UK Riots; Not Just Kids with Bad Manners

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United Kingdom
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London RiotersAs the riots in the UK subside, the cleaning up of the mess begins to take place and while the government (local and national) has put out its initial responses two points can be made.  Firstly, the public should be applauded for its coherent response against these violent actions.  Secondly, there seems to be a refusal by the government to address the underlying factors behind these “sickening” acts. 

Riots in urban environments are not a new concept, poorer urban clusters surrounding metropolitan areas, that include people often living in extreme poverty, have been set ablaze in the past.  France and especially Paris have been experiencing (actual) riots in the banlieus from the 90s.  Athens, and following the entire of Greece, experienced riots back in 2008 (though to be fair quite a lot of the smashing was by plain clothed police).  Today, members of the Chinese public living in ghettos conduct demonstrations that spill over into riots.  Usually the spark is some form of unjust action against a member the cohort; an arrest, a violent exploit or killing conducted by or because of the State, represented by its officials (police, doctors, social services, etc).  The more recent riots in France started after the death of two teenagers being pursued (with no reason) by the police, in Greece it was the murder of a teenager by a police officer.  The UK riots started because of the killing of Mark Duggan who did not even fire (caring an illegal firearm) against the police.

The difference between government responses to riots in other cases and the UK has been the importance of acknowledging and addressing the underlying factors behind them.  In France the living conditions and the limited options available to people living in the ghettos is a factor.  In Greece the dwindling options for the younger cohorts of the population is an issue.  However, in the UK both the government and the press have been very quick to dismiss the need to search for the actual reasons behind the protests, arguing that that the rioters are simply kids with bad manners.  More worryingly the government through its statements is creating an “us versus them” mentality.  This is not going to help in preventing such violent acts in the future. 

Sure, living in a council estate might not be pleasant but resembles in no way the conditions of the banlieus of Paris.  Burning down sneaker shops does not contain the social/ political symbolism of setting alight a police station.  It is even harder (or even impossible) to find a link between an unjust killing and looting.  However, suggesting that the past week has been just about teenager thugs going wild is not only an oversimplification; it’s incorrect.  For a country that is a strong advocate of policy following scientific evidence this response comes a bit as a surprise.

The good news; the UK public has taken a brave and quick response against these events.  People came out and quickly to position themselves against violence that included the smashing of SME’s windows, burning down cars and shops and plain looting.  Moreover, people reclaimed their streets either by defending their shops or in the all traditional English fashion by drinking tea on the pavements.  This sort of reaction which has taken place so naturally, swiftly and from the local level should be applauded.  It shows that the society of this country has a firm belief in its liberties and a hands-on approach to it.

Perhaps because mainland UK has not experienced such events in the recent past it is more difficult to figure out a more holistic approach to the matter.  Riots and violent protests taking place in cities of other countries were mocked, suggesting that the UK society is either more coherent, civilized or simply well behaved.  The fact though that most these “riots” took place in parts of the UK with large income gaps should suggest some correlation.  Scotland a part of the UK where there is a smaller income gap did not share these problems.  On the other hand, the police used “containment” strategies which obviously did not help.  Partly because they underestimated the knock-on effect, partly because they might not know how.  Curiously, though there is experience in controlling riots from Northern Ireland these strategies seemed not to apply to the main part of the UK.

Over the next week it is important that the riots are completely halted and that they do not come back in the short term.  However, in order to prevent such events from occurring in the future the government and the UK public will have to do some introspection and address underlying factors such as inequality for example.  The UK has reminded itself of its local dynamism and ability to come together and respond to violence.  It should do the same for less obvious social problems.

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