I did a Google Image Search looking for the most iconic pictures from the London riots. Every riot seems to produce a few. (I guess the assumption would be that photojournalists head into that kind of carnage with as much opportunistic glee as the looters, but the photojournalists I’ve known are mostly introspective types whose good reflexes may pay the bills but don’t seem to translate to enthusiasm for their subject matter.) What I found were a lot of fluorescent yellow jackets andhelmets. It looks like the real stars of the London riots are the police. This is a little strange. It’s not unusual for cops to turn up with frequency in riot photos (see GIS for “LA riots,” “Vancouver riots,” “Paris riots,” etc. I’m sure) but here they dominate to a disturbing degree. It’s hard to pick out an actual rioter. It almost looks like the narrative we’re being presented isn’t “exploited, discontented Tottenhamites rise up in an expression of collective anger” but “London’s bobbies on the move in 2011! Show great British can-do spirit! ‘Splendid,’ says Queen!”
We have one rather qualitative but visually convincing piece of evidence, then, that something is unusual about the way the media is framing the London riots. Let’s look at others. GlobalComment links to this MSNBC blog:
Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.
Rioting for the purpose of publicity? It happened. The real fighting may not be taking place on the streets of London (or Twitter, if you believe a bunch of hungry-eyed producers who think social media is an instant revenue generator) but in front of the camera – for screen time.
Now, maybe there were just a lot more cops on the street in London, than, say, in L.A. in 1992. But the theory I’ll be trying to test is this: there’s a very good reason we are supposed to see this conflict as photogenic cop vs. invisible rioter. Certain ways of framing a riot produce certain responses from the public. Counterculture-types assume the power class wants us all “dumb-eyed and complacent,” but that’s not really always true. I think it can be advantageous to showcase a riot or even spur mass groups of people into violence – depending on who’s doing the rioting. And so for the new few weeks, when I need a break from my Masters project on Missouri literature (yeah, seriously) I’ll take a look at some popular media narratives of rioting, protesting, or just stirring up trouble in the first world.