London’s week of humiliation

And as post mortems begin on the possible reasons for eruption of lawlessness on this scale, there is not, and can never be, any justification for human beings threatening and ultimately destroying the lives of those who live beside them, particularly amongst London’s varied communities.

The catalyst appeared to be the peaceful protest, which began on Saturday evening, by friends and family in response to the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan a few days earlier. This event may have created the conditions for the gathering of people outside a police station in one of London’s most deprived areas. However, the stand-off by Mark Duggan’s family did not incite what was to follow. It simply set the scene, which enabled a section of society to claw their way through its cracks and vent a much deeper and wider frustration with their lot in life.

What started out as a disturbance in a small section of North London soon snowballed into a London-wide phenomenon by the following evening, and news about pockets of disturbances in areas completely detached from the original location began to emerge. This spread around the nation just when additional police forces were deployed in London.

Many commentators have looked to the enhanced communication tools such as Blackberry messaging and Twitter to explain how rioters were able to coordinate and congregate quickly and easily in targeted areas. This is just silly. Blaming new technology for the riots is like blaming previous riots in London, like the one in 1981, on the push-button landline. Indeed, Twitter and the like are as powerful in the service of peace as well, helping to launch post-riot clean-up efforts in London for example. Furthermore, the use of technology will, on the contrary, probably aid the authorities in tracking down the sources of messages.

So what has London to be ashamed of? Well, our young people are trashing London’s streets and looting to gain HD plasma TVs and latest mobile phones, while we have seen young people in the Middle East protest to achieve democracy and basic freedoms our young take for granted. No doubt, the thread of deprivation and poverty runs through almost all of the areas in which disturbances have taken place. However, deprivation is relative, so a starving orphan in Somalia would not feel deprived even in the worst estates in London, where they would at least have food, water and warmth.

The tectonic change in world economic power is seeing a shift away from the western debt-based economy towards the east, which is largely credit based. Britain is, inevitably, caught up in this shifting balance of power. The British government’s unforgiving agenda of cuts underpinned by declining world markets is no doubt a factor. Riots and unrest tend not to happen during times of growth, employment and prosperity. Equally, though, we do not see unrest, at least not on this scale, every time things get bad.

In my mind, the real catalyst for the riots has been the incessant growth of aspiration among young people to be at the top of the consumer tree. Fast changing technology, and our somewhat voyeuristic obsession with how the superrich live and play, means that young people who have little to aspire to in their own lives are bombarded with images and tales of how the superrich live. This is a magnet for young minds that have yet to understand that, actually, most people in the world will never have the means to live such lives, yet this aspiration has become entrenched.

So, although western youths do not suffer absolute poverty, they feel relative poverty in a city where some parts, like central London, have become a playground for the superrich and where they feel excluded from the game of consumerism. The scale of inequality which exists in our society is undoubtedly an underlying factor, however, it is tragic that young people seem to believe that the only way to fix this is by clinging onto the goods which they snatched from buildings they destroyed in order to get them, as though, somehow, this will balance the scales of injustice which they feel in their lives.

So as we look ahead to the London 2012 Olympics, we must believe that time, the great healer, will erase the memories of the tragic scenes of the last few days. It has undoubtedly damaged London’s image and visitors may be deterred from coming. Much of the security planned is not for public disorder but for terrorist threats, so in the light of the events we must cover public disorder as well.

Whatever happens, we must remain resolute in our commitment to ensure that police resources are not cut at a time when they are most needed, and, even more profoundly, that governments begin to think about how, in a world engulfed by the values of consumerism and a desire to have more, we can begin to instil in our children the value of true happiness and aspiration which does not come in a Sony box.

Murad Qureshi AM, London Assembly, Greater London Authority, City Hall. http://www.muradqureshi.com

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