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August 9, 2011 / ultrafox1963

Could life ever be sane again?

A summer of discontent has become incendiary.

For the last three nights the world has witnessed, via TV screens, cars and buildings ablaze, shops looted, and gangs completely out of control.  These scenes have not been broadcast from Beirut, Baghdad or Gaza.  They’ve been broadcast from London.

Yes, London – the self-styled “coolest city in the world”.  A city which loves the limelight like no other (except maybe for New York). A city which, twelve months from now, is due to stage the Olympics.  But also a city which, right now, is in full-blown panic mode.

The pretext for these disturbances came when Mark Duggan, a young black man from Tottenham, was shot dead by police on 4 August. Elements in the Metropolitan Police responded, to their shame, by launching a media smear campaign against him rather than considering the impact of his death on his friends, family and community.  It was not the first time these despicable tactics have been employed – Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, among others who died at police hands, were also treated in the same manner.

But this time, the community decided that a line had been crossed.  Hundreds of residents marched, entirely peacefully, to Tottenham police station, demanding answers about the way in which Mr Duggan met his demise.  Others, however, took a more direct, violent and nihilistic approach, targeting shopping centres as a means of expressing their discontent.

The consequences saw parts of Tottenham ablaze for hours on end, with police seemingly powerless to intervene, as businesses and   homes were destroyed and shops were looted and gutted.  As the full horror of this disorder was circulated, most residents elsewhere in London and beyond were rightly shocked and repulsed.  A few, though, saw – and seized – the opportunity to spread the mayhem to other areas.

It is no coincidence that these disturbances have taken place during school holidays when thousands of disaffected teenagers, bombarded on a daily basis with images of acquisition and materialism, were easy prey for those seeking to manipulate them.  The result was that many department stores, phone shops and sports retailers found themselves the targets of rampaging, feral mobs, who set about looting then destroying their premises.  Their staff looked to the police for protection and support.  Sadly, all too often, they looked in vain.

The disorder is now evident in several parts of London (leading to the cancellation of all midweek football fixtures in the city) but is now affecting other areas too, with reports of clashes in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Leeds.  There has been extensively chronicled accounts of these events as well as their potential causes.  One disturbing factor is the number of bloggers, tweeters and message-board posters proclaiming the need for a Syrian-style crackdown on the rioters, as if a bloodbath would somehow cleanse communities of their ills.  Fortunately it appears that the government and police are treating such inflammatory calls with the contempt they deserve.

Despite the extent of the wreckage inflicted upon communities, properties and livelihoods, no further fatalities have been sustained, although Mr Duggan’s death is still one too many. With the Prime Minister and the mayor of London both (somewhat belatedly) returning from their holidays to deal with this crisis, there are hopes that the worst of the disturbances may have passed.  But even if and when calm returns to the inner-city areas, scars have already been inflicted which will take years to heal.

Residents and communities, as well as politicians, need to ask themselves some tough questions about how these attacks were ever able to arise. The causes are not so much a consequence of political disengagement (otherwise far more areas would have been blighted by these riots) as that of a US-style gang culture which successive governments have allowed to flourish in London for far too long.  Maybe we should put our own house in order before preaching to, and intervening in, conflicts elsewhere on the planet.

The social and economic structures prevalent in the USA have too often been cited across the political mainstream as models for the UK, and indeed the rest of the world, to follow.   Their downsides – grotesquely unequal distributions of wealth, racial polarisation, rampant poverty (in the world’s richest economy!) and frightening levels of gun crime – have often been far too easily and glibly overlooked.  Some of the more perceptive of political analysts, even in the most unlikely of quarters, are beginning to realise this.

It is also important to avoid the temptations to stigmatise entire groups.  Most young people, of all social and racial groups, will be just as sickened and disgusted by the violence as other sections of the community – and indeed have frequently been among the most vulnerable of its victims.  Similarly, while there have been isolated instances of police misbehaviour, the overwhelming majority of officers are fully committed to serving their communities and have no wish to return to the aggressive, confrontational approach that their predecessors routinely adopted during social disorder a generation ago.

But the lessons of the 1980s have still yet to be learned in the highest corridors of power.

They must be learned very soon if the carnage and devastation witnessed in recent days is to be averted in the future.

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