Last August’s English riots were baffling. Unlike the Arab Spring uprisings they followed, they seemed to have no unifying political theme. Many black Britons were involved, but these were not race riots like the ones that erupted in London 20 years ago. Yet the disturbances raced across the country quite as fast and fiercely as any long-simmering political insurgency in a country laboring under a tyrant.
Perhaps Laura Johnson’s sad story holds a clue. Of the various trials of rioters and looters, it is hers that has attracted much the greatest attention from the British media. And on May 3, the press will be all over her again when she returns to court for sentencing. The judge has already warned her that she will go to prison.
Laura Johnson is a child of privilege. The 20-year-old brunette with the shy gaze and plump, pampered cheeks of a Japanese doll was raised by wealthy parents in secluded luxury on their private estate in the suburbs of Kent, southeast of London, with its own pool and tennis court. For years she did them proud, gaining straight As in her GCSEs and A-level exams, and winning a place at highly regarded Exeter University. Then suddenly in March she was in the dock, accused of being the willing chauffeur of a drug-dealing rogue and his friends as they roamed around south London on Aug. 8, 2011, at the height of the riots, looting goods from electrical shops. Her claim that her passengers kidnapped her and forced her to drive them around was belied by CCTV footage that showed her grinning amid the mayhem.
In some ways Laura’s is the story of a million adolescents who jump through all the hoops their parents hold up for them then suddenly lose the plot. Her high-achieving teenage years were shadowed by eating problems and urges to harm herself; at one point she carved the word “fat” on her thigh. For years she had as a boyfriend someone very like herself, the academically gifted son of two lawyers; they were so close that they tried to arrange to go to the same university. But the plan misfired, and when Laura found herself on her own at college, her high-flying life went into a nosedive. She had a sort of breakdown, then took an overdose and was admitted to a mental hospital for treatment.
It was there she met a girl her own age whose drastically different life opened the door onto a world of dangerous thrills.
Charlotte Fryett came from a broken home in a depressed inner-city quarter of southeast London. Laura had lacked for nothing in her life, but all her privileges and achievements had not brought happiness. Charlotte, by contrast, was immersed in a world of gangs, guns, and drugs that proved irresistibly alluring to the girl from Kent.
At the center of that world was a young man called Emmanuel Okubote. He was Nigerian in origin and his mother was a leader at her local Pentecostal church, but at the same age as Laura he was already a hardened gangster, with a list of convictions for theft, burglary, assault, dealing in crack, and more; he was out of jail on probation when they met. He was also tall and charming, and Laura tumbled into his world as if it was exactly what she needed.
When riots erupted in London’s West Indian ghetto of Brixton 20 years ago, it is unlikely that someone like Laura would have found herself at the very heart of the action: those riots had a strong political and racial tenor, and in Britain then black and white lived far more separate lives than they do today. It is the maturing of British multiculturalism that has made the phenomenon of Laura Johnson, gang chauffeur, possible.
With the eroding of class differences and the weakening appeal of a high culture that was once the preserve of the upper classes, rich and poor kids in Britain have far more in common today than they did a generation ago: they chat on the same social networks, carry the same BlackBerries and iPhones, wear the same fashion labels, and go to the same clubs.
The only difference that counts is that some are very rich—richer than ever before—while many are still very poor. And while the cultural divide between Britain’s classes has shrunk in the past two decades, the economic gap has become much wider.
So the August riots did have a political goal, though one that was largely subliminal: spontaneously the young and badly off set about redressing that difference—symbolically eliminating the last barrier to perfect equality.