Portia Walker is a freelance journalist.
Buildings are charred and shops barricaded closed. Helicopters circle low overhead. London's prison cells are all full. Police are flooding the streets of the capital. For four days now, mobs have run amok in multiple areas across this city, looting, brawling, and terrorizing people.
As a mob stormed through a warm Monday night on a west London street, restaurants locked their doors and diners headed home early.
"There's just a lot of very frustrated, very fed up, young guys around," reflected Logan Wilmont, an advertising director from Belfast, which has certainly seen its own fair share of unrest. "They're living at a time where they can't have anything. We're living in a broken moment."
British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson have characterized the recent events as wholly criminal. "This is criminality pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated," Cameron told reporters from outside his residence at 10 Downing Street. On a visit to the riot-hit south London suburb of Clapham, Johnson said to residents, "It's time we heard a little bit less about the sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality."
That's understandable language when leaders need to look tough, but elsewhere, questions are being asked about the underlying social and economic factors that could have prompted this unrest. Opposition politicians were quick to make connections between the social unrest and government policy. In an interview with BBC, Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, suggested recent cuts to government spending on higher education could have been a motivating factor in the violence. Johnson's left-leaning predecessor, Ken "Red" Livingstone, talked about a bleak world for many of London's poorest youths, "This is the first generation since the Great Depression that have doubts about their future," he said in an interview.
What happened in London — and is now happening in Birmingham and Manchester — is not an obviously political protest; there are no banners on display, no clear demands being made. But it's not simply a large-scale crime wave either. The perpetrators — mostly young men and women (some as young as 11) — acted in public. This was deliberate antagonism under the glare of media spotlight. They smashed windows and stole goods as the television cameras rolled, knowing that their actions would be captured on Britain's extensive network of closed-circuit televisions. So what touched off such wanton destruction?
Race certainly plays a role, as the violence spun out of a protest over the police killing of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, in the north London suburb of Tottenham on Aug. 4. Much of the subsequent civil disobedience was directed against London's Metropolitan Police, which in recent years has experienced prickly relations with the city's Afro-Caribbean community. But this was not a race riot; it included people from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities, who were without any unified ideological cause.
For many at both ends of the political spectrum, this was the latest episode in the slow unraveling of the social order in Britain. The police may have restored a modicum of order to the city, but the riots brought to the fore a small segment of society usually in the shadows: a troubled underclass wracked by bubbling discontent and growing lawlessness. Public opinion of the riots is increasingly polarized. Right-leaning newspapers in Britain regularly report on the anti-social behavior of what are often described as "feral youth": poor, unemployed young people often from minority backgrounds who conduct campaigns of petty crime and harassment within their own communities. But for others, the anarchic behavior points to a deeper discontent and raises doubts about whether the austerity budget recently introduced by the new coalition government is politically sustainable.
One million people between ages of 18 and 24 in Britain are unemployed, the highest rate since the mid-1980s. The district of Tottenham, where the recent unrest began, has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the capital, at almost double the national average. In the Independent, Camila Batmanghelidjh, a charity leader, wrote movingly about the growing number of young adults cut adrift from society, who are driven to form anti-social parallel communities of their own.
The growing inequality in the distribution of wealth in the capital has long been a source for concern. A 2008 survey by the OECD found that Britain had a bigger gap between rich and poor than more than three-quarters of other OECD countries.
But unlike many other cities with similar problems with inequality — where the poor and ethnic minorities are ghettoized or pushed into outlying suburbs while the rich lock themselves away in gated communities — London's communities exist alongside one another. Mansions worth millions of pounds stand on the same streets as concrete blocks of community housing. Poor, young, unemployed men take public transport alongside wealthy traders on their way to the banks in central London. Boutiques sell organic yogurt and chic secondhand furniture next to seedy stores stocked with cut-price liquor and junk food. This diversity has long been celebrated. The head of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, favorably compared London's policy of cultural integration with the divided cities of France and the United States, even as he warned that Britain was "sleepwalking into segregation."
But as the chill winds of austerity blow away the affluence and optimism of the boom years before the credit crunch, relations between rich and poor look set to sharpen as sky-high property prices and the inflated cost of goods in shops make life increasingly difficult and inaccessible for poor people in the capital. Today, many are looking back to the riots of the 1980s, the last period in which Britain experienced comparable civic unrest. Then as now, budget cuts were bringing Britain into a period of increased austerity, youth unemployment was high, and the economy's growth was slowing.
The coalition government in power today has seen sparks of unrest as its tries to tackle Britain's vast deficit though a number of sweeping cuts in spending and services. Last December, students in the capital demonstrated against a rise in tuition and the cutting of Education Maintenance Grants, a scheme aimed at allowing poorer students to stay in school over age 16. This March, half a million people marched against the cuts, and a group occupied Fortnum & Mason, one of the capital's smart department stores, protesting against alleged tax avoidance by big businesses.
Whether Britain is entering a prolonged period of unrest still remains to be seen. In the coming weeks, we will find out more about the people who tore apart London over the past few days. To date, over 1,000 arrests have been made across the country and many will stand trial in the next few months. Many simply appear to be opportunistic young adults, uninterested in the political system and lacking even the simplest economic or political demands. They seem to want nothing more than a release. But if apathy and opportunism can have such combustible results, Britain's politicians may want to pay a bit more attention to what's festering under the surface.