The London uprising of 2011 may have caught most of the world by surprise, but those who live closest to the epicenters of the chaos could have seen it coming from a mile away. While not as pronounced as in much of the United States, economic inequality and racism are the root causes of the violence in Britain.
“The government doesn’t realize what they’re doing to us,” one young Londoner from Haringey lamented to the Guardian after budget cuts resulted in the closure of eight youth centers, a move which led to an increase in gang membership and crime. “There’s going to be a riot.”
And riots there are, not just in London, but also in Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool, with hundreds of arrests and millions of pounds in property damage occurring as the uprising enters its fourth day.
“These kids have basically been abandoned– not even just the kids, whole communities have been abandoned by the rest of society,” Bristly Pioneer, a Hackney resident and anarchist activist told al-Jazeera. “I can’t say I’m surprised this is happening. It’s been building for years.”
And for years, well-to-do Britons and the government that represents their interests at the expense of the working-class and poor have largely ignored the problem.
To see just how out of touch many upper-class Britons are with the kids in the streets of Tottenham,Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton and many other London neighborhoods, listen to the remarks of Neil Clifford, CEO of the Kurt Geiger shoe chain: “I think we probably either should have a massive influx of police or the support of the army to deal with this,” he told the Guardian while sipping cappuccino. Not an influx of economic assistance for those who desperately need it but who instead got massive government spending cuts. Not an influx of compassion and outreach for the mainly poor, mainly people of color who make up a good portion of London’s economic underclass. No, many upper-class Britons would answer this desperate cry for help (for that is what these “riots” are) with more repression– more of the same police who are a big part of the problem to begin with.
Indeed, the spark that ignited this powder keg was the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, an armed black man who the Independent Police Complaints Commission says did not fire at police, as some have suggested. Duggan hailed from Tottenham, a Haringey neighborhood with one of the highest unemployment rates in the capital. Tottenham’s demographics are also youth-heavy and the borough is populated by many people of color, folks who have been particularly hard-hit by the government’s slashing of social services. They are also no strangers to police violence and racism. The perfect storm had been brewing there for some time.
When hundreds of outraged citizens converged on Tottenham police station to peacefully demand justice for Duggan, one of more than 330 people to die in police custody in Britain since 1998, officers responded by treating the citizens they are paid to protect and serve with contempt. They shoved a teenage girl who only wanted to know what was happening. They drew their batons. And let’s not forget, by killing Duggan,they drew first blood.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, cut short a lavish Italian vacation, returning to the grim realities of austerity-wracked Britain and the resultant upheaval caused by his government’s war on the poor. But instead of acknowledging the roles economic inequality and police racism play in the current violence, Cameron did the easy thing and blamed the victims. “This is criminality pure and simple,” he declared as London burned. “And it has to be confronted and defeated.”
What really need to be confronted and defeated are the forces that drive disenfranchised youth into the streets. But there’s little chance of that happening under the current– or any– ruling regime in class-bound Britain.
While the international media repeatedly play images of burning buildings and shattered windows– which are “ratings gold” in industry parlance, they ignore the burning injustice and shattered dreams of a whole generation of British youth. The majority of these disenfranchised citizens are not rioting for kicks or for criminal purposes, as some would have you believe, they are rioting for justice. We in this country would do well to learn from the lessons of London, lest we wish to witness similar scenes on our own streets.