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.

Comments on To England, with sympathy and concern

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  1. #1 Clive 12 Aug 11

    Dear lady, you ARE being simplistic. Just look at the people before the magistrates so far. A millionaire's daughter. A social worker. A teacher. The downtrodden underclass? I don't think so. Some of those small shopkeepers burnt out by the looters now have nothing, nothing at all. But you are correct in that we believe we are entitled to seize what we want ’because we're worth it’.

  2. #2 TD 13 Aug 11

    Great article! well balanced and rounded out. I agree with the author that there is no excuse for violence, and people shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. I also like that you point out that just punishing the guilty isnt enough. You have to treat the problem at its root, and not just attack the symptoms. Working with communities is the only way.

  3. #3 Karim 14 Aug 11

    I haven't lived in UK since 2000 but if there's one thing I am absolutely sure of it's that this has been brewing for many years, and it's unfortunate that Cameron (despite all his faults) is taking the blame. Over a decade of individuals, companies and national institutions spending more than they have has brought us here. Children, regardless of class, growing up with a sense of entitlement must account for some of the stolen trainers and gizmos last week. Agree with the fact that cutting the social sector while allowing banks to continue nefarious incentive schemes is a tragedy. BUT, cuts are needed across the board if England (any many other countries) are to revive their stagnating economies. We see a lot of hatred directed at governments for going broke, but what people across Europe and the US seem to be forgetting is that all that money was spent on them! Ensuring citizens of the western world are provided for doesn't come cheap. Ultimately a chronic lack of foresight on the part of leadership, and an even more chronic materialism on the part of the people are to blame.

  4. #4 Torn Halves 17 Aug 11

    ’But one has to make a difference between the justifiable anger of the many and the mindless violence of the few.’ And furthermore, one shouldn't lose sight of the mindlessness (i.e. irresponsibility and unaccountability) and arguably the violence perpetrated by the most powerful players in the economy (because closing down a factory or a mine that an entire community depends on without first seeking the unforced consent of all involved is a violent act). Arguably, the most disturbing acts of violence are those where no bricks are thrown, no windows are broken and there is no one to be photographed being dragged into a police van.

  5. #5 Jo Lateu 30 Aug 11

    A response from Lord Joel Joffe, which I am copying here:

    It was good to hear from you again and really valued your blog so eloquently distinguishing between mindless violence and the impact of poverty alongside consumerism and the understandable frustrations of so many members of our society. The solution is not long-term imprisonment for those caught up in riots although those who actually instigate the riots should be severely punished. As you say the Government needs to address the issues of unemployment, of poverty and injustice by making this its priority for the long-term. It will not be easy to achieve in our consumerist society. Like you, I hope it will be a wake-up call.

  6. #6 Jo Lateu 30 Aug 11

    A comment from 'Jennie' which I am copying here:

    Hi Mari

    It is an excellent article adn sums up well what i think a lot of people feel. It's not right but sadly it is somehow predictable when swathes of people are ignored, communities aren't invested in, and the consumerist culture is so ingrained.
    Aside from the violence there are parallels in all part of British society at the moment and have been for years; one example being the politicians are take whats not theres in the expenses scandal,

    Someone suggested to me the other day that one of the reasons as to why there was so much apathy was because the options for ruling government are not strong; either left or right. And therefore people feel no allegience, nothing to fight for or against - just pale policies. I though this was an interesting point. In addition governments care little about these groups because often they are not the voting classes, they are not vote winners. Very sad indeed.

    I wasn't there throughout the riots (still in Myanmar) and couldn't quite believe what I was reading, I feel sad that we have such a long way to go to climb out of this.


  7. #7 Lucy Horitz 31 Aug 11

    Your article has highlighted two huge problems affecting the UK right now - consumerism and our obsession with material acquisition, and the governments' cuts which have effectively taken away the few opportunities and aspirations which the poorest in society may have had.

    I think another key cause of the social unrest is our obsession over the past twenty years or so if needing to get a degree and fulfil a 'profession' in order to feel fully valued in society. More emphasis needs to be placed on vocational training and making the plumbers, electricians and mechanics that are so vital to our daily lives feel fully engaged in civic society.

  8. #8 Pat Horitz 01 Sep 11

    I thought Mari's article was excellent. I also agree with what the responders are saying. I do feel that some people have 'nothing to aim for', living lives with some sort of emptiness . Society has become too focussed on individualism, which has its place in some contexts, but the bigger picture is crucial. Everyone should relate to a common standard of decency and respect for others, rather than their own personal view of it. Community life too is so important, but sadly the only 'belonging' for some is to the destructive gangs we so often read about.
    And for others, where has the cohesive family unit gone ?

    I can't end without adding the Christian perspective to all of this. We have lost our way humanly; but what is also missing for many is the godly moral compass that we all need so badly. The truth is that it is only God who has all the real answers for everything we do.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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