Although the violence in London has ended, Britain is still dealing with the effects of the riots that battered the country in August.
The first wave of violence struck in the aftermath of a peaceful protest march on Aug. 6, during which a group of roughly 120 people walked across the North London borough of Tottenham to show support for the family of Mark Duggan, a Tottenham resident who was shot by policemen two days earlier. The police reportedly suspected Duggan of gang involvement, and claimed to have fired on Duggan because he was armed. They offered a police radio with a bullet wedged inside it as evidence.
Duggan’s friends and family insist that he was not armed, and supporters peacefully marched on the Tottenham police station in protest. Dissatisfied with the police response, the group of protesters became more vehement. Eventually, violence broke out when rumors spread that a policeman had attacked a 16-year-old girl.
By the end of the night, rioters had rampaged through Tottenham, vandalizing buildings and looting shops. Over the next week, similar events of violence and vandalism spread through the U.K., causing severe damage in major cities, including Birmingham and Edinburgh.
The public appears to believe that the majority of the rioters were teenage boys from poorer areas of England, but in reality the looters varied in age, ethnic background and gender, according to reports in The Guardian.
The disparate group of rioters unified by means of social media. Facebook was used to spread the word about riot logistics, and text messages kept people up-to-date about the latest outbreaks. The majority of the riot hotspots were in poor areas of urban centers such as Manchester and Liverpool. In line with this trend, Tottenham has the highest unemployment rate of any London borough and the eighth highest unemployment rate in the U.K. This geographic distribution has fueled much discussion about the role of social class in the violence.
The harsher critics of the looters label their actions as opportunistic, fueled mainly by the desire to act out in an anarchic break from societal order. As the days passed, the riots may have become violent for the sake of violence. The rioters’ plans spiraled out of control – at one point there was a plan in place to attack a children’s hospital in Birmingham – and many people found their actions to be unacceptable under any circumstances.
While riding in a London taxi a few days after the worst of the violence, I found myself in the midst of an involved discussion with the cabbie about the recent events. He explained to me that the class system in England has clearly defined divisions between the affluent and the less fortunate, and that it is extremely difficult for people to climb the social ladder. He said he had experienced the typical hardships of growing up in the working class, one of which was having to drop out of school to work and support his family.
“On top of all that, I was born with the wrong [ethnic] last name, which made matters even more difficult,” he said, referencing racism towards his Middle-Eastern background that he found inherent in British class-consciousness.
Although the cab driver found the scale of the violence to be disturbing and deplorable, he insisted that most people did not understand how to view life in the U.K. from the perspective of the working class.
There is an element of feeling trapped in a specific economic and social lifestyle, and there are not many opportunities for the lower classes to have a voice in the workings of their society, politically or otherwise. Indeed, unemployment in the U.K. is now at 7.8 percent, and rioting may have been one of the only ways to catch mass attention in such a damaged system.
As one Tottenham rioter told an NBC reporter, “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting… and look around you.”
Parliament was met with public criticism after of the riots as many senior ministers were enjoying summer vacations during the first weekend of violence. Prime Minister David Cameron did not depart Ibiza for London until the early hours of Aug. 9, three days after the initial Tottenham outbreaks.
Cameron said he did not want to create a “culture of fear” in Britain, but that he would be increasing police presence and increasing awareness of gang-fighting tactics among the officers. Even while passing through areas of the city that normally do not warrant a heavy police presence, such as Westminster and Mayfair, I noticed multiple police officers stationed on busy street corners.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the government will not be rethinking its recent police budget cuts, and as a result, the near future will see the elimination of about 17,000 police jobs.
“If this happened next year, we could not cope with fewer officers,” said Simon Reed, of the England and Wales Police Federation.
The violence has come to an apparent end, for now, but the residents of the affected areas are still rebuilding from the rubble. Parliament has recently begun to discuss the implications of the riots in terms of the U.K.’s class system, but where these discussions will lead is anyone’s guess. However, it is certain that if something is not done to address social inequities, the violence will likely begin again. Signs of such scenarios are already visible in US cities where tent village protests have sprung up, such as Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, and Occupy Chicago. In Rome, this has already led to violent clashes, a harbinger of potential events to come.