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London riots: Beyond jobs & welfare


The violence is directed toward innocent, ordinary people also struggling to keep their heads above water in these difficult times.

LONDON—On Monday night, my husband and I were heading home to Camden, northwest of the capital. We were aware of the riots in nearby Tottenham and Hackney (northeast London) but things looked fine in the streets around us. Then we sat in the bus and heard a young man on his mobile phone, asking his friends to meet up in front of a local sports shop on Camden high street. We saw a phalanx of police vans as we got off.

Lock Tavern pub attacked by rioters.

Lock Tavern pub attacked by rioters. We were eating near the windows when they started throwing bricks and rocks at the windows.

We suspected something was afoot but since it was nearly 10 p.m. and we were hungry, we (foolishly) thought we’d have a quick meal at the Chinese restaurant one street away from our house. The anxious manager turned us away at the door; they were shutting for the night. So we went into the pub at the top of our

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street, about 100 meters from where we live. Why would rioters attack a pub, the center of British social life, right? And what would they want in Camden Town, an ethnically mixed community whose famous market sells mostly tourist tat?

Within five minutes of ordering our meals, a menacing silence fell. A few seconds later, bricks came crashing against the pub windows. It wasn’t just one or two token missiles lobbed to frighten us; that mob wanted to get in there. Whether it was to loot the alcohol or

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to harm the people inside, I do not know and had no intention to find out.

We ran upstairs, and in true British fashion, there was no screaming or hysterics, just repressed panic. And in true Pinoy uzi fashion, I went to the rooftop to take pictures of the street, by then occupied by about 50 police officers and their vans on one side, and the rioters on the other. After a few minutes, I thought, what if they torch this place as other rioters had done elsewhere?

I rushed back inside and was flabbergasted to find my husband asking the bar staff politely if we could please have our dinners. We escaped through the fire exit with our food, half-eaten on dinner plates that we duly returned the next day (we’re not looters, after all).

Back home we listened to the frightening rumble of police and rioters as they clashed near Chalk Farm, just few hundred meters from us. We stayed up to watch out for fires. On TV, Croydon (south of London) was burning, rioters were setting cars and homes alight and pillaging shops.

Bicycle shop looted by rioters, Chalk Farm Road, Camden. 09/08/2011

Bicycle shop looted by rioters, Chalk Farm Road, Camden. 09/08/2011

Camden got off lightly, in comparison. Several shops were looted and damaged, most owned by small retailers. There was an attempt to burn down the local Domino’s pizza shop, above which live a young couple and their child.

On Tuesday morning, many of the establishments on the high street were boarded up. The usual throngs of tourists stayed away and the market traders, many of them Thai, Chinese, Nepali, and Latin Americans already struggling in a sluggish economy, lost a day’s earnings.

Savage attacks

This is what confounds and angers me about these riots: that the violence is directed toward innocent, ordinary people also struggling to keep their heads above water in these difficult times.

What ostensibly started as a protest against the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham metastasized into savage, opportunistic attacks on similarly deprived and marginalized communities in London and elsewhere in the country.

Hackney, for example, where I used to live, is one of the poorest boroughs in London. The rioters attacked Pembury Estate, a predominantly black community that was slowly recovering from decades of blight and crime. They also ran amuck in Dalston, home to a diverse immigrant population, struggling musicians and artists, and Turkish, Irish, Vietnamese and Afro-Carribean traders. Some of the Turkish shop owners chased looters away.

Shops boarded up along Chalk Farm Road, Camden, the morning after the riots. 09/08/2011.

Shops boarded up along Chalk Farm Road, Camden, the morning after the riots. 09/08/2011.

My husband, who lived in the grimmest bits of Hackney in his youth, is shocked and infuriated by it all.

Born and raised in London, he was in his teens during the Brixton (1981) and Broadwater Farm (1985) riots in Tottenham (both triggered by the brutality and racism of the police). He rejects any comparison between those events and the recent turmoil. “Those people were battling vicious police, not terrorizing their neighbors or ransacking shops,” he explains.

Not even during the bleakest, most turbulent years of the Thatcher era had he seen such wanton and widespread violence and destruction.

Much has been said about how the present era mirrors the Thatcher period in terms of poverty, inequality and repression, which serve as the backdrop to these riots.

I agree, but I think it is a limited perspective with which to view these past few days. Let me be clear: I am not a defender of the prevailing political and economic order, nor a fan of the Tories (or Blairites), bankers, or the police. These forces are destroying the last shreds of fairness in this country: from free universities, to social welfare programs, to the health care system, to the right to free speech.

I have been in the UK for nearly 8 years and during the last two, I have seen friends lose their jobs, their homes, their chances at further education, and the meager social benefits they needed to keep them afloat.

I have witnessed police brutality toward those who raise their voices against war, tuition fees and funding cuts.

And we’re talking mostly white, middle-class British people here. I can only imagine how much more desperate and oppressive it has become for black people, other ethnic minorities and immigrants.

More than structural

Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the Western world and that inequality manifests itself differently among various populations. If I were an impoverished, futureless, colored young Briton today, I would be angry, too.

Does this justify the looting and violence of this week’s riots? Absolutely not. It provides the context, yes. As a Filipino I understand only too well that deprivation and injustice for many and the prosperity and impunity of a few is an untenable and explosive mix.

But there’s something more to this than the underlying structural reasons.

How can one comprehend the malevolence of the rioters toward their own communities and toward other minorities, for example? You would think that those outraged by injustice and sick of poverty would direct their anger toward those whom they perceive as their oppressors.

But the rioters showed no interest in attacking banks, police stations or government buildings. Sure, they attacked the police, but only because the police were between them and the shops.

There was no hint of empathy or solidarity with the communities they ravaged. Not in Hackney, where they lay waste to a public housing estate and robbed an injured Malaysian student while pretending to help him. Not in Croydon, where they burned down flats and small shops but left the notorious UK Border Agency buildings untouched. Nor in Birmingham, where suspected looters ran over a group of Pakistani men who had gathered to protect their streets.

And what to make of the thievery? There is a disturbing consumerist greed that drives these rioters and it discredits any political or ideological claims they might make.

These are not bread riots, where starving people grab food from supermarket aisles. These are kids aspiring to giant plasma TVs and designer shoes. Can’t afford them, just grab them. Why not? Everyone seems to be on the make: the posh politicians fiddling their expenses, the police, the press, the bankers.

Still, I refuse to valorize the thuggery and callousness of these rioters with these pretexts. They robbed big retail chains and corner shops with equal gusto. Struggling families have lost their livelihoods. I’ve heard it said that this is part of a “resistance,” and that rioters were sending a message to the elites.

And what message would that be, exactly? That they love iPads and hate everyone?

Which brings us to race. From what I’ve seen on the streets and in published images, many of the looters were white. Conversely, many of the victims were black. The facile, even bigoted, view of the riots as a black versus white phenomenon does not hold up.

Bring in ethnicity and you’ve got an even more complex calculus.

Is the violence indiscriminate or are Asians and other immigrants targets? The Turkish men who chased away looters in Dalston, the Pakistani community grieving the murders of three young men in Birmingham: these are danger signals for an ethnic conflagration that could break out in this volatile climate.

This is what worries me the most. I’m Filipino, I’ve been to places where disputes are settled with guns—I can deal with a few bricks.

What I dread is blind hatred from fellow Londoners, and the suspicion and anxiety I now feel while walking the streets of this wonderfully diverse city that I love.

But this is my home now. I refuse to be intimidated and I’m willing to do my share to make it work.—Newsbreak

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  1. David Dizon says:

    The riots are surprising and shocking. Reminds me a little of the EDSA 3 riot when looting happened near Malacañang.

  2. ‘From what I’ve seen…many of the looters were white.’

    The vast majority of the rioters I’ve seen on TV are black – I’d like to bet there weren’t many sons of Yorkshire coalminers joining them.’

  3. Mark Duggan could be London’s Rodney King. The Rodney King case also cascaded into violence against minority immigrants. In the 1992 LA riots, Korean stores were targetted but the Koreans fought back.

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  5. les reago says:

    Wonderfully diverse city,,,and FREE.

  6. Jozon Lorenzana says:

    I see the attempt to understand the situation. But to say it’s more than just structure and point out consumerism at the same time is to again hint at social and economic conditions. Consumerism is an outcome of a social economic order/condition (capitalism) and this refers to structure. Let’s not deny the obvious – looting Foot Locker and burning a Sony warehouse only means ‘you destroy what you can’t have.’ And the opportunity was there – policing was not enough (no bullets were fired during the first three nights; and the ‘middle class’ people were just afraid to take these bulls by their horns when they were raging). So these conditions allowed this sort of rioting. This is my interpretation.

  7. The situation in London is very different from the Philippines. The police cannot just fire ( even with rubber bullets) to the rioters.And the civilians can only defend themselves if their is imminent danger to their person. And they can only use “reasonable force”.If that was to happen in my street back in the philippines and the police are nowhere to be found, those rioters will have deal with my baby M16.

  8. So what’s the conclusion? That the mayhem was all about pure and simple thievery in the chaotic streets of London? Nothing more than sheer banditry, as attested by someone who purports to have absorbed the terror face to face, indeed discredits the rage of demonstrators genuinely aggrieved by the system. But glossed over in the story is where it all came from, where the rest of the pieces fit. Surely the violence, wherever it went later, has had a logic and life of its own. This is where it separates from and even opposes middle class comfy, eyeing the unfolding narrative on the other side of the fence. How easy to sweep under the rug the agony of small folks victimized everyday by the elite who squeeze the economy bone dry. How easy to brush aside the grievance of natives reduced to penury by the migrants phenomenon that cheapens labour and sends them to starve in the cold.

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