Burning Embers

There used to be a time when English decorum made the world English (or so they claimed at least). Even now, living in Britain feels like filling an overzealous tax form, where everything is neatly ticked and grouped into boxes. People queue; give way and whatever isn’t considered British is swept beneath a neatly sewn carpet of suits and ephemeral smiles.

Or so it was till the peace was shattered this August by a London society bursting at the seams of subdued frustration and angst. Trouble started on 4th August 2011, with the shooting of a black man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham, London. Consequently, what started off as a peaceful protest by family and friends, would go on to become one of the worst cases of rioting and looting, lasting days and spreading to other cities in England. Televisions around the world beamed unfamiliar images of London, with houses burning, shops being looted and hooded youths blatantly challenging the police with missiles and brickbats. A woman jumped from a burning building to save her life, an injured Malaysian student being helped to his feet only to be robbed by those who had come to his aid and families running out of burning buildings with children in hand while their life’s worth went up in flames around them.

“The immediate political reaction was a portrayal of the events as an “us-them” state of affairs, with a cowboy like attitude of promising to come after the “thugs” in a classic “fight back”.”

It was not inconceivable – in fact it was obvious – that most of the people involved in the looting did not even know who Mark Duggan was. What shocked British society even more was that a large number of people taking part were teenagers and children. Misguided and totally clueless, some parroted that they were “getting back their taxes… innit (sic)?” Others actually revelled in the chaos. One is still haunted by the audibly young pair of girls describing the event in absolute joy – “everyone was going to riot chucking things, chucking bo’les (sic) […] it was madness, but it was good though.” For most this was a wakeup call to something having gone horribly wrong with civil society in Britain.

The immediate political reaction was a portrayal of the events as an “us-them” state of affairs, with a cowboy like attitude of promising to come after the “thugs” in a classic “fight back”. Amongst all the political braggadocio and the desperation to show that control still lay with the authorities, dangerous undertones began to infiltrate upper class conversation, with an obvious yet superficially silent finger being pointed towards black communities. Ironically, such societal segregation was quite possibly one of the major factors behind the riots.

Sadly, the British government even now continues to misinterpret the situation, and prefers to pinpoint these incidents towards, as PM David Cameron put it, “sick pockets” within society. This is particularly sad given how Britain jumped to identify public discontent in other countries and yet the one time they had the opportunity to recognize and clean-up their own house, they chose to ignore the problem. Meanwhile, International media were quick to pounce upon the problem, so mysteriously eluding the British, and questions were soon being asked about why a society renowned for their calm and order completely disintegrated within a matter of days.

There is no one identifiable reason behind the riots but rather a host of them. Take the PM’s theory of “sick pockets” for instance. When English cities fall like dominoes to mob fury, surely the problem is deeper than mere pockets. Moreover labelling “sickness” is a far cry from identifying the root of the problem. Budget cuts and an economic downturn have meant that already poverty-stricken and socially segregated communities have been hit even harder. Unemployment is at a high and consequently so is frustration levels. Many kids have been forced to drop out of university and community youth centres- to keep young people occupied- are being shut down all over the country. To define this as “sickness” would be to belittle the problem entirely. As one social worker put it, “Let’s talk about the sickness of 1.4 million children living below the poverty line […] shall we talk about that sickness too?”

Simultaneously, Britain is also witnessing a shift in its morals towards an overtly capitalistic society. Greed, desire for money and want has substituted a sense of right and wrong among significant parts of society. Another social worker was quick to point out that, “Unfortunately we have brought up this generation believing that whatever someone else has got, they have to have it.” Yet, again to define this as a sickness would not only be exaggerating but would also be taking the blame away from those who have instilled such a culture into British society in the first place. The words “rich conglomerates” come to mind.

Yet another issue during the riots have been the policing. The authorities were desperately trying to cling on to control and were starting to look excessively ruffled in the process. And this highlights another growing problem in British society today. A lack of respect towards authority figures, such as parents, schools and police has become a nightmare for some. The disempowerment of such institutions has led to a growing disregard for authority and a lack of discipline all around. For all the good work welfare organizations carry out, somewhere down the path they missed the tipping point in their effort to be politically correct.

Maurice Reeves, the octogenarian proprietor of a burnt down Victorian era furniture store recollects of his time: “If we picked up a stone and threw it at a policeman, we were put in jail […] no hesitation, we were marched off.” This simply isn’t the case anymore. When the use of water cannons and rubber bullets were being deliberated during the riots, the primary argument against their use was that to use them would be to accept a loss of control. One simply reels at the logic behind preferring a loss of control over the acceptance of one. Scenes during the riots baffled television viewers when quite visibly instead of actively stopping and arresting looters, they were instead cordoned off to certain areas where they had a free run of things. In some areas riot police were ordered to withdraw because “protection of life was more important than protection of property.”

Later, the police were to accept that they got their tactics wrong during the riots. The helplessness of the police force was summed up by the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales – “Damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

As the former editor of The Sun beautifully placed the British predicament – “A police force that can’t get out a baton and smack people anymore for fear of it appearing on Youtube and their lives being destroyed. Youth workers employed by the thousands who achieve nothing at all. And an education system where the teachers are scared of the parents after they’ve administered discipline to some revolting scumbag of a child. Take the whole lot together and you have a destruction of law and order.” Surely such a complexity of problems can hardly be brushed off as mere “pockets” of “sickness”?

Violence is hateful, horrific and forces people to live in fear of life and property. It can’t be condoned. This is not an argument to say that it should be. However, to handle this by brushing the root causes below the carpet of sanitization would be sacrilegious. A much deeper understanding of the problem is required. Although all communities, races and people are equal, the internal workings and societal understandings deep within these communities are necessarily different. The upper echelons can’t get away with the imposition of their standards anymore. If a clean, sanitized society is desirable, they can no longer demand it. They must take part in the clean-up with dialogue and participation from their side, and not just expect it from the other. Yes certainly, responsibility must be placed on those who killed the three youths in Birmingham, or those who destroyed the livelihood of so many through looting and arson or those who injured so many others through their actions. But the blame should not stop with the misguided youths under the pretext of a “sick” society but should go further into a society itself that created the “sickness” within the youth.

Rohit roy writes the environmental column for Kindle, with desperate intentions to help make a greener world. Currently he is pursuing a PhD in World Trade and Environmental law. His interests include theology, philosophy, good food, Rabindranath and an amateur take on natural sciences.

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