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.
Professor Mary Hickman, of London Metropolitan University, is Britain’s best-known expert commentator on the Irish in Britain. She has also carried out extensive research on integration in British society. Her work confirms a key point: it’s all about the local. Two of the six sites she and her team studied, Kilburn and Downham, a part of Lewisham, were opposite cases. In Lewisham, where there was a lot of trouble during the riots this week, community relations are poor.
Kilburn, traditionally an area of Irish immigration, is very mixed nowadays - English, a lot of older Irish, younger Asian, recently arrived West Africans. But relations are generally good, largely because people work hard, at local level, at building good connections. This doesn’t have to mean that people will only live with people with whom they believe they share common values, as long as they are willing and able to conduct a dialogue and to decide for themselves what kind of interactions they wish to have with one another.
People in Ireland and in the US may think all this is irrelevant, but I beg to differ. The fissures in British society today may be partly racial, but they are also social. The gap between rich and poor, in Ireland as much as in Britain and indeed the US , has become intolerably wide. We are all being asked to ‘tighten our belts’, social services, education and health are being cut back, but those who are seen as having perpetrated the crisis which has befallen us have not suffered by comparison. The current British riots do show that Britain is not yet integrated, socially or racially. It would be foolish for people in Ireland or the US to feel they are doing any better.
Piaras Mac Einri is an immigration expert and lectures at University College Cork.