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Britain's burning: what's behind the riots?

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-08-10

As the UK riots continue for a third consecutive day and 10,000 extra police are sent to guard the streets of London tonight, France 24 takes a look at the reasons behind the most violent riots the country has seen in decades.

As the smoke still billows from buildings across London and Britons digest the destruction and damage to property after three consecutive nights of violence, questions are being asked as to why the riots had broken out.

But a number of London-based sociologists say the discontent has been simmering for decades and attribute the recent rioting to a combination of factors such as a disenfranchised youth, socio-economic despair and lack of confidence in public institutions, particularly the Metropolitan police.

"The surprise was not the riots but the scale with which they are taking place", said Dr Chris Greer, a sociologist at City University in London. "Now that the violence has spread to cities unrelated to the original incident, it appears to be symptomatic of a wider social problem".

The current riots were sparked by the police mishandling of the death of Mark Duggan.

Duggan, a father-of-four, was shot by police last Thursday in Tottenham, north London as part of a “pre-planned” arrest.

A peaceful demonstration protesting the killing on Saturday turned violent and looting followed. An inquest Tuesday found that he died of a single gunshot wound to the chest and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) concluded Tuesday that there is no evidence that Duggan shot at police. The overall investigation is ongoing.

Furthermore, Duggan’s family report that they have received “offhand and abrupt” treatment from the police.

The Metropolitan Police: ‘crisis of confidence’

However the alleged mishandling of the Duggan case is just the latest in a string of incidents of police misconduct.

The latest riots are a result of "bad policing as well as bad people" says an editorial in Tuesday’s Guardian, the left-leaning UK newspaper.

"Concerns over police misconduct and violence have a long history, and the Met would appear currently to be facing a crisis in public confidence. The Brixton riots present an obvious comparison with the latest riots, but conditions then were quite different… Public trust in the police has also been damaged by high profile cases like Blaire Peach, Stephen Lawrence and, more recently, Ian Tomlinson", said Greer.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the mishandling of the subsequent investigation led a public inquiry to conclude that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”. Ian Tomlinson collapsed and died after being struck by a police officer in the City of London while on his way home from work during the 2009 G20 riots in London.

“On the one hand it (the violence) marks a decline of deference and respect for authority and yet there is also the sense that our public institutions are failing… there’s a perception of ‘institutional failure’ - they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do” said Greer.

Social economic marginalisation

While some of the UK papers have attributed the rioting to lack of prospects for a disenfranchised youth, cuts in social and public services and the rise in tuition fees as part of the government’s tough austerity policy, a poster on the Guardian's live blog also said, "they weren't rioting for food, but for luxury goods".

Footage of the looters shows them raiding computer stores, mobile phone shops, jewellers, Nike stores and clothing boutiques, actions that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described as “needless, opportunistic theft and violence, nothing more, nothing less”.

“We ain’t got no jobs, no money ... We heard that other people were getting things for free, so why not us?” a man called E.Nan told reporters on the weekend in Hackney, east London.

“But the violence can’t purely be explained in socio-economic terms” said Greer, adding that the looting was “a symbol of economic marginalisation… that began under former (British Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher and continued under New Labour until today. There are groups within London that have for years been systematically excluded from the wider consumer culture".

After three nights of rioting, the political sniping has already begun. Conservative MP Angie Bray hit out at former London mayor Ken Livingstone, a Labour politician, Tuesday for saying that the government’s spending cuts are behind the riots.

“Tottenham has had a 9 per cent cut nearly in its government grant. The youth centres are closing, people are seeing all the sort of things they used to rely on going.” Livingstone said in a statement.

But Bray responded by saying “For senior Labour politicians to use cuts as an excuse for the kind of criminality we have seen over the last few days is unacceptable, irresponsible, and completely wrong.”

‘Thugs and vandals’

In his statement on the riots Tuesday, Prime Minister David Cameron described the scenes of looting and violence as "sickening" and "criminality pure and simple".

But Matthew Moran of Kings College London warned against a rush to dismiss the protesters as “thugs and delinquents” in the heat of the moment, suggesting that speculative judgment could feed into the violence.

Moran, who spent a year doing field-work research on the Paris riots of 2005, said that “each set of riots is a unique combination of particular factors which are not always immediately visible and we need time to assess the underlying causes of the violence”.

“So while some superficial comparisons can be drawn between Paris 2005 and London 2011, the London riots are occurring in their own context and must be examined in that context”, Moran added.

Following a crisis meeting at his Downing Street office Tuesday, Cameron has called for tougher policing on the streets of London. But Moran warned against viewing the recent riots solely as a law-and-order issue. “It is important to restore order but throwing police at the problem is clearly not a long-term solution”.

Date created : 2011-08-09

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