What Fueled the London Riots?

Did racial tensions spark the London riots, or are they symptomatic of a bigger problem of social unrest in the United Kingdom?

STREETS OF FIRE: Young people wearing hoods and masks have vandalized, looted, and burned communities throughout the UK. But what are they protesting?

With the view of a glamarous royal wedding quickly receding in the rear view mirror, London and other British cities erupted in violence this week after a 29-year-old black man was shot by police in a north London neighborhood Saturday night and peaceful protests were allegedly ignored. This has led to the natural assumption that the chaos happening in the United Kingdom is the direct result of racial unrest. But is that a safe assumption? 

Did racial tensions fuel the riots?

It’s impossible to tell, said Kurt Volker, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, in an interview with Mother Jones. “In addition to youth unemployment, I’d also have to point to a general sense of unease,” said Volker. “With austerity cuts, controlling the debt, watching what’s happening in the Euro zone. It’s just gotta be very unsettling for people. You take this element of great uncertainty, and it has somehow turned into this.”

Yes, said Lola Adesioye at The Grio. ”This has been a long time coming,” said Adesioye. “This violence is as a result of, among other things, unexamined racial issues, a crumbling sense of community among black people with no real leadership, unresolved class issues, social exclusion coupled with a lack of opportunities, a deep recession in addition to an extremely high cost of living, a new government who has been cutting back on services for youth, disenfranchised young people, and a dependency culture all rolled into one.”

Not so fast, said The GuardianData journalist Matt Stiles created a map correlating the riots with poverty, but another article dismissed the notion that any one racial group dominated the violence. ”As multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool, and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called ‘black youths’ are largely behind such violence,” the article said. “In Tottenham on Saturday many of those who gathered at the police station to protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan were, like him, black. But others were Asian and white. By the following day, as the looting spread to other north London suburbs, there appeared to have been a slight shift in the demographic, which started to look younger. In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old.”

If it’s not racial, then what’s driving it?

It’s part of a worldwide response to economic unrest, CNBC reported, but “politicians from both the right and the left, the police and most residents of the areas hit by violence nearly unanimously describe the most recent riots as criminal and anarchic, lacking even a hint of the antigovernment, anti-austerity message that has driven many of the violent protests in other European countries,” countered The New York Times, noting nonetheless that one million British young people between ages 16 and 24 are officially unemployed.

What’s Next?

The prime minister promised a show of force. “Britain will not allow a culture of fear to take over the streets, Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Wednesday, saying police have drawn up contingency plans to use water cannons if necessary,” NPR reported this morning. “We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order onto our streets,” Cameron was quoted as saying in a televised statement. “Nothing is off the table.”

On the Bright Side …

Not everyone was freaking out. “Hundreds of people gathered in Twitter-organized crews to sweep up broken glass, clean vandalized buildings and show the world – and themselves – that their city is about more than mindless destruction,”  The Associated Press reported. “By the time the volunteers gathered in Camden, most of the shattered glass had been swept up, the damaged windows patched. A group headed by subway for the worse-hit Clapham area across town. If violence strikes again, they said, they would do it again on Wednesday.”

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is UrbanFaith's News & Religion editor. In past articles, she has explored her personal journeys in urban ministry and racial diversity. Email her at cascheller@explorationsmedia.com if you have news tips or story ideas.

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