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United Kingdom: Making Sense of the London Riots

Communities across London woke up to a wave of destruction on Tuesday morning, following another night of anarchic rioting and looting. At least 560 people have been arrested and over 100 charged since rioting began on Saturday, August 6, 2011. In the most recent developments, the violence has seen its first fatality, as a man shot in Croydon on Monday night died after being admitted to hospital.

It has also been confirmed that Mark Duggan, the man whose death last Thursday sparked the riots, did not open fire on police before he was shot – as police first claimed – but did draw a weapon. A post-mortem revealed that he died from a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Earlier today, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that 16,000 police officers will be deployed in London tonight — up from 6,000 yesterday — in an attempt to control new outbreaks of violence. With the capital's resources stretched, reinforcement police are being brought in from around the country. Shops across the capital have also been ordered to close early and board up their storefronts.

Damaged window of Primark store in Peckham, south London. By J@ck!' on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Explosive footage of the violence has spread online relentlessly through the day. Images circulated of looters stealing anything possible — from footwear to rice – setting properties ablaze; of crowds clashing with police; residents fleeing danger; rioters being chased; and also of a leaflet found in Dalston, east London, advising rioters how to avoid identification.

This disturbing YouTube video also shows an injured youth being helped from the ground and subsequently robbed by a group of young men in London (exact location unknown).

A shopkeeper in Peckham shared her experiences of Monday night's violence on

As shopkeepers who live above their shop we felt in equal measures relieved that we were there to keep an eye on things, and terrified – for if they had broken into the shop what, precisely, could we have done about it? There came a point where I was standing behind our shop shutters, in the dark, with looters just one metre away. I questioned whether our shutters would hold. I prayed they’d move on. I hoped they wouldn’t spot me, skulking there, transfixed. I started shaking a little bit. To see such utter contempt and rage so close, on the snarling-yet-gleeful faces of the perpetrators, makes you question what it is that makes up a human being.

On the Going Undergound blog, Annie Mole wrote that last night's looting made her feel “ashamed to be a Londoner”:

I have no solutions. I have only shock, horror and a slight edge of fear. I have no idea when this inexplicable behaviour will stop. I have no idea how it could have happened in the first place. This is a London that could possibly be changed forever.

More comforting news came in the form of a mass clean-up operation in the capital this morning. Aided by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to organise volunteers and share information, communities across London mobilised to clean debris.

The scenes have been ones of solidarity: this afternoon, volunteers raised their brooms in unison at one clean-up in Clapham Junction, south London. In Peckham, locals stuck post-it notes to a boarded-up Poundland shop descrbing what they love about their neighbourhood.

In between the two extremes of discord and morale, the country now finds itself trying to make sense of the events, which have highlighted deep tensions in the relationship between political leaders, the police and the communities they aim to serve.

While condemnation of the violence has been widespread, many say they are unsurprised at its occurrence, arguing that social exclusion, disenfranchisement and tensions between police and communities in the riot areas had been at the boiling point for decades. On the Huffington Post, Lola Adesioye argues that racial tensions are at the core of this exclusion:

The underlying issues – in particular a sense that black Britons are routinely ill treated by the establishment, the police especially – still have not been resolved. Tensions between black youth and the police in the inner cities have not dissipated. On the contrary, suspicions are endemic. Black leadership is desperately lacking, and the country refuses to tackle these major challenges in any substantive way.

Another blogger, journalist Doug Saunders disagrees with the notion that racial tension gave way to this week's violence:

Tottenham was the site of the terrible Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, which also began with a protest over a police shooting – but that was another London, deeply divided along racial lines, with a furious and socially excluded Caribbean community battling an all-white and explicitly racist police force. This week, by contrast, both the rioters and the police are multicoloured.

For British writer Kenan Malik, this week's protestors lack a concrete political motive, unlike those of the 1980s:

Those [1980s] riots were a direct challenge to oppressive policing and to mass unemployment. They threatened the social fabric of Britain’s inner cities and forced the government to rethink its mechanisms of social control. Today’s riots may have made the Metropolitan police look inept, revealed politicians as out of touch and brought mayhem to some parts of London, Liverpool and Birmingham. But there is little sense that they pose a challenge to social order.

He added:

It’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any meaningful sense, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem.

Youth worker Symeon Brown opined:

@symeonbrown: It is true these young people do not have a manifesto but if their actions are not political then clearly we need a new word for ‘political’.

Many, including the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, predicted that the government's controversial austerity measures were a recipe for political and social unrest.

Writing at Brand Republic, Hugh Salmon said:

[The Coalition] have failed to look back over their shoulders  and consider the people the cuts affect.

And, because they don’t understand people, and have no feeling for how human beings behave, they have failed to realise that if you cut jobs and, at the same time, you cut benefits then you create the tinderbox for the fires we have seen on our streets this week.

Demotix have photo galleries of the aftermath of looting incidents, while the Guardian's Data Blog has mapped verified riots across the country, as well as key facts and figures. Freelance journalist Neal Mann (@fieldproducer) has also compiled a list on Twitter of London-based reporters covering the events.

Sylwia Presley (@PresleySylwia) contributed to the writing of this post.


  • The post I’ve seen most frequently linked and quoted today is this one, from Penny Red:

  • Dario

    Research has proven that there are different links between poverty and crime. Sheer poverty spurs “property crime” (from theft to burglary) but violent crimes are indeed generated by social exclusion and inequalities.

    Now one might argue (or not) that the extent of inequalities in London isn’t all that bad (I’ve heard comments summarizing the situation as “do you have a 3D TV screen or not”) but maybe one could try to link these events to the riots in Paris a few years back. You’d then find the same kind of situation with social exclusion & malfunctioning social ladder.

    More on the relation between poverty and crime here:

  • The present riots of London remind me of the South Central Riots of Los Angeles in the 90s. I was there. More importantly, leaders everywhere will do well to remember that injustice and indifference gives license to vice, violence, and anarchy. Nor shall non-violent protest succeed where hearts are broken and spiritual leaders cannot heal and give hope. And, finally, communities would do well to remember that state-sponsored welfare is a poor and dreadful substitute for a community’s ontological and civil responsibility for the general welfare and happiness of it’s members – especially the poor, the suffering, the sick, the unemployed, and the otherwise disenfranchised. In other words, the cup of stupidity overflows.

  • […] students asking for necessary changes in their educational system, made even more relevant as the London Riots make people rethink youth unemployment and education.  Support for students is being shown not […]

  • […] has followed up its attack last week on microblogs with another one set against the backdrop of riots in London and English cities, putting the blame squarely on social networking sites (SNS) such as Twitter and […]

  • […] article was originally published on Global Voices. Subscribe to this author's posts feed via RSS […]

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