New Internationalist

To England, with sympathy and concern


Photo by hughepaul on a CC licence

I’ve lived with riots since I was a small child. And I have memories of mobs that I’d rather not remember. This was Hindu-Muslim mayhem which left people murdered, raped, maimed and homeless in Calcutta during the 1960s. So my reactions to rioting or mindless mob violence is completely at odds with my usual pro-poor, pro-human rights, liberal view on life.

I agree though, that the UK unrest is linked to the Cameron government’s cuts in the social sector. 

A friend from Finsbury Park, London, who’s spent more than 40 years working in the youth sector, says: “In Haringey, 75 per cent of the youth budget has been cut, there are no jobs and no summer activities have been provided this year. Meanwhile the bankers and city traders take home huge bonuses with impunity. It's not an excuse but if someone like me feels angry enough to want to throw bricks through bank windows, what's to stop kids who have no prospects at all?”

I’ve often felt like attacking the faceless decision makers who allow perks and bonuses to bankers who’ve destroyed the lives of poor hard working pensioners and ordinary families. 

But one has to make a difference between the justifiable anger of the many and the mindless violence of the few. 

I don’t believe the perpetrators of the recent violence in London should be allowed to get away with it. We grew up with police brutality as a part of life. You expected it. The London Bobby, on the other hand, was legendary around the world as the iconic friendly cop who helped everyone. I’m less naïve now. I know that cops everywhere can be corrupt and brutal. But to expect the police to refrain from arresting rioters and looters is insane. How can they be blamed for inaction if they are ordered by their political bosses to be inactive? 

As journalists have pointed out, this was a free for all, not for bread and milk, but for trainers and state-of-the-art gizmos. I agree it’s difficult to be bombarded with consumerist commercial crap all day and night. But I went to a posh college with barely any money in my pocket. I didn’t steal to have clothes like the rich girls in fancy cars. My kids dealt with this too. They knew we couldn’t afford expensive trainers. In the mid 90s consumerism had hit India too. 

Kids from our project were taken into a good school with predominantly wealthy parents, because the school wanted parents doing socially relevant work to bring in a different set of values. They dealt with not having designer clothes and smart trainers. Because we talked to them about values. I don’t think it was ever easy though.
In India, the consumerist culture is now bombarding our villages, telling folk they must have a particular kind of shampoo, aftershave, phone. Sooner or later, violence will erupt here too. Because the poor who watch those ads can never afford the luxuries taunting them cruelly from the TV. Violent theft is happening in Indian cities already. 

But while I can’t condone violence and looting, I realize that my friend in Finsbury Park has the answer. There is a hopelessness among the unemployed in the UK which you don’t see here in India. It’s the combination of being surrounded by consumerism and being told that life’s not worth living unless you have Nike shoes and designer T-shirts together with living on a council estate where the chances for employment are remote, role models scarce and uninspiring, and schools are awful. 

A riot is always a sign of societal failure at some level. In Mumbai, after the Bombay blasts in 1993, Hindu-Muslim conflict led to appalling bloodshed. Social work colleges led civil society to form street peace groups. Intense work was done to force an interaction between Hindus, Muslims and Christians. When you meet face-to-face, the ‘other’ ceases to be a faceless enemy and becomes a real person with a name and a smile. Mumbai has not had Hindu-Muslim riots since, in spite of grave provocation. 

So at the risk of sounding facile and simplistic, I would say the Cameron government should put money back into youth work and creating employment, while not cutting spending in the social sector. This is not some pearl of wisdom. It’s common sense. Experienced social scientists, activists and NGOs are shouting this from their decades of experience. Gordon Brown made more sense for the UK economy, but the UK media blackballed him. Many of us are curious as to why this happened.

I love London and so I watched the riots with a sense of great sadness. I hope it acts as a wake up call to the Government and to British society. Or this will be just a taste of things to come.

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