For the last three days, London has been burning. With over 700 arrests, millions of dollars in looting and property damage, and 16,000 police patrolling the streets, the insurrection has now spread to nearby cities.
Yet few understand what these riots are about.
As pundits and comedians mock greedy youth, London papers try to blame video games, and the New York Times chose to focus its report on a shrugging young man, there are real grievances at the heart of these riots — uncomfortable grievances, tragedies of race and class which have been playing out over the last decades in British cities.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, director of Kids Company – an organization which helps abused and neglected children throughout the United Kingdom, calls these young rioters the “ignored underclass.” Describing the horrific poverty often found in the homes in these specific neighborhoods, Batmanghelidjh creates a more tragic picture than simple greed:
…I walk into these kids homes, and they’re sleeping on the floor, on mattresses that are urine stenched, they don’t even have bedding…And what I really object to, is that the people in civil society who have power, continuously set the agenda, they continuously describe these kids as ‘animals’ and ‘feral,’ but nowhere do these kids get the chance to come back at civil society, and explain from their perspective what’s happening to them day in and day out. And that’s the point, what you’re seeing now is a kind of sick revenge on their part…you know if you’re selling trainers [sneakers] at 150 pounds a go, when the kid is surviving on a benefit of 42 pound 50 a week, and with that they need to pay for everything, it’s hardly surprising that then these kids go to steal this material stuff.
Another commentator points out a second, crucial trigger for the riots: recurrent police brutality coupled with racial and class tensions between the police and the residents of these neighborhoods. Darcus Howe, a political writer and activist, argued in an interview with the BBC that the riots were only surprising because few cared or listened to the grievances:
Our political leaders have no idea. The police have no idea. But if you looked at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye, and a careful hearing, they have been telling us and we would not listen to what is happening in this country to them…They have been stopping and searching young blacks for no reason at all…
What is currently happening in London reminds me of similar riots which have occurred in the United States, particularly the Watts Riots, which lasted 6 days in August of 1965. Much like the riots happening in London, contemporaries could not understand why residents would damage stores in their own neighborhoods, openly loot, and what any of it had to do with the arrest of a black youth for intoxicated driving.
Only in retrospect could the riots be understood to be the culmination of a frustration over lack of jobs, inadequate schools, and substandard housing. Education about race in America was needed before we could begin to comprehend, decades later, that looting stores in one’s own neighborhood – the same stores who price gouged you on a daily basis, who had refused to give you a job, who represented all the banks who refused to give you a small business loan because of your skin color or lack of an education — was about more than just wanting an item. It was, fundamentally, about revenge on the entire capitalist system, hitting it in the pocketbook where it would hurt the most.
It would be too easy to pawn off the riots today as a bunch of greedy kids, choosing to take advantage of lawlessness to get a new Xbox. These disaffected youth are trying to scream in the same language the system speaks – a cultivated syntax where objects are worth more than people, where young people are seeing their opportunities vanish, all in a country which will spend $34 million on a royal wedding, but only $69 on a family’s survival. As two young women told a BBC reporter: “That’s what it’s all about about, showing the police we can do what we want, showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
Let this serve as a warning: of the danger of creating a class of young people who have no stake in society, and thereby have nothing to lose by destroying it. Right now, as the United States struggles to deal with our own economic future, we need this reminder as to why we cannot continue to gut educational spending or ignore the growing income disparities. Otherwise, it will soon be America’s cities which are burning.
Kids and Crime