The recent london “riots” made us all wonder, just what happened to Earth’s most civilized country? Of course we all saw the videos of “rioters” cueing up for their chance to loot, but even law breakers standing politely in line are still law breakers.
As far as I can tell the unrest began with the attempted arrest and shooting of Mark Duggan, 29-year-old father of 4, after he was pulled from a taxi. Although initial reports had Duggan firing first on the arresting officers, later when a non-police weapon was found at the scene it was wrapped in a sock with no evidence of being fired, the round that hit one of the officers in his radio turned out to be police issue.
However, two days after the shooting Duggan’s relatives and friends marched from their housing development to the local police station to demand an explanation. Unsatisfied with the initial police response the marchers demanded to see a higher officer. At that time other protesters attacked and set two police vehicles on fire. This was the beginning of 5 days of general lawlessness in London as well as other cities and towns in Britain.
While the shooting is still under investigation, the British are sorting out what to do about those arrested. The prime Minister favors stiff sentencing and has endorsed a 6 month term for a young man who stole $5 of water bottles. Two men who were cheering on the rioters on Facebook got 4 years a piece. There are hundreds more left to be judged. I wont endorse or disparage the harshness or leniency of the sentencing, or the execution of the law, that’s up to the courts.
What I will call out the British Government on is the focus on punishment instead of the much harder job of figuring out what happened? Just from the facts this sounds a lot like the Rodney King incident that sparked the LA riots. As we all have learned the LA riots did not happen just because of the illegal and immoral beating of Mr. King. That was just the match to the waiting powder keg that unleashed the fury of a wasted generation.
What filled the powder keg in Britain? There is a lot of gang activity in London and other British cities, just like LA. There is an effective “underclass” that has not done so well during the boom of the last 20 years, just like LA. This subsection of the population has also been hit by the financial crisis harder than most british, and it promises to get worse for them as social services begin to dry up.
Some politicians are blaming the rioters dependance on social services, but it’s not at all clear that social service dependency covered anything more than a minority of the rioters. Racial disparity and inequity has been blamed, as has unemployment, poor policing, gang culture and just general lawlessness. But none of these suffice as an underlying reason for what brought these riots into full bloom. Without a good understanding of what were the underlying causes, a crackdown by the authorities may well just feed the fire.
After listening to some reports of what rioters said during the troubled time I got the impression that they felt the Police were ineffective and also that their own society had sidelined them. Justified or not, the rioters I heard felt they were the “have nots” and they were getting back at the “haves.” Those are the feelings that can spell disaster for a society.
That also describes the one real disparity between the rioters and the rest of the British who were shocked. It’s affluence and access. No one is saying that right now but it’s clear that England has a semi-permanent underclass that is not generally upward mobile. That’s nothing new for England or any other country, the only difference now is awareness of something better by that class.
Rich and poor watch the same commercials, get marketed to by the same media in a constant barrage of “You want this don’t you?” It’s like “lifestyles of the rich and famous” running 24 hours a day pounding it in, making it ever more clear that for some it’s “No, you can’t have that.”
Politicians can complain that social assistance creates a society of ungrateful leeches, but maybe the problem is we cant just throw the unfortunate a check and tell them to be grateful. Maybe gang behavior is a indicator of wanting to belong to something meaningful and gang members have made their own meaning because their society hasn’t. Maybe the police are ineffective and prejudiced, has that ever happened before? You bet your socks it has.
In the 60‘s when parts of New York city were more like the wild west that the urbane economic center it is today, it wasn’t stiff sentencing that made the difference it was doubling police presence and a greater focus on police accountability that made the difference. Its the same with effective social services . It’s cheaper to just write the check, but more effective (and expensive) to design a system that encourages the served to get back into the workforce through training, counseling and opportunities.
I believe that one very telling indicator of the real problem is we have a tendency to look down on those whom society is trying to help. I have often heard the term “leeches” used in referencing those dependent on social services and payments for their room and board. Doesn’t that in itself mean the system we employ is not working? How long does it take before someone wholly dependent on the state, starts to look down on themselves, or worse start to think of themselves as a kind of captive?
The cries in london of “The police can’t stop us” are indicative of a failure of one of the most basic of society’s promises, to protect and to serve. Societies that fall apart have usually bread their own enemies by failing in these two most important promises. Will less services and intense police action solve that problem? It hasn’t in the past, as any student of history will tell you. So as the controversy over punishment goes on in Britian, I can’t help wondering if we all need to stand back and not look so closely at the details, but rather take in the bigger picture.
This has been an interesting year for revolutionary thoughts, and societal crackdowns. A great year for dissatisfaction with government and political systems. A year of changing views and disappointed notions. After all, many said that the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” would result in radical Islamist states, when it now looks like these are much more democratic changes going on. In the US the revolutionaries of the Tea Party were voted in and are now one of the least popular of political groups. All in a year, the knee jerk reactions are proving to be wrong and a general dissatisfaction with unsympathetic and unthinking government is rising.
It is time to re-think social services to move them away from creating dependents and on to being enablers. This is not shrinking their size or cost necessarily, but improving their effectiveness. Effectiveness will eventually decrease their cost. Pledging allegiance to a society should come with safety and reward, and it should come with obligations as well.
As an example let’s look at the 9% percent unemployed in this country who are now receiving their unemployment insurance. This may well be extended due to the current state of the economy, and it’s inability to grow enough to employ those people. Unemployment insurance is only a basic payment and will not cover mortgages, food and any kind of future investment. It is eroding the financial position of anyone who accepts it as well as their psychological health. The way it is now, it may put food in a family’s mouth but not a future in their hearts.
What these unemployed really want, and need, is opportunities they can succeed at, and thereby begin to feel as if they are directing their own lives again. Our social security system is not set up for this. The promise of America and the government is “Work hard and you can succeed.” But the recipients can’t do that when they can’t get a job, or can’t get a job with a fair wage. Just writing the check isn’t working. When will we try something else?
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011
Prentiss Gray is a writer and columnist and currently writes the Domesti-Tech Blog for Gannett. He can be reached through his website at www.prentissgray.com