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Culture, Reality
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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  1. YsterHart says:

    Thumbs up for the hopeful tone.

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  2. anon says:

    Beginning of a “European spring?” Wow… You really need to start paying attention to other European countries and stop focusing on the ones that are slap bang in the middle of the mainstream media lime light.

    There are so many more important things happening in the world than this.
    But of course, we all understand that Mahala has to uphold it’s standards of abiding to an audience that’s full of unemployed youth who can’t do anything besides watch TV and smoke weed.

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  3. Wilson says:

    @anon And you would know what makes up the Mahala demographic how?

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  4. noel says:

    Cue inane snarkfest that has nothing to do with the article or the issues…

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  5. Wilson says:

    @noel lol

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  6. Andy says:

    Anon – duly noted. Self-righteous snark aside. “European Spring” was my little act hyperbole

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  7. Kenneth's Ghost says:


    So you’re Sean Legassick?

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  8. Kaka says:

    It says “British” spring, not European.

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  9. anon says:

    Because of the people I see who support Mahala. Cape Town is a very small place pal.

    I’m glad you changed the “European spring” to “British spring”. Hopefully next time you won’t have to be informed of your error over the comments.

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  10. Norris McWurter says:

    anon, please shut your fucking mouth or own up your name, pal. your comments are actually pathetic, and your anonymity even more so.

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  11. Dan says:

    “The UK has no recent history of successful protest”

    That line – while it can be argued to be true – does not really paint a full picture of history of protest in the UK. Infact the current riots are happening in an eerily similar context to the Brixton riots in 1981 – the year Mark Duggan (the man shot by the police) was born. Heres another take on things – http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2011-08-09-never-mind-the-bollocks-heres-the-riots

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  12. Nader says:

    My penis hurts. Should I see a doctor?

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  13. Lippino Fadden says:

    It depends on the kind of pain, Nader. If it’s been long and consistent, I’d get it checked out. Otherwise, just wait a while and see whether it goes away. Burning should definitely be attended to. Just doing my part to help.

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  14. Sean L says:

    I’m Sean Legassick (and I’m not Andy!) – the European/British Spring line wasn’t in my draft of the article, and to be honest I don’t like it at all. It would be great if something like the Arab Spring emerged here, but it’s a misreading of the riots and an insult to the actual ‘Spring’s to characterise what’s basically mass looting in this way. I’ve asked Andy to remove the line altogether.

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  15. James says:

    As a South African expat having lived in London for 14 years I think this is a nonsense arguement. These kids, while ‘poor’ in London standards are not in comparisson to the rest of the UK – never mind the rest of the world. If they can afford the latest mobile phones, the newest sneakers and the cars they are piling the stolen flatscreen TV’s into – they are certainly not on the bones of their arse! British society no longer listens to these people because they don’t contribute to British society! They simply expect the government to provide for them and don’t make the necessary effort to get a job in this competitive first world city. Greater London is a city of 12 million people, you need to fight very hard to get the better jobs and these kids just think it’s easier to steal the stuff rather than work for it. Having lost my job due to equal opportunity employment in South Africa in the early 2000’s I fought tooth and nail to secure work in London and have spent over 10 years fighting and paying out my nose for UK citizenship, all to improve my circumstances. I guarantee that most of those shop owners who were attacked have done the same. These kids are not being listened to because they’re criminals, plain and simple.

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  16. brandon edmonds says:

    ‘Nihilistic buzz’ here’s the best take I’ve read on this so far http://louderthanwar.com/blogs/riot (fucking awesome site generally) and this guy’s good http://leninology.blogspot.com/ and her http://pennyred.blogspot.com/2011/08/panic-on-streets-of-london.html?spref=fb

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  17. Or... says:

    this is an example of a good opinion and insight: http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/08/201189165143946889.html

    Sadly, the above, is not.

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  18. Andy says:

    OK “British / European Spring” deleted. Please excuse misguided editorial hubris.

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  19. Dean says:

    When you don’t understand the value of earning something, you either expect it to be handed out to you or you simply take it. This is what’s these kids are doing now. They don’t see it as wrong because “shit should be for free” and their parents don’t know any better because they haven’t worked a day in their lives either. The government is responsible for these riots because it has been rewarding laziness/entitlement for too long.

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  20. Wilson says:

    Man I love that picture.

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  21. Sean L says:

    ‘Or…’: that Daniel Hind piece is great. I’m sorry you didn’t like this, which is admittedly more polemic than analysis. I’ll happily respond to a more specific critique.

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  22. Nah says:

    Sorry but I don’t buy any argument that frames the rioters as anything other than opportunistic little cunts who – as rightly pointed out – make no positive contribution to the country they’re living in.

    Destroying livelihoods, burning family-owned stores that survived two world wars and stood for 140 years? Mercy on thoughtless evil little fucks who laugh at that? No, no, sorry, fucking no.

    I know these little bastards, I lived amongst them, they’d as soon nick from their own parents, who they have no respect for on account of never being taught the value of manners or a hard day’s work. Hell, they’d set their own mothers on fire if it meant they get the hoodie and the phone they’re after.

    Fuck the idea that this is the result of years of frustration. These aren’t the kind of people that Linton Kwesi Johnston writes poems for, they’re not oppressed inner city minorities who have failed to find a fucking voice. These are cowardly little spoilt brats.

    What we’re looking at here, in these riots, is the fruit of many years of a hands-off approach, which has inveigled its way into the homes and schools of England to the extent that nowadays there are absolutely no ways in which to discipline a child which remain lawful and legal. Raise a hand, you’re nicked. It’s not that you should ever want to, but that for many years a smack meant a nudge in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t condone violence, and have never raised a fist in anger, nor hurt anyone myself, but these riots speak to issues of discipline, not deprivation, make no mistake.

    Maybe you disagree with corporal punishment, hey, it can create opportunities for horrendous behaviour and cruelty, but the facts stand: those who – here in South Africa – were whacked by their parents for being naughty and generally fucking around as a kid never suffered for the most part. Shit, those people grew up to be standup folks who you can rely on, and make a positive contribution to their community. The same cannot be said for the laaities being raised now, whether here or in the UK. Lack of discipline breeds little brats who don’t give a fuck about anything or anyone, because they are spoilt in every sense of the word.

    These riots are all about the oversensitivity of a nation which long ago hamstrung itself with paranoia about human rights issues and pandered itself into a toothless welfare state mentality.

    England is reaping what it sowed. South Africa will find itself wrecked on the same shores (that article about ukukhothana ring a bell?) if the politically correct shitstorm of this age is allowed to blow it on a similar course.

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  23. Chris says:

    Get a load of the brains on Nah.

    Seriously though. That’s one persuasive piece of writing.

    good job

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  24. Tywan says:

    Mate, I’m living here and only thing that I can say is… You are talking through your arse!
    They organised the looting on Blackberry’s, iPhones and laptops, using BBM, twitter and Facebook.

    They are bored young yobs with no perental control and greed to obsene levels.

    And poor Mark Duggan? A well known drug dealer and low life.

    After years of misinformation in and about South Africa, I really thought our journalist would make an effort to get their facts straight.

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  25. Lewis says:

    Shoplifters of the world unite and take over!
    I love the rioting! I love the rioting more than the apologists, looking for reasons to make some sort of sense behind it. The people who try and analyze it have never been dumb, or bored. Sometimes it is just fun to smash shit, and take it. “become a decent contributing member of society, choose life etc.” I tried living in the real world, it was only a sham, I was bored before I even began. It’s the chav olympics. Brits love this sort of violence. It is part of their history. They have a natural propensity for it!

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  26. SomaKen says:

    I understand your piece was designed to be polemic, but it’s also misguided, misinformed and disappointing Sean, and I feel compelled to respond.

    Your statement that “British society simply no longer offers anything or listens to the people that have been on the streets looting and burning the cities” just doesn’t ring true.

    I’ve lived in Tottenham since 2007, and the time and investment that’s been put into local parks, housing, schools, colleges and youth centres (the nearest centre is less than 500m from my house) couldn’t be more visible or heartfelt. Sure it’s a poor area, so what?

    So maybe it’s the fault of the bankers.

    “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?”

    As I understand it you’ve made most of your income over the years developing IT systems for those same bankers and financiers. You’ve chosen to live in one of the most affluent parts of London. Does this justify the behaviour of the kids robbing JD Sports in my local retail park? Really? Seriously?

    “South Africa has a rich history of protest, a living example of strong communities that organised themselves against a brutally repressive regime… and won.”

    Britain isn’t a brutally oppressive regime, so why even try and make the comparison?

    Mark Duggan wasn’t stopped in a random and racially motivated stop and search operation. He was targeted in Operation Trident, which is trying to keep guns off the streets and reduce the amount of black on black killing.

    Was he a legitimate target? Yes, it’s been shown he did have a loaded gun – as far as I’m aware even his family aren’tt disputing that.

    Is it right that he was shot dead? Of course not, and if the police involved need to be prosecuted, this is one of the few countries in the world where that ‘might’ happen.

    What we need are short AND long-term policies, and the two are very different. In the short-term this includes robust policing because looting and violence is criminal behaviour and needs to be treated as such. You’re getting confused if you’re calling recent events protests.

    Longer-term we all need to play our part and this includes paying taxes to support local services, working with our local communities and charities where we can, and helping provide positive role models if these are otherwise lacking. And those last two points are directed at me as much as anyone else!

    Anyway, enough of a rant. Let me know if you fancy a beer…

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  27. Sean L says:


    I don’t seek to justify the riots, nor do I consider them protests (though there was a protest in Tottenham on Saturday that became a riot). Discussion of justification, condemnation, condoning – all these sentiments seem misplaced to me. This shit has happened, and if we don’t listen and look better and seek to understand the malaise in our society, it’s gonna keep getting worse. This blogger puts it well: http://handwritingpractise.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/the-rhetoric-of-riots/

    (Also I didn’t mean an implication that Britain is brutally repressive, if that came across that was a poor construction on my part. My point was simply to laud the strength and depth of the culture of protest in South Africa, and why *that* is different to the UK).

    When I talk about racially motivated stop and search, and the sense of disposession and disenchantment that I sense a lot of poor youth in Britain feel today, I’m not just talking about Mark Duggan or Tottenham’s council spending (on the former – name a police killing in Britain where any prosecution *has* ever occurred, on the latter I’ll bet some of those services and centres in Tottenham will be closing down or at least cutting back provision). But it’s not really about those details, although the details matter, it’s about the big picture, that the future looks pretty bleak for people hitting adulthood today.

    And this I know from my neighbours on my estate in the poorest borough in London. Yeah, I don’t live where you think I do. And on those personal attacks, sure, I have earned a lot of my money from sources I feel very uncomfortable with. (If you remember it took you a couple of years to persuade me to take the work). Not any more, but I don’t think that’s so important. Like a lot of others I earn money where I can find work. I wish I were ‘purer’ in that regard, but reality bites.

    Long term I think you know broadly what I’d like to see happen. And yeah, of course I’m up for a beer. Would love to catch up.

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  28. Sean L says:

    (on prosecution of police: it will be interesting to see what happens with Harwood later this year. If he does go down for killing Tomlinson that’ll be somewhat of a first – as far as I know it hasn’t happened before)

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  29. Comi G says:

    I bin avin nun of dis rite? I bin well represed, my naybor Dan dun av 2 big screen tv sets an e dun av a job and no1 dun be givin dat 2 me. Well I not been puttin up wiv de opression of my masses so I dun set is ouse on fire and make it well burn. Den I did show my own initiatif and liberate a Pioneer Home Theater system from dat Paki capitalist pig down de road wot opressed me by makin me feel inadequate. Sore point. Right? Right. Den my mate Mello dun bring me an his 14 year old girlfrend an 4 year old son down to de riots to toast some marshmallos what we freed from de opression of de vending machine on a car wot we ad to set on fire and it were well fun. Wez tired ov been on de outside lukin in an avin to av sex all day to make babys to pay de rent, and de time az come to invite a new forward finkin govenment in2 powa wot will give uz cush jobz and big screen tvs, for else we suffer unda de brutal opression of not avin Sky an avin to watch de match of de day on BBC. I ope NATO doz well send in elp for us rebelz an doz some airdrops of D&G sweatshirts cos I do well be need doze.

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  30. Reader says:

    Comi G, you, my friend, should be writing for the press here in England. I’ve been following everything over the last 4 days and yours is the most succinct and poignant piece I’ve read. Sean L, not so much.

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  31. passer by. says:

    @Nah – truer words have never been said.

    @comi G – that was amazing….feel like I was there! haha

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  32. Jonu says:

    Comi G – You’ve upset me. Its not your ignorance its the way you’re so unembarrassed of it.


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  33. BabelFish says:

    I suspect the vast majority of British people have no issue whatsover with an armed drug dealer being shot

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  34. BabelFish says:

    The level of this deep rooted social disenchanchment can be measured by the fact a little bit of rain was enough to stop the unrest.

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  35. Grant W says:

    The British youth are dispossesed? Kak man. They live in one of the most advanced nations on the planet, they live in a functioning democracy. They live in a place that has a social net. They are a bunch of fucking louts that need a serious klap. They are out of control. There is no cause, no integrity to their actions, no leadership and no agenda. Where do you get off calling this some kind of crusade for justice?

    Another thing. The dickhead ganster that was shot had a gun on him. He may not have fired it but pommie cops don’t go around just culling people. He must have pulled the gun and they fired. Is that not a more reasonable explanation where both of us don’t really know but the oke had a gun and the cops shot him and that kind of shit NEVER happens in the UK? Why do you imediately back the notion of police brutality? If you want proof that the fucker was a criminal, look no further than the fact he was carrying a gun when even the cops in the UK seldom do and it is illegal to do so.

    Why is this even a racial issue?

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  36. Marc says:

    I heard that no bookshops were looted…
    Spot on Comi G! Also noticed how ineffective the police were. What are they going to do with the 1000+ they have in custody? A stern telling off over a cream bun and cup of tea then.

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  37. Lame-o says:

    A more useful comparison with SA would be to look at the angry black youth in that country, who do not have access to education and employment as much as they might desperately want it. They are the people who Julius Malema speaks to. If they went on the rampage… I don’t even want to contemplate it, but they would certainly have more “cause” than the criminals in the UK (it is coming to light that a lot of the looting was organized by gangs).

    Try to find a ‘rioter’ who can cogently offer a defence or explanation for their actions – you won’t be able to.

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  38. Comi G says:

    Jonu u wellcome m8. Get ovah ere an we can watch de footy on my bran new plasma screen and den go burn down white hart lane for de injustificated cancelment of our boys match against doze toffs from everton. Just BBM me on ‘ComiGBinSufferin’. Out.

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  39. UrOverlord says:

    I think this is just the logical outcome of the “fuck you I’m gonna get mine” zeitgeist which has seemingly infected all classes, all societies. The mechanism of looting simply differs by the different opportunities to loot available to different people. Bankers loot by gambling on the markets and getting the taxpayer to bail them out when the wheel doesn’t come up black. Unemployed youth loot by smashing a brick through a window and stealing stuff advertising tells them will fill that little hole in their souls. The kids don’t have to be able to explain the nitty-gritty of Collateralised Debt Obligations or HF trading to have this feeling of missing out in some kind of gasm of undeserved self-enrichment. It’s all around you wherever you go in London. Rich cunts that think they are better than you. Add in daily stop-and-search ritual humiliation from the Metropolitan Pig Force, advertising, more advertising, fifty applicants for every bullshit minimum wage job and hey, there will be a riot.
    Telling a kid that he should be grateful for living on a grey, boring, depressing estate (and some of those places are truly monstrous even by SA standards let me tell you) working 50 hour weeks so he can share a shitty cupboard with his adult sister and her baby because there are poor kids in Somalia or wherever that won’t eat even the fried sugar and starch ball he has for dinner isn’t going to make him feel better. There is an excellent chance he’s only seen the stars in the night sky once or twice in his life, you want him to imagine kids in Somalia? You want him to listen to a rich cunt in a BMW X6 when the rich cunt points out that he has it better than kids in the third world? I think I would smash that rich cunt’s face in, people.
    Besides, street violence is thrilling: It’s like snorting a fat line of uncut speed. It makes you hard. I know it can’t be justified but… well, fuck you- give me your watch.

    We’re living on borrowed (and extensively geared) time. Get what you can before the shithouse goes up in flames, people.

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  40. Lame-o says:

    >and some of those places are truly monstrous even by SA standards let me tell you

    Not true.

    And if you really want to, you can get out of the estate.

    sure, life can be grim in council estate but what’s the solution, burn it down?

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  41. Lame-o says:

    (although you do offer a good insight into the mindset of the looters)

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  42. UrOverlord says:

    @ Lame-o

    Maybe you frequented a better sort of council estate than I did. Some of them look very nice on the outside but are totally rotten inside. Kind of like the bourgeoisie.

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  43. THAT is the nature of the historical moment says:

    “I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment.” Darcus Howe


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  44. sleaze says:

    What a load of bollocks this piece is, Mahala maybe you should stick to Issues closer to home. Comi G was the only one close to what went on here, this was not protest, not a “spring or not even a demonstration, it was shopping pure and simple.

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  45. Lame-o says:


    >Maybe you frequented a better sort of council estate than I did

    Maybe you went to a nicer township 😉

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  46. THAT is the nature of the historical moment says:

    Shopping IS a political act sleaze…especially when some people can do it and others can’t…

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  47. UrOverlord says:

    @ Lame-o

    Don’t like your tone, Lame… o We knows where you trash live. We knows you have a nice TV. Just can’t stand the idea that you might experience happiness now and then. We feels urge to snuff that.

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