What sparked anarchy in the UK?

2011-08-13 14:50

Britain’s broke(n)
The country that brought us Shakespeare, the Beatles and Harry Potter is no more.

Various “cultures” have swept in to take hold of the reserved and taciturn Brits: gang culture, hoodie culture, the culture of violence, fear and despair.

The image of Britain as a land of opportunity – to which many South Africans have flocked since 1994 in search of the pound – has been shattered.

“A decade from now Britain will not look very different from South Africa,” says Professor Lucien van der Walt, a sociologist at Wits University.

“We need to rethink the idea that everybody is rich in Britain. There is a substantial number of people in long-term poverty and unemployment.”

These poor youths are not only racial minorities such as Africans, Caribbeans and Asians.“A large number of white youths are in the same boat. Youths who have never worked in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Van der Walt.

Close to a million British young people are unemployed.

Craig Phelan, professor of modern history at Kingston University in London, says the poor bear the burden of austerity.

“There are narrowing educational opportunities, massive cuts in youth services, and a recognition that the interests of the young are being ignored.”

Many youngsters are angry because they have no control over what is causing their depravity.Says Liam Preston, chairperson of the British Youth Council: “The young people are asking, ‘Why should I live in a depraved society in this day and age because bankers decided to have some fun with the world economy?’ “It’s easy to criticise the youth but nobody is arresting the bankers.”

London’s Cape Flats

‘Behind the glitz, lights and life on High Street, there is a ‘darker’ London.

Life for these kids in London is not very different from life in some of the slums of the Cape Flats,” says Professor Lucien van der Walt, a sociologist at Wits University.

London consists of whole districts that are very poor.

Many live in “council estates”, a form of public housing. But these post-second world war projects, built to house those who lost everything in the 1940s, have lost their charm.

Says Modern History professor Craig Phelan from Kingston University in London: “Take a walk around the council estates of Tottenham or Peckham or Brixton. What is surprising is not that riots take place, but that they do not take place more often.”

Van der Walt adds that strong unions, community associations and other organisations are missing from these council estates.

“These systems normally make a community feel part of society. But here, people are very much alienated from the system.

“Poor people are concentrated in these areas and feel removed from the rest of Britain. They feel there is another London outside their suburbs and they don’t fit into the picture of that London.”

Disturbingly, police brutality and hostility seem to occur more frequently in these poor areas than in affluent London suburbs.

“It is especially young, poor black men who feel the worst of it,” says Van der Walt.

Liam Preston, chairperson of the British Youth Council, says without trying to excuse the behaviour of destructive rioters, one has to consider the areas in which these youngsters live.

“Tensions start building up and when a community feels it doesn’t have a future, it becomes angry,” explains Preston.

The haves and the yobs
The word yob, which is “boy” spelt backwards, could be heard as part of a Victorian boredom-breaker played by cultured top hats who loved to speak backwards.

Today, yobs are young, hooded, foul-mouthed, arrogant, violent, ill-disciplined youngsters who perhaps are also unhappy, angry and lonely.

Dr Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, says there is a very high rate of depression among these youngsters.

Many experts have said that the youngsters involved in the riots were “lashing out” – that they wanted to be heard.

Professor Lucien van der Walt, a sociologist at Wits University, says: “A lot of them are on grants, permanently unemployed, trapped in poverty, rely on welfare and attend crappy local schools.”

Throw in a long summer school holiday, boredom, a fuse to spark a protest and soon there are running battles on the streets of London.

In the days since the riots, experts have also blamed parents – more specifically single parents.

“This can only be interpreted as putting the blame on single mothers,” Ben-Galim says, adding that it’s not the family structure that adds to the creation of what many described this week as “lawless hooligans”, but the instability
of relationships.

“Are there positive role models for these kids? Are relationships being built with non-resident fathers? Can employed people work knowing their children are in a learning and safe environment while they make
a living?”

Says Liam Preston of the British Youth Council: “You have to ask the question: who should then be the youngsters’ role models? Politicians who are involved in the hacking scandal or bankers who have blasted trillions of dollars?”

Brand-conscious firebrands
Consumerism has never been so obvious. Rioting youths targeted specific brands and shops: JD Sport trainers, Nike, a Sony warehouse and loads of electronics.And so the have-nots became the haves.

Dr Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, says: “There is the element in British (Western) society of not having what others have, a sense of entitlement.

“And they have a sense of despair when looking at the future and not seeing any economic return for them in it.

“Looting shops with brand names and items wasn’t them targeting the shop owner, but more the big company and brand.”

While Londoners were more “brand-conscious”, in other parts of Europe young people have also taken to the streets, but with less violence.

Professor Lucien van der Walt, a sociologist at Wits University, says the uprisings in Greece and Italy were much more politically organised and the strikers were demanding more jobs.British kids, however, have not been well organised.

“They live in a society that values things like branding, but they’re excluded from them,” Van der Walt says.

“Society, through mass media and branding, says to these kids, ‘You should have this’. At the same time they’re prevented from having it because of poverty.”

Outrage and denial
Britons’ response to the actions of their countrymen and women has ranged from outrage to denial.

Any attempt to have British politicians answer the question why the riots have happened, is being seen as a justification for the rioters, says modern history professor Craig Phelan from Kingston University in London.

“This is true for those in the coalition and those in opposition.

There is a tacit determination not to look at the underlying problems that have alienated the underprivileged of our inner cities, an unwillingness to recognise the hopelessness that many young people feel.

“There is no justification for much of what is taking place, but a closed-minded refusal to understand why it is happening speaks volumes about the priorities of those in power,” he says.

“As long as there is an unwillingness to recognise the underlying issues of unemployment and decaying inner-city living conditions, these riots will be quelled but nothing will be learned. One shouldn’t be surprised to see rioting flare up again in the near future.”

Dr Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, says the challenge for those in power and society at large is precisely to lo

ok at all the different factors and underlying questions these events have unearthed.

“Instead of turning our backs on the rioters, we have to make time to listen to them, and not in a way to make excuses for what happened but to understand what happened.”

She says government also has to look at how to support young people in getting employment, because not enough has been done.

 “A place to start is to find out what these youths’ goals are in their communities and in society. To create opportunities for them to work,” Ben-Galim says.Professor Lucien van der Walt, sociologist at Wits University, says British Prime Minister David Cameron did not have a handle on the situation for a long time.

“And what has Cameron done since? Instead of addressing the socio-economic problems, he’s just about sending in more police to deal with the rioters.”

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