Few British mosques are places of mosaic or minaret. They are not fine buildings from which muezzins call. They are the adapted back rooms or upstairs quarters of working-class Muslims. The carpet I sat on in the Handsworth district of Birmingham on Aug. 10 was woven through with a religious motif, but was threadbare.
I was part of a circle of 20 barefoot men, their palms turned upward in front of their chests, making their dua for two brothers killed in “riots” the night before. The prayers were now led by the murdered men’s uncle, replacing their father, who was ushered away in distress.
Between prayers, the men took sober phone calls, talked mutedly, and sent text messages. A surviving brother, sobbing, wandered in and out. Outside, a crowd of young Kashmiri men milled. Some were in traditional dress, some in suits, most in the universal uniform of American hip-hop.
Fourteen hours earlier, at 1 a.m., the two brothers, along with a third man, had been “protecting their community” on the streets of Birmingham’s multiethnic Winson Green district. The night before had seen attacks on shops and looting in the city center and nearby Soho Road. As trouble seemed, on the second night, to be moving in their direction, Sajad, Haroon, and Abdul were part of a large group “defending” their area. In the chaos, a suspected looter drove his car directly at them. All three were killed. A 32-year-old man was almost immediately arrested on suspicion of murder.
This is my city. I grew up here. I love the place. I sat for nine years in the House of Commons as member of Parliament for the Erdington district of Birmingham. Last year I stood down in order to campaign for, and ultimately to campaign to be, our first directly elected mayor.
As a practicing politician in a city gripped by disorder, I find this article difficult to write. I have privileged access to private situations, afforded to me on the basis that I might help, not so that I can write it up in NEWSWEEK. But telling the story so widely is another unusual privilege. So I take the risk.
From the family of the dead brothers I went to a small, closed meeting of Afro-Caribbean community leaders called by one of the city’s two Muslim M.P.s, Khalid Mahmood. They are frightened. The man arrested on suspicion of the murders was black. Facebook is heavy with young Kashmiris venting fury and threatening reprisals. “We will take three blacks for the three that was took from us” is one message reported by a veteran community activist. She says it is the most scared she has been for 30 years.
Overlaid onto the fear of reprisals is the worry that such threats by themselves will provoke a response from gang-influenced Afro-Caribbean men.
That would be a massive escalation because, hitherto, this nationwide civil unrest has been largely the work of children. The marauding bands that set London alight and shut down town centers across Britain were made up, unprecedentedly, of often very young teenagers. This has not been an uprising of the dispossessed, the unemployed, or particular ethnic groups, but a violent convulsion of kids on holiday from high school. According to the Metropolitan Police, just under two thirds of those arrested on the second day of the London disturbances were teenagers. Many were 13, 14, 15 years of age. Everyone who saw them was shocked.
“They were just kids, not more than 15,” the owner of a wrecked mobile-phone shop in Birmingham told me while waiting for the police to arrive in the cold light of that Tuesday morning. “The scarf covering his face fell down and I couldn’t believe it—he was so young,” said Miles Weaver, a young academic watching from the window of his city-center apartment as a gang looted a shop in the small hours of Tuesday night.
These events have been characterized, in the main, by relatively little violence against the person. They have been gentler than riots often are. Because they have been prosecuted by children.
While mobs rampaged through Wolverhampton city center, Louise Johnson, alone among local shopkeepers, stood defiant outside her eponymous hair salon. Her neighbors’ premises were looted, but to Johnson the junior rioters showed no disrespect. “Actually,” she told BBC radio the following morning, “they were remarkably polite.”
This has not been, in any conscious sense, a protest, though its protagonists have affected that language. “Fuck the police, man. They can’t come here laying down the law like they do all year round,” a Liverpool looter told The Guardian.
In truth, as Anthony Gordon, a veteran of the truly political Handsworth riots of the 1980s, explained to me, “This ain’t protest. When you protest, you put coppers in hospital. These kids ain’t making a point, they just want to nick phones.”
In the words of West Midlands Chief Constable Chris Sims, “It was not an angry crowd that caused this; it was a greedy crowd.” These were shopping riots. Violent spasms of unlicensed acquisition by teenagers who stepped outside the line and were astonished, then enchanted, to find that nothing happened to them. Public order is always a confidence trick. Spontaneously massed gangs could always outnumber and overpower the police. British teenagers shone a light on that magic and were thrilled to see it vanish.
To be clear, there have been some terrible acts of inhumanity. Smashing a shop is still a violent and inexcusable act. And there have been older gang members inciting and organizing youngsters. But younger teenagers have generally been more instigators than accessories.
Nobody knows why this happened. Neither of the main schools of thought is convincing. By far the most popular is that the rioters are scum—they are animals, feral vermin with no moral compass. For many, this is an attractive analysis because it is easy, coherent, and final. The answer to “How did we get here?” is “We were too soft on the scum.” The answer to “What do we do about it?” is “Punish the scum to the limits of the law, then extend those limits to make future scum think twice.”
It all stacks up, until you apply the “is this true/would that work/do we really want to execute children for stealing sneakers” tests. Then it falls down.
And the left-liberal analysis is scarcely more compelling: an intifada of the impoverished and the oppressed, an outpouring of rage from a hopeless generation. Not really. They didn’t want to fight the police, were not terribly bent on destruction, are not from particular ethnic groups. They have no demands. They broke into shops and stole televisions, even though they already have several at home. When it rained and the police came out in force, they disappeared. Had there been school in the morning, this would probably never have happened.
Since its election 15 months ago, the Conservative government has announced cuts in services and benefits that will have drastically negative effects on young people: swingeing cuts to youth services, a massive increase in university tuition fees, abolition of the Future Jobs Fund (a successful paid-internship program), and abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (a very popular means-tested benefit paid directly to young people continuing in education beyond 16).
But few of these changes have yet taken effect, let alone had time for their impact to really hurt. The exception is youth services. Youth clubs have already closed, youth workers have been sacked, and programs that in previous years have occupied urban youngsters in the long summer break are not running. As a result, many young people have “nothing to do.”
They are not furious, not writhing with alienation and anomie. They are bored. It is neither the French Revolution nor the Watts riots. It is more like Lord of the Flies.
When our car left the Afro-Caribbean leaders’ meeting in Birmingham’s Aston district on Wednesday afternoon, it took us to Lozells. This is a densely Kashmiri, though historically Afro-Caribbean, district with sky-high deprivation indices and a real sense of community. The meeting is at Saqib’s, a Pakistani grill joint straddling a strategic corner. There are black youths at the counter buying chicken, as well as British Asians.
At one end of a bare upstairs room sits Khalid Mahmood, the local M.P. who had also called the leaders’ meeting, this time joined by a couple of councillors, a self-appointed “community leader,” and about 40 anxious local business owners. Most are Asian, a good smattering are Afro-Caribbean, and two middle-aged women are white. One woman wears the dog collar of a vicar; the other is the lady from the dentist’s.
The fourth white person in the room, including me, is Dave, the sergeant from the six-strong Lozells and East Handsworth Neighbourhood Team. Introduced by the previous government (of which I was a member) a decade ago, “neighborhood policing” is a partnership model in which the police, politicians, government agencies, and the public constantly “task” each other to maintain a physical environment that doesn’t feel like one in which crime is committed. A kind of soft-focus zero tolerance.
Alongside it came a lot of extra “bobbies on the beat” (in London alone, police numbers rose from 26,000 to 32,000 between 2001 and 2009), supplemented by a new army of Police Community Support Officers. (These are not full police officers, and cost a lot less, but look like police, are part of the police communications infrastructure, and are the visible front line of neighborhood policing.)
It works. Crime having relentlessly risen in Britain since Victorian times, neighborhood policing miraculously reversed the trend. Between 1997 and 2010 (Labour’s period in office), overall crime in the U.K. fell from 16.7 million offenses a year to 9.6 million—a drop of 43 percent. This is impossible, but true.
Thirty years ago, the police force was widely seen as an illiberal organization wobbling unsteadily between the macho and the brutal. The 1999 Macpherson Report into the Metropolitan Police’s failure to properly investigate the 1993 killing of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, concluded that the force was “institutionally racist.” Dave from the Neighbourhood Team, on the other hand, talks like a youth worker or an inner-city teacher. And he’s not just spouting stuff he’s learned; that’s how he thinks. He believes in the power of community because it is his daily currency.
But hooded gangs of implacably acquisitive looters, sprung from nowhere for no obvious reason, are not really in the community script. Just as baton-charging bands of disaffected urban youths are not in the neighborhood policeman’s DNA.
That’s no use to the shopkeepers of Lozells Road. They want a copper on every corner, riot vans at every intersection. They do not understand why the police initially appeared to stand by and allow hordes of young thugs to seize the streets.
One young Muslim man has come to make trouble. He wants to talk about how the murdered three will not get justice. Even if there is a conviction, a namby-pamby justice system will fail to adequately punish their killer. He appears to direct his remarks at the Afro-Caribbean woman who has been loudly berating the police. It’s all coded, but the whole room knows what he is saying. Somehow it’s her fault because she is black. Her people killed his people. The volume quickly rises. She looks shaken. There is no market for such nonsense, and the meeting breaks up.
For the rest of that long night, the August air is thick with rumor and braggadocio. Long convoys of Scottish riot police pour into Birmingham. These events that, across the nation, have had no ethnic tinge at all begin, in what will soon be Europe’s first majority-minority city, to acquire one.
My city is not usually like this. It is a good place. The different ethnic groups live mixed in. The great majority of the time, we live in peace.
And it is peace that prevails. Because these riots were not about tension but boredom; not driven by anger but by a teenage nihilism that is the gray malaise of modern democracies.
A bus shelter near where the men were killed becomes a shrine. The grieving families make moving appeals. The spasm subsides.