Debate: London riots

Updated: 2011-08-15 08:04

By Murad Qureshi (China Daily)

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What really caused the riots that spread like wildfire? A member of London Assembly and an Indian teacher at a Beijing university share their views.

Ending consumer mindset is the key

Let's be absolutely clear from the outset, getting law and order back on the streets of London (and other British cities) is the first priority. Putting 10,000 extra police appears to have done that. And as post mortems begin on the possible causes of the riots, there can never be any justification for some people threatening, stealing and ultimately destroying the lives of others with whom they share a neighborhood or city.

The catalyst for the mayhem appears to be a peaceful protest, organized on the evening of Aug 6 by friends and family to protest against the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police a few days earlier. That event may have created the conditions for what started. But the standoff by Duggan's family did not incite what was to follow. It simply set a scene, which enabled a section of society to claw its way through its cracks and vent a much deeper and wider frustration with their lot in life.

What started out as a disturbance in a small section of North London soon snowballed into a London-wide phenomenon as news about disturbances in areas and cities completely detached from the original location began to emerge the following evening.

Many commentators have cited enhanced communication tools such as Blackberry messaging and Twitter to explain how rioters could coordinate and congregate quickly and easily in targeted areas. Blaming new technology for the riots is silly, it is like blaming previous riots in London - like the one in 1981 - on push-button landline telephones.

Those who blame Twitter and other communication tools forget that they are powerful enough to spread peace as well. In fact, they helped launch the post-riot cleanup in London and other places. Furthermore, the use of new technology will help the authorities to track down the source of messages.

What has London to be ashamed of? Well, while our young people trashed London's streets and looted high-definition TV sets and the latest mobile phones, their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa displayed a different aspect of their character earlier this year.

Why did riots occur in Britain? There is no doubt that the thread of deprivation and poverty runs through almost all the areas where the riots took place. But deprivation is relative: a starving orphan in Somalia would not feel deprived even in the worst parts of London, where he/she would at least get food, water and warmth.

The British government's unforgiving agenda of austerity measures and welfare cuts underpinned by declining world markets is a factor, too. Riots and unrest tend not to take place during times of growth, employment and prosperity. Besides, we do not see unrest, at least not on this scale, every time things get bad.

In my mind, the real catalyst for the riots was the incessant growth of aspiration among the youth to be at the top of the consumer tree. Fast-changing technology and our somewhat voyeuristic obsession with the lives of the superrich, which leaves young people little inspiration from their own environs, also played a role in inciting the riots. Young minds that are drawn into this chasm are too immature to understand that most people in the world will never have the means to live such lives.

Western youths do not suffer absolute poverty. Nevertheless, they feel the pangs of relative poverty in a city where some parts, like central London, have become a playground for the superrich and where they feel excluded from the game of consumerism. The scale of inequality in our society is undoubtedly an underlying factor. But it is tragic that young people seem to believe that the only way to fix this imbalance is to have all the latest electronic gadgets, which they looted from the shops and establishments they destroyed or damaged.

As we look ahead to the London 2012 Olympic Games, we must believe that time, the greatest healer, will blur the memories of the tragic scenes of the past few days. The riots, no doubt, have damaged London's image and could deter some visitors. Britain's security arrangements have been aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks, not public disorder. The riots, however, have taught us to cover public disorder as well.

Irrespective of what happens, we should remain resolute in our commitment to ensuring that police resources are not cut at a time when they are most needed.

More profoundly, in a world engulfed by consumerism and a desire to have more, we have to think how we can instill in our children the value of true happiness and lofty aspiration that do not come wrapped in high-definition TVs, fancy mobile phones and iPads.

The author is the chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee.

(China Daily 08/15/2011 page9)