Call them thugs, idiots, deadbeats, vandals, looters, low-life, thieves, or whatever. But that searing image of rioters trashing and burning neighbourhoods in London and other major U.K. cities last week has left people everywhere gasping for answers as to what the heck happened.
By Saturday, more than 2,250 had been arrested and, in London alone, some 700 had been charged with many of them facing prison terms.
It all began after Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black father of three was shot by police earlier this month in Tottenham, a struggling suburb that has a track record for bad relations between the black community and the police. The death has been mired in controversy.
But what began as a peaceful demonstration against the shooting ended up in an all-out riot with vehicles, homes and businesses burned. By the time 1,600 police were put on patrol last Tuesday, London had been virtually turned into a police state. Now everyone’s got a stake in the blame game starting with bad politics, bad kids, bad parents and bad morals.
Some point fingers at welfare dependence and chronic unemployment. One in five youth don’t have jobs. But some of those arrested (and half of them were under 19) were from wealthy homes, had promising careers (one was a real estate agent and another was an aspiring dancer who turned herself in), some were university students taking accounting, journalism or engineering and one was a volunteer ambassador for next year’s summer Olympics whose parents turned her in after seeing her on TV.
Social exclusion was high on the list, especially among those dispossessed in a country rich with possession and a sense of entitlement. Cultural diversity in England is intense, class privilege is still the norm and, in London alone, over 300 languages are spoken on a daily basis with every sub-culture represented in its own niche with shops, fashions and restaurants.
But don’t tarnish everyone with the same brush. Many of those immigrants, ethnics families and business owners defended their neighbourhoods against rioters and stood up in a strong sense of community that had nothing to do with criminality.
In the mix are racism and the dangerous messaging in gangster rap some have described as a destructive, nihilistic culture. Many black men and women in Tottenham and elsewhere claim they are treated by police like criminals regardless of fact, aggravating prejudice and hatred and sowing the seeds for payback. The riot, some say, was long in coming.
Cuts to social services ranked high alongside weak policing. Prime Minister David Cameron said that there had been far too few police deployed onto the streets and that their tactics weren’t working.
Then there’s opportunism, being there in the moment and swept up in a mob mentality, a lapse in morality and the excitement pumped by social media.
But therein lie the rioters’ downfall. Never has the police had such a rich trail of evidence with thousands of posted images and statements on Twitter and Facebook. That happened here. The Stanley Cup riot gave police a plethora of social media evidence they are still investigating.
Britain is a country not just mired in debt but engulfed in a social meltdown while committed to an unsustainable democracy of costly education, health care for all and a welfare system propping up the discontent, the disillusioned and the dangerous.
The acrimonious fact is that if Britain is ever to claw its way out of this mess, it needs those people. Their collective skills and engagement in society could recalibrate prosperous stability.
It’s a long way off but for society to ignore the possibility is to do so at the country’s peril.