenters ask “what are the community doing?” as if there is only one community and if one does not adhere to its rules then one is not a member. Exclusion from a sense of community has contributed to getting us into this predicament and this exclusionary language is unlikely to help us out of it. My answer would be that some communities were looting and destroying private property while other communities were cleaning up private property. Many will say this type of focus on language, spending time discussing the meaning of community, is merely academic or beside the point. However, by failing to consider how to define contested concepts we allow the media to do so for us. We don’t always even notice they are using politically loaded definitions as they do not explicitly justify their perspective. This then shapes how we think about these matters because they are not explicit. We all say “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” but how many of us stop to consider the implications of this every time the word “terrorist” is used? The interviewer on Radio 5 live (10/8/11, 12:50) interrupted an interviewee referring to people who participated in the riots as “protestors” to say “don’t call them protesters, they aren’t protesting against anything”. One can argue this is indeed the case but why do we allow supposedly ‘neutral’ interviewers to determine the way ordinary people are allowed or not allowed to describe events and people as they see them? How can we debate if we are not allowed to describe things as we see them? Are we not allowed to even debate what terms we are allowed to use and how we use them? We see a policing of language and drawing of community boundaries through the popular media, which no one complains is academic because it is seen as in favour of the all positive, inclusive community: looters = scum, street-cleaners = community. We heard many a caller and indeed many a volunteer street-sweeper refer to ‘looters’ as ‘scum’ but without intervention or even comment. Now “scum”, defined as “refuse or worthless matter” appears to be the very antithesis of inclusion and membership in community; the refuse we must get rid of. We are allowed to use this term to describe someone stealing a mobile phone from a shop but are we allowed to call executives of Vodafone scum for dodging £4.8 Billion in taxes if we so desired? I doubt it. Yet in my book this was theft of £4.8 Billion from our public services which pales in comparison to the theft of a mobile phone. Some people do indeed call Vodafone executives scum in private but given that we do not hear such references on our airwaves my guess is that we are not allowed to in public debates because they are in positions of power and their theft goes on outside of our vision; they are inside the ‘civilised’ community we are all supposed to be loyal to yet “looters are scum” and must be excluded even if they stole a single mobile phone.
The popular media don’t simply ‘report’ the news, they make the news. By reporting news in a specifically framed way they determine how we are publicly permitted to debate and think about power and violence in Britain. We can see how power works when 16 and 18 year olds are prosecuted and charged for attempting to encourage riots on their facebook pages. Yet at the same time, I lost count of the number of people posting on the same site demanding violence against or even the death of the “looters”. They both incite violence but one is a call from a marginalised community and one is from a powerful one. The law either prosecutes on the basis of codified rules or it shouldn’t prosecute at all. Permitting the promotion of violence against looters but not against private property cannot be justified by reference to verifiable rules. It reflects an ideological commitment to a singular, un-contestable community which, if you are not part of, you are “scum”. One may not like the new forms of community emerging in today’s world but this does not mean we can dismiss them or exclude them without any reasoned debate. Exclusion got us into this mess and this exclusion will make things much worse.