Lets be absolutely clear from the outset, getting law and order back on the streets of London is the first priority. So getting 10,000 extra police appears to have done this immediately. And as post mortems begin on the possible route causes of why this scale of lawlessness has erupted, there is and can never be any justification for one human being threatening, stealing and ultimately destroying the lives of others with whom they live side by side, 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 what started, for example a 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 a 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 Londonwide phenomenon as the following evening, news about pockets of disturbances in areas completely detached from the original location began to emerge. This before it spread nation wide just when in London we had additional police forces. Many commentators have looked to the enhanced communication tools such as Blackberry messaging and twitter to explain how rioters were capable to coordinate and congregate quickly and easily in targeted areas. This is just silly, as blaming new technology for the riots is like blaming previous riots in London like in 1981 on the push-button landline. Indeed twitter and such ilk, are as powerful in the service of peace as well, helping to launch post-riot clean-up efforts, for example in London. Furthermore, the use of technology will, on the contrary, probably aid the authorities who can track down the source of messages.
So what has London to be ashamed of? Well, while our young people are seemingly trashing London’s streets and looting to gain HD ready plasma screens and the latest mobile phones, 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 inLondon, where they would at least have food, water and warmth.
The tectonic plate 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. With the British government’s unforgiving agenda of cuts underpinned by declining world markets, these are all no doubt factors. 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 some what voyeuristic obsession with how the superrich live and play, means that young people who have little to inspire them within their own personal lives are bombarded with images and tales of how the superrich live. This is a pull for young minds that have yet to understand that, actually, most people in the world will never have the means to live such lives and yet this bar of 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 super rich 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 clenching onto to the electrical goods which they have snatched from buildings they have 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 next year, we must believe that time, the world’s greatest healer will mean that memories of these tragic scenes over the last few days begin to fade. It has undoubtedly damaged London’s image and visitors may be deterred. Much of the security planned is not public disorder but intelligence led terrorist threats, so in light of events we also must cover public disorder as well. Whatever happens we must remain resolute in our commitment to ensuring that police resources are not cut at a time when they are most needed but 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 now, we can begin to instil in our children the value of true happiness and aspiration which does not come wrapped in a Sony box.