London Clash: A Clash in the City

Why?

As an American, that’s probably the first question on your mind. What really induced the people of London to transform into demolition machines hurling Molotov cocktails, breaking open shop windows and attacking their fellow Englishmen?

Unfortunately, the answer is not just simple cause and effect. The story floating around the media earlier on, before the riots really escalated, was that the riots were in response to a police shooting. Police in Tottenham had fired upon an armed drug dealer, leading to vehement anger towards police in the region. This anger in turn took form in  all-out rioting. This explanation, however, was suddenly downplayed by the media and the government. It was later revealed that the dealer had in no way attempted to fire upon police, but had simply stuffed his gun into his pocket and ran. The police officers, with good intentions, had shot him down. Still, it’s hard to shoot a man who clearly has no intention of shooting you and still come off as a hero.

So that’s part of it. In fact, that incident may very well have led to the first riot. But it takes more than a police shooting to cause violence and chaos of that scale. That event was merely a catalyst, the final straw. All over England, pressure had been building like a bubble waiting to burst. All over London, there is a “lower class” of people, the unemployed and disenfranchised, who believe they have no say in the government, who feel that they are going nowhere. These people are the youth. Ranging from ages 15-25, they waste about in slums and urban catastrophes with nothing better to do than start a riot. One in six Britons live in government-sponsored housing. These people count on the government, and in their eyes, the government couldn’t care less about them.

If you want to understand this, you may want to catch “Attack the Block,” at your local movie theater. It finished production and was released less than a month before the riots started, and was filmed in many of the places where riots took place. It seems like an obscure reference, as the movie is supposed to be about aliens, but the film itself really presents a picture-perfect view of the relationship between these youths and the police. They have a total lack of respect for authority, a hatred of the wealthy and the government, and all the time in the world to do whatever they please.

In other words, they’re the perfect mob force, as long as something mobilizes them.

And if you’ve watched any of the riot footage, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The camera shows three or four policemen in riot gear, trying to calm down a large group of youths in front of a store. Two young men, dressed in all black with bright white shoes, begin to advance on the police, yelling threats, tossing garbage and hollering vague chants. “Fight! Fight! Get ‘em! Get ‘em!” The change is sudden and dramatic. Instantly, these two men are backed by hundreds of rioters, rushing toward the police with raised fists and ad hoc weaponry. The police didn’t stand a chance.

All of this is truly despicable human action. This looting and rioting should in no way be supported or cheered on. But look at it from their perspective, and look how the government has reacted: harsher sentences than ever, punishing the families of rioters, limiting the freedom of whole regions by shutting down Internet access, and treating people who were pushed to the brink as though they were first-degree murderers.  It was a scene more likely to come out of Iran or Tahrir Square. The British government blames the riots on ‘moral decay’ and seeks to restrict social services even more than before. The prime minister views these people as second-class citizens because of their criminal activity, but perhaps causation is reversed.

These people have had no power, no future and no hope for the past decade. The youth have grown up hating their government, knowing that their government has cared little for their lives or their safety. Suddenly, with the onset of these riots, this class of disrespected, helpless youths find themselves with a tremendous amount of power in their hands. And they flex it in the only way that they know: crime. Vandalism, shoplifting, assault. All of this committed in the name of a vague, personal hope for more than what they had.

To them, riot looks like revolution.

Ryan Cady is a second-year psychology major. He can be reached at rcady@uci.edu.