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As It Cleans Up After Riots, Britain Looks For Answers

  • Richard Solash

What most people seem to agree on is that, while the initial violence was racially tinged, the subsequent riots were not.

What most people seem to agree on is that, while the initial violence was racially tinged, the subsequent riots were not.

Charred cars, destroyed buildings, and shattered shop windows: Four nights of the worst street violence to hit Britain in decades have left the country stunned and saddened.

Broken glass can be swept up, but if Prime Minister David Cameron's characterization of a "broken Britain" is true, then the more difficult task is finding answers to why anarchic mobs raged through the streets of London, Manchester, Birmingham, and other cities, wreaking havoc.

It's a question the British government has been recalled from its summer holiday to confront in a special session of Parliament that convenes on August 11.

Four people have been killed and nearly 900 people have been arrested. Estimates of property damage are in the tens of millions.

On August 10, Cameron maintained that the root cause was a "complete lack of responsibility" in parts of society and cited a widely circulated video of an injured man being mugged by people who at first appeared to be helping him.

A 'Sick' Society
British Prime Minister David Cameron

"There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick," Cameron said.

"When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear that there are things that are badly wrong with our society."

Cameron is not alone in his analysis. Commentators who agree say that the looting sprees are not the result of unemployment, poverty, or spending cuts -- some of the looters are too young to be unemployed, they note, while others have jobs.

Instead they point to what they say is a breakdown in social and moral values and the rise in recent decades of an "entitlement culture" hooked on welfare benefits.

London Mayor Boris Johnson blamed those who he said had been raised with "an endless sense of entitlement."

And commentator Melanie Phillips, writing in the right-leaning "Daily Mail" on August 11, described the riots as being fuelled by "moral collapse" and carried out by youths raised without responsible parents -- in particular, committed fathers.

Deeper Contributing Factors

But others point to the lack of employment opportunities for Britain's young people, long-standing social tensions, and public anger at deep cuts in government social-welfare programs.

Colin Francome, professor emeritus of sociology at Britain's Middlesex University, acknowledges that the government's first responsibility is to restore order but thinks viewing the rioters as simple criminals is to miss the deeper contributing factors.

"If they're just talking about punishment as a one-tool weapon to deal with this, it's not going to work," Francome says. "They're going to catch a proportion of the people, [but] there are many, many more who are also disaffected who didn't riot. Obviously they're going to have to punish those when they catch them, but that on its own will not solve the problem. The problem is much more deep-seated."

A Lost Generation

Six months ago, Britain's left-leaning "The Guardian" newspaper noted that youth unemployment in Britain had reached a record high and wrote of "fears that Britain's young people could become a lost generation who cannot find work."

Government figures show that the some 1 million adults under the age of 25 are out of work, representing a youth unemployment rate of more than 20 percent.

Some simply saw the situation as an "excuse to raid the shops."

Social-welfare advocates also blame the government's approval of sharp hikes in university tuition fees, and its deep austerity-measure cuts to social programs, for generating anger and resentment among the country's youth.

Hazel Saunders is the operations coordinator at Faces in Focus, a London-based charity that offers counseling, training, and other services to troubled youth. Her group works with teenagers and young adults who need help finding their way and assistance coming up with a life plan.

According to her, the government's public spending cuts put that much-needed work at risk. "There's certainly been a lot of cutbacks and a lot of services to young people have been cut," Saunders says. "And it certainly will have a knock-on effect."

She notes, however, that while some of the rioters were undoubtedly frustrated youths, others simply saw an opportunity. "I think they just saw an excuse to raid the shops," she adds.

Sending A Message To The Rich

In some cases, the rioters themselves revealed deep-seated economic resentment. One girl, who spoke to the BBC in London's Croydon neighborhood on the morning of August 9, said she wanted to send a message to the country's wealthy classes.

"It's the rich people -- the people that have got businesses -- and that's why all of this has happened, because of the rich people," she said. "So we're just showing the rich people we can do what we want."

What most people seem to agree on is that, while the initial violence was racially tinged, the subsequent riots were not.

The unrest began with a protest on August 6 in London's low-income district of Tottenham against the fatal police shooting of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, in disputed circumstances.

Race Was Not The Driving Force

Rioting quickly spread to other sections of London, before spreading to the cities of Manchester and Birmingham.

Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, suggests that the diversity of rioters indicates that race is not the driving force behind the violence.

"The initial violence in Tottenham mostly involved the local black community, but subsequently it spread to other ethnic groups," Bagguley says. "In some parts of the country, mostly white people are involved in the looting. It started off as partly a race-related issue -- an issue between black people and the police in London -- [and became about] a more general set of economic questions."

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