Share |

A deeper look at the London riots

The London riots began at a Tottenham neighborhood, August 6, after the police shot to death Mark Duggan. The riots have now spread to neighboring cities: Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Notting-hill. Shops were looted, cars and buildings burned.

The British government has labeled the riots as “criminality,” “appalling violence and thuggery.” And the media is wont to portray it as such. BBC news and even local channels show video clips of hooded men burning and looting shops, throwing stones at buses, and engaging the police in street battles. Thus, the AFP or the Agence France Presse reports that an overwhelming majority of Britons view the riots as being fueled by criminality and gang culture.

Local news agencies paint the same picture when reporting about the London riots. Last night a Filipino in London was reportedly beaten up and robbed by the rioters. And the Philippine embassy reportedly issued a warning to Filipinos in London. These further fuel beliefs here in the Philippines that indeed at the root of these riots is the worsening criminality in London’s poor districts, much like the gang wars that one sees in Hollywood movies.

Worse, both here and abroad, reports indicate that the riots emanate from housing settlements populated by minority immigrants such as Afro-Carribeans, Asians, and some whites. This again lays the blame on minority migrants for the troubles confronting capitalist countries.

Now social networking sites are also being blamed as these are being reportedly used as means of instigating riots.

This view is being contradicted by the fact that the riots were not preceded by a gang war, an operation of criminal syndicates, nor by a football game (which causes a lot of riots in Europe). If one is to look at what sparked the riot, it would appear that the London riots are more similar to the Watts riot in 1965, which lasted for six days in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. The August 1965 riot was sparked by the arrest of Marquette Frye, an African American, by a California Highway Patrol cop, who also subsequently arrested his brother Ronald and mother. The arrests instigated the riot, when emotions ran high among the crowd gathered outside the police station. The result was 34 people killed, 1,032 injured, and 3, 438 arrested. Around 1,000 buildings were destroyed and property damage was estimated at $40 million. Attacks were focused on white motorists and white-owned businesses.

Another seemingly similar event is the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which is also called as the South Central Riots, the Los Angeles Civil Unrest or the Rodney King uprising. What sparked the six-day riot was the acquittal in April 1992 of four police officers, three whites and one Mexican, who were videotaped beating up motorist Rodney King. Fifty-three people died and 2,000 were injured. Property damage was estimated at between $800 million to $1 billion. The attacks victimized a white truck driver, a Guatemalan immigrant, and Korean-American stores.

While both Los Angeles riots appear to have been caused by racial tensions, post riot investigations, in both cases, point to bigger issues. A California gubernatorial commission investigation identified high unemployment, poor schools and living conditions as the causes of the Watts riots of 1965. A Special Committee of the California Legislature released a report with the title “To Rebuild is Not Enough,” which identified inner-city conditions of poverty, segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse and unequal consumer services as the underlying causes of the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Of course, then US Pres. George Bush Sr. called the 1992 riots as “purely criminal.” In a speech, Bush was quoted as saying, “What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple.”

What differentiate the recent riots in England from the two Los Angeles riots are: the England riots were not confined to London – it has already spread to other cities as well while the Los Angeles riots were confined to certain neighborhoods in Los Angeles – Watts in 1965, and South Central Los Angeles in 1992; second, diverse groups are involved in the London riots – Afro-Carribeans, Asians and whites– while the 1965 Los Angeles riots involved mainly African-Americans. However, regardless of the race, the riots emanated from poor settlements.

It is even more preposterous to claim that the London riots were “pure criminality” or are the result of a “gang culture” as it has been spreading in different cities. It involves both the unemployed and the working people, the young and their parents. To quote an August 10 news report from Reuters, “Among a large number of detained rioters that kept one London court busy throughout the night were a graphic designer, a graduate student and someone about to join the army.” Reuters interviewed one participant of the riots who said, “They were not your typical hoodlums out there. There were working people, angry people. They’ve raised rates, cut child benefit. Everyone just used it as a chance to vent,” in reference to the austerity measures being implemented by the British government.

Facts about the economic and social conditions of the British working class and the youth support this claim. The Guardian, in a January 19, 2011 report written by Graeme Warden, revealed that youth unemployment in Britain has hit a record high at 20.3 percent. It reported that from September to November 2010, youth unemployment rose by 32,000 to 951,000. It added that, “There was a particularly sharp rise in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds classed as unemployed, rather than in employment or education, up to 204,000 from 177,000 in the previous quarter.”

Total unemployment in England is at 2.5 million or 7.9 percent. Of this, the youth constitutes 38 percent of the unemployed.

Another Guardian report, published in May 2009, revealed that the United Kingdom’s income gap is the widest since the 1960s. “Deprivation and inequality in the UK rose for a third successive year in 2007-08, according to data from the Department for Work and Pensions that prompted strong criticism from campaign groups for the government’s backsliding on its anti-poverty goals.”

It added that, “About 15% of pupils in state schools are now entitled to free school meals because their parents receive welfare payments or earn below £15,575 a year, the figures show. Last year, 14.5% of pupils were eligible.”

“Since Tony Blair’s third election victory, the poorest 10% of households have seen weekly incomes fall by £9 a week to £147 once inflation is accounted for, while those in the richest 10% of homes have enjoyed a £45 a week increase to £1,033.”

“Overall, the poorest 20% saw real income fall by 2.6% in the three years to 2007-08, while those in the top fifth of the income distribution enjoyed a rise of 3.3%.”

Meanwhile, the number of working adults who live below the “official breadline” has reportedly reached 11 million. And these are those who still have jobs.

Despite the worsening poverty in Britain, the government is proceeding with its cutbacks on social spending. Among the safety nets that have been and would be on the chopping block are the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the Future Jobs Fund, which funds temporary employment for the youth. The British people are already protesting against budget cuts that would affect the National Health System, housing and education.

In 2010, Treasury chief George Osborne has announced that the government would implement spending cuts amounting to 81 billion pounds, or roughly $130 billion up to 2015. This would reportedly cost half a million public sector jobs and trim welfare payments to families and the disabled. These government cuts were said to be the deepest since World War II.

In a previous analysis, with the title “The crisis fix,” this author has written about similar government measures being undertaken in the US by the Barack Obama administration amid the worsening poverty and unemployment. Thus, anti-globalization protests are growing in the US and the potential of another riot occurring is not that remote.

These policies and measures are also being replicated by the Aquino administration, although there is not much to cut from the already meager social services budget and spending of the Philippine government. What would happen in the Philippines is that privatization and government abandonment of its responsibility to provide social services would be faster.

Would a riot happen in the Philippines? It is not likely because riots are sparked by undirected, and seething unvented anger against the government and the system. But in the Philippines, mass protest actions are bound to grow stronger and bigger.