London Riots: Who do we blame?
It seems odd that a scant 48 hours ago I found myself on a Overground train in London, holding a broom and dustpan in my hands. Of course, in London, the last five days or so have been, to put it mildly, odd. A peaceful protest over the police shooting of a Tottenham resident Mark Duggan turned violent on Saturday, and by Sunday multiple riots were popping up all over the city of 7.5 million. On Monday, the carnage spread even further to northern cities, and by Tuesday night, Birmingham, Manchester, and Salford found themselves battling blazes.
I was on a train on Tuesday to help fight in my own small way. On twitter, a group with the hashtag #riotcleanup was working within each community, coordinating citizen led cleanup crews to help businesses whose lives were ruined by the carnage. As I arrived, I found over 300 other people, all with brooms and bags, ready to help. I looked at the still smouldering buildings, and thought to myself, Who do we blame for this?
Do we blame the government, led by a Prime Minister who in his youth engaged in wanton destruction? As a student in Oxford, he was a proud member of the Bullingdon Club, a group well known for destroying supperclubs. He and fellow club member Boris Johnson (current Mayor of London) were lucky, however – their parents’ wealth and prestige ensured they were never charged for their ‘youthful indiscretions’. Indeed, as London itself burned, both were on vacaction, and both happily stayed away from the UK until public outcry hastened their return.
Do we blame the Parliament, an institution with a long standing history of denying opportunities to the underclass while availing themselves of the finer things in life? Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt lambasted the looting, but failed to mention his almost £20,000 theft of taxpayer funds during the expenses scandal. Mr. Hunt agreed to repay the taxpayers half of what he owed back. Your average looter would have had to stack 500 42″ flat screen tvs in his arms to equate Mr. Hunt’s haul. Meanwhile, as recently as late July of this year, the government was quietly attempting to siphon funds for medical care from the poorer areas of Britain and give it to the richer areas.
Do we blame the Metropolitan Police, who in recent years have come under fire for discriminatory practices against the poor and minorities? In 1993, Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death. In the resulting investigation and later inquiry, it was found the the Met was “institutionally racist” and has been called “one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain” (quoted from the 1999 inquest, led by Sir William Macpherson).
Do we blame the richest of the rich, who manage to weasel out of paying their fair share while everyone under them feels overtaxed and stretched? Vodofone was forgiven almost £6,000,000,000 in back taxes by the UK government. If they had been forced to pay those taxes, it would have completely covered the current budget deficiencies in the NHS. (Vodofone is currently battling the courts in India, where they owe $2.5 billion.)
Do we blame a society in disconnect, where neighbors don’t know one another, where material possessions are placed on a higher pedestal than basic necessities, and where (as evidenced by the arrest of an 11 year old girl by Notts police) parents are either absent or simply uninterested in their childrens’ lives? Do we blame ourselves for not taking a stronger role in our community?
As I kneeled on the pavement, picking shards of window shop glass out of the crevices between bricks, I could blame no one but the looters themselves. These were not people protesting the gross inadequacies of their life; they had not stormed the Palace gates or held vigil in front of the House of Parliament. They saw an opportunity, and decided to burn their own neighborhoods to the ground. Rather than protest the high unemployment and lack of job prospects, they put more people out of work. Instead of ‘sticking it to the Man’, they ransacked their neighbor’s homes, people who are just as poor and tired as they are. If their anger was with the police, it was bewildering when they mugged, beat, and killed innocent people who were either trying to defend their livelihoods, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I looked into the storefronts and under security doors – at Waitrose, food sat untouched on the shelves. At the O2 store, the shelves were stripped bare. If I was in truly dire straits, I would go for food, not smartphones. On Craigslist UK, ads are already popping up, selling iPhones in lots (the photo in the advert is below – 40 boxes, new in wrappers, happily stacked).
And while issues with the Met may be problematic, the cops I talked to on the street were exhausted, but helpful. Many could not remember the last time they had been home, and all of them had a look about them that showed they had seen things in the last few days that would haunt them for years.
Let there be no ambiguity, many of these areas have serious grievances – 98% of the most economically deprived areas of the UK are in cities. However, many communities did not riot this week. The city of Glasgow is the 3rd most populous city in the UK with major poverty issues, and as of this writing there have been no issues compared to what London has experienced.
Unfortunately, this mass thievery will do nothing but harm already struggling communities. Businesses that manage to collect on insurance will move away, leaving urban blight in their path. People will think twice before investing or moving into the areas hit. An already tenuous relationship between racial and religious groups will be even further strained, as is evidenced by the xenophobic group EDL’s proposed marchthis weekend. The courts and jails will further groan under the weight of all the new defendants (almost 1400 people have been arrested in the UK, most of them in the greater London area). While massive crimes have been committed to these communities prior to the past week, the crimes of the last five days lay squarely on the shoulders of those who chose wanton destruction of their neighborhoods over doing the right thing.
The Prime Minister has recalled Parliament and issue a statement, condemning the violence. In the coming weeks, people will find their own reasons for the riots, as well as solutions. While many will use this tragedy to push their own agenda, I will defer to the words of Tariq Jahan, father of Haroon Jahan, one of the innocent victims of the riots, who said, “Today, we stand here to call to all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stay united. As we stand here today, this is not a race issue. The families have received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of the communities – from all faiths, all colours and backgrounds. I have lost my son – if you want to lose yours step forward – otherwise calm down and go home.”