ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Britain's Underbelly

The London riots expose a widespread disillusionment with the establishment.

For five days beginning 6 August, every strand of simmering anger in British society involving race, culture and the changing economy seemed to have coalesced into a conflagration of near anarchic proportions. What began as a peaceful protest rally against the killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by the police in Tottenham, London, escalated into widespread rioting, arson and looting in several localities in London and spread thereafter to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Salford and other cities. Across the US and Europe, where the economic downturn has led to barely concealed panic, newspapers, chat rooms and blogs strove to make sense of the manic violence wondering whether they would see something similar. Even as politicians and pundits searched for answers to this outbreak of violence, David Cameron government’s giant austerity plan involving cuts in the National Health Service, adult and child welfare and a flat-rate pension plan which hit senior citizens, single mothers and students coupled with rising unemployment was seen as an important trigger. For some months, several incidents had indicated that the anger was building up. In December last year, thousands of angry university students threw smoke bombs and sticks at the police in central London, in a series of protests against a hike that tripled their fees. In March this year, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) led an anti-cuts march through London that was well attended by senior citizens and women. The march also saw a violent rampage against “symbolic” property by a group calling itself “Black Bloc Anarchists” who claimed they were legitimate representatives of citizens who were angry with cuts in the public sector. Apart from the general sense of outrage over the cuts, there was a growing disillusionment with the Conservative government, whose members have been caricatured as the Eton-and-Oxford educated club or the “toffs”. The phone-hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World did not help matters. It singed Cameron and drastically affected the credibility of the police force with senior police officers accused of accepting bribes from journalists in what was seen as a morally repugnant episode. At the same time, relations between the police hierarchy and the government have deteriorated. The police feel that while its leaders bore the brunt of the image denting, the politicians involved, especially the prime minister, refuse to own up responsibility. The £2-billion cut in police budgets (proposed to be effected by 2015 but now being reconsidered) and the anticipated lay-offs have hardly endeared the government to the rank and file of the force.

The attitude of the police has also been seen a factor in contributing to the anger. Police-community relations, especially in areas dominated by the poor, immigrants and racial minorities, are marked by lack of communication and allegations of racial stereotyping. The Independent Police Complaints Commission’s conclusion that Duggan did not fire at the police officers who killed him, will reinforce such a belief. After five days of rioting, police methods of handling violent mobs are also being seriously questioned.

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