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Analysis UK Riots: The larger picture

Ceasefire's Matthew Butcher looks at the wider context of the riots currently gripping the UK.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 15:34 - 2 Comments

By Matthew Butcher

As I cycled across London today I was struck, for the first time ever, by business as usual. Commuters rushed to the tube, dogs were walked in Hyde Park and roadworks slowed me down in Southwark. Soon enough Londoners will no longer be struck by normality but must not let these troubling times fade into distant memory.

I’ve lived in London for the best part of twenty three years and I don’t remember anything like this happening before. The burning of cars and buildings, the smashing of shops (not just the flagship stores of big corporations) and pitched battles between two heavily armed groups of people going on through the night.

While the markets collapse in the City of London the social fabric on the city’s edges is being rapidly torn apart. I don’t know why young, predominantly darker skinned (from what I’ve seen in the media), people have reacted to last week’s shooting by smashing up their local high streets but, from what I can glean from them on social media, it isn’t about austerity. That isn’t to say that it isn’t because of austerity.

The austerity I am talking about has been going on for years. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the reasons that life is harder for young black people living in inner city London. You’re likely to live less long, be more likely to have mental health problems and seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. If you live in an estate in Tottenham, Enfield, Peckham or Brixton you are less likely to go to university (especially now) and more likely than most to be one of the hundreds of thousands of young people without a job. Duelling with police on a Sunday night may seem far less appealing if you had a job to do on the Monday. As the BBC put it:

“There are more than 50 people for each unfilled job here (in Tottenham), 10% more people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance this year than last. Unemployment hits the youth hardest.”

These so-called ‘copycat’ crimes are not being committed by everyone. The youngsters of Chelsea or Wimbledon Village won’t be smashing up their local charcuterie. There may be looting and rioting in wealthier areas like Notting Hill and Ealing but it isn’t the rich kids who are doing it. It would, I believe, be foolish to see no link between poverty and the violence we’ve seen on the streets for the last few nights.

Growing up in a country which ranks 18th out of 22 for child poverty in Europe is not easy for Britain’s poorest children and it is not entirely surprising that looting has followed the rioting in London’s poor suburbs. In a country of such inequality where so many people are forced to use credit to keep their kids up with the latest trends it is no wonder that the chance to have things for free struck people as a good opportunity. We are constantly being bombarded with advertising telling us how much we need- yet for people without work or earning minimum wages most of what we see is out of reach.

The young people who will, I am sure, take to the streets again tonight may not have political aims. They may, in fact, be intent on violence and causing chaos. What we have to ask ourselves is whether these people, if they had well paying jobs or even youth centres that hadn’t been shut down, would be risking their own safety and the safety of others on the streets tonight?

I don’t like the violence (from either the ‘rioters’ or the police). I don’t like small businesses being smashed up. If one of my friends was involved i’d probably tell them I don’t think rioting will help anyone. But I have a job, a salary, a warm house and an amazing support network. I don’t know what ‘these people’ are thinking but I do know that they probably don’t have it as easy as me. This rioting won’t last forever but let’s not wait until next time people set shops on fire to talk about poverty on London’s estates.

As the talk of rubber bullets and water cannons gains momentums we should resist the urge to limit ourselves to discussing ways to stop the immediate violence our cities face. We must think carefully about why this trouble exists and ways in which we can build our communities to stop it reappearing.

Matthew Butcher is a writer and activist based in London. He blogs at segmentpolitics.org.uk and is on Twitter at @matthew1butcher.


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Update on “London Burning” | A place to write
Aug 9, 2011 15:43

[…] the rest on Ceasefire Magasine here This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← […]

Aug 19, 2011 16:02

I think it’s also important to emphasise what we have in common with rioters. They are losing. So are you.


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