Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Britain's teenage riot

London was ablaze last night as an unprecedented wave of violence and looting spread throughout the city, spreading to other cities in England. It was the third day of rioting in London, initially sparked by the police shooting of a young black man in Tottenham last week. But last night saw the situation explode and quickly spread after the government and the police appeared to lose control of the situation.

The rioters carrying out the violence were mostly children, teenagers in hooded sweatshirts covering their faces, bashing in store windows and setting cars on fire. I've written before about how Britain is terrified of its own children. Last night was a shocking manifestation of that problem. A 2008 poll showed that more than half of British adults are afraid of British children, believing they behave like animals and pose an increasing danger to themselves and others.

The images from last night are truly shocking, particularly the fires. It was the largest number of simultaneous fires London has seen since the blitz. There were reportedly children as young as seven taking part in the violence. What precipitated the violence was the fatal police shooting of a young black man last week in Tottenham. The police say he had a gun and was shooting at them, but his family says he was unarmed. The facts surrounding the case are still unclear.

But a peaceful protest against the police shooting on Saturday night quickly escalated into a riot. Before long, teenagers were organising themselves via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, coordinating attacks on stores and making away with electronics, shoes and anything else they could get their hands on. They also set fire to a landmark 1930's building with residents inside. The police were completely overwhelmed, not having suspected that the protest could turn violent. But many in London think this was na├»ve, and that the youth in the city were waiting for any excuse to start a riot. As a resident of Tottenham told the Telegraph yesterday, “This was always going to happen, this was a riot waiting for an excuse."

Though the precipitating incident was the shooting of a young back man, this is not a race riot – unlike the riots in Brixton and Tottenham in the 1980's. This is evident from the mixed ethnic background – black, white and Asian - of the participants as shown by television coverage. In fact the participants seem to have only one thing in common – they are all youths. This is an age riot.

The map above is a live Google map showing the areas affected. As you can see, the rioting last night spread throughout the city – from impoverished areas in East London like Hackney, to hip nightlife hotspots like Clapham, to leafy suburbs like Ealing. The rioting even spread to other cities in England including Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Bristol. The BBC website has this morning changed the name of the special coverage section from "London Riots" to "England Riots".

Residents of London are now waiting nervously to see if the riots continue for a fourth night. Many are anxious that the situation could turn into something like the Paris riots of 2005, which went on for nearly a month. Those riots were also triggered by the deaths of young men from ethnic minorities, who were electrocuted while fleeing from police in a construction site. The incident ignited pre-existing tensions, as stories circulated that the boys were innocent of any wrongdoing and were being harassed by the police.

But there is one big difference between the Paris riots and what is unfolding in London: geography. The areas of poverty in Paris are located in a ring around the city called the banlieue. With the exception of a few minor disturbances around Republique, the city centre in Paris was unaffected by the violence, as you can see in the map to the left. This is not the case in London, where the areas of poverty are spread throughout the city. In fact the level of income diversity within London's neighbourhoods is quite unique when you compare it to similar cities like Paris and New York.

Whereas I would have been unlikely to have friends living in the areas affected by the 2005 Paris riots, I have many friends living in the areas that were affected in London last night. My friends were posting on Facebook about being trapped in their apartments in Hackney, Brixton and Clapham, watching the riots going on outside and being terrified that their apartments would be set on fire. Many did not sleep last night. One friend had a brick thrown through his window. Unlike the Paris banlieue riots, the London riots are presenting an immediate danger to London's young professionals and middle class.

If I were a British property developer, I'd be buying property in London's home county suburbs today. The level of fear and exasperation I'm hearing from my friends in London is unlike anything I've heard before. They are truly terrified. And it wouldn't surprise me if these riots resulted in a flight out of the city for young professionals from elsewhere in England, who have increasingly been moving into London's poorer areas.

Social causes

So what has gone wrong with the youth in Britain's underclass? Already last night there was plenty of blame being thrown around. The left was blaming the violence on the Tories' austerity cuts, and the right was blaming it on the previous Labour party "coddling" the nation's increasingly "degenerate" youth.

Former London mayor Ken Livingstone phoned into the BBC last night to blame the explosion of violence on the Conservative leadership being distant and unconnected from the people. And though the news presenter tried in vain to draw him into a conversation about how to quell the immediate violence, he continued talking about how the Tories were alienating the poor in Britain, and a revolt like this was inevitable.

Surely, the explanation is not as simple as that. But the fact is things are bleak for Britain's youth, particularly the underclass – and what little hope had previously been offered to them has been cut by the austerity measures. Youth clubs have been closed, and the price of university education was tripled overnight last year, making it unaffordable for the poor.

But the problem is larger than just the recent cuts. Much of the youth of Britain's underclass are disillusioned, disengaged kids that don't see themselves as part of society. There's no other explanation for how they could perpetrate such wanton destruction upon their fellow citizens last night, torching homes which contained families with young children and attacking random passerby's on the street. This video of a rioter stealing out of the backpack of an injured spectator says it all.

The sheer level of disconnection and disrespect from Brtain's youths was something I noticed almost immediately when I moved from New York to London in 2006. It was shocking to me then, as I had never witnessed children and teenagers behave that way in New York. During my three years living in London I was mugged by youths twice (once at gunpoint) and pickpocketed three times. Neither of those things ever happened to me or anyone I know in New York.

This is a problem that took decades to create, and now that the world is plummeting into a level of economic crisis not seen since the great depression, it is liable to explode into violence. That potential doesn't just lie in britain. With the main principles of Social Democracy now being dead or no longer affordable, an increasing portion of the West's underclass seem to believe they have no hope for the future. As Mary Ridell wrote in the Telegraph this morning,
The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution. After the Great Crash, Britain recalibrated, for a time. Income differentials fell, the welfare state was born and skills and growth increased. That exact model is not replicable, but nor, as Adam Smith recognised, can a well-ordered society ever develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous.
This is a lesson to be learned not just for Britain, but also for the other countries of Europe and North America. This is a new, dangerous world we are entering.


Captain Kid said...

Thanks for this well-balanced analysis!

I was quite disappointed with Cameron's speech today. Instead of fighting the causes that you enumerate in your article, he just called for "more police" and "robust action". But if you don't target the causes of violence, all that is left is to create a surveillance state with even more police brutality. He sounded as if he was Assad.

Fran said...

You could equally say that this is the result of too much Social Democracy. There's a sense of entitlement without responsibilities. There is a welfare state that has become a generational lifestyle rather than a safety net and council blocks in East London with 90% unemployment. Social Democracy is fundamentally socially disempowering, with areas of minimal property ownership ir civic engagement, meaning there's no community-organised restraint on these people.

I'm also not sure we will see a white flight as you suggest. Changes to housing benefit rules already hint at pushing the workless poor to cheaper areas, Paris style. Greenwich council has threatened to evict looters from their council housing. The looting might encourage people to now accept this as desirable, leading to greater urban middle-class support for these Tory proposals.

chrischaos said...

i think its kind of good. im just sayin
dantes inferno

Frank said...

Cheers. On the pulse as ever. Pretty sobering commentary there Dave but I think we definately need some kind of recalibration of society as Mary Ridell puts it. People have to have hope and self-esteem as well as respect for authority.

Pedro said...

Brats who grew up on a "consume consume must have must have" society will of course feel miserable when they can't afford that new 3D TV or the latest fancy pair of sports shoes. Boohoo....

Chris said...

It is telling that even the usual apologists, e.g. Diane Abbot, have said publicly "the cuts do not cause this criminality". And Ken has called for the water cannons!

Chris said...

I'm wondering if, perversely, the geographical point you make might actually help speed a 'recovery'? Whereas in Paris the 75 area was spared I'm wondering if the population there remained unconnected with the problems. Whereas with the mixed neighbourhoods in london, would this help bring together the 'good' people as they are seeing the problems literally on their doorstep...Just a thought.
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