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The Root Causes of the British Riots

This is a cross post by Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi

What to make of the riots that began in parts of London and have spread to Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool? Are there any root causes we can identify? First, it is apparent that far too many commentators interpret these events based entirely on pre-conceived paradigms. For socialists like Ken Livingstone (former mayor of London), the riots are the fault of the government’s spending cuts and the “social division” they have supposedly fostered.

Meanwhile, the far-Right British National Party characterizes the mayhem as a repeat of the race riots that occurred in Oldham in 2001. Only this time, the primary agitators are not South Asians but, in the words of one London-based right-wing blogger, “pampered black youth” who “indulged in welfare scrounging, looting and feckless fathering supported by the bleeding hearts of the BBC/Guardian axis.” Many mainstream conservatives point to a state policy of multiculturalism as the culprit.

However, a close look at what is actually going on demonstrates the failure of all these analyses to explain the riots. Contrary to what Livingstone imagines, many of the youths taking part in these disturbances are not poor at all: They are mostly of a middleor lower-middle-class background. In any case, if they are angry with the coalition government and its spending cuts, why are they looting the homes and businesses of middle- and working-class people? It is clearly not the wealthy who are bearing the burden of costs in damages.

Portraying the disturbances as an uprising of the “under-privileged” is to be expected from those who subscribe to the Marxist theory of historical materialism, according to which economic causes are the driving force behind all human actions.

Likewise, those pointing to racial tensions and multiculturalism have ignored the facts. I do not endorse multiculturalism as a state policy, but the area of Tottenham where the riots began is composed of whites, blacks, Jews and Turks. The vandals in that part of London have certainly not divided themselves into separate racial gangs. As Talal Rajab, a blogger from north London, points out, the riots are also taking place in predominantly white areas of the capital such as Enfield, and the looters there are mainly white as well.

Nevertheless, one rationale that has somewhat transcended political boundaries is the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and London’s residents.

Specifically, the unrest sparked just after the police shooting of a 29-year old man, Mark Duggan.

Duggan, a suspected member of a local criminal gang, was apparently unarmed at the time, and officers at Tottenham’s police station seem to have ignored a local vigil held outside the station, demanding information on the circumstances behind the shooting.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is thus carrying out an investigation.

Yet this is not the first time the police have failed to be transparent when it comes to apparent mistakes.

For example, in 2005, after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, they initially allowed false reports to circulate that the Brazilian man tried to run away from officers.

Such an explanation does not justify the current riots. Rather, youths driven by greed and a lust for senseless violence have taken advantage of the lack of trust between the police and local communities, using the shooting of Duggan as a pretext. It is telling that many victims of the current unrest have complained of inadequate police protection in their areas.

UNDENIABLY, THE spread of these riots has been planned. Pundits have frequently characterized the Arab Spring as the “Twitter Revolution.” It might be accurate to label these riots in Britain a “BlackBerry Revolution.” Indeed, broadcasts via BlackBerry (rather than Twitter or Facebook), which immediately came under surveillance by the police, and distribution of leaflets have been instrumental in orchestrating the present unrest.

As for the motivation of the vandals and thieves, one need look no further than what one rioter told Sky News reporter Mark Stone: “We’re getting our taxes back.”

In other words, the rioters are stealing designer clothes and gadgets – besides causing property damage – simply because they can.

Hence, I can only agree with Rajab’s concluding observations: “The saddest thing is that while our parents fought for noble causes such as equal rights and the end of apartheid, our generation fights for Nike trainers and iPads. This, I am afraid, will define my generation.”