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The London riots: some questions

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Robin Lustig | 10:10 UK time, Tuesday, 9 August 2011

I've been thinking about a woman I met in Philadelphia some years ago, whose son had been shot dead in a trivial argument over a parking space.

"If I ever meet the man who shot him," she said, "I would ask him just one question: 'Where did all that anger come from?'"

The same question is being asked by many commentators today after three nights of violence on the streets of London. It's not my job to offer answers, but I am paid to ask questions. So here are some of them, and I'd be interested in your thoughts.

1. Is it a mistake to look for reasons why? Is the answer simply that what we've seen has been gangs of hooligans and criminals doing what hooligans and criminals always do?
2. Can we learn something by analysing the targets the rioters have chosen to attack? Electronic goods shops, sports goods shops, jewellers? All of which could be seen as "status" goods stockists? (Although I did see one report of a Tesco Express being looted by women snatching milk and nappies, which suggests that poverty may not always be irrelevant.)
3. Is the violence related in part to feelings of power and powerlessness? When an American TV reporter asked one young rioter last night what he thought the violence achieved, he is said to have been told: "You wouldn't have been talking to me without it, would you?"
4. Is inadequate parenting in part to blame? The woman I spoke to in Philadelphia said she believed the anger of many urban youths stemmed from a sense of betrayal by absent fathers. How many young rioters come from stable, loving, two-parent homes?
5. Should we be calling the violence London's "austerity protests", akin to the protests seen in Athens and elsewhere? Is it irrelevant that in Haringey, the borough which includes Tottenham, three-quarters of the youth clubs have been shut down because of budget cuts?
6. After several months of reports of law-breaking by politicians, police and press, have some London youths now decided that taking what you're not entitled to is something they can try as well?
7. Has gang culture now become so engrained in some London communities that obeying gang rules (follow orders, look strong, be brave, own the streets) is more important than obeying society's rules?
8. Why were the police apparently so slow to react when the violence spread from Tottenham on Saturday night? Are they under-staffed, under-resourced, or too demoralised by talk of deep cuts in police numbers?
9. Is the violence a predictable consequence of high youth unemployment and prolonged economic stagnation? Would more jobs mean less risk of riots?
10. And finally, why did so many years of painstaking community work in Tottenham, after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, with hugely improved relations between police and local people, come so catastrophically undone on Saturday evening? Was a key senior officer on holiday? Did the police not foresee that the shooting dead of a man in disputed circumstances was likely to lead to tension?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    1. Gangs of hooligans & criminals do not appear & hooliganize or criminalize without reason.
    2. Looters have stolen seem to be status symbols, good-time goods, and poverty-goods (like nappies). I would call this looting of aspiration & desperation.
    3. Is the violence related in part to feelings of power and powerlessness? Yes, more generally it's called austerity combined with feelings of ineffectualness, worthlessness.
    4. Is inadequate parenting in part to blame? Yes, but quality parenting is hardly likely to occur when parents are struggling through austerity, experiencing considerable stress.
    5. Should we be calling the violence London's "austerity protests", akin to the protests seen in Athens and elsewhere? No, it's better to call them terrifying protests preliminary to austerity - nothing to look forward to - not a job, not a decent place to life, certainly not social status or recognition: garbage people, throw-away people.
    6. Looting wouldn't occur if people had entitlement - job, security, a future.
    7. Has gang culture now become so ingrained in some London communities that obeying gang rules (follow orders, look strong, be brave, own the streets) is more important than obeying society's rules? Great point! How have society's rules, elitism rules lifted all boats?
    8. Why were the police apparently so slow to react when the violence spread from Tottenham on Saturday night? Try scared, confused...but more importantly try feeling the rage (as did the police in Egypt).
    9. Is the violence a predictable consequence of high youth unemployment and prolonged economic stagnation? Yes.
    10. And finally, why did so many years of painstaking community work in Tottenham, with hugely improved relations between police & local people, come so catastrophically undone? You show a person hope, promise, a light; then you take these things away, and that person will feel enraged.

  • Comment number 2.

    Robin,

    See my #8 last topic.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldtonight/2011/08/of_petitions_and_parliament_wh.html#comments

    Your question #9

    "Is the violence a predictable consequence of high youth unemployment and prolonged economic stagnation? Would more jobs mean less risk of riots?"

    --- Is the most reasonable -- but with wages high enough to bring out of poverty and a political system of democracy to ´include´ the population --rather than exclude.

  • Comment number 3.

    Difficult times for everyone. Youth tend to express this in more violent ways. Anger..of course there is anger..no jobs..rising taxes...bankers getting rewarded for destroying and stealing retirements from working people and politicians securing the wealth of the wealthy on the backs of everyone else...ample cause for societal anger. All civilizations fall from internal corruption..simple lesson of history...none believe it..that is why they fall.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Robin, you asked 10 pertinent questions.
    I am afraid the answer could be as simple 'YES' to all.
    UK has a lot of soul searching to sort this.

    In the meanwhile, the Police just have to be tough in response. There is nothing as demoralising as watching supposedly well-armed and organised Peacekeepers losing the initiative to spontaneous but very destructive rioters. If peacekeeping failed, ordinary citizens will have no hesitation in picking up the cudgel to defend lives and properties.

  • Comment number 6.

    In today's PM Clive Coleman observed a number of hooligans and looters in court. He made the point that most were in employment, and were mainly black men in their twenties. Reassuringly, most cases he observed were referred to the Crown Court.

    Looters must be stopped and for me "robust policing" would include the use of baton rounds and water canon. The victims of thuggery and looting in London last night were failed by the police. The police may eventually apprehend someone who burnt down a shop and it will recorded as a success, but wouldn't it have been much better to have provided adequate protection and prevented the criminal act in the first place?

  • Comment number 7.

    One question that should be asked -- is why Her Majesty and her government ignored the warning signs of possible riots by angry citizens against social inequalities.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11978954

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    OK mods,

    Please now consider #8, #9, and #10.

    --- So that I can continue with my logical contribution.

  • Comment number 12.

    Robin,

    only 11 (including me) responding to you World Tonight 'advert' last night for your blog on the riots. (Robert Peston got over 400 today on a couple of economics stories.)

    Yet the riots are perhaps more immediately 'important' and your blog still allows participant to express themselves and reflect on the news in a fuller and more subtle way.

    I kept away to see what other posted on the riots: your ten questions form a curious reflection of your own education and British liberal concerns.

    Looking at rioters in a more black and white way; if seen in the use of maximum force, up to lethal force, to prevent the continuation of the riot - the Bloody Sunday 'solution' - not at all British, but we have done it before, and remember we invented Concentration Camps for handling the Boers in South Africa. Remember also the Peterloo Massacre. But today we are scared to even smack a bottom, let alone cuff a rioter round the ear. I wonder if this decline in authorised official violence has been the mirror image of the violence in society? Should we, as a society, sanction greater official violence once again and bring back corporal punishment to the sanctions available to a magistrate? I guess not, but to have to pay considerable sums to keep rioters in prison seems daft, and not only in current circumstances.

    A particular incident reported on the TV news is quite troubling however. A shopkeeper said he phoned the police three times to report that his store was being looted and reported that he was told to stop bothering the 999 system. Something was undoubtedly wrong here and needs proper investigation. Indeed isn't that what we need, a public enquiry into the policing of the riots and not one that takes decades and costs tens of millions. We have to regain the streets from a very small number of thugs and at the same time to take steps to prevent the alienated from being so nihilistic that they only seek instant gratification and care nothing for the costs of their actions, on themselves, their friends, their family and society.

    There was that other incident filmed showing a Malaysian visitor having been mugged, then being robbed. Perhaps we should look at introducing, as the French have, a law that requires witnesses to an incident to come to the aid of the victim in such circumstances - a Good Samaritan law rather than the present vaguer 'duty to rescue' or even the German Unterlassene Hilfeleistung (neglect to provide assistance). That is to make it a prosecutable offence NOT to help a victim.

  • Comment number 13.

    The suggestion that convicted rioters and looters be booted out of their social housing is a good one. Honest hard-working families could move in to the vacated properties, but where best to house the criminals? It would achieve no overall benefit if boroughs simply "passed around" the criminals. Perhaps, secure hostel-style accommodation would be suitable, but it would require boroughs to work together. Dumping these rioters on unsuspecting communities is not the answer.

    I think that a small number of police officers armed with tear-gas and plastic bullet guns could do the work of a great many police officers armed only with sticks. Better policing will sooner come from using the right equipment than from increasing the police budget.

  • Comment number 14.

    In the early 70´s the `black problem´ was the topic of the media and the society. I had a black Jamaican friend at the time -- who explained ´his problem´. He asked me if I could understand what it is like to be a descendant of slaves and to be looked at sideways when walking down a British street or going into a ´white´ restaurant who would rather not serve you ?

    I admitted I didn´t know the feeling -- but it was clear he was helpless -- there was nothing he could do to be a fully accepted member of the British society.


  • Comment number 15.

    Please can we ban everyone involved in this wanton violence from ever signing on or claiming any benefits EVER again, also ANYONE held in custody should be FORCED to assist in the clean up. All their assets should be frozen and handed over to the government to put towards the massive costs incurred.

  • Comment number 16.

    #15 Peta Stratford-Johns

    As Mr. Cameron has said, parts of the British society are ´sick´. The failure of parental guidance was not only responsible for the present rioting -- but also the thieving of some MP´s (via expenses) and the bankrupt of Britain by possible ´spoiled brat´ bankers.

    While various punishments are being considered for the rioters -- I can agree with you --

    "All their assets should be frozen and handed over to the government to put towards the massive costs incurred."

  • Comment number 17.

    #16

    quietoaktree,

    Amen!

  • Comment number 18.

    Although writing from afar and not up close like most of your contributors, let me venture one prediction that is not included in your list. A year or two ago, I was much concerned with the overwhelming conviction of the G8 members that the financial crisis called for the imposition of austerity measures on national budgets to stem the tide of deficits on their economies. At the G20 meeting in Toronto, I predicted that President Obama as the only holdout for stimulus would not be able to maintain his (Keynesian) convictions, in the face of the other members of the G8. This has borne out to be the case, as the recent successful Republican debt limit "extortion" round of negotiations resulted in capitulation to their demands by Obama. I also predicted at the time that Chancellor George Osborne's rigid austerity policy would end up in protests and even riots. This has also been accurate. At the recent hurried Commons gathering in response to the riots, Osborne reiterated his determination to continue austerity measures. Predictably, the British economy has slowed dramatically in the second quarter and their are no signs of recovery. This leads to my prediction that David Cameron's tough measures to punish the Tottenham rioters will not solve the problems created by Osborne's policies. British chancellors as is well known have power that often exceeds that of their bosses, the prime ministers.

 

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