Riots have gripped London for the past four nights and, as communities attempt to clean up, there is increased tension and the possibility of more property damage.
Last night, a Sony warehouse was destroyed in a blazing fire. BBC News broadcast images, which would elicit a visceral reaction from anyone who saw the footage. Flames and smoke billowed out of the warehouse as a broadcaster interviewed people on the violent hooliganism in London. For the most part, the underlying sociopolitical factors in the UK, which likely touched off the chain of events the world has witnessed over the past days, was not addressed. The conversation centers on restoring law and order.
News organizations reported UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who “abruptly” returned from his vacation in Italy, said after a meeting at Downing Street court processes will be “sped up to ensure swift justice for those involved in ‘sickening scenes of people looting, vandalizing, thieving, robbing,’ many of them apparently teenagers.” Acting chief constable of the Metropolitan police, Tim Godwin, asserts, “We will make sure that the stuff that we have seen come off the back of this—which is pure criminality, opportunistic criminality—is dealt with firmly and robustly.”
The sanctimoniousness of such statements is likely lost on most on the elites and those in the UK government. As Laurie Penny writes in a post on her blog Penny Red:
…In the scramble to comprehend the riots, every single commentator has opened with a ritual condemnation of the violence, as if it were in any doubt that arson, muggings and lootings are ugly occurrences. That much should be obvious to anyone who is watching Croydon burn down on the BBC right now. David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, called the disorder ‘mindless, mindless’. Nick Clegg denounced it as ‘needless, opportunistic theft and violence’. Speaking from his Tuscan holiday villa, Prime Minister David Cameron – who has finally decided to return home to take charge – declared simply that the social unrest searing through the poorest boroughs in the country was “utterly unacceptable.” The violence on the streets is being dismissed as ‘pure criminality,’ as the work of a ‘violent minority’, as ‘opportunism.’ This is madly insufficient. It is no way to talk about viral civil unrest. Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it. Tonight, in one of the greatest cities in the world, society is ripping itself apart…
What seems lost on those in power is their role in triggering the riots—how the UK coalition government’s assault on the middle class, working class, students, school children, the working poor, the unemployed, the disabled and everyone else who does not count themselves as rich or super-rich ultimately led to this eruption of arson, muggings and looting.
Severe spending cuts for higher education, tuition subsidies and assistance for those attending English universities went into effect in December last year. The cuts may not have been carried out by people who broke the glass on storefronts in Brixton and Enfield but this state-sanctioned looting could easily be characterized as “opportunistic” criminal behavior. The government saw an opportunity to fix the economy without applying pressure to those responsible for the economic crisis and made the most vulnerable pay instead.
In the past year, there has been a state sanctioned thieving of funding for public services, such as housing assistance, disability assistance, community outreach programs and health care. There has been vandalism of government programs dear to those in the direst economic situations. And, if you ask those who are rioting, they would likely tell you they have been hit just as hard as anyone in the UK by the austerity measures that have been imposed on society.
UK Uncut, a group that formed in response to the push by the UK government to impose cuts, has done its best to educate UK citizens on true economic reality in the UK. If the government were to clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and the rich, an estimated £95bn a year could be put toward funding public services. Last year, banks in the UK paid out £7bn in bonuses. Four banks made £24bn in profit. If banks were made to pay for the economic crisis they created, that would go a long way toward preserving and growing the social safety net.
The UK government along with banks and corporations conspired to cut programs that have the capacity to prevent people from rioting in the streets, to keep people from feeling like all is hopeless, like society is stacked up against them and they have must act out to get someone to pay attention to their needs or go out and claim what they fear they will never be able to afford.
In 2010, a National Equality panel reported the richest in the UK are now “more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10% of society.” When chief executives and bankers were figured, the wealth gap was “even more stark.” The panel concluded the large gap that has existed since at least the 1980s has not been reversed. The deepening divide between the haves and have nots precipitated many, many protests over the past months. None appear to have had much impact on the government’s decision to cut public services.
In a video produced in the final week of July by The Guardian, teenagers from the area react to the Haringey council’s decision to shut 13 youth clubs. They tell The Guardian the clubs were a place for youth to go when they wanted something to do. Youth could make music and produce videos. People went to the youth clubs every day, but now they are out in the streets. Police are pulling youth over for stop and searches and gangs are out running into each other and getting into fights. The report closes with one teenager saying, “There’ll be riots.”
A chilling interview with one youth from an NBC News report has been circulating. A television reporter asks, “Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?” The young man responds, “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?” The TV reporter doesn’t have anything to say to that. So, the young man continues:
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.
Another issue that is believed to have touched off the riots can be detected in the shooting of a black man, Mark Duggan, by police. His death is believed to have touched off much of the rioting. And, as a local explains in a video, 150 people went to a police station in Tottenham to get some answers on what happened. The protest began peacefully. The police ignored the protesters and treated them with “contempt,” but for the most part there was little tension. Then, a young 16-year old girl approached the police to get them to provide some information. The police drew their batons and pushed at her and the people protesting retaliated.
Three hundred and thirty-three people have died at the hands of police in the last eleven years. But, no officer has been found guilty of any crimes. This finding, which was part of a report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), led the IPCC to conclude “juries quite often find it difficult to convict police officers.”
The lack of justice for crimes committed by police, such as murder, unsurprisingly creates revulsion in communities. The perception that all citizens do not have equal protection under the law breeds resentment and anger.
Another police practice that breeds resentment in many of the communities with youth rioting are “stop and searches.” StopWatch, a UK group working with communities, ministers, policy makers and senior police officers to ensure that police reforms are fair and inclusive, has called the stop and search powers used by the UK police a “wedge between communities and the police.” In October 2010, the group released findings from research conducted that showed the use of the powers against black people was disproportionate. African-Caribbean people were twenty-six times more likely to be stopped under section 60.
US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the findings a “moral outrage.” He charged, “It is racial profiling. It’s as fundamental as that. It is based on sight, suspicion and fear. It’s a systematic pattern. In the US it is called driving while black. In Arizona it is called driving while Latino.”
It was possible to see that riots were coming. They should not be dismissed as some action that is not political. The destruction being witnessed on the streets of London can be regarded as a response to the growing destruction of government programs and services the poor, working and middle class in the UK had come to depend upon. Hundreds of thousands of people tried to protest and defend their communities, but many youth have grown deeply cynical and disillusioned.
Violence of this nature is indefensible, but as Martin Luther King Jr, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This is the response to a society where police single out “specific areas and individuals for monitoring, stop and search and daily harassment.” This is what happens in society when government refuses to tax the rich, make banks and corporations pay their fair share or cut investment in defense and military programs. And, the tension in society will only increase so long as government fails to address the needs of the wider population.
If society is serious about preventing property destruction and violence, riots that bring a metropolis to its knees and test the defensive capabilities of police and firefighters, crimes committed by the most elite must face just as much punishment as those caught rioting will face in the coming days.
BBC interview showing the disconnect between the elites and the most impoverished in the UK: