On the boil

On the boil

For the fourth day in a row, Britain has been engulfed in violence. Buildings have been torched, shops and supermarkets ransacked and police attacked with petrol bombs and make-shift missiles. London looks like a warzone. Gangs are roaming the streets and walking away with money, televisions, computers and groceries looted from stores and homes. Violence first flared on Saturday when a 29-year old man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police in Tottenham. It appears that the initial response to Duggan’s killing was peaceful; a group of around 200 people including his family and neighbours assembled in front of the police station demanding information and answers to why he was killed. The police’s arrogant response appears to have provoked the violence. As news of police highhandedness and insensitivity spread across neighbourhoods via Twitter and SMS, facts became a casualty and were soon drowned out by rumours. Not surprisingly, the riots have spread like wild fire. Among the cities that are caught in the unrest are London, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham. This is the worst outbreak of violence in Britain in over quarter century.

Thirty years ago when similar riots broke out in Brixton, a government inquiry found vast evidence of indiscriminate and excessive use of stop and search powers by the police against black people. It found that policing in the areas hit by riots was aggressive and high-handed. Thirty years on, the British public, especially in poor neighbourhoods, feel that little has changed. They are perpetually monitored by CCTV cameras and the police response to the smallest of crimes is excessive. When cops repeatedly whip out guns at the slightest provocation, they can expect massive retaliation from the public, especially if it is frustrated, unemployed and socially excluded. Prime minister Gordon Brown’s budget cuts on social programmes in these excluded communities are reported to have deepened angst in these areas. Anger was simmering over a range of issues and waiting to explode when Duggan’s killing happened.

While the police action against Duggan could have been prompted by racial prejudice, the violence engulfing Britain in the days since is not along racial lines. There are white, black and brown youth among the rioters. The government of prime minister David Cameron should look beyond the law and order for a comprehensive solution to the present crisis.

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