Roots of the Riots: Don’t Ignore the Causes, Londoners Plead

Brixton and Peckham, two of the communities in London rocked by the recent riots, are not mere dots on a map to Paul Bower. He’s lived in both communities, including living through a riot in Brixton thirty years ago.

Bower says people need to carefully distinguish between legitimate grievances festering in the now riot-scared areas – things like lack of employment – and the lawlessness of youthful looters.

The fiery and destructive looter rampages, Bower stresses, like inner city riots in the US in the US during the 1960s, have destroyed many small businesses owned by non-whites and the homes of poor people, white and non-white alike.

“These riots were not about unemployment. Yes, there is a lack of opportunity but [the looters] weren’t saying they want to work. They were saying I want what’s in that window,” Bower said during a telephone interview from London.

Bower’s work includes increasing job opportunities for London residents, so he’s well acquainted with the difficulties people have finding jobs in the UK these days.

“In hip-hop terms this is not Public Enemy ‘Fight the Power.’ It is 50-Cent ‘Get Rich or Die Trying,’” explained Bower, who now lives near London’s Camden section, which also experienced some of the rioting.

Rioting in Britain has spread through London and to other cities over several daysRioting in Britain has spread through London and to other cities over several days

The current wave of rioting has already led to nearly 1,000 arrests in London, Britain’s capital city, during just a few days of unrest.

The trigger for the recent riots that swept through communities in London and across other major cities in Britain was yet another death of a black man while in police custody. Over 330 people have died in police custody since 1998 without the conviction of a single police officer.

Abusive police practices sparked the 1981 riot in Brixton in South London and the 1985 riot in the North London Broadwater Farm section of Tottenham – the community where this latest round of rioting began on Saturday, Aug. 6th. In that incident, police fatally shot Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father.

While Paul Bower feels that “stealing,” not social justice, has spurred many of the looters (a mixture of black and white youths), he and many others in London point to systemic social ills like economic inequities and unchecked police misconduct that too many leaders (governmental and corporate) simply ignore.

The slashing of social service funding, particularly for youth related matters from education to recreation, by Britain’s Conservative led coalition government, has accelerated the conversion of Tottenham into a “tinder box waiting to explode,” declares Diane Abbott, the first black women ever elected to Britain’s Parliament. Abbott represents a district adjacent to Tottenham.

Dr. Nina Power, a philosophy professor at London’s Roehampton University, wrote in a commentary that, “Images of burning buildings may provide spectacular fodder for a restless media, ever hungry for new stories and fresh groups to demonize, but we will understand nothing of these events if we ignore the history and context in which they occur.”

Now compounding the growing list of ignored ills are austerity measures implemented by Britain’s Conservative-led government — cuts that have devastated funding for desperately needed social services, dashing hopes of young adults living in economically distressed areas.

“Those condemning the events of the past couple of nights in north London and elsewhere would do well to take a step back and consider the bigger picture: a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest [and] where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy,” Power wrote in a commentary published in The Guardian/UK headlined: “There is a Context to London’s Riots that Can’t Be Ignored.”

Unemployment in Tottenham is double the national average and one section of that community contains London’s fourth highest level of child poverty, Power wrote.

Diane Abbott, condemning rioting and looting in an article published during the height of the rioting in The Independent newspaper, wrote that given the government’s funding cuts in services and jobs creation, “It is difficult to see how areas like Tottenham can become less flammable soon.”

Symeon Brown, a youth worker raised in Tottenham who co-founded a youth uplift initiative in that community in 2007 is quoted in a blog posting stating, “Young people feel their representatives do not care about them. The council’s youth services have been cut by 75%, which is astronomical. It is a real assault on social democracy and public services.”

Lurking monster-like behind lack of employment, social service cuts and other embedded inequities is rampant police abuse.

One consistently criticized British police practice is the infamous policy of “Stop-&-Search,” which, as in the United States in cities like New York and Philadelphia, targets racial minorities disproportionately.

The British police “Stop-&-Search” practice – widely referenced there as “SUS” – rivals fatal shootings by police for generating outrage among non-whites (including recent immigrants) and poor whites.

“This sounds familiar doesn’t it?” remarked one Philadelphia talk radio show host during a recent program, in reacting to a guest who cited London statistics about the ‘Stop-&-Search’ practices and fatal police shootings.

Minorities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean complain about abuses and humiliation from these contacts with police that rarely produce arrests for guns or other weapons which is the officially stated justification for the dragnet practice.

In May 2010 the New York Times reported that blacks and Latinos in New York City were nine times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police but no more likely to be arrested for a violation discovered during that search.

In October 2010 the Guardian reported that blacks were 26 times more likely
than whites to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales – confirming claims of racial profiling by police in Britain.

In March 2011 many in Britain expressed outrage over the police custody death of David Emmanuel, a 48-year-old widely known as Smiley Culture. Police contend that Emmanuel stabbed himself to death by ramming a knife completely through his body while in the kitchen of his London home surrounded by four policemen.

“Either you believe Smiley stabbed himself or that he was stabbed by one of the police officers present,” stated a press release from London’s Pan-Afrikan Society Community Forum, an organization that addresses police abuse.

“No police murderer has ever been convicted in Britain,” continued the release, which contains five and a half single-spaced pages of names/details of persons who have died in police custody dating back to the late 1970s.

“The so-called Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) came into existence on April Fool’s Day (1st April 2004) and the record remains unchanged,” that release asserted. “The state funded/controlled IPCC…is a cruel joke against victims of police violence/wrong doing.”

Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote, a prominent equal rights organization in Britain, questions the law-&-order focused reactions to the latest riots by Britain’s Prime Minister and the Mayor of London – two officials fearful of impacts these disturbances will have on Britain’s image and on the 2012 Summer Olympics slated for London.

“Social and racial injustice will not be on the agenda” of the meetings by top officials about the riots, Woolley predicted in an analysis posted on OBV’s website.

“If we don’t get this right, the very element that caused national disturbances – heavy-handed, unaccountable policing – could get much worse,” Woolley noted in that analysis, which included criticism of the looters for ‘hijacking’ a peaceful protest Saturday (8/6) against the death of Mark Duggan.

Woolley, during a telephone interview from London, said much news media coverage of the disturbances has been derelict.

“What is shockingly missing is a perspective from the black community that is bold enough to articulate the complicated dynamics. What we have is condemnation without understanding,” Woolley pointed out.

Woolley feels that the British government has lost its moral authority with many on the lower rungs of that society’s economic ladder.

“Many see the government looting everyday like expense scandals involving members of Parliament and government giving money to the banks that looted the economy,” said Woolley.

“The youths are kicking back hard. All reports now say that social mobility in [Britain] is at a stand-still…and there is no official recognition that the infrastructure people need in order to flourish is not there.”