Social alienation provides the tinder for angry UK youth
While I was studying at the University of Leeds in 2004, a friend came by to visit. On his one-kilometre walk from Chapeltown to Meanwood, my friend, who is of Caribbean descent, was stopped five times by police.
The tactic of the stop-and-search, which allows police to search anyone in the name of reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, has become infamous. Over the past few years, it has become clear that the police target ethnic minorities in this humiliating ritual.
On another occasion, the same friend was driving to my house when the police followed him and, when he was walking up my pathway, stopped him and asked for identification.
Chapeltown is just one of the areas with a large ethnic minority population that is suffering at the hands of thuggish behaviour in the recent riots. Its crime rate is generally high and there is a deep mistrust of the police. Like in other suburbs in similar circumstances, it has come as little surprise that these pockets in Britain are now imploding.
Night after night, watching as London burns from my home in Kent, just 55 kilometres away, I see no excuse for the violence, intimidation and crimes that have seen homes, shops and communities destroyed in the last few days.
There is, however, a long list of explanations. Riots on this scale are not a coincidence. Already we have seen attempts to discredit commentators who analyse the context and history of the riots, who are portrayed as apologists for violence and criminal behaviour.
If the underlying causes are ignored, tensions will increase further. The question has already polarised some of my friends, some of whom have denounced the looters as scum while others try to understand their motives.
Both sides should acknowledge there has been a systematic neglect of certain areas of the country. Take Brixton, for example, which is another district that has seen utter chaos. Outreach programmes have been slashed in recent years; one example is a friend's community publication, Live Magazine, which is run by young people who have an interest in journalism. Many of them did not excel in school, or have been in trouble with the police.
I'm not saying that members of the magazine's staff have been involved in the riots, but when Live's budget was cut, it took away one avenue of community involvement for young people who are increasingly alienated from society.
Another explanation could be the failure of Britain's policing system. My aunt has lived for decades in Tottenham, the borough that saw the first outbreak of these London riots. In all of that time, I never felt comfortable visiting her; the streets were lined with drug-dealers and crime was common. The police, my aunt said this week, have never done much about it and in fact have colluded with the gangs because both sides swap information.
The policing failure is also evident in misguided priorities. How is it possible that police completely failed to act in Tottenham and other areas on the first nights of rioting? It was reported that 5,000 extra police were deployed in London for this year's Royal Wedding; a little more than 1,000 extra policemen were on duty at the beginning of these riots.
Watching recent events unfold, I also wondered whether Britain's Muslim communities, usually easy targets for agitators, would become involved. It seemed probable that Muslims would end up taking the blame, but it seems these communities have suffered in other ways.
In one case, rioters hit a mosque in East London but were fought off by worshippers who had been observing taraweeh prayers. It has also been widely reported that in the Dalston district of London, a group of Turkish shopkeepers organised a watch to protect their businesses. Similarly, Sikhs in Southall banded together to protect their gurdwara from rioters.
In another example, Sikhs and Muslims, who have not always got along, came together to guard each other's place of worship. Their actions were admirable, but police should have taken more responsibility.
Part of the blame can also be attributed to the political system. Prime Minister David Cameron delayed his return from holiday, while London's bumbling mayor Boris Johnson was until recently largely absent. This sends a weak message to the gangs robbing shops and setting cars afire. Why would the crimes stop when leaders seem not bothered at all?
Meanwhile, members of far-right groups such as the British National Party (BNP) have been rubbing their hands together in glee, blaming immigration for the anarchy. The BNP leader Nick Griffin laid blame on the "blacks and Jews" a day after riots kicked off in Tottenham. For the hate-mongers, this is just an excuse to feed the frenzy.
None of this absolves the rioters of the responsibility they have for their own behaviour, but it does provide some context. The protests that began after Mark Duggan was shot dead by police (under circumstances that are still unclear) have been hijacked by much more callow motives. These rioters are young, disaffected and bored Britons, many of who are still at an age when peer pressure is a major influence. Just that there are so many of them is another cause for concern.
There is an urgent need to come to terms with failings in the police, politicians and perpetrators themselves. On Tuesday, the first fatality was announced, a 26-year-old man from Croydon; that night, three more men were killed in Birmingham while protecting property. If we don't ask the difficult questions now - why and how did this happen? - there will be many more.
Anealla Safdar is a freelance writer and former reporter for The National
Updated: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM