On Tuesday riots by young people spread across the United Kingdom for the fourth day. Government officials, some of whom returned to the UK after cutting short their vacations, vowed to gain control of the chaos that erupted in London’s multi-racial, working-class neighborhood of Tottenham on Saturday night and quickly escalated nationwide.
The government labeled those participating in the riots as criminals. Others said that while some of those involved were criminals, most were disaffected youths bearing the brunt of the damage done by the government’s recent austerity measures, the Great Recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis, and 35 years of neoliberal economic policies that have made joblessness and precarious work pandemic, shredded the nation’s social fabric, and concentrated wealth in the hands of a privileged few.
The first night of rioting was preceded by a peaceful candlelight vigil at the Tottenham police station, where friends and family of Mark Duggan, a 29-year old, father-of-three Black man, were protesting his slaying by police. Duggan, a well-liked member of the community and probably a member of a small local street gang, was riding in a taxi pulled over by police on the Thursday night before the riots. Police say that they returned fire when Duggan shot at them, but an initial inquiry reported that no bullets were fired from the gun in Duggan’s possession.
During the candlelight vigil, a local teenage girl was beat up by the police. When word of the beating spread, some youths at the vigil vented their anger by overturning cars, smashing store windows, looting, and setting fires. They were soon joined by others, and by morning Tottenham, one of the poorest communities in the UK, was smoldering. Some residents were left homeless after fire spread to their apartments.
On Sunday night, violence broke out in other London neighborhoods as youths ransacked stores and battled police. By Monday, the rioting had spread to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and other cities. On Tuesday, youth were back on the street across the nation.
Some of the residents of Tottenham have condemned the violence. “There is anger and frustration here but I feel people have taken advantage of it,” said resident Adam Cuthbert to the Guardian.
Others were more sympathetic and pointed to the root cause of the unrest. “The police do treat young Black people with shocking disrespect … labeling us like we’re nothing,” said a young man named Leon to the Guardian.
“This is the ghetto, this is the slums, they don’t care about us,” a young Black man named Jason told Reuters. “I’ve been stopped outside my house by the police for no reason. There’s no jobs … but still they want to cut benefits. We ain’t got no way to survive.”
“People are angry and frustrated,” community activist Osagyefo Tongogara told AFP. “If you have a community with high levels of unemployment and cutbacks in welfare then this is what you are going to get.”
The fact is that the neoliberal economic policies of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labor parties have created an under class of young people with no jobs, no prospects, and no ties to the larger community.
Youth unemployment in the UK is more than 20 percent, and it’s even higher among Black and other minority youth. Young people’s participation in the workforce is at its lowest level in 20 years because job opportunities are so sparse. Those fortunate enough to find work tend to work in low-paying service sector jobs such as sales clerks and restaurant and bar workers.
To make matters worse, the government’s recent austerity measures have fallen heavily on young people. The government eliminated the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which provided small stipends to low-income students to help further their education.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity budget also cut 100 million pounds from the youth service budget, which meant that local governments could not provide jobs and other services to young people during the summer school break this year.
But according to The Telegram’s Mary Riddell, the cause of the riots is even more insidious. “Successive British governments,” writes Riddell. “Have colluded in incubating the poverty, the inequality, and inhumanity now exacerbated by financial turmoil. . . . If there are no jobs for today’s malcontents and no means to exploit their skills, the UK is graver trouble than it thinks. . . .(Austerity) bears a social cost. We are seeing just how steep that price may be.”