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Posted on 11 August 2011
John Dayal

Hunger lights a big fire

John Dayal explains the horror of poverty that resulted in the London riots

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

THE FIRST impressions across the globe were ‘how terrible the BBC coverage is when it comes to the riots happening in London’. Those who have all their lives banked on the venerable Beebe saw amateur camera panning all over streets and buildings in a haze of smoke and flames, the images jerky with the panic of the persons wielding the lens. The reporters, out of their depth, were panting ‘Oh my God, I have never seen anything like this in my life.’ They had not. Most of those reporters were too young to have seen London and other towns afire in the race riots of the 1980s.

These riots had caught them unawares just as it had surprised the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron, who was on a vacation in Italy (where he famously failed to tip a bargirl and had to apologise later). Ironically, just before his vacation, he had before an audience of world leaders in Munich disowned Britain’s much-wonted policy of multiculturalism, saying it was an ‘outright failure’ and partly to blame for fostering Islamist extremism. The UK, he said, ‘needs a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to extremism.’ State multiculturalism had encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. “We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong,” Cameron said. For good measure, he added that the ‘hands-off tolerance’ had encouraged Muslims and other immigrant groups ‘to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream’.

It was not Islamic fundamentalists or al Qaida cells that had lit the fire. This time around, it was not issues of race or religion that triggered the violence, but common counts of abject poverty and deprivation in the inner cities, and the state’s failure to reach out with sympathy to an increasing number of the victims of the economy now facing a second meltdown.


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The trigger, in hindsight, was a thoughtless Dirty Harry-style police shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, at Ferry Lane, Tottenham. Reports said the death occurred during an operation where specialist firearm officers and officers from Operation Trident, a unit that deals with gun crime in the African and Caribbean communities, were attempting to carry out an arrest on August 4. Duggan was a passenger in a minicab and was shot after an apparent exchange of fire. A police officer’s radio was later found to have a bullet lodged in it, but there was no evidence that Duggan had fired a weapon. The riots began when family and friends of the victim complained that the police were showing no eagerness in investigating his death and identifying the guilty policemen.

On the night of August 8, a group of hooded youths ran up the street throwing trash bins while others stomped on the top of police patrol cars. Still others shattered glass phonebooths and set cars on fire. In the three days that followed the initial riots in Tottenham, the youth across England had put the government and police on notice in a evening and night orgy of arson and stonepelting, which spread to Nottingham and then to Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.

The urban warfare totally exposed the police, its morale still not recovered from the recent exposures of its involvement at the highest level with the former Rupert Murdoch tabloid News of the World and big business. The police brass had to quit because of their wining and dining with phone hackers of Murdoch’s news empire. This time, their orders from the Cameron government are for ruthless action. The forces on the ground have been trebled. Cameron ordered the enlarged police forces to use the water cannon on rioters, while the acting Metropolitan police chief warned he would catch the culprits and bring them before a court. Nationwide, police have now made more than 1,000 arrests. Scores of shops and buildings have been looted and gutted. The injured also number in the hundreds, with likely two deaths in the riot areas. Businesses say their losses have been ruinous.

There are still no signs if the government has understood the gravity of the crisis and the socioeconomic causes underpinning it, and has a plan of action to not just restore instant peace, but heal the deep-seated anger.

BRITISH SOCIAL scientist and author Ron Boyd-Macmillan, who arrived in India even as London was burning, said there was no doubt that ‘inner city deprivation had led to the violence. In the economic policies followed by a succession of governments, the people living in the inner cities – people of Caribbean origin as much as poor among the Whites – were totally ignored. There was no investment in their education. They felt they had been disowned by society, if partly by their own choice. A lot of the urban youth were angry that they did not belong to society’. Boyd-MacMillan said elements of these subclasses had been criminalised in recent times. It speaks for the real quality of the police that they had little intelligence on these developments, focussed as they were on the political watch on Islam.

There is emerging evidence that the riots were very well organised, either in deliberate outside organisation or through contemporary social networks. The immediate political and physical response of the government has been politically naïve and mechanically brutal. The police will eventually quench the fires in the shops and the tenements, but it is a moot question how the Cameron government will restore confidence, and bring in the much needed development and injecting of resources in the inner cities of England now crowded with the deprived and the angry.

At the end of the day, the physical poverty in the bylanes and tenements remains a tinderbox. The poverty in Great Britain’s politics provides the short fuse. And there are no indications that the government, long on rabblerousing rhetoric and short on political acumen, will be able to set up policies and structures to not just defuse the tension, but provide that long-term growth and human dignity that the people, in their twin identities as arsonists and victims, are seeking.

John Dayal is national secretary of the All India Catholic Union and national convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights.
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Posted on 11 August 2011



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