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What caused the London riots? And should the U.S. prepare for a similar rebellion? [The conversation]

August 10, 2011 |  3:43 pm

Police block a road.

London rioter.The Tottenham riots that blindsided Britain were sparked by the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. Over the past few days, they’ve continued and spread, turning into what has largely become youths' looting and destroying parts of London. But no one is exactly sure why they’re doing it. Prime Minister David Cameron called it “criminality, pure and simple.”

Katharine Birbalsingh said in The Telegraph that they’re race riots, and denial of that fact isn’t going to fix the country's problems.

Some of the black kids I used to teach will tell you that the riots are absolutely justified. A number of adults would agree with them. Everywhere I read that the protest was understandable because “people are very angry.”

I’d like to know what they’re angry about. Mark Duggan is dead. He was shot by the police in a shootout. Duggan was in a minicab and shots were fired from both the cab and the police elsewhere. A police officer was hurt in the incident and a bullet was found lodged in a police radio. Either Duggan was shooting at the police or the driver of the minicab was. Either Duggan was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his death is a terrible tragedy -- he was caught in the crossfire -- or he shot at the police and the police defended themselves. Whatever the explanation, the police did not kill this man in cold blood.

The riots are neither politically or racially fueled, wrote Doug Sanders of the Globe and Mail. They’re the result of a “lost generation” of youth under 20 who have little to lose and a bleak future. Here's an excerpt:

Whether the thousands of rioters actually did express disillusionment -- some did say they were angry at police or the world, but many appeared gleeful or greedy -- it is clear that most had nothing else to do with themselves, and no reason to fear or feel responsible for the consequences of their actions.

This is a chronic problem in Britain, which has a “lost generation” of young high school dropouts far larger than most other Western countries'.

Matt Stiles, a data journalist for NPR, mapped out the riots using data from the Guardian that shows that the riots are occurring in areas of poverty.

Commentators are pegging the riots to the issue most important to them when the answer could be much simpler, writes Anne Applebaum for the Washington Post. Its true, cuts to the welfare system, poor education of the youth, a sluggish economy and a wide economic gap could be the cause, but rioters are probably just out have a good time and get free things, she said.

Then again, there was looting in London following the Great Fire of 1666, and, despite the mythology, there was looting in London during the wartime Blitz. Go back and read Dickens: Criminals, both immigrant and "native" British, have taken advantage of opportunities to loot in London during more peaceful times, too. A peculiar confluence of circumstances -- a mob angry about a police murder, a sudden bout of warm weather, an unprepared police force distracted by scandal, and, yes, the astonishingly widespread availability of BlackBerry smartphones among the underprivileged -- might have allowed them to do so again. Beware of sweeping political generalizations in the wake of these riots. We don't know whether we have just witnessed a "new" phenomenon, or a more mobile and technically adept version of a very old one.

In a blog post by Tim Stanley for the Telegraph, he describes the U.S. change in attitude toward Los Angeles rioters between 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson rushed federal aid to L.A., and 1992, when instead President George H.W. Bush pointed to the money already spent on welfare, condemning the mob.

Already some British commentators -- on Left and Right -- are suggesting that poverty and racism were the motors to the riot in Tottenham and that the British government has a moral responsibility to deal with them. Indeed it does, but it might find the public even less sympathetic than it was three decades ago when London was last aflame. Those Reaganite yearnings for law and order and personal responsibility have long-since travelled the Atlantic, creating a consensus against useless pity that only encourages bad behaviour. The 21st-century Anglo-American middle class is too squeezed and too frightened to give any quarter to mob rule.

UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt said in a L.A. Weekly blog post by Simone Wilson that much like the L.A. riots, looters don’t have a reason not to loot. The riots in Los Angeles and England, in 1965, 1992 and 1985 and 2011, respectively, all began with a confrontation between police and a black man, Wilson writes.

"It's almost like the slightest misunderstanding or provocation can quickly go full-scale revolt," Hunt says. "There's so much anger -- so much frustration -- over years of fiscal policy that's left these people out of the loop. It almost becomes immaterial whether or not this guy is a criminal."

The victims and nearby residents of the riots are organizing as well – #riotcleanup efforts organized via twitter, and the Sun is asking readers to “Shop a Moron” and help identify rioters, using photos from London’s surveillance cameras. The Times’ blog Booster Shots cited a study that shows altruism is more contagious than violence:

Are crowds just as susceptible to altruistic tendencies as they are to violent ones? Two researchers from UC San Diego and Harvard thought so. They tested the theory by studying participants' behavior in a "public goods" game in which one player could share points with other players at a cost to himself.

They found the recipients would then pass points on to other players -- whom they had not even met and did not play twice -- even though they did not have to, and it cost them personally to do so.

The editorial board of the Washington Post denounced London’s teenagers' tearing apart the city for clothes and televisions, contrasting them with the generally peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square who strove to overthrow a dictator. The similarity, though, are economic and racial tensions.

Arab protest leaders speak with Jeffersonian passion of building a new democratic order, while the British rioters’ ideology seemed to be summed up by two young women who told the BBC that they meant to show the police and “the rich” that “we can do whatever we want.”


This is becoming a year of rebellion by the dispossessed -- first in the Arab Middle East, then in Israel and now in one of the world’s richest democracies. At a time of economic disruption, no country is immune from such upheaval. But Britain is showing that democracies can respond with responsible policing and robust political debate. It is because that they are incapable of such political flexibility or respect for human rights that the Arab autocrats are doomed.

If riots can happen in any country, as the Post's editorial board said, is the U.S. next?


Photos: Rioting erupts in London

European austerity: It's all Greek to them

As London cleans up from riots, residents fume

Are extreme ideologies to blame for violent acts? [Most commented]

Economic crisis: Should the U.S. brace for European-style riots? [Most commented]

-- Samantha Schaefer

Top photo: Police officers in riot gear block a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London, on Monday. Credit: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Lower photo: A masked rioter is seen in front of a burning car in Hackney, north London, on Monday, during the third day of violence in London. Credit: Kerim Okten/EPA

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