Comment: UK riots – so what went wrong?

The rapid spread of civic unrest across London and the UK points to a problem which runs deep in our communities.

By Kay Hampton

As the dust settles and the costs are calculated, many well-meaning state and 'community' commentators will offer a range of hasty explanations for the events of the past few days. Driven by a political desire to keep the general public calm, many in government will seek to provide quick answers and reassurances.

Despite the prevailing collective condemnation of the rioting and looting, there appears to be a frantic search to find someone or something to blame for what is happening. While some are pointing the finger of blame towards social media channels for inciting and spreading violence, others believe that the police response continues to be slow and 'soft' due to fears surrounding human rights breaches. The latter is difficult to accept, given the scale of the criminality.

Despite the arrest of over 400 people, it is still unclear why police presence was evidently limited in situations where they were most needed. Notwithstanding the unpredictable nature of the violence and despite earlier reassurances from the police that they are in control of the situation, those in authority appear to be perplexed by the scale and nature of unfolding events. The disengagement between the mounting violence and institutional responses is curious.

Collective condemnation is obviously not enough. It is not only time to regain control of our communities but also time to accept collect responsibility for the mess.

Ironically, even members of the affected communities and their spokespersons are quick to distance themselves from the rioters with claims that the "hooligans" and "greedy criminals" are not part of their communities. Listening to the comments made by black leaders in recent days, it is clear that they are eager to avoid any association between the background of the man shot during a police operation and the events that followed. They point instead to the failure of government to deliver appropriate services for young people in the area. During the weekend, the Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy was quick to remind us that he represented a community with the highest level of unemployment in London, suggesting that the area needed jobs and investment. There were claims also that violence was being committed by people from outside the community. Whilst this might be true, the escalation of the unrest beyond Tottenham would suggest that unemployment and disadvantage is not necessarily the motive or trigger for the current mindless violence that is spreading across the country. It is incontestable that the underlying cause of the current unrest will require a more sophisticated analysis.

Civil unrest is not new to Britain. Yet while it is usually associated with racial conflict, ethnic tensions or social disadvantage, it is plain to see that these factors are not entirely relevant for explaining the present crisis. Home secretary Theresa May rightly claims that the situation across London and beyond (Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol) is "sheer criminality". However, in this instance, the nature and scale of the crime is exceptional and seem to be committed by uncontrolled young people and children as young as ten. Terrified and bewildered bystanders watch in horror as their homes and places of work burn. The overt disregard for authority and deliberate disrespect displayed by the rioters reflect a state of notable moral decline. In effect, it would seem that the Mark Duggan shooting did little more than provide an opportunity to release latent and repressed tension and anger.

Indeed, the rapid spread of violence within and outside London and from the streets to domestic property within a period of 36 hours would suggest a much deeper problem. The unprecedented nature of events seems to have left those in authority bemused and unable to react to out-of-control children in some instances.

Some commentators might argue that the current strategy adopted by the police is in part to blame for the escalation of violence. Other observers suggest that the spread of unrest, lawlessness and total sense of fearlessness displayed by these young people is somehow due to a sense of hopelessness on the part of young people who have nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to. Those who experienced the terror first hand on the streets are understandably less sympathetic and view the trail of destruction as a blatant disregard for authority.

The analyses have already begun and there will no doubt be countless investigations in the future to find out what went wrong. Irrespective of what these reveal, it is certainly a significant moment in our development as a 21st century society. As we pause, reflect and ponder over the coming months, it is important to ensure that we do so in a constructive and positive manner. This might mean sharing the blame and accepting collective responsibility for what is currently happening. These out-of-control young people are after all of our own making. They are the misguided sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of people we might know.

Kay Hampton is a former professor in communities and race relations at Glasgow Caledonian University and a commissioner for the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

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