Things are hot in London right now. No, we haven’t abandoned our usually underwhelming weather and gone for a US style heatwave. We’re heating up due to (so far) three nights of civil unrest in the city. At least a third of London boroughs have been touched by a mixture of protest, riots and looting that has seen shops destroyed, fires raging and at least one death. Police have been involved in running battles on the street trying to regain control. For those of you who picture London as a genteel place full of bobbies on the beat, double decker buses and tourist attractions this might take you by surprise, but the situation has been brewing gently for quite a while.
London is a big city. Around 7 million people live in the Greater London area and like all big cities, it is populated by a real mix of people. Some say every country in the world is represented here and around 27% of the city’s population were born outside the UK. There is certainly a marked difference in social standing in may of London’s residents. Kensington and Chelsea seems to have nothing in common with Tower Hamlets and Haringay. The fact that all social classes live cheek by jowl in London is one of the things that makes it such a fascinating place to live and visit. But it also makes it a precarious and potent place when things go wrong.
Social inequality has been widening in the UK since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Many of her policies—known here as Thatcherism—mirror those of her close friend Ronald Reagan. The industrial North of England was decimated particularly by the closure of its mines and factories, but the whole country faced high unemployment and recession and things reached a fever pitch in throughout the 80s in London with riots, particularly in working-class neighborhoods like Brixton and Tottenham. Economic uncertainty in those areas was compounded by intense racism on the part of London’s Metropolitan Police created the conditions for rioting that haunts those neighborhoods’ reputations and left civilians and police officers dead and the whole country reeling.
And yet, thirty years later, we appear to be repeating ourselves. Britain’s economy is fragile after the 2008 economic crash and is barely growing. Social mobility has ground to a halt. We have a coalition government who tell us all is well, but do not seem like comfortable bedfellows. For many reasons, including the fact that 23 out of 29 Cabinet members are millionaires, the government seems out of touch to many. They are also trying to push through the widest changes to the Welfare State since its creation and implement enormous cuts to social provision such as healthcare, welfare, council services and education, ostensibly to kickstart the economy, but their plans to increase the level of private industry in publis services suits their Conservative ideas nicely. The country is split on whether this is a good idea, but the cuts have begun. The government intends to remove 90% people from sickness benefits, raise social housing rents by 40%, part privatise the NHS and triple the cost of university tution. Few, if any, of these proposals were in their manifesto and the government has been relying on the tabloid media to make it palatable now they are in power. These are in some cases, the same red tops owned by Rupert Murdoch that have been exposed hacking into peoples’ voicemails, and illegally paying Metropolitan police officers for information, which triggered a political scandal that has seen the country’s most senior policeman resign and the entire political elite be cast in a different, and difficult to trust, light.
Meanwhile the cuts are starting to bite. Changes to Housing Benefit (which supplements or pays rent for those in low paid work or unemployment) has been changed in such a way as to make it incresingly difficult to find rental accomodation in inner city areas and threatens to change the entire make up of London. Educational Maintenance Allowance that paid for 16-18 year olds to stay in school has been scrapped. University fees have tripled overnight. Youth services have been cut by up to a 100% in some London boroughs. Unemployment amongst young people is the highest since records began. No one under 35 can live alone and receive Housing Benefit. Inflation is over 50% higher than it should be and minimum wage has stayed static.
Everyone is having it tough, but 16-24 year olds of all races in inner city areas are bearing the twin burdens of little money and little hope or opportunity. Education and employment chances are being closed off to them and gang structures and drugs are starting to fill the voids, bringing with them the concerns of ‘respect’ and anti-establishment thinking. Knife crime is commonplace amongst certain groups of teens who feel they will never get a job or have even a rented home of their own—but just round the corner it seems like their neighbours have it all. Resentment is commonplace.
Combine with that the fact that the institutional racism of the 80s has never quite the left the Met. A man of colour is seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than his white counterpart. There is serious distrust in certain communities toward the police. But add the Met’s recent exposure of corruption and their killing of Jean Charles De Menezes and Ian Tomlinson without punishment for those involved and you have everything primed and ready to blow. You just need a spark to ignite it and that came last week with the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot by the Met on Thursday night in Tottenham.
No one knows what happened for sure. The Met and the Independent Police Complaints Commission seem to be investigating, but without giving the public much information. Duggan’s family feels excluded from the process. A peaceful march on Tottenham police station became a riot on Saturday night when rumour spread of a 16 year old girl being batoned by the police. Buses were burned, rocks were thrown and it seemed the 80s were being replayed.
Two further nights of disruption have followed, mainly involving groups of young people of all races and genders attacking shops, setting fires and helping themselves to stuff as they leave a trail of destruction. It’s not what I’d call rioting. They aren’t fighting the police, they aren’t after symbols of the state. They want trainers and flatscreen TVs and to be heard. They want the attention that society has been denying them for years and they don’t really care how they get it. They also don’t expect to succeed in life so a criminal record means nothing and they’ll take any chance to get a new phone because who knows when they’ll be able to afford to buy one? They are attacking their own homes and communities without direction and definition. It’s like the big kids’ version of throwing their toys out of the pram. Except this is serious. They are destroying people’s lives and homes and taking away the good things about their own communities. In Brixton on Sunday night, less than a quarter of a mile from my house, they used the annual street party as an excuse to loot. In Croydon, they burned down a landmark business run by the same family for 5 generations. Homes have been burned out, businesses destroyed and jobs lost while the police have seemed to lack control, unable to pin the looters down and corral them.
But unlike other cities—like my hometown of Belfast—that frequently riot, there is no widespread public support for these actions. The majority condemn it utterly as wanton violence. Even where they can see the causes, Londoners despise the result. While individuals might be protecting their kids or friends who were involved, there is no community support for those who roam around damaging our city. Despite rumour that social media is organising the violence, it’s also being more widely used to condemn it, calm it and try to castigate those involved. People are Tweeting pics and video of unmasked looters, flocking to the Met’s Flickr page to identify people and to participate in the #riotcleanup movement to restore order to damaged communities. The looters and disrupters are spontaneous, without rhyme or reason to the areas where they strike and or the actions they commit—while it seems like those who oppose the violence are mobilised and standing together. There simply isn’t the deep commitment to the cause of violence that characterises the rioting of Belfast. There also isn’t the non-critical tone toward the police, the government and the authorities that there was toward the Civil Rights marches of 1969 in Northern Ireland that allowed the army in and the situation to take hold.
Londoners are not standing back and telling those in charge to just do what they like. Even the media is raising questions about the lack of transparancy at the IPCC, the corruption at the Met, the seemingly weak government that meant it took three days for the Prime Minister and Mayor of London to return from holiday. The groups of people standing watching shops close at 2pm in Brixton today were asking as many questions and reserving as much ire for those in charge as those causing the damage. The sirens, early closing, and palls of smoke remind me of summers in Belfast, but the politics and positions don’t. And there just isn’t the potential for London to become the same sectarian type of place I grew up, but there is the potential for us to completely reassess how we treat different sections of society and how we value things beyond simply their financial cost. This time we might even learn enough not to repeat our mistakes once a generation too.