London: There is a lot of overheated and even hysterical media coverage about the situation here in London. Equally, some media coverage, including that of the BBC, has been astonishing in its patronizing complacency and its stereotypical assumptions about race and class. Yet this phenomenon is complex and multi-stranded and reflects deep underlying stresses in British society today.
There are many very marginalized public housing estates in the Greater London area and across Britain, with a legacy of bad relations between police and the local community going back decades, but also with a history of poor provision of support services, high rates of unemployment and a range of related social problems. Generally these are black areas; Britain is not a fully integrated society.
The current spate of incidents exploded following the killing last week by armed police of Mark Duggan, in circumstances which are as yet unexplained. Mr Duggan, a black man, grew up on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham, the same place where, in 1985, PC Colin Blakelock, the first policeman to be killed in a riot in Britain since 1833, was shot following a series of incidents including the death of an Afro-Caribbean woman, Cynthia Jarrett, from a stroke, during a robust police search of her home.
So far, so predictable. Are the current events in London ‘race-related’? It’s not that simple. Anyone who has seen footage of the looters and rioters who have taken to the streets in the past three days and nights will have noticed that a good number of them were white. As one tweet acidly put it 'The Youth of the arab spring rise up for basic freedoms. TheYouth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV. Something more complicated is going on, hardly captured by the simplistic term ‘criminality’, used by PM David Cameron, even though much of the behaviour has been criminal.
It’s summertime and there is nothing to do. Britain is a society marked by a huge and increasing gap between haves and have-nots in this consumerism-obsessed society, where social services have been relentlessly run down and youth unemployment is at an all-time high at more than 20%. Political life has stagnated, which may be one reason why the frustration of some people is being expressed through such means as an avowedly violent anarchist wing of the British student movement. These are the people who ‘break away’, as the media reports always put it, from peaceful demonstrations and proceed to attack iconic buildings or monuments or individuals thought to be particularly representative of the state. It is difficult to believe that such ideologically driven individuals played no role in the looting and mayhem of the past three days.
It’s a bit ironic that the methods the British used in the Northern Ireland for so many years are not considered to be acceptable here – no water cannon, plastic bullets, baton charges, snatch squads or tear gas. I’m not saying they should have been. The principle of ‘policing by consent’ is a far better one. The ‘Rotterdam Charter’ on policing for a multi-ethnic society embodies the principle that any police force, in its structure, should reflect the society it polices – as we see nowadays with the PSNI. For a variety of reasons, the London police undeniably lost control in the past few days (cutbacks are relevant as well). The people who have lost their businesses in the riots are mostly members of ethnic minorities themselves – small Asian shopkeepers and restaurant owners who have lost everything. Some of the interviews with them on local radio here have been heartbreaking.
It doesn’t have to be like this and there is another, more benign, side to British society. The place where I am staying here is perfectly quiet. It's a mixed council estate, the majority of which is still tenanted, but with a good number of owner-occupiers. The area around (Archway, North London) is very mixed - Asian, black and white - slightly shabby but lively, with a mix of everything from Turkish grocers to Irish pubs. There are very upmarket houses in Highgate, minutes away. The friend who has lent her place to me while she is on holidays says there have been occasional problems with disruptive adolescents but nothing serious; relations with the police are good. The neighbours are friendly and, looking at the numerous children playing around the place, I don't see any sign of segregation on grounds of race.