Originally via Baratunde Thurston, this video is both a good explanation of how and why the riots in the UK started. There’s profound economic distress, along with decades of racial tension and treatment of black Britons by the police as a suspect underclass. That dynamic plays out in the interview, between Darcus Howe and his white BBC interviewer. Howe is a journalist himself and a long-time racial justice activist. He’s treated like a criminal by the BBC interviewer and afforded less respect than any individual I’ve ever seen appear on TV.
Lots of folks in the US are linking to this excellent post from London blogger Penny Red. The whole piece is worth a read, as it takes the notion that there are real, meaningful underlying causes seriously. This passage stands out:
Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.
Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.
Tonight in London, social order and the rule of law have broken down entirely. The city has been brought to a standstill; it is not safe to go out onto the streets, and where I am in Holloway, the violence is coming closer. As I write, the looting and arson attacks have spread to at least fifty different areas across the UK, including dozens in London, and communities are now turning on each other, with the Guardian reporting on rival gangs forming battle lines. It has become clear to the disenfranchised young people of Britain, who feel that they have no stake in society and nothing to lose, that they can do what they like tonight, and the police are utterly unable to stop them. That is what riots are all about.
Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.
Racial tension. A broken economy. Unaccountable elites waging warfare through legislation on working people. A commitment to creating pain amongst the people who had nothing to do with economic collapse while nothing is asked of those who caused economic collapse. It’s not shocking that there are riots in the United Kingdom, though it’s sad that people have been pushed so far as to resort to this to have their voices heard.
…Adding, this Reuters piece is a good read, as it actually includes interviews with a number of rioters, who cite inequality, gentrification, a lack of educational opportunities, and austerity as reasons for the riots.
“The only way we can get out of this is education, and we’re not entitled to it, because of the cuts. Even for bricklaying you need a qualification and a waiting list for a course. I signed up in November, and still haven’t heard back,” the Kurdish man said.
The government has also raised university tuition fees since coming into power, putting a higher education further out of the reach of youths from places like Hackney.
“They’re screwing the system so only white middle-class kids can get an education,” said another man, who declined to be named. He said politicians were the real criminals, and pointed to a 2009 expenses scandal in which several lawmakers were revealed to have cheated the taxpayer out of thousands of pounds.
Just because people are rioting doesn’t mean they’re uninformed or stupid. Political elites in the UK should be responsive to these people and their anger, otherwise the chances of things getting better is extremely low. Desires to succeed, to be educated, to lift oneself and one’s family out of poverty are not criminal. These are normal human aspirations. They should be respected.