12 August 2011

Another perspective

A recent email from Iain contained this comment on the riots that spread from London to other major cities in England: "... nor is it surprising how everybody is projecting what they want the riots to be about onto it all." Not surprising at all. But amidst all the verbiage, I thought this account from an Indonesian who witnessed the events firsthand was particularly resonant.

Jakarta Globe, August 11, 2011

An Indonesian in London: The Riots and the Unheard

Soe Tjen Marching

Rioters face off with riot police officers on the streets in Tottenham, north London, on Sunday. The gritty north London neighborhood of Tottenham exploded in anger Saturday night after a young man was shot to death by police. (AP Photo/PA, Lewis Whyld)  (AP Photo/PA, Lewis Whyld)

I was on the way to the shops in East Ham, London, just recently, when suddenly a group of teenagers dashed madly through the streets. One of them nearly knocked me down. I hurriedly returned home, locked the door and shut the curtains. I was caught in the riots of the past few days. Curious as I was, I could not prevent myself from peeping.

Some of the rioters could be seen just across from my apartment window, as we live only a few meters from local stores and other amenities. It was indeed shocking: Gangs of teenagers and kids, some as young as 10 years old, were excitedly carrying loot from nearby stores. They did it openly, dragging the stuff into the street, while laughing, almost dancing. One bunch was carrying a shopping cart full of electronic goods. I could hear another ring a friend: “It’s in Argos. Come!” Apparently they were inviting others to ransack the store, too.

It all supposedly began in Tottenham in North London, with the murder of Mark Duggan, who was suspected of being involved in a gang. His family and close friends say the shooting was mistaken. They started a peaceful demonstration but it developed into a more violent one when a group of teenagers got involved. In fact, these young men were not really interested in the demonstration or the shooting itself, but rather in looting shops and destroying some buildings.

I saw London burning on television. Some of these people showed no empathy at all, robbing old women, disabled and injured people — anyone they saw. Indeed, it was in some ways reminiscent of the May 1998 riots in Indonesia. But what was the difference? The riots in Jakarta were most likely backed by some higher authority, as police and fire engines were nowhere to be seen, and the criminals responsible have never been investigated (let us forget about the word prosecution for now).

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.” But the awful rioting in 1998 was certainly not triggered by the unheard but by the cunning plan of the powerful to manipulate the crisis enveloping the New Order regime and intimidate the people. Here in London, the police were everywhere but were not able to cope. Four police cars zoomed in front of our house, a helicopter flew overhead, three fire engines arrived. But they were all too late.

At least I should be proud of the way the people of East Ham responded. Several businesspeople, who had heard about the riots elsewhere, decided to take the situation into their own hands by defending themselves with any weapon they could find: baseball bats, spades, knives. Four days after the rioting started, the investigations have started and more than 400 people have reportedly been arrested.

How about the Jakarta riots that May? It was 13 years ago, yet no investigation has been done and no one has been arrested, despite horrific murder, torture and sexual violence committed against hundreds of people.

I cannot help feeling really sad and depressed when I realize that there was also a loss of humanity and compassion in London. The looters were celebrating their chance to rob, to cause damage to others. It was apparent that several people had prepared for the mayhem. They brought suitcases from home to collect stolen goods. Some even tried on clothes before snatching them. A television news story reported that a mother was seen looting with her children. This had nothing to do with race or religion. No matter your race or religion, you could be attacked if you had something worth snatching. This was about “opportunity,” one of the looters confessed.

A few years ago in Britain, when the economic crisis exploded, unemployment spread everywhere. But the bankers who made the fateful decisions that brought the country to crisis are safe. They kept their jobs and ridiculously high salaries.

It was the economically deprived who had to bear the burden. This was followed by the closure of public facilities like libraries. For some young people, it was clear: Their future was bleak. This crisis will not soon be over for them, but the people responsible remain untouchable. What kind of “morality” is this from the authorities, when the weak are just trampled?

And in one corner of central London, a fearless elderly woman yelled at the looters who were burning a building there: “Shame on you! Do it for a cause; not like this! You’re ruining peoples’ lives.”

Yes, I am angry with the system as well. Yes, there are others who have been severely victimized by the system, but they do not just loot and rob. Indeed, the economic crisis may be the reason, but it is not a valid excuse for people to ransack and victimize others. This is not the way to be heard. In the meantime, for a few nights at least, we are sleeping with a spade under our bed.  

Soe Tjen Marching is a composer and writer, and author of the novel “Mati Bertahun Yang Lalu” (“Dead Years Ago”).

Reader comments are also worth a look: http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/opinion/an-indonesian-in-london-the-riots-and-the-unheard/458469

No comments:

Post a Comment