London Burns as Riots Spread

Prime Minister David Cameron rushes home as rioting escalates and violence spreads beyond the capital. The mayhem is mostly thuggery, but may reflect unresolved grievances against authority, says William Underhill.

08.09.11 12:54 AM ET

Prime Minister David Cameron breaks off a holiday abroad to return home. So, too, does the mayor of London and the leader of the Labour opposition. The home secretary issues a call for community leaders to cooperate with the police, and the city’s police chief urges parents to check the whereabouts of their children. More than 200 people are arrested.

Something strange and disturbing is happening on the streets of London. For three successive nights rioters have brought mayhem to patches of the capital on a scale not seen for at least 25 years. Burnt-out cars and stores testify to a mood in the capital that’s turned ugly for reasons that commentators struggle to identify.

And the trouble shows little sign of subsiding. Last night saw violence flare in areas of the city, including quiet outer suburbs previously untouched by the trouble—despite a massive police presence. Cars were set ablaze and officers clashed with youths armed with steel bars and wooden planks.

Worse still, the violence and looting were no longer confined to London. Gangs of masked youths also were rampaging through the heart of Birmingham, England’s second-largest city, smashing windows and breaking into stores to steal.

The mystery is what lies behind the trouble. The immediate cause is clear enough: the fatal shooting by police Saturday night of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham, a poor district of North London. In the aftermath of his death, a peaceful protest outside a neighborhood police station abruptly turned violent and soon spread to nearby streets.

So far the best explanation is simple opportunism among a small element in the local community—much swollen by outsiders—taking advantage of the protest to rob and brawl, their actions facilitated by Twitter. Said the Home Secretary Theresa May: “The violence we’ve seen, the looting we’ve seen, the thuggery we’ve seen—this is sheer criminality and let’s make no bones about it.”

The underlying political message is simple. The violence has nothing to with recent government spending cuts—most of which have still to take effect—or the persistence of poverty in areas of London with a largely black population. Essentially, this is no more than a spasm of mindless and brutal high summer destruction.

But there are worrying echoes of the past that might suggest an alternative analysis. Back in 1985, a time of extreme tension between police and London’s black youth, the Broadwater Farm housing project in Tottenham was the scene of an especially vicious race riot that saw a police officer hacked to death with machetes.

Could it be that old unresolved grievances against the police and authority in general are resurfacing as the economic outlook darkens and the chance of work recedes still further for a black population that already sees itself as excluded from the mainstream economy? Unemployment in the Tottenham area is high, with 54 people chasing every vacancy, according to figures cited in Monday’s press.

That doesn’t satisfy local MP David Lammy, who has lived in Tottenham all his life. In a piece for Monday’s edition of The Times, he claims that the last 26 years have marked an easing of old antagonisms. “We still have our problems, but the relationship between police officers on the Broadwater Farm and the young people of the 2011 Farm would have been unrecognizable to their 1985 brothers and sisters,” writes Lammy, who is black.

“In 1985 I knew many of the young men throwing bricks. They were angry and felt that they had no outlet for their rage other than violence. But the 1985 riots were race riots; black youth fighting the police. The weekend’s violence was not a race riot; it was an attack on the whole of the Tottenham community.”

The trouble is, if the violence has no political component, it’s a still tougher challenge. Social and economic conditions can be tackled, albeit with difficulty. Not so the occasional urge to turn on authority and destroy.