By Mat Wadsworth
Rioters took to the streets across England recently. Hundreds of people have been injured, almost a thousand arrested, and at least five people lost their lives in the worst riots England has seen in decades. The riots started in Tottenham, a poor, largely black neighborhood in London, and spread across the country as police struggled to regain control of the situation. The violence and destruction was so bad that English Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to cut his Tuscan vacation short after his country had been burning for 3 days.
The trigger for the riots seems to be the August 4th shooting death of alleged cocaine dealer Mark Duggan during a planned operation to apprehend him. Doubts began to emerge about who fired the first shots in the incident, and two days later on August 6th more than one hundred people marched on the Tottenham police station to demand answers. The initially peaceful march dragged on for hours as protesters were unsatisfied with police responses, the crowd began to grow as night fell, and then “all hell broke loose.”
So what’s the point? Why all the death, destruction, and mayhem?
There are probably as many different opinions as there are commentators about why the riots occurred. Popular theories include unemployment, social mobility issues, recent austerity measures, racial tensions, police tensions, and more. As with any situation, the root cause is probably a complex combination of all the factors that have been identified plus many more. The difficulty in interpreting any message into these riots is that there really isn’t a coherent message. Except for the first peaceful march, the rioting has consisted largely of pure mayhem: lighting buildings on fire, destroying cars, throwing rocks at police, smashing store windows, and looting. No one is carrying protest signs, chanting slogans, or giving any other indication of what they want except destruction.
However, the English leaders seem to be ignoring the underlying factors to this week’s riots. Prime Minister Cameron is dismissing these “phony human rights concerns” and instead focusing on the “immoral,” “sick,” opportunistic looters and their parents. According to Cameron, this week has seen an outbreak of gang violence, not riots. He has even gone so far as to call it “preposterous” to link the rioting with Mark Duggan’s death.
The solutions being pushed are to slam down the law and order fist on the rioters. Police leave was cancelled this week and tens of thousands of extra officers were on duty to quell the rioting. Some courts are staying open through the night to process the massive numbers of arrestees. Police reserves are poring through millions of hours of security camera footage in the country with the most cameras per capita in Europe, and publishing photographs of identifiable rioters hoping that they will lead to arrests. Cameron is calling for jail time to send a message to offenders and saying that anyone old enough to commit crime this week is old enough to be punished, although that is a bit of an empty threat as rioters as young as 7 have been arrested and the age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10.
Going forward, the plan is similarly myopically enforcement oriented. The solution is to bring in anti-gang experts to tackle the gang culture that is rioting. There have even been calls to get the army involved next time and to implement measures reminiscent of Iran or China to censor social networking. Some rioters have been using Blackberrys to coordinate their activities, so one solution has been to turn off Blackberry’s messenger in these times of unrest.
Ignoring the legally questionable possibility of turning off social networking in the UK, the real issue is that they are short-term band-aids. There is no plan to treat the problem or to at least figure out what is at the root of the unrest. So far, the only plan is how to more effectively quell riots.
There is no doubt that the riots this week needed to be put down as quickly and effectively as possible. They were tremendously destructive, and Cameron is probably justified in being forceful against opportunists that turned up with no interest other than to loot. To that end, the “law and order” solution was likely the necessary short-term approach.
But, one cannot simply fix today’s symptoms and expect progress unless one treats the underlying condition. Clearly something created a powder keg in Tottenham that just needed a match to set it off. It is doomed to go off again and again if the only solution that the English leadership can come up with is to put out the matches as they are lit. Belittling an obviously angry, disenfranchised segment of society by calling them all hoodlums and gang members is not a way to make them feel heard. Controlling upset people through increased law and order is a strategy doomed for failure unless something is done to figure out why the people are upset in the first place.
The rioters message is certainly inarticulate, but there can be little doubt that there is a message. People do not just rise up in the streets for fun or because they are bad people. There must be an underlying message even if the individual rioters don’t know what it is. Cameron, the British community, and people all around the world would do well to try and understand that message, no matter how distasteful the messengers, or we will be doomed to repeat this experience.