UK Riots: An Outsider's Perspective

Lots of people have been writing me asking if I was all right "in London." It's my fault, because I told everyone I was to be studying in London and didn't mention so often the name of the actual town where I was moving -- since no one has ever heard of it anyway. I really like this little town, and am glad I am quite a ways from urban unrest.

I have a trial subscription to The Guardian and Observer, can now watch BBC news shows, and have read private blog pages on the subject as well. There are lots of different perspectives, so I'll give them a run-down here.

  1. Police and politicians: A few violent individuals got things going, changing a peaceful protest over a police shooting in Tottenham (in London) into a violent riot. Opportunistic and greedy youngsters drunk on power then used the mayhem to allow them to loot stores and take whatever they wanted. The bottom line: illegitimate, opportunistic criminality -- no excuses.

  2. The Guardian, a leftish newspaper: Reports this line, but also asks whether recent government cuts to social programs could be a deeper cause -- without actually answering that question.

  3. Leftist bloggers, some people on the streets (though some young people from the affected areas seemed to concur with the first view above): Years of social exclusion, police bigotry, and, now, cuts to social services have pissed people off, and the only way they can get attention is by doing this. It's not nice, but there's no other choice if they don't want to be ignored.

That pretty much covers the viewpoints. I won't comment too much because I'm an outsider, but I will say that, as usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I remember being young and getting swept up in moods and just not giving a damn about what other people thought, like when we had loud parties on weekday nights and our neighbors' small children couldn't sleep. I have no patience for such people today, but I was one of those anti-social assholes just a few years back -- but only when swept up in the moment. I am sure many, probably most, of the looters are just along for the ride and enjoying feeling powerful and being able to steal what they want with impunity.

At the same time: These things don't happen all the time everywhere. One has to ask why all these people can get so swept up and why they care so little about their own communities, which they've set about destroying. There is a disconnect from civil society here that is worrying and real.

So that's my two cents on that.

One last thing: the police. I've heard and read criticism of the police on both sides, but most are angry that they've done too little to stop the mayhem. Coming from America, where police use rubber bullets and tasers with what seems to me like reckless abandon, I find it interesting that the police here are still debating whether to use rubber bullets. This is even after nights of violence have left parts of London and other cities looking literally like war zones! Water canons have been discussed in the media, but they are apparently not under discussion by the police, who reiterate that they do not use them outside Northern Ireland. Even at a small, peaceful protest in (peacenik) Germany I went to, there were armored vehicles with water canons at the ready. Perhaps their mere presence helped deter any would-be rioters. In any case, the Metropolitan (London) Police say rubber bullets are to be used only in extreme situations and the go-ahead can only be given by someone high up in the chain of command. Apparently burned-out shells of buildings are no extreme enough yet.

The British police are actually well-known for their restraint, and this shows it to be true. Rubber bullets can also sometimes kill if you hit the person just right (or wrong). I've been reading reports of hatred towards the police in these poorer districts of London. There's been talk of selective stopping and searching (racial profiling, anyone?). So this violence has partly been just to stick it to the police. The police are in a bind, criticized for being at once too harsh and too soft. I don't envy them.

My personal view: buildings, cars, and shops are being set ablaze and the police did nothing for a long while. It's time for water canons and rubber bullets. This is ridiculous. Afterwards, it's time to think, once again, about the social issues in these places. The problem is: people think about that all the time, and no good solutions seem to come out. What do you think?


  1. I forgot to mention: all races were participating in the riots, so racial profiling by police cannot have been a main motivating factor. To this day, my view on the rioters is pretty condemning, as is the view of the UK legal system, which has handed down tougher-than-usual sentences to looters. Rightly so.


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