London Riots: Only the Rioters to Blame?

on August 08 2011 6:14 AM

London witnessed one of the most appalling riots in years, after police fatally shot a black resident. Violence engulfed an economically deprived neighborhood in North London when a small anti-police demonstration snowballed into looting and violence that left 26 police officers injured and led to 55 arrests last week.

The unrest began on Saturday night after rioters set buildings and cars ablaze in the downtrodden north London neighborhood of Tottenham. Looting was also reported in the area as the protests got increasingly out of control. The looting and violence continued past dawn. Scattered incidents broke out on Sunday in the Enfield neighborhood north of Tottenham after looters had smashed shop windows and more than 100 youths took to the main street, battling with police. Reports of unrest came from the southern neighborhood of Brixton and social media sites suggested of rising tensions in other parts of the city.

The riots were sparked off when 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot by police officers on August 4. Duggan, who was reportedly riding in a taxi at the time of the shooting, was the subject of a "pre-planned operation" by officers. Police were attempting to arrest Duggan as part of an investigation of gun violence in London's black community. Officers involved in the shooting were quoted by dailies as coming under fire, which slightly wounded one of the officers, before they began to shoot. A bullet was found lodged in one of the police officer's radio and an illegal firearm was recovered from the scene.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has launched an inquiry into the shootings. However, the peaceful protest march from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham police station to demand justice for the family, turned into violent rampage. There are conflicting reports as to what sparked off the unrests. Residents say that a confrontation between a teenage rebel and a police officer triggered the violence. However, police officers said that the riots began when demonstrators "attacked" two squad cars and set them on fire.

Political figures in Britain were quick to condemn the aggressive protesters. The office of British Prime Minister David Cameron denounced the violence as "utterly unacceptable".

"I condemn the violence in Tottenham last night. Such disregard for public safety and property will not be tolerated, and the Metropolitan Police have my full support in restoring order," said British Home Secretary, Theresa May.

"The events leading to these disturbances are rightly being investigated by the IPCC. Harming people and property will do nothing to facilitate the investigation, it will only make the situation worse," said London Mayor, Boris Johnson.

David Lammy, a lifelong resident of Tottenham called the violence "a disgrace".

"The community has had the heart ripped out of it," he said.

Lammy lamented the enormous loss of property, that had left residents homeless and destroyed buildings and public offices. He also seemed to accuse Scotland Yard of not moving swiftly enough to contain the riots as they escalated late Saturday and spread into Sunday. While Lammy believed that Duggan's death raised "huge questions", he said that there were no excuses for things to get violent.

While the ferocity of the protests definitely shocked the nation, the riots could also be a way for the protestors to vent their frustrations over rampant poverty and unemployment.

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tottenham forms the core of the borough of Haringey, where a fast-rising total of well over 10,000 people are claiming jobseeker's allowance.

Haringey reported an alarming increase in burglaries and robberies over the past year. Moreover Tottenham has high unemployment rates and a history of racial tensions, especially among the Afro-Caribbean population resenting police behavior, including the use of stop and search powers. This has resulted in a wide disregard for law enforcement here. Besides there is growing unease in this and other neighborhoods Britain, over the government's austerity budget that has led to deep cuts in social services.

These riots follow growing concerns in Britain over its faltering economic growth, government imposing spending cuts and tax rises to reduce budget deficit which peaked at more than 10 percent of GDP.

In such a climate the shooting dead of Mark Duggan by the police is likely to serve as a catalyst for some to disregard law or harm towards fellow citizens and find a violent expression for their anger.

Moreover these riots come on the heels of rising civil unrest in Britain. In 2010 student-led protests were held in opposition to planned spending cuts to further education and an increase of the cap on tuition fees by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. While the protest was mostly peaceful there were incidents when gangs of protesters vandalized a department store in central London. In another incident a car carrying Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, was attacked on Regent Street.

In March 2011 protests organized by the Trades Union Congress against planned public spending cuts by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was held in central London. Various sources estimated that the demonstration was attended by between 250,000 and 500,000 people. It was described as the largest protest in the United Kingdom since the 2003 anti-Iraq War protest and the largest union-organized rally in London since the Second World War. Factors like these have led many to place the blame for the Aug 6 and Aug 7 riots beyond the rioters themselves. 

The Metropolitan Police, who will handle next year's London Olympic Games in what is expected to be Britain's biggest peacetime operation, has come under censure for allowing the violence to escalate.

In fact the growing tensions and anger over hardships were even more evident as violence erupted in other parts London, following the Tottenham riots. Sunday night, police said there was more looting in north, east and south London. Around 50 youths damaged shops in Oxford Street, one of the main shopping districts in central London. In Brixton, south London, several shops were looted and police kept the area cordoned off Monday morning. On Sunday evening, violent disturbances erupted in Enfield, to the North of Tottenham, among heavy presence of riot police.

The Tottenham riots have been compared to the "Broadwater Farm" riots of 1985, when extensive violence followed after a 49-year-old woman died of a heart attack after the police burst into her home.

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