The British riots - and a question

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The British riots - and a question

Postby meteorite » Wed Aug 10, 2011 8:35 pm

For some reason in the last few years the Toronto Star has managed to recruit a stellar crop of female journalists, reporters, columnists and editors included. (Some few were poached from the Globe & Mail). The result is a talent pool of remarkable flexibility and capability. Thus they have on staff at least two senior women, foreign correspondent Olivia Ward with vast experience all across Europe, and columnist Heather Mallick who experience living for some time in various places around the Atlantic Triangle has given her a unique insight into the governments and politics of all three countries involved.

They have been therefore able to offer very considerable insight and understanding to their reporting of the British scene. First, Olivia Ward examines the underlying issues:

Britain fears its ‘rebels without a cause’

August 09, 2011

Olivia Ward

Some came for the candy. Others carried off flat-screen TVs and smart phones. And still others heaved bricks through windows and set fire to cars in an ecstasy of violence that has terrified British onlookers.

This is not the Britain of stiff upper lips and “carry on regardless,” the country that won its reputation for pulling together during two world wars.

The riots that have smashed their way from north London to the southern and eastern suburbs, Liverpool and beyond are all the more frightening, experts say, because they have no clear cause. But they bubble up from dangerous undercurrents in society.

“This is not Britain’s Tahrir Square,” said Dan Leighton, an associate of the London political think-tank Demos. “But its very lack of political motivation makes it even more worrying — and even more political.”

The divisions of British society have widened in past decades and inequality is still growing. And with the ongoing financial crisis, and a massive media phone-hacking scandal that involves bribery of police, the British body politic has been buffeted from all sides. With the riots, it is a perfect storm.

“In Britain you have the top 1 per cent who continue to earn unimaginable money in the midst of austerity, then the squeezed middle class, and then the ‘stakelessness’ of young people who are excluded and have no respect for the norms of society,” said Leighton. “It’s a situation that has been brewing for 20 years.”

Leighton organizes for Compass, a new public interest group that created an online petition to restore the public interest, declaring that “something is unravelling before our eyes. From bankers to media-barons, private interests have bankrupted and corrupted the public realm.”

But social purpose seems irrelevant to the rioters and looters who have destroyed small businesses, homes and cars in their own neighbourhoods, also joining mobile “flash mobs” called up on BlackBerrys and social media.

“Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis,” writes 24-year-old London blogger Laura Penny. “People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing and they realize that together they can do anything — literally anything at all.”

The volatile mix of anger, opportunism and hopelessness appears to have produced a nihilism that’s different from earlier generation riots, which focused on racial tension, police brutality or tax protests.

It is fuelled by the amorality of the “feral elites” who helped to wreck the economy, while on an endless spending spree of London’s outrageously priced luxury goods and real estate. Big-ticket items the unemployed and working poor can only view through polished windows.

“It’s trickle-down morality,” says Stephen Whitehead, a researcher with the New Economics Foundation in London. “The looters wouldn’t say they were redressing the wealth gap in a progressive political agenda. But they don’t see why they should care about doing damage when the wealthiest are rewarded for it.”

London has tried to plug the gap between rich and poor by placing public housing next door to multi-million-dollar homes. But cuts to housing benefits will soon force the poorest out to the perimeters.

“Rich and poor may be living side by side but it only makes the everyday inequality more obvious,” says philosophy lecturer Nina Power of Roehampton University a campaigner for students’ rights. “The New Labour government pushed personal debt, credit cards and student loans to keep the economy going. But the 2008 (meltdown) ended all that.

“Now there are no positive programs, and no big ideas of what society should be like. If people are stealing it’s not just mindless theft. They have got the consumerist thing, but without any money. They can get things they want, and sell them to make money. But it’s not just the ‘I want’ mentality. Some believe there’s no other way.”

As despairing as that may be, Heather Mallick, who has earned her own jaundiced view if Great Britain, offers her take:

Mallick: The dark heart of England

August 09, 2011

Heather Mallick

To understand the London riots, you have to understand the nation itself, what it has become and its struggle to repair itself. It is a story of almost unrelenting grimness. It’s why I doubt London’s capacity to host a peaceful 2012 Olympics while Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s cuts to public spending start to bite hard.

A map of the violence that spread across England’s nastier bits would explain a lot: Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds and some of London’s most rundown areas, including Tottenham and Croydon. Tottenham is so dire that I didn’t dare venture there on a visit recently to see Spurs play in their home stadium.

These places are dirt-poor in ways that would be comprehensible only to native Canadians on our reserves. They’re the bits of England you don’t hear from — London’s energy and culture send out a happier message — but the fact is that England’s heart is dark.

Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth about Hidden Britain was the title of a book by Nick Davies (the journalist who essentially broke the News Corp. phone-hacking story) on the nation you don’t hear about. “This hidden country is a sprawling collection of battered old housing estates, of red-light areas and inner-city ghettos, of crack houses and . . . all the other refuges of our social exiles. To put it more broadly, it is the place where the poor gather.”

His book is the modern version of Henry Mayhew’s 1851 Victorian shocker, London Labour and the London Poor. Britain is gasping. The middle class is a fragile aberration and the upper-middles live in glass houses.

The human violence of the riots was shocking but what struck me was the looting. We saw looting in the Vancouver riot and used “deindividuation” or the anonymity and excitement of crowds to explain it. Those kids did not need what they were stealing.

But the London rioters were leaving cheap shops with carts of track shoes and flash clothes, smiling for the cameras. Yes, it was stuff they couldn’t afford but still, why risk imprisonment? Because they had nothing to lose.

I do not excuse here, but attempt to explain. If you have a job or one day dream of having a job, you cling to a respectability that might pay off eventually. But there will never be jobs for these people. You cannot scare them.

Margaret Thatcher sold off public housing without envisioning what would replace it, which was . . . nothing. Then her Big Bang turned London into a financial speculation factory churning out huge bonuses, house prices exploded, people who had bought their fairly awful houses from the government were suddenly rich, and they rented them out, which helped rents soar.

Labour kept things nodding along with a welfare system that Cameron is killing. Even London’s Tory Mayor Boris Johnson has called it “Kosovo-style social cleansing,” with visions of families exiting London to camp by the side of the road because the rent money went on food. For London is one of the world’s most painfully expensive cities.

Try living there on welfare benefits. Imagine losing them and spending your days in a state of semi-controlled desperation.

How do you feed your last grain of self-esteem? You riot, you shame yourself before the world, you steal junk that makes you feel posh, you are filmed pretending to help a bleeding boy while stealing from his backpack, you do disgusting things.

When arrested, you will perhaps not even be able to articulate your reasons for doing these things. You broke windows and took what you thought you needed or were entitled to.

So what are the needs of others? Michael Ignatieff once wrote an entire book, The Needs of Strangers, speculating on that need. No wonder we exiled him. Nobody cares about the poor, especially when they turn thuggish and ungrateful. Why even bother to speculate about what they do?

It’s easier to report on the flames and who lit the fire. But why did they light the fire in the first place?

And the fire next time?

Then there is the mystery that is fascinating the media at the moment

BlackBerry SmartPhone Involved in UK Riots

by John Lister on 20110810 @ 11:08AM EST |

Social networking has been blamed for helping promote rioting and looting in the United Kingdom. But the culprit is not, as some have assumed, Twitter.

Riots broke out in the Tottenham area of London this past Saturday after a protest about the shooting of a local man by police two days earlier. The initial riot has been followed by numerous outbreaks of violence and looting in other areas of the city.

Twitter Users Ahead of Media in Reporting Violence

The events have been discussed extensively on Twitter, with local residents reporting on incidents before they are covered by mainstream media. There have even been attempts to use the service to build updated maps tracking the disturbances.

Those involved in the looting have also been in communication with one another, making arrangements to gather in large groups, usually well before police arrive on the scene. However, it appears these communications have not been through services such as Twitter or Facebook, as had been common in protests in North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year.

That's because it makes little sense to advertise involvement in what is clearly illegal behavior that cannot be justified as genuine protest.

BlackBerry Messenger the Tool Of Choice

Instead, the rioters' communication tool of choice appears to be Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

According to reports, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has been used to organize violence. That's because, unlike Twitter (which has only limited privacy options), BBM instant message "broadcasts" can be issued in an encrypted form seen only by people with a PIN code supplied by the writer.

The UK wing of BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion (RIM) has issued a statement -- ironically, on Twitter -- reading "We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can." (Source:

The company later added in a statement to ABC that, "As in all markets around the world where BlackBerry is available, we cooperate with local telecommunications operators, law enforcement and regulatory officials." (Source:

It's not entirely clear what assistance the company will be able to offer, though Research In Motion has been threatened if encrypted communications of its British Blackberry users was released in order to aid British police. (Source:

In the past, RIM has previously answered government demands in other countries to access message data by saying that in many cases the encryption works in a way that means even RIM itself is unable to decrypt data.

This is the Infopackets summary, from a number of sources, of the methods used by the organizers of the riots to bring the mobs together at the desired time and place, without giving away public details. But this raises an awful lot of questions. If the instigators are as described, would they really be likely to organize and strike in this fashion?

Where would they get the Blackberrys? The Blackberry is a very high-end smartphone with its own network carrying continuing high access fees. The privacy and encryption characteristics make them very attractive to drug dealers - but were the riots incited and organized by pushers? That's not how Ward and Mallick see it, and they are very capable observers.

But is it credible that your run of the mill street yobbo, the unemployed and unemployable delinquent, would have a Blackberry? Or that he would have the income to sustain it, or the skills to use it? Or that he would have the organizational skills to put together a mob to loot ad burn, and equip them all with the phones.

I'm awfully suspicious of this aspect, and believe more details and better explanations are urgently needed.
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