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London Riots

Cruel Britannia

by Sean Legassick / 10.08.2011

Last Saturday, in the north London suburb of Tottenham, a demonstration turned into a riot. The protest was sparked by the killing, by the police, of a young black man travelling in the back of a minicab. Yes, he had a gun, but forensics show he never fired a shot. Since then, the riots have spread across London to Birmingham, Manchester and other parts of the UK. They are not just a response to this one event. Instead they represent a seething anger amongst a dispossessed generation of poor British youth that is now bubbling to the surface.

For the first time in decades, young people in the UK face worse prospects for jobs and homes than their parents did. The new Conservative government elected last year is radically cutting the provision of community and career services to these kids. The job market is rapidly drying up. The police are increasingly targeting young black people for random searches and arrests. British society simply no longer offers anything or listens to the people that have been on the streets looting and burning the cities.

The British press is dominated by condemnation of the rioters, painting this as random criminality without reason or cause. A similar sleight of hand as Thabo Mbeki calling the xenophobic attacks of 2008 “opportunistic criminality”. Certainly the targets seem random, local shops and businesses, the very communities that these people come from. But when you no longer feel properly part of your community, you no longer respect nor care for it. When the future doesn’t look very bright, whilst the bankers, financial institutions and governments who appear to be behind this decline are getting rapidly richer, what else is there to do but lash out?

South Africa has a rich history of protest, a living example of strong communities that organised themselves against a brutally repressive regime… and won. Since the fall of apartheid many of the basic issues that pushed people out onto the streets haven’t been resolved, and much of that spirit of protest has remained. The UK has no recent history of successful protest, certainly not within the lifetimes of those out on the streets of London and other cities. Instead the country is thoroughly immersed in the world of consumer aspiration, so is it any surprise that instead of marching on parliament, or occupying Trafalgar Square, these kids are stealing TVs and trainers? We haven’t had the experience that actual change is something that can be won when we band together and fight for a cause.

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