Why, Britain, why? Trying to understand the riots.

An Editorial

I am truly and utterly baffled.

As England picks up the pieces after a week of riots in major cities like London, Manchester, and Birmingham, I am still struggling to wrap my brain around the idea that riots could happen in the jolly old UK, and I’m looking for an answer as to why the riots happened.

A scene from Tottenham caught by an ABC News cameraman.

When riots broke out in France six years ago, the causes were pretty clear: the long-standing discrimination and intolerance of Muslim immigrants by French society with little action taken by the government to stop it. But race doesn’t appear to have been a factor in these riots, carried out mainly by British young men and adolescents of all races.

Often a riot is used as a political weapon, especially when a particular event sparks violent protests. Remember Seattle in 1999?

That was about trying to prevent world leaders from creating the World Trade Organization.

These English riots were sparked when British police shot and killed an armed suspect. In America, that might seem normal, but in Britain, police are generally not allowed to carry guns or use violence except in extreme situations. So I can get that people would be mad about the guy being shot. But a large-scale, multi-city riot?

Many observers, both British and abroad, don’t see this as being about the man who was killed at all. One BBC column listed several of the main theories on the origins of the trouble:

However, none of these addresses the form the rioting has taken. Oh, yes, there are different kinds of riots.

The Seattle riots I brought up earlier were mainly a protesters vs. police affair, as people went to “stick it to the man”. This riot has been characterized, more than anything else, by looting.

"I'll take these shirts." "That'll be 15 pounds." "No, I said, I'll TAKE these shirts."

These riots could be described as a shopping spree with violence instead of cash. People are stealing anything they can, and bragging about it on Facebook and Twitter. There are even some reports of people bringing lists of things to loot.

This is a consumerist and opportunist riot, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. These are poor people who are stealing stuff they could never afford, the paper says.

Then again, the New York Daily News posted a column whose author says this riot should’ve come as no surprise to Britons, as they have raised a generation of “the most unpleasant and potentially violent young people in the world” with “an inflamed sense of entitlement”. To him, these riots are just an extension of the soccer hooliganism England has been notorious for.

Historian David Starkey in a BBC interview claims it is because British youths have embraced gangsta rap culture and its glorification of violence and disrespect for authority.

Having seen and read all of these opinions, though, I am just as confused as when I began. I suppose any combination of these factors may be at play, but I still see no underlying cause of the violence. Perhaps it is wrong of me to expect reason from irrationality. All I know is the nagging worry I feel – that if this could happen in Britain, could it also happen here?

Now I want a quesadilla to make me feel better.