I woke up this morning with one word on my mind: carnival. Which was peculiar as last night was anything but – young people on the streets of my city and many others, smashing up shops, burning down properties.
Riot. The word strikes fear into people’s hearts. The Prime Minister has authorised the use of plastic bullets. People are calling for the return of the death penalty, for people wearing hoodies to be arrested on sight, and vigilantes have been patrolling the streets looking to give the rioters a good kicking. Even the liberal-minded Independent newspaper bears a headline “The end of civilisation as we British know it”.
Yesterday I met a young guy with a weatherbeaten face in the street. He was wearing a hoodie and hurrying towards the sound of a police helicopter and assorted sirens in the direction of Salford Precinct. My colleague was carrying a large cardboard box full of first aid kits for an adjacent office block. The guy in the hoodie grinned. “Did you get them from the Precinct?” he said. And he bounded on up the road. For him, the opportunity for a bit of rioting was clearly a break from the norm, a chance to get up to some mischief, to do something he’d perhaps thought about but never dared: to help himself to goods from shops. There was a gleam in his eye. He was hurrying because he knew there was a limited window of opportunity.
That’s what I suggest this rioting is all about. It’s not the end of civilisation. It’s a temporary suspension of the norm. It's a carnival (though I know that might sound shocking when people’s livelihoods have been destroyed, and people have been injured and even died.) But that’s how some of the great thinkers and writers of the last century would have described the last few days. During carnival people can do all kinds of things they don’t normally do: challenge authority, smash things up. It functions as a kind of safety valve. Last night was a kind of carnival, when teenagers, kids, young people did some of the things they’d never normally do. And because there weren’t enough police on the streets, not initially anyway, they could. Today, or tomorrow, the window of opportunity will have shut.
Society may be just the same after this period of carnival, or it may change, particularly for those young people, and hopefully for the better. For more about carnival theory, in relation to a Curious George story, read this fantastic blog post.