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England's Riots: A line has been crossed

 The riots in London, which spread to other cities in England in a copy-cat pattern, were unlike any that had been seen before, and when normalcy is restored the British authorities will have to examine the origins of the disturbances very carefully.

I use the word “origins” rather than “causes” because these riots did not appear to be associated with a cause. No one carried placards; there were no calls for change or justice; there were no marches and no demands. In fact, the simple purpose behind the riots appeared to be looting and burning.

In London during the period of these August 2011 riots, and therefore able to witness them at first hand, what alarmed me was that, for the most part, the participants were very young people; some as young as 12 years old. And while the majority of them in London were black, whites were also involved. There was a suggestion (made in the Caribbean, not in England) that the black young people involved in the riots were “West Indian”. They were not. These were “born and bred” young people – a peculiar band of persons from dysfunctional families in Britain’s inner cities. It was quite staggering just how much of the looting was opportunistic and was committed by people of different backgrounds – a white girl, daughter of a millionaire; students at College; a teaching assistant; a budding Olympic athlete; a young man who had just signed up to join the army; and, of course, the gangs of these areas who initiated the riots in the first place.

Going to school in London and later working there, I have lived through London riots – they were all associated with a cause or a protest. Looting did occur as a result of some of them, but looting was not their main purpose. For instance, the 1981 Brixton riots were caused by serious social and economic problems affecting Britain's inner cities. Lord Scarman, who inquired into its causes, famously blamed the riots on "racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life".

In 1985, riots erupted in Brixton and Tottenham after hundreds of black people in the two communities viewed the accidental shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton as police violence. The police broke into her home looking for her son who they suspected in a firearms offence. This was exacerbated a week later by the death of Tottenham resident Cynthia Jarrett, who died of heart failure after four policemen burst into her home in a raid.

In 1990, there was a series of riots in British cities that started as protests against a most unpopular Community Charge, known as the Poll Tax, introduced by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It led to her downfall.

While each of these protests spawned riots and looting by persons who took advantage of the opportunity to do so, looting was not their main purpose – much more fundamental reasons, such as resisting institutional racism and government high-handedness, underscored them. And this is how the August 2011 riots differ from any previous one. These were not “race” riots and they were not protests against anything – they were simply expeditions in villainy by gangs of young people and opportunistic looters. It was their summer fun.

A few months ago, students protested in London against higher university fees that would burden them with debt before they even find a job. They all had placards and slogans. And, while there were clashes with police and moments of violence, they had a limit and a leadership with whom negotiations could be held.

These August riots declared no political or social purpose. They were shocking in their single-minded looting and burning, and the obvious lack of fear or respect for the police by the villains. Diane Abbot, the Jamaican-born, member of the British House of Commons for the Labour Party correctly said that “nothing excuses violence. There is no doubt that all types of mindless thugs latched on to the disturbances”.

As this commentary is being written, the cost of damage in the many London areas that have been the playground for this youthful badness is estimated to be well over £100 million (US$163 million). This is money that British Insurers will have to find at a time when share values have fallen and markets are weak and vulnerable. To this figure will have to be added the damage done in the cities of Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Nottingham and Birmingham.

Already in a difficult economic situation, and still officially in recession, the British economy will be placed under even greater pressure than it now endures. In turn, this will have negative consequences for creating employment and for strengthening and expanding social benefit schemes. The people who will be hardest hit by these increased economic and financial pressures will be those in these very inner cities that have been this summer’s playground for “all types of mindless thugs”.

The looters and burners were unmindful that they were destroying their own communities, the places in which they live. While they burned and looted big name shops, they also looted shops owned by small business people (many of them Asians and Africans) who will not easily recover from the wanton destruction. It may be significant that in one area, while clothing stores, supermarkets, telephone shops and computer stores were looted, the book store, Waterstone, stood untouched in splendid isolation. The desire to read a good book was clearly not on anyone’s list of goodies.

On day four of the riots, a London taxi driver bemoaned to me the drastically adverse effect that they had on his business. Economic circumstances, he said, had already reduced his income significantly, but the riots had caused English people, who would normally visit London attractions, to stay at home.

Even the popular Notting Hill Carnival – Europe’s largest street festival – scheduled for the end of August is in jeopardy as fear rises that it might be used as an occasion for further mischief.

For me, the most important point about these August riots is that a line has been crossed. This is not a summer of discontent manifesting itself in protests. This is a new and uncharted season in which large numbers of young people have no regard or respect for authority and little or no moral compass. Brazenly confronting the fully-equipped riot-prevention police at close quarters was one thing, but beating innocent people including older women and young men like themselves, and deliberately driving a car at high speed mowing down and killing three men trying to protect their shops is quite another. This speaks to a level of lawlessness unprecedented in British culture and even in its history of riots.

While the good news is that the majority of young people in the affected areas did not riot, did not loot and did not burn, there is now something tragically wrong in Britain that has affected a small but disturbed group of young people in the inner cities. The British authorities should waste no time in tackling it in a broad based and comprehensive way.


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