Alec Empire on the London riots and the en times
mangled machinery- Alec Empire on the London riots and the en times

London riots August 2011

Alec Empire on the London riots and the en times
mangled machinery- Alec Empire on the London riots and the en times

About 15 hours ago or so I was listening to Obama’s voice over the internet…online radio…

I was doing something else, nothing important really… I had returned from Japan a few days before, but somehow this time jetlag had hit me pretty hard despite having played such energetic shows over there…

Sometimes in the past I felt nothing, but this time it was like that scene in Fight Club in which Edward Norton lays on the couch with his remote control, flicking through TV channels, suffering from insomnia. The only difference was that I had got rid of my TV set almost 10 years ago. I had three totally different books in front of me, couldn’t focus at all.

But when Obama came on, I suddenly felt a shot of adrenaline, I woke up. He was talking about how “Standard & Poor’s doubted our political system’s ability to act” – the US had been downgraded to an AA+ level. The debt level was increased, the problems far from solved. The information wasn’t what alerted me, it was the tone of his voice.

When Obama got elected, he convinced a whole generation just by speaking to them in a certain way, that democracy and capitalism will work out for everybody. We CAN change and improve things. Even though I come from a very different political standpoint and I am very aware of the power of the system, when it comes to the system changing individuals who tried to change it, I heard an honesty in this man’s voice which was rare amongst politicians. But suddenly what seemed to have changed mostly for me was his voice. It was the voice of a man who failed badly but out of respect for his listeners was performing a duty. The job of being President.

We live in a society which has no place for optimism anymore. It’s gone. Nobody wants to take the risk and predict a future, mainly because everybody feels powerless. Nobody even wants to take the responsibility and take matters into their own hands.
It’s stagnant. Establishments are regarded as fools. It is a constant battle between the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and the ‘mob mentality’.

So while I was starting to feel like I was actually back in Berlin and awake, I looked outside the window, down on the street in which Atari Teenage Riot had played the peace demonstration on May 1st 1999. Thousands of people protested against Germany’s first involvement in an attack war since World War II. I remembered when I was on the microphone during a song and saw how the police beat into the, at that point, peaceful crowd. Of course the situation escalated, it’s all on film. Even though the images have become iconic and still give viewers the chills, but in my opinon they also tell a story of failure…

There is a long tradition in Berlin that the labor day, the 1st May ends in violence. In 1999 it was supposed to be different. The intent was to get across how serious people treat this issue of Germany sending their soldiers to war. The police failed, because they didn’t break up the crowd and things got out of hand. We all failed to get the real message across. The media had their images of violence, and basically a decade later, it seems perfectly ‘normal’ for German politicians to send troops into other countries.

Violence is always the result of people failing. Failing to communicate, failing to take responsibilities, failing to solve problems. Always.

Now the street in Berlin, Kreuzberg looks peaceful and quiet. Like it did a day before May 1st 1999 and the day after.

I turned back to my computer. The different news feeds were sending update after update. “Freddie Mac reports 2nd quarter loss, asks for $1.5B in federal aid”, “Bank of America now down -20.31%”, “Asia stocks fall after U.S. #stocks dive”, “Losses accelerating at Australian stock market; S&P/ASX200 index off 5%”

At the exact same time, more reports about looting in London, riots, clashes with police.

When European politicians discussed the crisis in Europe over the past weeks, you couldn’t help but get the impression that ‘the markets’ were some sort of wild untamable beast for them. One wrong word and bang, the swarm moving into another direction could destroy you. It makes people manipulate facts, makes people hide problems instead of solving them.

In situations of great stress and pressure most people just react to fear. When we want to understand the reasons for violence, we must look at fear first.

Once the snowball starts rolling, the destructive dynamic of it all can become so big, it takes a long time to heal and to repair the damage.

Vocalist Carl Crack sang in the Atari Teenage Riot song from 1993, an adaption of Sham 69’s ‘If the kids are united’ that

“the violence is a disease – it will become parts of our lives and our future if we don’t DO something against it! If we put our energies together it can be a very powerful era!”

The song was a reaction to the racist attacks by Neo-Nazis in reunified Germany which made most people call for more police, more laws, harder punishment. Carl was basically saying that we must act without waiting for the help of big brother government.

The link between Neo-Nazi ideology spreading and receiving more support and conservative right wing politics of the German government were clearly visible at the time.

There is a connection between mob, political leaders and those who do nothing and watch in apathy…

How often did we think about that in Germany since we were children? I can’t count it… How did Fascism happen? How could people let it happen half a century ago? So when you constantly deal with the consequences of that history, you will always reach the point where you must think about the dangers and dynamics of the ‘mob mentality’.

It spreads like a virus, but make no mistake. When riots and violence occur they are always the result of those in power failing.

When a corrupt system falls apart, it never happens in a ‘controlled’ and ‘thoughtful’ way (apart from maybe GDR in 1989 which is almost a miracle in history). Real riots are not lead by intellectuals who read Marx, so don’t expect it.

But also don’t step into the mainstream media mouse trap:

The August riots in London have nothing to do with ‘anarchy’, they are the fruits of capitalism and the consequences of government decisions.

If you think ‘mindless thugs’ have ‘nothing to do with society’ and your part in it, you might be part of the problem.

To make it clear: I don’t justify or judge anything. I am saying there will be more because the system doesn’t work anymore.

I don’t think in terms of morals, wrong and right. So when this stuff happens, it is EVERYBODY’s fault. mine, yours, theirs.

It is frustrating how some people let politicians & bankers set fire to whole countries’ economies and their future but now are in shock of the results. People who commented were speaking as if a natural, unexpected disaster came over them, one that they didn’t have any control over or could have not prevented.

I know everybody got used to torture & war during the Bush years.

Reading opinions of other music fans from the UK I realized during that quiet night in Berlin, that people repeated commentaries of mainstream media, but disguised them as their own opinions.

The reporters kept repeating the same words over and over again: Mindless violence.
You got the impression that either this was decided before they arrived at the scenery or they kept copying and pasting from each other.

What struck me is how they made “mindless violence” sound like a crime in such a way that you ended up suggesting that “thoughtful violence” is justified in our society.

I lean back and read Wikileaks Twitter “The BBC can interview the Taliban, but is apparently incapable of a single meaningful interview with a London protester. “protesters” or “rioters”, there are no interviews, but endless pathetic commentary.”

It makes me think… Why do people divide between rioters and protestors? Aren’t those as ‘guilty’ who stood by and watched how a whole generation of young people were put into a corner where there is absolutely no way forward anymore? Morally is there a difference between a corporation which pays workers overseas pretty much nothing for manufacturing trainers and teenagers who steal them?

Who is attacking your property more? The looters who throw a brick into your window or the government who lends so much money that your children won’t be able to pay off the debts?

I keep reading….

Oh yes, the first voices as expected, demanding more police & higher budgets for police …while cuts in education were totally ok just a few months ago.

Having more police on the street can only be a reaction to violence, while EDUCATION PREVENTS violence. (As logically as it sounds to us, it is a threat to some in power because then the whole passive consumer business model doesn’t work anymore)

All these things are connected.

There’s a unified axis of government and corporate power, lawless and unrestrained. That’s what we should talk about. Corporations exploit the power of the state to further enhance their power and the real criminals get away. There’s a class war going on… And it’s the rich who are waging it.

Our society has a huge problem to solve. Let’s identify it properly and understand it so we can start acting because “praying for london” won’t do it….

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. “If you think \’mindless thugs\’ have \’nothing to do with society\’ and your part in it, you might be part of the problem.”

    Hey Alec! We may have had our differences over file-sharing, but we agree here. You’re dead right. We’re all responsible for creating this society. It’s not floods or tornados we’re witnessing, it’s the shit hitting the fan: there’s nothing “mindless” or surprising about it. If you allow a great chunk of the population to be treated like animals, call them scum, have the police intimidate them daily, don’t be surprised if they act like it.

  2. Dear Alec,

    Keep writing, keep thinking.

    We need a healthy discourse on what’s going on, and so many of the points you made ring very true with me.

    It may sound facile to say this, but we do need to become a better society, we need to treat each other better, to understand each other better and to care what happens to each other.

    Unfortunately, there’s a huge entrenched system that is still showing little or no interest in moving away from the corporate and/or individual greed which has brought us to this sorry state.

    And if we are, as some have suggested, watching the beginning of the end of the Western Capitalist system, then let’s make sure we replace it with something better.

    I can hear Georgia, an old OMD song, in my head with the lines, “Dancing in the ruins of the Western World, blindfolds on like we don’t care.”

    It chilled me when I first heard it in 1981 and it chills me even more now.

  3. Indeed, the only time words like this do not fall upon deaf ears is when they are spoken by someone who wields some level of ‘fame’ or notoriety. Fortunately, musicians are still capable of wielding such power. In these end times, as we approach the shift of the ages, the events that transpire will only grow darker. Remember, though, that it is always darkest before the dawn.

  4. it’s times like these that make me rethink these words:

    “I don\’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It\’s a depression.

    Everybody\’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel\’s worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there\’s no one anywhere that seems to know what to do with us.

    Now into it. We know the air is unfit to breathe, our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes as if that\’s the way it\’s supposed to be.

    We know things are bad. Worse than bad. They\’re crazy. It\’s like everything everywhere is going crazy so we don\’t go out anymore. We sit in a house as slowly the world we\’re living in is getting smaller and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster, and TV, and my steel belted radials and I won\’t say anything.”

    Well I\’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad. I don\’t want you to protest. I don\’t want you to riot. I don\’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn\’t know what to tell you to write. I don\’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crying in the streets.

    All I know is first you\’ve got to get mad. You\’ve got to say, “I\’m a human being. God Dammit, my life has value.”

    So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I\’m as mad as hell, and I\’m not going to take this anymore!” I want you to get up right now. Get up. Go to your windows, open your windows, and stick your head out, and yell, “I\’m as mad as hell and I\’m not going to take this anymore!”

    Things have got to change my friends. You\’ve got to get mad. You\’ve got to say, “I\’m as mad as hell and I\’m not going to take this anymore!” Then we\’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open your window, stick your head out and yell, “I\’m as mad as hell and I\’m not going to take this anymore!”
    — Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network (1976)

  5. This is an excellent article Alec, I was thinking this morning about the need to view these actions from a historical (i.e. objective perspective) and how, I can’t think of a single example of mass civil disobedience that hasn’t got some sort of justification at the heart of this. Yes, things escalate from that original point and that point might not be eloquently or poetically expressed, but can anyone think of an event on this scale that truly has been simply the result of ‘mass greed’ as the prevailing media narrative seems to be. How quick people are to gobble down the media portrayal of events, yet, very often, when you look at them with hindsight, the view we have is very different than the immediate reaction.

  6. Yes, comments on this topic always revolve around same issues: protest, society’s wrongs, consumerist/corporatist greed, etc.. Nowhere, however there was a real analysis at the systemic level (not historical). I am not attempting to do such an analysis as I do not have access to all the information, but from what we know from different sources can suggest a picture, which many would not believe to be an objective one. For start, policing, after 100 years of collecting and analysing information about crime and deviance is all about numbers and statistics and prognosis. It is naive to think that in a most policed/surveilled country in the world it is hard to predict/react to a major civil unrest. It is more surprising that despite the existing precedent (and UK is a country of precedents, after all) of similar 1995 Brixton riot of 1995, the London Met Police chief has gone on a holiday in France (I am sorry I simply cannot buy an argument that it is ‘habitual’ for top civil servants to go on foreign holidays in August in anticipation of major troubles due to erupt in a situation possible to one back in 1995). It is well known in the history of modern policing in the West, when top policemen knowingly stayed absent from responsibility just before major events erupted. The fact that the Met and other forces did nothing to spread of the riots (as opposed to their usual swift and hard reaction to peaceful protests in many parts of the country against corporate/nuclear/military establishment), confirms the repressive system’s deliberate absence and letting things ‘go bad’ to shift the blame later.
    The second point is about the British post-imperial society which cannot see the connection between international violence through unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how this violence is prone to hit back ‘at home’. The point here is quite simple – a violent society, which leads major international wars abroad, is bound to suffer from the same systemic violence sooner or later. I am not talking here about ‘passionate’ arguments of vengeance and ‘repaying’ suffering from each side in conflict, and nationalistic spirit. The simple fact that armaments and armies are produced on a daily basis in UK to kill people abroad will have absolutely no effect on domestic population (remember Columbine massacre) is simply naive in a modern society. Materially (munitions) and psychologically (violence) things are bound to bounce back and forth, however far from the homeland the military conflicts may be. The war in Afghanistan has brought down the USSR, will it do the same with the ageing UK empire? Possibly. Linking the culture of consumerism to the riots and failing to do the same with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which produces 90% of the world’s heroin worth 55bln USD (hence the connection to the so-called ‘gangs’ in London, or better say – heavy organised corporate/criminal syndicates and as many of heroin-addicts across the country) only testifies to the society’s unwillingness to face its own skeletons in the cupboard of history.


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