What caused the London riots?

Ariel ZirulnickThe Christian Science Monitor

Violent riots and looting across London resulted in burned-out buildings and hundreds of arrests. What were the origins of London’s conflagration?

#4 What sparked the riots?

The catalyst for the riots was the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police in Tottenham – a district in north London where race riots erupted in 1985.

Many of the details about why Mr. Duggan became involved in a clash with police and what happened are fuzzy, the Guardian reports. What is known is that Duggan grew up in Tottenham and was on his way home in a cab on Thursday night when police approached him. Initial reports suggested that Duggan shot first, hitting a police radio, but later reports said that the bullet lodged in the radio was a police-issued bullet.

Reports indicate that Duggan may have been linked to the local Star Gang and to other north London gangs, according to a Guardian profile. He was under investigation by a police unit that oversees gun crimes in the black community.

However, his relatives denied that Duggan – a father of three – was involved in gangs and said he was a family man who would not have shot at police.

#3 What are the rioters' grievances?

Locals say that Duggan’s death “unleashed a tidal wave of anger” from a population that is feeling the pressure of the economic downturn and cuts – and has the highest rate of unemployment in London. In the past year, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has dramatically cut back public spending in a bid to shore up Britain’s economy amid a European economic crisis.

"This has been building up for a long time," a local young man named Leon told the Guardian.

"We don't agree with burning buildings but the police do treat young black people with shocking disrespect … labeling us like we're nothing." In a column for the Guardian, academic Nina Power writes that such frustration over discrimination is widespread, and has been compounded by increased financial struggles.

The policies of the past year may have clarified the division between the entitled and the dispossessed in extreme terms, but the context for social unrest cuts much deeper. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday … is another tragic event in a longer history of the Metropolitan police's treatment of ordinary Londoners, especially those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and the singling out of specific areas and individuals for monitoring, stop and search and daily harassment. Combine understandable suspicion of and resentment towards the police based on experience and memory with high poverty and large unemployment and the reasons why people are taking to the streets become clear. (Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.)

As for what they hope riots and looting will accomplish, no one seems to know. The rioters don’t have political motivations, according to British media, although some anarchists are out in the streets with them.

#2 Why haven't police been able to put a stop to the riots?

Many London residents say they felt “deserted” by the police, who seemed unable to contain the riots even as they increased their numbers on the streets, The Telegraph reports. More than 6,000 officers were on duty as rioting spread, but still police forces were stretched so thin – a fact that has been blamed on government cuts – that in some cases they had to choose whether to devote scarce resources to preventing the spread of riots to a new area or focus on an area already on fire. Police announced Aug. 9 that they will be adding plastic bullets to their arsenal and that they will use them against rioters and looters if necessary, The Christian Science Monitor reports. Some 16,000 police officers will be on the streets. All leave has been canceled and even detectives and those conducting training have been put out on the streets. The Guardian reports that similar riots more than 25 years ago prompted police to abandon “proactive policing” – sending plainclothes police out to catch criminals “in the act” – in areas considered sensitive, such as those in which rioting has broken out. As a result, they are under-patrolled and lack an adequate police presence.

Any law enforcement in these areas is treated with a simmering resentment that quickly erupts into violence. The easy option for the police has been to designate them as "no-go areas", effectively abandoning the silent majority to a life of misery under the threat of violence and crime. Crime is going down, says the Home Office – but tell that to the residents of some of these estates. These people have no voice. The best the police can offer is a sergeant, a constable and two police community support officers. It's called "the neighbourhood policing team". We have replaced law enforcement with courtesy cops. Cuts to policing are evident in the mere fact that visible, proactive patrols don't exist any more.

#1 Are there precedents?

The sight of London's burning buildings and violence brought back memories of the riots of the 1980s, the Guardian reports.

The 1985 Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham were among the worst incidents of the decade. Racial tensions erupted after a local black woman died of heart trouble while police searched her home after arresting her son. In the ensuing violence, a police officer was murdered by a mob.

The sequence of events in Tottenham at the weekend has many echoes of the Toxteth riots in Liverpool of 1981, as well as unrest in Tottenham itself in 1985 and other incidents of unrest that decade: a local flashpoint in a deprived urban area, the rapid escalation of a local protest into mayhem as others pile into the area – and long summer nights.