Saturday, 13 August 2011

Reading Festival & #ukriots - Underclass? The middle class riots too

If you think these are riots of the underclass, go to Reading/Leeds Festival in 2 weeks and watch middle class kids do the same thing - if you can afford it.

August 2007, Reading rock festival. It's 1:30am on Sunday night and I am crying my eyes out like a baby.

Reading and Leeds festivals are a big 3-day festival on the August bank holiday weekend featuring an immense line-up of rock music. They are also well-known for their regular riots which kick off about the time the last act finishes on the Sunday night.

I wasn't crying because the Smashing Pumpkins' comeback was distinctly mediocre, or because the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the worst headline performance I have ever seen at a festival. It was because I'd seen people nearly get killed for no more reason than kids wanting to cause havoc and destruction, for fun.

After the last band on Sunday I still wanted to go out and party, drink, meet people etc. - the whole festival site was still very busy. I found a wide area with some food vans and a small rave happening somewhere near the silent disco (which had closed). I remember not having much luck or fun. Some kids tried supergluing a pen to my Tshirt without me noticing. So far so harmless.


The mayhem on the last night of every Reading festival - this link gives a very good description - is a mixture of fun, chaos, idiocy and vandalism. These ingredients are all as important as each other, and are very hard to separate. So, it includes people running and sliding along 50m of tarpaulin soaked in beer and urine, often half naked. It includes "barrel jousting", where 2 people stand on barrels and try to push each other off. It includes a LOT of fires - some big bonfires, some smaller bonfires, some people setting fire to their own tents or other people's. Lots of people blowing up used gas canisters too.

It also included a group of around 30 people ramming a 12+ foot fence (4 metres), trying to make it go over. The fences marked out a campsite from the open public area and were made of flat panel steel. The campsites were packed; I counted about 12 tents directly next to the fence.

I joined a few randoms behind the fence trying to push against each time the group rammed it, before realising that was even more stupid than the people ramming it in the first place. I checked a few tents, and found a some feet sticking out of one. A couple with ear plugs in gave me hassle for waking them up. I told them to get the fuck out.

In the end, the fence inevitably went over, and there was nothing anyone could do. You can't reason with those people at that time and there were no police and minimal security around. When it went down, a great cheer went up from the rammers, like they'd achieved something. The 12 or so tents under the fence were completely flattened. I just stood there on the other side with my middle finger up, screaming something like "What's the fucking point?". I was a bit emotional by this stage. What distressed me most about it was the absolute pointlessness.

This is pretty mild compared to the heavier violence at Reading and Leeds, including mobs pulling over toilet blocks, setting fire to vehicles, clashing with riot police, and so on.


My point telling this story is that Reading Festival 2007 camping tickets cost about £150 ($240 USD, $300 NZD). Tickets for 2011 were approximately £200. These people involved in mayhem/chaos/riots are ordinary happy young people, from across all social classes - well, those who can afford £150+ for a weekend. They are not disaffected youth and they are not poor.

They are not even angry. The thing that really set me off crying was, as I wandered despondently back towards our tent, I passed a group of young people cheerily chanting "Angry mob! Angry mob! Angry mob!" I stood there and raged at them, quite pathetically through tears and barely able to say words properly, about people nearly getting killed because of "angry mobs". They immediately began cheerily chanting "Angry man! Angry man! Angry man!" and walked off.

These kids were not angry or upset - they were having a great time. And that's how many people see the riots and destruction at Reading and Leeds festivals, and occasionally other festivals including Download. You have fun at a festival for 3 days, then you watch it all burn like a mini end-of-the-world. It's exciting. Same again next year?


Yes, the London riots spreading to towns and cities around England over the last week were a new phenomenon, but only in size and location, not in actions. People are talking about the "underclass" and the underprivileged as if they are automatically connected to the riots, even though we are now finding out that many are not from such an underclass - a 31-year-old primary school teacher, a 2nd year law student, people with jobs, children with decent parents.

What happened to all the other impoverished people in England who spectacularly failed to rise up and join the riots? Hell, what about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who had no riots yet have more poverty than England does?

These were not desperate people with nothing to lose. They were not even angry, with the exception of the Tottenham riot that followed the protest over Mark Duggan's shooting. From everything we've seen so far, the young people who joined in were - like the rioters at Reading and Leeds - actually having a great time, right down to "talented sportswoman" and Olympic ambassador Chelsea Ives who had the "best day ever" trashing shops and throwing bricks through a police car windshield. Like the rioters at Reading and Leeds, these people also cheered when a shop window shattered or a building went up in flames as though something had been achieved.


To say these riots were young people just "having fun" is far too simplistic. But anyone who's camped at Reading/Leeds festival to the Monday morning will know the obvious parallels between the behaviour at those riots and the ones we've seen the last week, which contradict many things were are being told right now:
  • this not is an entirely new kind of behaviour
  • these people are not all poor and marginalised
  • these people are not rioting and looting because they are poor or marginalised
  • these people who rioted and looted are not all angry about the same thing, or even angry at all
  • these people have nothing to say about why they are rioting or looting
We should absolutely look at the long-term factors and short-term causes behind these riots. With any luck, we might see more funding for social sciences, and we might get a wider debate about criminology and our prison system that fails to prevent re-offending. We're already hearing people talk about white collar crime, and how the global financial crash caused far more damage to British people than these 4 days of physical destruction, looting and rioting. We might, just maybe, even get some more funding for facilities in impoverished neighbourhoods who really need it.

But the causes behind these riots are far more psychological and behavioural than simply a "backlash of the underclass". It's far more about human copycat / herd behaviour and opportunism than broken homes or police shootings or "not seeing enough positive stories about teenagers in the news". It may well be about lack of youth jobs, but more in the sense of young people being unoccupied than "in poverty".

I've been talking about this on Facebook and Twitter a lot already and this is the last I want to say for now.

It'll be interesting to watch the extra news coverage of Reading and Leeds festivals at the end of this month, 26th August 2011.


  1. Just tweeted this link. It's a fabulous article, one that should be read widely.

  2. Thank you kindly T, I think it's the first time one of my posts has been called fabulous. Shame it had to be on this subject!