Tim Adams | The Observer | 14 August 2011
Some weeks are longer than others. In the early hours of Friday, at Horseferry Road magistrates court, around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, the riots of three or four nights ago felt like something that had happened in another time and place altogether.
One effect of our attention-deficit news culture is to collapse narratives into fast forward. In that respect, everyone in court number one had already lived through 24-hour cycles of tension, violence, anarchy, horror, cleanup, clampdown, fightback, soul-searching and recrimination. And that was all by Wednesday. The determined grind of retributive justice was about all that remained.
In parliament, some hours (or was it days?) earlier, the prime minister had made much of the symbolism of courts sitting through the night up and down the land "ensuring swift justice". The will for speed was there, but British justice has its own stubborn pace, and is more often a properly wearying business, the bureaucratic accretion of fact and referral, and rarely can it have felt more so than in court one at getting on for two o'clock in the morning.
The duty solicitors and court officials had clocked up 16 hours or more by then – but the charge sheets and supporting documentation kept coming, though rarely by now quite on cue or simultaneously. At midnight, the talk had been of a dozen new adult arrivals, plus a couple of juveniles, in the cells downstairs. "They are being bussed in from all over London," someone explained. The police wagons were queuing around the block.
On the press benches those deputed to chronicle the roll-call of the accused had adopted a glassy-eyed fascination with the process, scanning the lists of handlers of stolen goods for genuine firestarters, mostly in vain. Even the diehards in the public gallery, looking for answers or drama, were beginning to glance at watches and drift away. Most fatigued of all, though, seemed many of those in the dock, hearing the detail of what they were alleged to have done all that time ago. They stretched and blinked and did their best to concentrate, but a fair few seemed barely able to stay awake.
Much as the government might, on this occasion, have relished the idea of this admonitory process being broadcast more widely, Britain still thankfully doesn't do show trials. After the 24-hour apocalyptic exposure of the week's events on screens of all sizes, there was something reassuringly mundane and unmediated about these preliminary hearings. Television and the internet had magnified the riots, brought them into our homes and pockets, repeated their shocking extremes until they were ingrained, making the perpetrators at once faceless and global. The court had the effect of bringing the crimes back down to human scale. Separated out from what successive magistrates repeatedly emphasised as "the extremely serious context of unrest, looting and violence", most of the charges had a singular, and often banal, quality.
In the days since Sunday, the Metropolitan Police had arrested more than 1,000 people and charged nearly 600. Earlier, I had watched dozens of them come and go. A hulking scaffolding apprentice, aged 21, had been arrested wearing "dark clothes and rubber gloves" and accused of "going equipped" to steal, a charge he admitted. A sleepy-eyed 19-year-old had been stopped in his car in which was found a "kitchen knife with a blade, length of nine inches"; its presence, he had explained, was due to "his sister having self-harm problems", and he was protecting her from herself. Men had been picked up with looted iPhones in their pockets; CCTV suspects were seen in possession of plasma screen TVs; a very large man owned up, blankly, to receiving a Vivienne Westwood T-shirt; a single mother – with a two-year-old child – who worked as a care assistant was alleged to have had £2,500 of boxed stolen electrical goods in her flat. She wiped away bleak tears as it was argued she had no idea how they had got there.
All these individuals had been refused bail, and remanded in custody – as David Cameron had earlier suggested they should be – to await crown court trial dates in the next weeks or months. They sleepwalked down to their new reality one by one. The maximum sentence a magistrates court can issue is six months' incarceration. It seemed notable that its jurisdiction was not deemed sufficient for any of the crimes in question. Examples were to be made. Two hapless young men, apprentice locksmiths, had come late to the looting. They were charged with setting a rubbish bin on fire with a cigarette in Camden on Thursday morning while the streets were otherwise quiet. They faced charges of aggravated arson, "with a potential life sentence" as the clerk of court explained gravely. Earlier, we understood, at Camberwell, a youth had been given six months for stealing a bottle of water. Context, in this context, was everything.
The mob on our screens at the beginning of the week invited generalisations. In the absence of obvious meaning or motivation to the looting, everyone seemed to see in it a mirrored reinforcement of his or her own beliefs. The anarchy and opportunism thus either became, on the political right, the final evidence of liberal "entitlement culture" gone wrong, or on the left a demonstration of how market economics and materialism had betrayed us. The effect of seeing individuals separated from the crowd, alone in the dock, seemed to demand a less self-aggrandising kind of human judgment, though.
As the work of the court ground on into the hours after midnight, I found myself rereading some of the more memorable comments and seeing if they remotely fitted. This had been Max Hastings's verdict in the Mail: "They are essentially wild beasts," he wrote. "I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong… Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it."
In court, you found yourself looking hard into the eyes of the accused and wondering about this kind of dismissal of lives. Although the lawlessness had no doubt made some briefly savage, there were no wild beasts in evidence in the dock. There were people in the main who seemed powerless to have any say in their fate, or to begin to articulate why they were here.
One of the consistent themes of the week's response to the events, apart from the proper outrage at the violence and destruction, was the sense that the riots lacked imagination. They exhibited no wider cause or motivation beyond miserable thieving. Sitting in the court, I had the sense that failure of imagination extended to those of us looking on also. We see in the masked mob what we want to see, mostly narrow and catastrophic political failures of one kind or another, or outright endemic sickness and evil, but there seemed no way of getting those involved to explain their lives to us, or even a desire to have them do so.
I was reminded of a few weeks I spent trying to get some of that explanation from young men on the more murderous and violent estates of Nottingham. Walking around places that no one would want to visit, I was struck not only by the everyday level of intimidation and aggression, but also, predominantly, by the sheer claustrophobia. Innocently, I asked a few of the men I met, mostly gang members who were trying in their late teens and early 20s somehow to escape that life, how often they went into the centre of the city, 30 minutes' walk away, and experienced anything resembling public space. Never, they suggested. If they left the confines of their impoverished postcode they would, they claimed, be immediately harassed by police, or confronted by young men from neighbouring estates. And anyway, there was nothing for them in town. No one strayed from the few grim streets in which they lived.
When people talk about social mobility – at its lowest level in Britain for several generations – or youth unemployment, just about topping a million, or inequality of wealth, greater in London than almost any city in the world, it's worth remembering that we have created a society in which a very large number of young men see no way out of the life into which they were born.
The connections between effort and reward are hard to locate anywhere around them. Beamed into their lives are examples of outrageous wealth. What does the consequent impoverishment of hope and connection look like, at its worst? The easiest answer is "the criminality, pure and simple" of the riots. The harder one is the overriding expression on the faces of many of the defendants brought into confront the consequences of their actions; it is not a look of remorse or contrition or even self-pity and anger but rather a sure sense of inevitability. A horribly sad acceptance, in lives that appeared to be going nowhere, that they could have ended up as easily here, in this court at two o'clock in the morning, as anywhere else.