Riots reflect a broken society


THE EXPLOSIVE manner in which the tensions of London’s youth underclass turned into a sustained campaign of violence and looting is a salutary reminder of how easy it is to take normal social order for granted – there or elsewhere. Many parts of the city, one of the world’s richest and host to next year’s Olympic Games, have been transformed in a few days by arson and theft, with the police left struggling to assert control.

Residents and onlookers in search of causes scramble between criminal, political and social explanations for such a dramatic impact on the city’s everyday and commercial fabric. Yesterday’s political initiatives concentrate largely on greater security. But unless they go deeper to tackle underlying factors behind this explosion they may simply reproduce the conditions which gave rise to it. This is a real challenge for tomorrow’s reconvened parliament session.

The chronology of these events links last week’s fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old resident of Tottenham, to a protest meeting organised by his relatives outside the local police station on Saturday evening and to the initial round of arson and looting that night, which then escalated on Sunday and Monday. Local residents and representatives emphasise this is not a causal chain in which Mr Duggan’s death causes, much less justifies, the violence, which has been widely and properly condemned. Its widespread escalation pulls in criminal opportunists tempted to take by theft the commodities conferring social status they can no longer afford in times of hardship – “free stuff” in short.

But that there is a genuine relationship between the events is difficult to deny. It centres on relations between policing and the young, mostly black men and women in Tottenham and other neighbourhoods who complain of systematic and disproportionate harassment. They are among the poorest in London, who have been badly hit by recent public expenditure cuts. Youth unemployment and radical cuts in funding for local clubs and facilities remove alternatives. The sheer hatred of the police demands attention and action – despite undoubted progress made in policing since similar London riots in the 1980s. Assumed impunity drives these actions even more. It is all too easy to dismiss their actions as pure criminality demanding a strong security response, but that will probably rebound in future.

Police failure to contain or prevent the subsequent violence is also a huge issue. Systematic mistakes began with the Duggan shooting, continued with the failure to respond promptly and honestly with his relatives, and went on to demonstrate a striking inability to keep up with the highly mobile looters or to protect firefighters and retailers under attack. Local community involvement came to little.

It doesn’t help that leadership of the London police is in a vacuum after the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal, nor that their resources are being cut. These are challenging times for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ahead of a winter that promises harsher public expenditure cuts and poorer economic prospects.