Originally Published 2011-08-17 00:00:00 Published on Aug 17, 2011
London is the most unequal city in the developed world, with its richest 10 percent more than 100 times better off than the poorest ten. London's wealth inequalities are said to be approaching those that "have not been seen since the days of the slave-owning elite."
England's Riots - The Language of the Unheard?
British Prime Minister David Cameron has described the recent riots in England as “criminality pure and simple.”  At first glance, this is an appealing view.  The rioters have broken the law, and many have engaged in indefensible behaviour. Yet chalking the riots down to criminality immediately begs the question of why now, and why Tottenham?

A second look suggests that the riots have their roots in racism. The events were triggered by the fatal shooting in Tottenham of a 29-year old black man, Mark Duggan, whom the police claimed had fired at them. Rioting began when a protest march by about 200 people turned violent. It is now clear that the police lied about the circumstances surrounding Duggan's death, and that the black community was justified in its anger (an official inquiry has found that Duggan did not shoot at the police).

England's problem of racism is certainly serious. I spent my childhood in England, and cannot remember a single week when I wasn't called "Paki." My bullies were reprimanded by parents and teachers, but I know, from personal experience, how much distress and fury the sting of racism can elicit.

Beyond a point, however, racism offers little insight into the past week's events. Only a fraction of those rioting in London were black, and as the mayhem spread to London's suburbs and other cities, most involved were white. An exclusive focus on race bears the danger that the full spectrum of riots will be pinned on blacks and other immigrants, further stoking racism (the ultra-right English Defense League is reportedly gaining ground by doing precisely this).

A closer look at the rioters reveals that the common element is not race, but class. The vast majority are deprived young men, united by their lack of social standing and hatred for the authorities.

Britain's savage class divide is well known, and predates even the industrial revolution (colonialism added a racial dimension to what already existed). Following the war, the welfare state built bridges across this bitter gulf, ushering in a time of relative social peace. Britain, it was said, could ill-afford to dismantle its welfare state - for political reasons if not economic ones. Yet since the late 1970s, every government has chipped away at welfare, with Cameron's Conservative government delivering the most devastating blow last year. Its austerity budget is said to be the harshest since the war.

The effects are undeniable. Inequalities of wealth in England are said to be worse than ever, as are opportunities for social mobility. London is the most unequal city in the developed world, with its richest 10 percent more than 100 times better off than the poorest ten. According to Danny Dorling, a Sheffield University professor, London's wealth inequalities are approaching those that "have not been seen since the days of the slave-owning elite." Consequences are inevitable, especially when rich and poor live side by side.

Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, is the most polarised in London. Four of its 19 wards are in the richest 10 percent. Five are in the poorest. Haringey's poorest wards have soaring child poverty and an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, double the national average. Other boroughs with heavy rioting - Enfield, Hackney and Croydon - also contain some of London's poorest communities. Like Haringey, they have been badly hit by vicious cuts in social services.

Young people - the force behind the riots - have suffered acutely, thanks to closures of after-school programmes and recreational facilities, the withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance grant (which encouraged teens to stay in school), and rising tuition fees. If young people have little to look forward to, they will more easily conclude that they have nothing to lose by flouting the rules of society and the state. Youth disgruntlement cannot be wished away by "Brand England" endeavours such as royal weddings and Olympic Games.

The fact that the riots are about the economy appears to have hit home with the rich, who are the first to call a spade a spade when worried about their bottom line. A recent report by Reuters quoted several London bankers admitting that austerity measures had probably gone too far. One even proclaimed that, "for a society to grow and move forward all social classes need to benefit from growth."

Indeed, it is unlikely that Cameron genuinely believes in his own theory that the riots are "criminality pure and simple." This is simply a convenient slogan, meant to distract and appease. If the riots are seen as the work of dissipated youth and bad fathers, the government need not be held responsible. Yet Cameron must know that the solutions that flow from his diagnosis of "criminality" are politically unviable in the long-term. He cannot order troops to indefinitely occupy the streets of England, or pummel his citizens with plastic bullets and water cannons. He cannot send immigrants home or discipline neglectful parents. He cannot shut down Twitter and Blackberry. England is not a tin-pot dictatorship where assaults on civil liberties will be easily tolerated.

Since Cameron's government presumably wants to stay in power, it probably has a wider view of the riots than it is letting on publicly. Seumas Milne, a columnist with the Guardian, implies as much when he points to similar riots in London and Liverpool 30 years ago, when Margaret Thatcher's government was implementing ruthless cuts. The riots, also sparked by confrontation between the police and black community, were initially condemned as the work of mindless thugs. Within weeks, however, Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, was writing a private memo to the cabinet, calling for urgent action on urban deprivation.

The Reverend Martin Luther King once said: "A riot is the language of the unheard." He was not advocating violence, but trying to put context to why socially excluded men and women in the United States were burning down their own communities. He was also issuing a warning. The language of the unheard, as he knew too well, is as destructive as it is powerful.

(The author is the Director of the Centre for Development and Human Rights (CDHR), New Delhi, and Associate Professor of Politics, Ryerson University, Canada)

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