Unrest in England: where did it all go wrong?

Despite the claims of two girls on BBC news that “It’s the government’s fault, whoever they are”, the trouble on the streets of  England’s cities this week had a much more complicated back story than that, arising from a multitude of different factors.

To start with, the situation seemed quite simple- friends of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police in North London on August 4th, were left feeling angry and cheated by the inquiry into the actions of the officers involved. They took to the streets of Tottenham two days later in what was, to begin with at least, a peaceful protest against what they perceived as a cover up and a whitewash. The chief matter of contention was the claim by the officers that Duggan was armed, and shot at them first. For some reason- as with so many things in this story, numerous explanations abound- the protest started to turn ugly. Missiles were thrown at police officers in attendance, vehicles were set alight and shops were damaged.

At this point the thread became more complex. On the same night, the night of Saturday 6th August, gangs of looters attacked shops in other neaarby areas of North London. The impression on Sunday morning was that this was all still a manifestation of the reaction to the Mark Duggan killing (this prediction was very much a minority voice at the time), but when the looting spread over the following 3 nights to numerous districts of London, and then to Bristol,Manchester, Liverpool,Nottingham, West Bromwich and Birmingham, copycat opportunism became the only feasible explanation for the continuing disorder on the streets. No longer were we witnessing politically-motivated disobedience on our TV screens, now it was simply a series of burglaries, arson attacks, assaults, and murders.

Once it became clear that the streets of our largest cities were crawling with groups of people, largely but not exclusively what the media dismissively call “youths”, the reaction of the general public went through four main stages: fear, anger and revulsion against the perpetrators, a desire to help those people and places affected, and finally questioning how the whole sorry state of affairs came about.

As I’ve said a couple of times already, this is no simple question and there have been many different targets of the blame flying around the nation. Among those designated as the evil in society have been boredom, parents, a culture of shallow consumerism, the austere economic measures introduced by the government over the past year, social media, the police, the rich (again, whoever they are- the family who had run a furniture store in Croydon for 5 generations until it was torched would hardly be described as “fat cats”).

There have been calls from some quarters for censorship of certain content on social networks and digital messaging systems. Even if this were in any way feasible. it’s the thin end of a very dangerous wedge and unlikely to achieve much traction in the corridors of power. Even ignoring the powerful freedom of speech/human rights arguments against such a measure, even simpler is the fact that stopping people openly sharing antisocial thoughts/opinions/incitements to violence online won’t eliminate those thoughts, opinions or incitements, and the high possibility of encouraging more.

The fact that these groups were wantonly destroying their own areas, ruining the lives and livelihoods of fellow residents of their cities and boroughs, shows that a lot of the problems lay in their detachment from these facts, their disenfranchisement from the societies they lived in. Nobody who truly felt part of their local community would even think about breaking into the shops there, stealing whatever they could get their hands on, torching cars and buildings in the wake, and attacking the few people who dared try to intervene.

Where does this sense of isolation come from? Those involved seemed to have no respect for what msot of us consider to be the authority figures in our lives- parents, politicians, police officers and so on. While respect for politicians has been steadily dwindling over the years, fuelled by a series of scandals and revelations, most recently the Daily Telegraph’s epic expose on the near universal abuse of MP expenses (which, it should be noted, resulted in only a handful of successful criminal convictions), the apparent impotence of the police was something new for many of us and TV pictures showing police in riot gear standing by watching hooded, masked gangs smashing shop windows and making off with the contents came as quite a shock. A lot of commentators have placed the blame for this erosion of respect on the UK’s overly PC society, removing much of the power previously wielded by parents at home and teachers in schools.

Whatever the reasons, the aftermath of these events, trying to reinvolve what some are calling a ‘lost generation’ and help them make a contribution to wider society will be far from easy.

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One thought on “Unrest in England: where did it all go wrong?

  1. Interesting take on matters from a Ugandan journalist:

    “Poor people do not drive cars or carry cell phones or spend endless hours on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, as the truly deprived citizens of the world will tell you,”

    “The British looters were probably card-carrying members of an international fraternity that labours under the illusion of entitlement to wealth and comfort without effort. These are able-bodied people who hunger after leisure and ownership of digital toys, but prefer to skip the mandatory step of hard work and sacrifice that the majority of us must take to realise our dreams.”

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