[LONDON] Last night there were more buildings aflame in the city than at any time since World War II. Some 6,000 police were unable to cope as across the capital -- and in other cities in the UK -- gangs of hooded youths took to the streets in copycat riots, torching and looting in the third night of what has been the most widespread disorder in Britain's living memory.

Where I live in Westminster, close to Parliament, is quite far from the hotspots; yet you can feel the tension. 'Police warn of gangs beginning to congregate around South Westminster', I read a few hours ago, and felt a little of the gnawing anticipation which the prospect of violence always brings. My local Sainsbury's supermarket has shuttered up, 'due to the incidents reported across London'.

But for residents of Croydon, Clapham, Ealing, Camden, Hackney -- the list is very long -- they have lived the violence at close hand. Businesses have been set alight, shops looted, people burned out of their flats. More than 450 have been arrested. As further reports come in today of general disorder, there is a growing sense of alarm at the realisation that law and order has broken down. The terrifying, sickening scenes we have seen on television give us a sense of being invaded, as if we are losing our city.  

The prime minister, David Cameron, has flown back from Italy to 'take control': resisting intemperate calls for the army to be called in and water cannon to be used -- it never has been on the British mainland -- he has massively increased the police presence on London's streets tonight to an astonishing 16,000 (you can already see them everywhere in my part of town). Parliament is being recalled for a day on Thursday.

The question, of course, is why it is happening. The flashpoint was last Thursday night in Tottenham in north-west London, when police shot dead a young man in still mysterious circumstances. The family demanded an explanation; the police appeared not to have one. Anger erupted. Gangs gathered. Long-simmering tensions between black people and police exploded.

Yet if the shooting of Mark Duggan was the pretext, it doesn't remotely explain the orgy of violence and looting these past days. Nor do poverty and social injustice, on their own, account for it. The gatherings have been organized by technology -- especially the Blackberry Messenger (BBM), the smartphone of choice. Hardened criminals have been at the heart of this opportunistic violence; they have taken advantage of the moment to assert their power.

Yet to call this "sheer criminality" -- the right-wing narrative -- is to ignore some obvious social facts. There are a million more 15-24 year olds in Britain today than a decade ago, while the number of out-of-work young people is at the highest level since records began in 1992. Some 600,000 people under 25 in Britain have never done a day’s work in their lives. We knew this was a time-bomb. Maybe this is its first explosion. 

We have a large, and growing, urban young underclass -- alienated, angry, hating of themselves and of others. And in London, their distance from the mechanisms of exchange is even more marked; levels of inequality are higher in the capital than anywhere else in the country, and are greater than at any time since the 1960s. London has a high and growing proportion of families entirely dependent on state benefits, where rates of divorce and family dysfunction are at record levels. These households are largely to be found in the inner city north and eastern areas -- the areas hardest hit by the riots.

This is the background. But why now? Is it related to the massive cut in government expenditure, which is leading --in London especially -- to the closure of youth clubs and other charities? It is hard to know. Mob violence has many causes, and many of them interlock; but most decisive of all is the primeval instinct for chaos and violence -- the adrenalin-pumped desire for disorder -- which overtakes alienated individuals melded into rapacious gangs.

As the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said today: "The scenes of the last few nights in parts of London and elsewhere are shocking. The criminal violence and theft that have been witnessed are to be condemned. They are a callous disregard for the common good of our society and show how easily basic principles of respect and honesty are cast aside."

One thing is for certain: there may be political causes of this unrest, but the disorder has no political objective. It is primitive, and materialistic. As one wag tweeted just now, 'the youth of the Middle East rise up for political freedoms. The youth of London rise up for an HD-ready 43" Plasma TV".

But it is too early for the analyses. Right now, the question is whether London tonight continues to burn, or begins to calm.

 

 

 

 

Comments

Anonymous | 8/10/2011 - 3:59pm
Do we as Catholics (or Americans) love the poor BECAUSE they're poor...or because they're people? Do we envy and hate the rich because they're rich....or because they're people?

Do we think poor people are "poor" merely because they don't have cash in their pockets such that by airdropping them welfare debit cards, they'll magically become "middle class".... or do we acknowledge that poverty is much more about culture and morals and family life than merely economic paucity?

My Vietnamese friends landed in the US in 1982 absolutely "poor" and they didn't speak the language or understand the culture. Today they're upper middle class. They didn't have a massive MEDIA and hollywood apparatus fawning over their every move and rolling out massive subsidies. They had family, faith, and a culture that instilled pride for education, hard work, and saving.

My African American friends landed in the US in 1701 and were absolutely "poor" after their emancipation in 1865 by the Republican administration of Abe Lincoln (and the Union army). They began to rise out of poverty thanks to Reconstruction and 60 years of GOP support in the teeth of Democratic Jim Crow laws and persecution in the Northern cities. But since 1964 they've received enormous amounts of direct and indirect aid and almost total support from the pop culture that heaps praise for any good achievement and downplays or suppresses any bad news. And their family is ruined, their ghettos are third world, their businesses are bankrupt, their folk are unemployed and unemployable.

They're poor not because they don't have money.... but because their marriages and families were ruined by welfare, their children ruined by public schools and affirmative action (get a B when you should have gotten a D and see what happens when you hit the real world). their spirit crushed by the double standard - treated like children who can't compete without gimmicks and who shall not be held accountable for things that would send anyone else to prison for life for....

They have been told that whites (especially conservative Republicans) are KKK and on a hair trigger to be racist and lynch them up and that their only saviors are the tender mercies of the Democratic machine politics of their inner cities.... and yet, who is treating them like slaves on a plantation still? Who tells them that they can't possibly compete without affirmative action, without set asides, quotas, and that they not only can't be trusted with private ownership of guns, they can't be trusted with private school vouchers for their children!
Austen Ivereigh | 8/10/2011 - 6:46am
No, I wasn't blaming welfare for the riots. I was pointing to the large numbers of young people who do not work, especially in London, and who are therefore disengaged from what, in our city, provides meaning for most people. They are therefore bored and listless, and feel they have no stake in society. Some, a minority, are obviously criminals; but most, it seems, were just looking for a "fix" of power and violence.

It's been a quiet night in London, incidentally, but not in Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester ...
PJ Johnston | 8/9/2011 - 8:24pm
It's nothing short of amazing that Austen (naturally enough:  it's the obvious suspicion any thinking person would have) speculates that one of the root causes of the violence may be that British society has abandoned its responsibility to the poor in a massive austerity program that puts the a sizeagle population of the economically marginal even further out on the edge than they've ever been before, and people here misinterpret him as saying that the problem is that there were ever any social welfare programs keeping them afloat in the first place.  Catholic social teaching may not have failed, but the Church obviously hasn't gotten the word out to the Catholic in the pews.
Anonymous | 8/9/2011 - 8:09pm
Though not nearly the same intensity, there have been several incidents of racial flash mob situations in the US.  Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago have reported groups of young blacks being brought together by current social technology and then attacking others, mainly whites often randomly.  But often for theft too.  Here is an article about it.
 
http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/08/07/american-tinderbox/ 
 
Hopefully, the US is cooling a little bit and maybe these incidents will die out.

Stanley Kopacz | 8/10/2011 - 10:09am
"The poor you will always have with you".  But what are the poor?  Are they all of one cloth?   Rural poor, urban poor, recently unemployed, lost your money in the stock market.  If you are poor, do you have religion to fall back on or only the materialistic brainwashing of corporate media?   Also, how many poor are you supposed to always have with you?  5%, 10%, 30%, 90%?  Why not shoot for 1%?  The more poor you have, the more social problems.  Even riots. We will always have the sick with us but does that mean closing down hospitals?  The worst thing is to forget the poor, to ignore the poor.  
Crystal Watson | 8/9/2011 - 8:53pm
David,

There's a story about this at NPR ... http://www.npr.org/2011/08/09/139276065/why-london-exploded-last-night ... Why London Exploded Last Night

It's a leap to go from the fact that there are people on welfare to saying there's an entire class of people willing to riot because they feel all their needs should be met without having to contribute.  I'd guess that men between the ages of 15 and 25 who are unemployed and undereducated are the largest group in the riots, but I doubt that describes most people on welfare (perhaps single women with small children?).
Todd Flowerday | 8/9/2011 - 8:20pm
David,

I think the point is less your favorite quotes, but a pervasive sense of unfairness in the world. Criminals run rampant with public money they scammed, and did not earn. Police stand by as looters loot, and not just in London.

That said, I absolutely agree with your sense of developing a sense of worth, honor, and respect in people of all ages. Too bad I haven't seen much of that coming from our governing classes in the past few decades.

Too much focus on handouts for people of all economic classes, and not enough on responsibility. Conservatives, look in your own darn mirror before you start preaching to the poor or the liberals.
Brendan McGrath | 8/9/2011 - 7:09pm
As a fan of Upstairs, Downstairs, watching all this, I can only ask:  "What would Lady Marjorie think?!"
Of course that's an odd angle from which to approach this story, but my "knowledge" of Britain really is more of past ages, and often comes from BBC period dramas (Upstairs, Downstairs, miniseries versions of works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, etc.).  It's incredible to observe how much has changed (though also how much has stayed the same, on other matters).
Crystal Watson | 8/9/2011 - 6:13pm
To blame welfare is simplistic.  In case you haven't noticed, there are riots aplenty in countries that have no safety net for the poor.
Anonymous | 8/9/2011 - 4:52pm
"London has a high and growing proportion of families entirely dependent on state benefits, where rates of divorce and family dysfunction are at record levels. These households are largely to be found in the inner city north and eastern areas - the areas hardest hit by the riots."

This quote can equally apply to any major US city. Now, which political party preens and prides itself on being in control of most major US urban centers? And what is their basic premise about poverty? That's right! The more the urban poor are utterly and totally dependent on government (run by their political machine of course) the better. 

But better for whom? Not for the urban poor! Not for the suburban tax payer (who is always blamed as 'evil rich' by the urban poors political masters). It's a situation created and promoted by a political party for their own advantage. 

Every religious order who seeks "social justice" but doesn't address sexual morality (to strengthen marriage, to strengthen families, inspire virtues and values, respect for children etc.) are pawns in this strategy. How exactly does one work in Chicago for 40 years and NOT put a dent into African American poverty or convert them to Catholicism in any way? 

When the state drives out religion from its ranks and when religion ceases to seek first for the kingdom and righteousness but is content with merely feeding the poor in concentration camps, refugee camps or inner city ghettos such desperate underclasses are inevitable.

But who will win if they riot here? Not the urban poor! And whose ox will be gored when government overreacts to American cities ablaze? Not the ox of mega-corporations, or the ox of the military-industrial or domestic command and control complexes.... the world's poor are being played here folks - and the world's middle classes are being played too. We're being told on the one hand violence is the answer to grievances and on the other that only heavy handed state security forces and heavy handed state controls can save us from ourselves.

I beg to differ. I think the poor need not riot and the middle class need not trade liberty for a temporary semblance of 'security'.
ed gleason | 8/9/2011 - 3:09pm
Take away any hope for future changes from an underclass and you have Arab Spring revolts. A word to the wise in the USA ?? Day traders are going wacko on Wall Street as I write this, DOW 300+ to 200- in minutes..  and more than 100000 times the money is being gambled than all the looted  flat screens ever.