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Austerity in Europe: UK
by Emanuelle Degli Esposti
In the third of our series on austerity in Europe, Emanuelle Degli Esposti takes to the streets to try and get a clearer understanding of the social and economic factors behind the UK riots.
August this year in London was heralded by the crash of breaking glass, the wail of police sirens and the smell of livelihoods and businesses going up in flames. Thousands of rioters and looters smashed their way into the public consciousness by instigating the worst violence the capital had seen for nearly fifty years. In a chain of events precipitated by the police killing of a young black man, Mark Duggan, it seemed the whole country was possessed by a form of Midsummer madness as copycat protests spread as far north as Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.
“Everyone was just on a riot, going mad. Chucking things, chucking bottles, breaking into stuff... It was good though.”
These are the words of two young rioters who made headlines when they boasted to the BBC that they were showing the police they could “do want we want”.
But three weeks on, now that the smoke has cleared, the anger and fear have given way to reflection, and a form of justice has been served, what do the people on the street make of the fallout from the recent upheaval?
Brixton, in South London, has long been a deprived and volatile inner-city area.
The eruption of riots here hardly took people by surprise. Gangs of youths smashed several department stores on the high street, including a Vodafone and a Carphone Warehouse, before setting fire to the Foot Locker on the corner of Brixton and Railton Roads.
Rebuilding the rubble
Although many of the shops have been refitted, the boarded-up windows and forlorn looking “to let” sign perched above the Foot Locker logo bear testament to the lasting damage in this neighbourhood. Guy Small*, one of the shop fitters working to repair this particular store and who saw the riots taking place in his native Peckham, says most of the looters were just opportunistic:
“If you’d asked them who Mr Duggan was, none of them would have known... None of them knew what the riots were about, it was just an opportunistic time to grab what they could and make the most of it.”
He says that lack of respect was partly to blame for the spread of the looting:
“Because they knew they'd got away with it in Tottenham, because they knew they’d got away with it to an extent here [in Brixton], it was a case of ‘Well, let’s see how much we can get away with in Peckham’.”
This sentiment was echoed by the government and by much of the mainstream press, who were quick to denounce the rioters as “mindless criminals” and “thugs”. But in a neighbourhood where petty crime and vandalism are almost considered the norm, why is it that these riots have struck a different chord? As Guy put it, “We’ve gotta look at the people that are trying to guide us in the right direction” in order to find the answers.
*Some names have been changed
People on the street are angry at the blatant swindling of the rich and priviledged classes.
“You’ve got banks that are sitting there who won’t lend a penny out, that are…getting paid millions in bonuses despite the fact they’re losing millions, if not billions. You’ve got MPs who are supposed to be trying to guide the country and they’re caught fiddling it and nothing happens to them… To try and treat people like idiots and expect them not to understand that, that’s crazy – that’s as crazy as the kids who were going out smashing windows trying to nick something for free that was worth nothing.”
Guy is not the first to highlight the apparent paradox between the government’s crackdown on the rioters and their leniency with those of their own who were caught with their fingers in the pie. There is a feeling among British citizens that we have been left with the short straw, and that there are fundamental inequalities in our society that we are powerless to change. According to some I spoke to, the riots were an uncoordinated and barely intelligible response to this.
"I'm disappointed in the youth. I can't condone what they did, but I won't throw the book at them either. The problem isn't with them, it's with society."
Vinton Graham is a former taxi driver who came to London nearly 35 years ago from his native Jamaica. He says the rioters are disillusioned and bored with their lives. When asked about the government’s response to the protests, he sighs and gives me a tired look that suggests he has seen all this before: “People forget that politicians don't really care about the people, they don’t really care about principles, they are just there to maintain the interest of their backers."
Class, not race
“It’s not about race anymore,” Vinton reassures me, “it’s classism now.” Although a large proportion of the rioters were from immigrant backgrounds – which lead to the espousal of many race and culture-related theories about the origins of the violence – there were also many white faces in the mob. This suggests that our social fault lines are not defined by race but by economic standing.
The failure of politics
Brixton Village is one example of this effective economic segregation. Once a rather ramshackle covered market, in the space of a few decades it has been transformed into a haven of specialist shops and eateries. A cursory glance at some of the establishments, which include a gluten free café, a gelateria and a gourmet Thai restaurant, is enough to see that this is worlds away from the bustling market and pushy hawkers of Brixton proper. The gentrification of such inner city areas – where the aspiring middle classes jostle for space with the working class – brings into stark relief the underlying inequalities in our society.
“A few people [are] getting the money, and the rest … get nothing,” says Brother Roshon, a minister in the Brixton Pentecostal Church.
“That’s why we are cutting, cutting, cutting – instead of cutting services, we should think about giving [the poor] something.”
A political tract it is not, but it is striking that almost everyone I spoke to in Brixton pointed to some economic factor as part of the reason for the riots. Britain may not have Spain’s “indignados”, or Italy’s anti-Berlusconi movement, but we do have a resentful and disillusioned underclass – and the riots were, in part, their way of drawing attention to themselves.
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