London’s long, hot summer

What role did social media play in the violence?
Leah McLaren and Patricia Treble
Police officers in riot gear block a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London August 8, 2011. Youths hurled missiles at police in northeast London on Monday as violence broke out in the British capital for a third night. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW IMAGES OF THE DAY)
London’s long, hot summer
Reuters/Luke MacGregor

What began as a peaceful public vigil outside a north London police station last Saturday rapidly morphed into several days of rampaging protests—a frightening flashpoint in a season of increasing unrest in the British capital. By midday Monday, more than 200 protesters had been arrested in skirmishes that left scores of officers injured and several down-at-heel neighbourhoods severely damaged by fire and theft. And there was no end in sight. By Monday evening, riot police were busy in Oxford Circus, and BBC commentators were advising Londoners to stay indoors—meanwhile, violence had erupted in Birmingham, Liverpool and other large cities.

How did it all start? The initial protest in Tottenham, a socio-economically depressed and ethnically mixed district in the city’s north end, was organized in response to the shooting earlier last week of Mark Duggan. The local man lived in a nearby housing project and was, depending on which sources you believe, either a peace-loving family man or an active gang member. There are reports that he was carrying a weapon, allegedly a starter’s pistol converted to fire live ammunition; Duggan’s death came after a minicab he was in was stopped during a pre-planned police operation.

What’s inarguable is that police were involved in the shooting, though it’s still not known who actually killed Duggan. Why the protest turned violent is similarly murky: at least one witness claimed it all began when a 16-year-old girl was viciously attacked after throwing a champagne bottle at officers, yet others blamed unsubstantiated rumours circulated on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger claiming that Duggan was murdered in an unprovoked, execution-style shooting.

During the initial flare-up in Tottenham on Saturday night, mobs of balaclava-clad young people tore through the streets after dark, setting fire to homes and businesses, and kicking in windows and looting shops, while a woefully unprepared police force looked on helplessly—and, according to some critics, passively allowed parts of the neighbourhood to burn.

The following night, crowds of enraged youths clashed with riot police in neighbourhoods all over the city. Police have downplayed this second wave of outbursts—“copycat violence”—but claim the existence of a scheme organized by criminal elements who intentionally used social media to incite mob rule.

Whatever the case, it’s clear the initial public grievance over Duggan death quickly evolved into something far more pernicious and opportunistic. Duggan’s relatives, though frustrated by police handling of the case, told the media they do not condone the riots and called for an end to the violence.

The police have been criticized both for reacting too aggressively and for not doing enough to stop the initial riot. But others, like Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London and chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, lambasted rioters themselves. They are, he said, merely “looking for the opportunity to steal and set fire to buildings and create a sense of mayhem, whether they’re anarchists or part of organized gangs or just feral youth, frankly, who fancy a new pair of trainers.” And indeed, there were widespread reports of youths gleefully hauling shopping carts full of stolen booty away from retailers like Foot Locker. Looters also, reportedly, fried up their own burgers and fries at a ransacked McDonald’s.

But some left-wing commentators, such as former mayor Ken Livingstone, framed unrest as a reaction to the Tory-led government’s recent cuts to social spending and likened the riots to those that plagued Britain when Margaret Thatcher imposed similar policies. But while it’s true that youth unemployment in many of the affected areas is high compared to the national average, the real root of the tension appears to be between residents of neighbourhoods like Tottenham—poor, crime-infested and with a large Afro-Caribbean population that claims to be the target of discrimination and abuse—and the police force, which is feeling the heat during this summer of scandals. (Just last month, the top two commanders were forced to resign amid accusations of misconduct in the phone-hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s former tabloid News of the World.)

On Monday night, while fire crews battled blazes across London, Prime Minister David Cameron returned from his Tuscan holiday, pledging to “do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets” and announcing that Parliament would be recalled on Thursday. Reports were swirling that police were to be given permission to use plastic bullets and armoured vehicles.

As the melee continued, law-abiding citizens watched their homes and livelihoods go up in flames, in some cases quite literally. Many seem to feel, as one Tottenham bus driver put it, that unless something changes in the capital, “This will happen again. These kids don’t care. They don’t have to pay for this damage. Working people do. What do they have to lose?”

Nevertheless, on Tuesday, hundreds of Londoners gathered in Hackney, Clapham and other besieged neighbourhoods, armed, unlike the nighttime mobs, with brooms and garbage bags. Within hours they’d swept the streets and boarded up damaged shops. When Mayor Boris Johnson came to check out their efforts he was greeted by a chant: “Where’s your broom?”