by Guest Contributor Kadian Pow
I don’t live in London, so I will not pretend to write the story of what Londoners are feeling. I live in the nation’s second city, Birmingham—a less than two hour drive northwest of London. This is my perspective on London, Birmingham and other parts of the country.
On Thursday, Tottenham (borough of London) resident Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police. He was being investigated by police for some time. Though armed, reports claimed Duggan had surrendered his gun before shots were fired. On Saturday, his family—tired of waiting for answers about the circumstances of his death—marched to a local police station to speak to senior officers. On the way there, other people joined them. Police were slow to respond to the family’s request for information. The crowd became restless and a young girl was reportedly pushed back by police. It was speculation and rumour around this confrontation that sparked the initial rioting in Tottenham. The looting and arson that followed on ensuing nights had nothing to do with getting justice for Mark. His family is outraged at the behaviour and violence that has spread across London and the country.
We’ve been glued to the TV since Sunday morning when we woke up to news of the rioting in Tottenham on Saturday night. We were gobsmacked at the devastation, questioning why this was happening. On Sunday night when we learned that the violence had spread to other areas of London, I had a sinking feeling that the trouble would reach beyond the capital, and we would see it in Birmingham. In fact, I said as much in an email on Monday morning to my best friend in DC.
On Monday evening, we went to a free cinema preview on the edge of Birmingham city centre. In an unusual move, we decided to take the car and go to the nearby Tesco grocery store afterwards. The supermarket’s parking lot was unusually empty. It was 8:30 PM. As we approached the entrance another shopper arriving at his car told us the shop had closed early due to “trouble in town”. I pressed him about the exact location of the trouble, but he did not know. We decided to go to the Tesco Express at the end of our street in the Jewellery Quarter (a desirable residential area near the heart of the city). My sense of unease continued. I stayed outside in the small parking lot of the store to keep watch while my partner went inside to shop. I noticed a youth in dark clothing with his hood up, surreptitiously talking on his phone. I looked to my right and in the distance spotted about 10 other youths in similar dress approaching. I loudly admonished G to “Get the fuck out NOW!” I could feel myself welling up with anger because they dared to bring their violence and bravado to my neighbourhood. I think I had residual anger from having had all three of our bikes nicked by young kids just two weeks before. G did not heed my words, so I had to yell like a mad woman for her to get out. As I turned my back, the youth were just feet away from me. I saw one quickly take off his balaclava (ski mask) and dump it behind the bin near the entrance of the store. To my left two police vans had just arrived. I begged the youths not to bring trouble to my ‘hood then jumped in the car to quickly get away. Later that night from my side window, I could see police in riot gear parading up and down my street. Ours is the only residential building on a street otherwise littered with jewellery shops. It’s important to note that these youth were not rioters. The term “riot” usually implies political purpose. These youth had gathered with the intention to cause damage and steal.
BBM messages like these have been sent out to organize people:
“Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”
Interestingly, the message above is also temporarily advocating squashing gang turf wars and racial tensions (“dead the ends and colour wars”) in the name of free stuff. These give you some indication of the motivations of those who organized the violent gangs. Their intentions: rain havoc through any violence possible and get free shit while doing so. This was supposedly their way of showing authorities that they could do whatever they want. And they did. Four nights on, they’re still at it. I must stress that any justification the rioters in Tottenham may have felt they had to rail against authority on Saturday night, cannot be claimed by offenders who spread this to other parts of the country. How shameful that social media has been used for this purpose. Recently, we’ve seen how mediums like Twitter were used to mobilize the people of Egypt (and other countries) in their quest for democracy.
There was an appalling lack of coverage of trouble in Birmingham on the BBC and Sky News on Monday. I relied on this industrious young man’s tumblr: http://birminghamriots2011.tumblr.com/ to coalesce all the Birmingham area news. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. In all my years living in DC, I’ve never seen a group of people who don’t give even a hint of a fuck because they feel they have nothing to lose. Those that conducted violence and arson in London boroughs may have started out angry, but the violence that has spread across the country in the last two nights is mostly opportunistic copycat criminality by gangs. Highly organised to be sure. Take a look at the flyer instructing would-be criminals on how to keep their identity protected after looting.
Most of the violators are born and bred in England. While the initial trouble was mostly led by Black youths, the subsequent spread has seen increasing numbers of white youths and adults of both genders. Kids as young as 10 have been seen wearing make shift balaclavas (ski masks) and hurling debris at police. What has to be questioned is the mentality of the opportunistic looters. I saw news footage of a middle-aged man brazenly entering a T-Mobile store after the looters left, copping a netbook and slipping it under his shirt. Watching the images from the violence in Manchester, I could not help but notice the predominately white faces railing against police and kicking their way into stores.
These riots are largely not being committed by immigrants. South Asian groups are mostly absent from the violence (it’s also Ramadan!). In Birmingham, the last night has brought about a surge of “vigilantes” from Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and other communities protecting their properties and religious institutions. Tuesday night, three young South Asian men died in a deliberate hit-and-run collision just outside Birmingham while trying to protect their community.
People are angry. Very angry. I share that anger. In Birmingham, eyewitness accounts indicate that mobs are largely after cash. They have straight up robbed people, casinos, bars and even yanked ATMs out of the walls of banks. I just feel like I want to shake them and say: Is this what you want your life to be? And for what? £25 from a slot machine and a few pairs of jeans? But through all of this, the spirit of community is emerging. It started late Monday night on Twitter and Facebook with people forming #riotcleanup crews. They came out in force in affected communities with their brooms and gloves. This is the spirit of a country that has lived through violence in past decades and the Blitz of World War II. It’s not quite the “Keep Calm and Carry On” motto from the war, but there is a sense of getting on with things even as we grapple with deep questions.
England’s benefits system (welfare) is infamous for how easy it is to exploit. There are generations of people who have known nothing but this benefits system and frankly aren’t motivated to get off it. But much of the criminal behaviour is not coming from mostly poor, disenfranchised youth. In fact, I consider it an insult to blame the poor for this behaviour. It’s also wrong. Violence like this has noticeably not kicked off in poor areas in Wales, Scotland or the very north of England. Young people from poor, rural areas with naff all to do have not joined the fray. So it’s also a question of values and a lack of individual responsibility among those who have made the decision to deliberately ruin cities and lives. Some people have been left with only the clothes on their back. Small business owners have seen years of hard work disappear in hours. Reeling from austerity measures, the last thing this country needs is civil unrest and billions of dollars in property damage. The aftershocks will go on for quite some time.
It’s clear that stemming the violence is only the beginning. Coming from the US where guns are largely prevalent, I am thankful that guns have been absent from the hands of criminals and the riot police. There are two conversations going on as the violence starts to temper in London (but growing in the rest of the country). One is obviously tough talk about catching and punishing criminals, thereby sending a message that behaviour like this is not acceptable. As importantly, the other conversation is about how to prevent this in the future, but not just with police tactics and intelligence. People are beginning to search for the root causes that need to be addressed. The prevalence of gang culture and allegiance to gangs as a replacement for family bonds needs to be further examined and address. Certainly when Parliament is recalled on Thursday morning, some of their debates will focus on this and the consequences of deep cuts and lack of revenue growth. Sound familiar?
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