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London riots

August 9, 2011

While I’m meant to be enjoying my last month in Cairo and working on my Arabic, for the last 2 days I’ve found myself glued to Twitter, watching my home town riot. I was born and mostly grew up in Haringey – not far from where the riots kicked off on Saturday night – and seeing events unfold as they have done I have been horrified and scared for my family and afraid for the community which I belong to.

The op-eds and blog posts are flowing thick and fast, but London is a big city and all 12m of its citizens have a stake in its future – so I will add my 2p’s worth.

I belong firmly in the camp that believes we need to explore the deeper causes, in order to mend the social fabric which is so clearly damaged.  In the heat of the moment it might not be easy to see what those causes are, but they are also not totally obscured. (This doesn’t mean I think the rioters are justified in attacking people’s homes and livelihoods, or that I don’t think they should be punished. We have laws against stealing things and setting things on fire, and people who break those laws should be prosecuted and subject to free and fair trials.)

Race, class, deprivation, family breakdown, alienation are some of the factors probably playing a role, which comes across pretty clearly in the makeup of the rioters. Londoners know who these kids are: the chavs, townies, rude boys, whatever shorthand you call them by. While not 100% mutually exclusive, this is not the same crowd that overran Millbank last November, or the one that pelted TopShop with paint bombs in March. Is it the hoodies and trainers that make this crowd more interested in looting than in smashing up Tory HQ? Or maybe it’s the kind of music they listen to? We can dismiss them as obviously not poor as they all have Blackberries, but show me where the rioting middle class professionals are and then I’ll believe poverty has nothing to do with it.

The immediate priority is obviously to defuse the situation and return to normality. The police have the most important role to play, and I hope that they resist some of the more “creative” suggestions which are being bandied about. I was very disappointed to hear David Lammy argue for a temporary shutdown of the Blackberry messenger service. This has uncomfortable echoes of Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to stop Egyptians protesting by shutting down the internet – not the same situation, but I suspect it would be similarly ineffective. Even worse, local councils are pledging to kick out from local authority housing tenants “found to have taken part in criminal acts“. I find it highly unlikely that this would act as any more of a deterrent than the threat of arrest and prosecution does, and if it does not act as a deterrent, then can we consider it anything other than an act of revenge?

It’s clear that London will take a long time to recover from these awful few days. But I would like to think that we can use this as a wakeup call to address some of the deep social problems which have been left to fester, or treated with sticking plasters, and think about how to heal divisions rather than entrench them. This will involve keeping an eye on the long term effects of policies: rushing to evict rioters from their homes for example will not solve anything in the long run, but rather feed resentments. I hope we take a leaf out of Norway’s book in the aftermath of the Breivik killings, and reaffirm our commitment to an open and democratic society in the face of internal strife.


Some of the comment pieces and blog posts which have given me food for thought on this topic:

London’s Riots: Not Race, Not Politics, But an Explosion of Futureless Youth 

Rational choice rioting

On the riots

Panic on the streets of London

If the rioting was a surprise, people weren’t looking

Haringey youth club closures: ‘there’ll be riots’ (video)

Love me I’m a looter

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