A few months ago, the world watched, enthralled, as Prince William married his beloved Princess Kate at London’s Westminster Abbey. Today, London is burning. The pomp and ceremony of the royal wedding long forgotten, for the past three days London has been under attack from some of its own inhabitants, as violent rioting has spread from North to South, East to West.
The violence — sparked by the killing of Jamaican-British man Mark Duggan by police last week — has even spread far beyond London as young people have taken to the streets in other major cities like Birmingham and Bristol.
The riots have been ferocious. Buildings have been burned down, shopping centers looted, police and firemen attacked. People are afraid for their lives and their livelihoods; Londoners are now angrily calling for the army to step in and a state of emergency to be declared. The footage is depressing and disheartening; it is sad to see the lawlessness and wanton violence, stealing, looting and thuggery that is being captured on video cameras and mobile phones.
What’s even sadder, however, is that I — as a black British female — am not surprised. Neither are my other black British friends who I have spoken to who now reside in the US. This has been a long time coming.It’s even why some left in the first place.
WATCH NBC NEWS COVERAGE OF THE VIOLENCE IN LONDON:
The shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan on Thursday August 2nd was the catalyst for this violence. Duggan was shot and killed in Tottenham, a deprived part of North London with a large black population by a specialist unit of London’s police force called Operation Trident. In Tottenham, tensions between the police and young people young black men in particular have been high for years. In fact, the area is well known for a major riot that took place in 1985. The Broadwater Farm riots, as they are known, also occurred in response to controversial incidents involving police and black people.
Operation Trident which was set up in 1998 to specifically deal with gun crime related to drug activity within London’s black community — is itself controversial among some sections of the black community. Even though Trident was set up by black activists to tackle so-called black-on-black killings, few of the police officers within the unit are black, and some see Trident as being just another way in which the police can oppress young black men who are already disproportionately targeted for criminal behavior.
Mark Duggan’s death seemed to touch a raw nerve, coming just months after another controversial police-related death of yet another black man, a British reggae artist known as Smiley Culture. A peaceful protest about Duggan’s death turned violent. From then on, the violence has escalated.
Conflicting reports from police have also fueled the troubles. At first, the police said that Duggan died in an exchange of fire, suggesting that he was shooting at them. Today’s post-mortem examination shows that Duggan died from a single bullet to the chest.
There is so much behind these riots that its hard to know where to begin. The main issue is that England and Londoners refuses to deal in any substantive way with its pressing issues. This violence is as a result of, among other things, unexamined racial issues, a crumbling sense of community among black people with no real leadership, unresolved class issues, social exclusion coupled with a lack of opportunities, a deep recession in addition to an extremely high cost of living, a new government who has been cutting back on services for youth, disenfranchised young people, and a dependency culture all rolled into one. As we’ve seen, this is a deeply dangerous combination.
Nobody in England likes to talk about race. Londoners prefer to pretend or perhaps they really believe — that the city is a melting pot, where everyone lives side by side in peace and harmony. They often chide America for they consider to be America’s intense obsession with the topic, not realizing that it is America’s willingness to talk about race that may account for the fact that it is home to many of the most successful black people in the western world.
Statistics will tell you that while, superficially, people of all races may live side by side in inner city areas (as they certainly don’t in London’s wealthier areas), there is a major lack of opportunity for them. Black people are underrepresented in all areas of public British life from politics, to economics; educationally, we lag far behind, and we are overrepresented in crime and incarceration.
Black kids, in particular, are raised in a culture of low expectations and low aspirations with no real hope for their future in a country where social mobility has been found to be no better than in medieval times. In a recent study on the UK’s social mobility, the author gave a sobering assessment of the prospects for black Britons, saying: Even if the same rate of social mobility that we observe for the indigenous population applies to [the children of recent immigrants], it will be many generations perhaps centuries before they achieve status equality with the rest of UK society.
England, still a bastion of tradition, also doesn’t really know what to do with this new generation of British-born black youth. Unlike our parents or grandparents who came to England as immigrants, British born blacks are unwilling to act as if England is a host nation which must simply accommodate them because it isn’t. It is our home. It is for many the only place that they have ever known, so it is understandably frustrating for many to have second-class citizen status. Back in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, black people dealing with similar frustrations, also used violence — in some of these same parts of London — as a tactic to get heard. It seems not much has changed.
Although these latest riots started in Tottenham, as they have spread, the ethnic mix of the rioters has diversified. Why? Because social exclusion and disenfranchisement also runs along class lines in England, still a deeply class-orientated society.Class in England is different from in the U.S. In England, people generally don’t move classes — you end up where you were born. It is not based on how much money you may have today, as it might be in the U.S., but on who your parents are, your background and where you went to school. In England, on that basis, a rich person could still be considered working class.
So now it seems, the white working class youth are also frustrated and fed up. They too have had enough it seems. The British middle classes openly call them chavs a derogatory term to denote lower or working class people — and scum, while politicians refer to them as the underclass. In the past few years, the media has stoked up the notion that the white working class population is treated as badly, if not worse, than its black counterparts, with the BBC even putting on a white season of TV programming to show how hard the white youth have it these days.
The welfare dependency culture of the UK also discourages personal responsibility or self reliance, and many of these young people simply feel entitled and that they deserve a hand out — which they are not getting from a society that seems not to even care about them.
London — and England — is now dealing with black kids, white kids and indeed most likely children from other ethnicities who all have their axes to grind, who feel victimized and oppressed and excluded in their own country with few opportunities. With no place to go to, nowhere for their voices to be heard, violence seems an easy answer. With a media looking for its next juicy story and instantaneous, free communication tools at hand — it has been reported that Blackberry Messenger has been the main organizing tool for the riots, and it has allowed the quick spread of the violence from place to place — suddenly the previously disenfranchised now have some power, destructive as it may be.
Although I don’t condone this violence, I hope that some important lessons will be learned. It’s time for England to get talking about and taking action on its issues. It’s time for it to address its issues about race and to start looking at what the future is for black Briton.
It’s time for it to address its class-ism and the way in which those at the top look down at those who are considered to be below them. It’s time for them to address the breakdown of the family and of the community.It is also high time for the black population to take a long hard look at itself and find some answers, some solutions and start taking responsibility for its young
Without this, only more of the same is to be expected. London, and England, may well continue to burn.