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WorldVoices: As London Burns

By Cameron S. Parsons

The sun will soon fall on the fifth day of what London's Metropolitan Police force has publically called "the worst disorder in current memory," yet the city finds itself no closer to respite.

London and surrounding suburbs have been in a state of near-anarchy ever since rioters first took to the streets last Saturday to protest the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year old father-of-four, during an attempted arrest in the low-income and multi-ethnic London borough of Tottenham.

As of August 10th, more than 1,100 people—mainly youth—have been arrested and 160 charged in connection with inciting violence and destruction of property. Amidst growing condemnation of what has been widely perceived as a slow government and police response to four days of humiliating mob-rule, Prime Minister David Cameron has starkly announced his desire to see "anyone convicted of violent disorder… sent to prison" as he vows to not let "a culture of fear" take control of the country.

Despite the tough language, the British Prime Minister can expect to face tough political questions from both sides of the aisle as he prepares to address the House of Commons on Thursday. According to early estimates from the Association of British Insurers (ABI), the insured costs of the riots may exceed more than £100 million ($163 million), and small business owners will expect to hear how their government plans to support them as the last flames are put out. What is more, Cameron will need to address the state of the city's preparedness as it sits one year away from hosting the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, as well as the role that his government's recent spending cuts have played in fomenting the social tensions. 

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Writing for Gulf News in Dubai, Claudia Webbe urges the British Government to look beyond the Duggan killing to discover the real issues behind the riots:

Nothing excuses the violence and looting that began in Tottenham on Saturday night and has since spread to other areas of London. The vast majority of people in Tottenham are law-abiding and peaceful, but the violence doesn't reflect that. […] Yet what is clear is that plenty of people were ready to act on the back of this peaceful protest. On Sunday morning, residents' homes, lives and businesses lay in ruins.

We are looking at a group of people disaffected by historical inequality: a high level of poverty and generational unemployment. And young black people are still more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

The catalyst for the initial, peaceful protest reflects something much deeper in the psyche of the community — the historical sense of injustice at deaths in custody.

The police have been given increasing legal powers to use force widely. But this privilege has to be used wisely. The police can only do so with the consent of the community — such policing doesn't work otherwise.

Now you have a community demanding justice for what they see as yet another unjust death in custody. The situation hasn't changed in decades, they believe: the police seem to have difficulty keeping people alive when in detention, particularly black people.

So as we reflect on a multitude of reasons for the riots, there will have to be a multitude of responses. Time, money, investment and commitment to community unity will be needed to repair trust and to restore order and normal reality.

The irony is that the institutions and organizations particularly youth services that could help rebuild relationships between the police and the community are faced with unprecedented funding cuts.

Among the sharpest of criticisms comes from the Spanish daily, El Pais, whose editors were quick to condemn the Cameron government for their delayed response to the current violence and larger social injustices. [translated from original Spanish]

We are still without a sufficient explanation for what has happened from the Cameron Government – they have yet to even put forward a hypothesis about the discriminatory and possibly criminal behavior of the police in the death of Duggan that would justify the burning of busses, the assault on businesses, and the widespread looting by organized bands of hoodlums. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the courts to determine the circumstances of the incidents and if there should be criminal penalties in each case it sees. However, it is the responsibility of the executive office to evaluate whether the social conditions of some of the neighborhoods of London, aggravated by the cuts to public spending, do not constitute a risk as well as an unsupportable injustice.

Far from reacting with speed, the British government has largely disappeared in the crucial hours and has responded with vagueness that has neither reinforced the credibility of the institutions fighting this conflict nor pacified the violence. The unfortunate management of the incidents opens the possibility the Labor opposition demanding political responsibilities of Cameron, whose credibility suffers new blows with each passing day of anger.

The economic crises cannot serve as the only explanation of the violent episodes  multiplying in Europe. Each case is different, but the collection of all of theses is creating a widespread state of agreement about representative democracy's an inability to bring sense of peace to the growing uneasiness of its citizens.

Theodore Dalrymple in the Australian writes on Wednesday of the governmental failures that have allowed the protests to become riots:

…Criminality is scarcely repressed any more in Britain. The last lord chief justice but two thought that burglary was a minor offence, not worthy of imprisonment, and the next chief justice agreed with him.

By the age of 12, an ordinary slum-dweller has learned he has nothing to fear from the law and the only people to fear are those who are stronger or more ruthless than he.

Punishments are derisory; the police are simultaneously bullying but ineffectual and incompetent, increasingly dressed in paraphernalia that makes them look more like the occupiers of Afghanistan than the force imagined by Robert Peel. The people who most fear our police are the innocent.

Of course, none of this reduces the personal responsibility of the rioters. But the riots are a manifestation of a society in full decomposition, of a people with neither leaders nor followers but composed only of egotists.

On a blog for the UK's Guardian, Michael White takes the opposite stance, proclaiming that the world has been too quick to place the blame on spending cuts, the Cameron government, or the Metropolitan Police. Rather, White insists that the fault lies solely with the youth running amok in the streets:

People who live relatively comfortable lives far from Tottenham should probably ponder before rushing to condemn the kids who ran amok on Saturday night and the copycat reprises in Enfield, Brixton etc on Sunday (teenagers are very conformist), if only to consider mitigating circumstances.

But, after a quick ponder, condemnation is the correct response…This was a consumerist riot by kids who used their disdain for the "feds" (copycat language from the TV – do they even know what it means?) to justify an opportunity to steal stuff.

Bystanders who told reporters it was "inevitable", justifiable by virtue of high local unemployment or the ineptitude of the police are just being what Lenin would have called useful idiots.

As so often, [Labor Party MP] Ken Livingstone couldn't resist jumping in with an attack on coalition spending cuts. Truly, he is…an opportunist to a fault.

But the Police Federation matched him by making a similar complaint about low police morale. Actually, it's the quality of the Met's leadership structure that should cause the federation (it's not the same as the "feds") more concern than coalition plans to cut police overtime, plans it won't succeed in achieving if this weekend is any guide (and it is).

As in Tottenham, many of the guilty parties were outsiders who have not been brought to justice. But the failures of the regulatory authorities, be they Tottenham nick or the Bank of England, is no excuse. […]What is more striking is another feature of modern speed – the need for instant gratification. That includes not just the consumerist rioters but the posse who couldn't wait for accurate answers to their legitimate questions about how Duggan met his end.

In the next few days, we should monitor how the police struggle to get their story straight about what did, and didn't, happen. But also look out for the addresses of those appearing in court, as well as whether or not they have jobs. It's tempting to blame poverty for looting, but – as with football hooliganism – it ain't necessarily so.

Even as the Iranian government continues to support Syria's use of violence to quell the social uprising within its borders, the ever-controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke out publically against the British handling of the riots. As reported by the state-run Fars News Agency, Ahmadinejad  "deplores the suppression of Protesters in Britain":

"I advise them (British authorities) to correct their brutal behavior since such a brutal attitude is totally unacceptable," President Ahmadinejad told reporters at the end of a cabinet meeting here in Tehran on Wednesday. 

Britain's politicians should give the people the freedom and chance to participate in their society's affairs, the Iranian president went on saying, and added that Britain should deal with the problems of its own people instead of launching military attacks on other states like Afghanistan and Libya. 

He also asked all European leaders to listen to their people's demands, and stated, "I'm concerned about a social outburst in the West and I am concerned that the outburst happens so badly that no one can control it." 
 

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Cameron S. Parsons is an editorial assitant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo Courtesy of flickr user Il Fatto Quotidiano]

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