Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London Riots Spread, Engulf Nation

London was burning.

So, Prime Minister David Cameron threw 16,000 police on the streets of London and locked down the capitol.

The violence spread across the rest of the country.

Manchester burned. Birmingham burned. Liverpool burned. Towns in Kent suffered smashed windows and looting. A police station in Nottingham was firebombed. It was not immediately known whether the sheriff had been there.

What began with the fatal police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan Thursday in Tottenham, north of London, escalated into a nationwide outpouring of pent-up frustration with a faltering economy, draconian service cuts, and an isolating disenfranchisement that disconnected a teeming underclass from the nation in which it lived.

"I was one of these kids but it's bloody hard for them," said one witness in Hackney. "There's nothing to do at all. University fees have gone up. Education costs money. And there's no jobs. This is them sending out a message."

What witnesses saw on the streets was more complex than the characterization that black youths enraged by the Duggan shooting were rioting. The rioters were for the most part young, and many were black, but many were also Asian and white. There were young men and young women. And some were not so young. 

"I've seen Turkish boys. I've seen Asian boys. I've seen grown white men," said Jay Kast, an East Ham youth worker who had witnessed three nights of rioting. "They're all out taking part," he said. "They're disconnected from the community and they just don't care."

Multi-ethnic areas of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham exploded in rioting and flames. The mobs were organically coordinating themselves with Blackberries and cell phones.

"Hampstead, bruv. Let's go rob Hampstead," one said.

"Kilburn. It's happening in Kilburn and Holloway," said another, consulting his Blackberry.

The riots have also been characterized as being non-political, but a riot didn't need to voice arcane parliamentary demands to make them political. The rioting itself demonstrated political failure. The rioting itself was an act of the body politic. The government's response to the rioting was a political response.

The riots were the result of many political decisions over many years that shaped the society the rioting sprang from. A society decided to disenfranchise its youth and its poor and its marginalized communities, and decided to criminalize the reactions of those disenfranchised youth and poor and marginalized communities.

"When you have police officers jumping out of vans, calling 18-year-olds bitches and niggers; I'm a youth worker, I see it all over," said one witness. "That's what's happening. They are thinking, 'who the fuck are you?' And so it starts."

The riots might be rampant thuggery or hooliganism, but it has clearly risen from some breakdown in the society's order. Large demonstrations had protested Britain's austerity measures and service cuts for months. Polite placard waving and rhythmic chanting weren't the only responses a government throwing its people under the bus might expect. Organic violent uprisings, regardless of whether they articulated political demands, have been a common enough response throughout history. The riot itself was the articulation of something gone terribly wrong.

England was still near enough to freedom that frustration and anger could foment an uprising that implied disappointment of expectation.

Mark Duggan was shot and killed when officers from the Metropolitan police's Operation Trident, a special violent crime unit tasked to black communities, and Special Crimes Directorate 11, the Met's intelligence unit, along with officers from CO19, a special armed unit, stopped the vehicle Duggan had been riding in near the Tottenham Hale tube station to arrest him. The Independent Police Complaints Commission announced Tuesday that Duggan had a loaded firearm in his possession, but concluded he had not fired at police. Duggan was shot once in the chest and once in the arm, and pronounced dead at the scene.

The shooting triggered a series of riots that escalated in scope daily, culminating in the widespread destruction splashed across televisions around the world. A huge Sony distribution center near Enfield was burned to the ground, after looters reportedly ran off with goods. Shops, restaurants, hair salons, and homes were attacked, vandalized and looted. Cars and buses were burned on the streets.

Gang bangers get gunned down by cops in America all the time, and no one protests. American cops gun down young people of color in the streets, in front of their homes, on train station platforms seemingly every week, and people act as though they're too numb to care.

But in England, a poor and disenfranchised underclass had taken the streets in cities and towns across the land. In England, despite the poverty, the service cuts, and the disenfranchisement of communities finding it harder and harder to access a better world, people were still impassioned enough to act out.

In London, there was still outrage. In England, there was still fury at the unfairness of a system that coddled the rich and dispossessed the poor. In England, the rioters might be black, or white, or Asian, or Middle Eastern, but it was the English tradition of civil disobedience that had won out. The violence was a condemnable tragedy for homeowners and shopkeepers and commuters and parents and a great nation. But, at least in England, there was still a will to fight.

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