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Watching my Hometown Burn From Afar

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I have been struggling to collect my thoughts about the riots in the UK this past week largely because they have affected the areas in which I grew up in London. Watching your home town being burnt and looted is not much fun, and although I am thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, the sense of despair and confusion has been very real for me. I can only imagine what Londoners must have felt this past week, and my thoughts are with them and everyone else affected by the chaos.

Now London and the other cities affected by the rioting must now come to terms with what has happened. They must clean up their streets, arrest those responsible for acts of violence, vandalism and theft, and look carefully to the future.

While politicians and newspapers talk of mindless thuggery and animalistic behavior, we must remember that those rioters are our children and our friend's children. We should condemn them for their behavior, but we should also try to understand them.

Their behavior while inexcusable is, and must be understandable. Why? Because the youths rioting are not apart from our society - they are our society. Their values reflect the larger values of our society as a whole.

In an era of selfish capitalism where wealth and status trump all, where worth is dictated by the ability to earn money and celebrities are valued more than doctors, looting and vandalism are a logical outcome. The wealthiest sectors of our population looted us through the banks and our goverment rewarded them with free money. There were no consequences for the theft of billions of pounds for the wealthy, but when society is run for them and by them, the dichotomy should not come as a surprise.

When the poor loot, they are thrown in jail. When the banks destroyed the notion of society with their greed, it is business as usual. When the poor and disenfranchized do it, we call them scum.

In London, the riots took place in some of the most impoverished areas in the country. The map below charts the relationship between the rioting and the poverty of the given area. Suffice to say, the riots did not take place in Mayfair or Chelsea:

Screen shot 2011-08-11 at 10.46.13 PM

Anyone who knows London is acutely aware of the giant disparity between rich and poor. It has gotten worse over the years resulting in an apartheid society where the classes rarely mix and resentment boils beneath the surface. I barely recognize the neighborhood in which I grew up. The property prices are now so high that no one I grew up with can afford to live there, and it has become increasly white and upper class. Still, behind the million pound homes are the government council estates where crime is rife and unemployment staggeringly high. Every day the children growing up on those estates walk past neatly trimmed front gardens with BMWs and Mercedes parked in front of them, knowing full well their lives will never resemble those residing in the alarmed mansions behind them.

Last summer, I spoke with my cousin who taught in one of the roughest parts of London for 'Teach First', and American inspired organization that puts bright teachers in troubled schools. I asked him honestly how many of his students he thought would have the sort of life he or I had - one with promise and aspiration. "Maybe 3-5%," he told me quietly.

You just have to look at the statistics to see what has gone wrong with British society. We rank bottom out of the OECD nations when it comes to social mobility. That means statistically speaking it is impossible to be born poor and become middle class or rich in Britain. We have some of the highest poverty rates in the industrialized world, London being the child poverty capital of Europe. And with the current governments extreme austerity measures, it isn't getting any better. Those teenagers ransacking the streets of London, Birmingham and Manchester may not know the statistics, but they know the reality. The flat screen TVs and designer shoes they were stealing are held up as signs of status and wealth in British society, and simple mathematics dictates that making £6 an hour at McDonalds won't exactly enable them to live the dream.

The lives of Britain's working poor are unimaginable to people like David Cameron or Boris Johnson. They are unimaginable to the journalists and tv presenters whose backgrounds are overwhelmingly white and middle class. On top of the class issue in Britain, there is a race problem that also requires serious attention. On top of wealth inequality, Black and Asian people in London are more than 6 times as likely to be searched by the police than whites. The consequences of this type of discrimination are not difficult to predict - resentment builds up and can explode at any given moment. Almost all of the major riots over the past 30 years were the direct result of racial discrimination by the police - the Brixton and Toxteth riots in 1981, the second Toxteth and Brixton riots in 1985 and the Broadwater Farm riots the same year, the Brixton riots again in 1995 and in 2011 Tottenham, Clapham, Ealing, Brixton and all over London in 2011.

A friend of mine of Jamaican origin once told me that her teenage son had been stopped 16 times in one month while driving his moped. He had worked on weekends to save up for his bike and had never stolen a thing in his life. How on earth could David Cameron, a product of Eton and Oxford, understand the psychological impact of that type of experience? My friends son is an exceptional person and never let the experiences affect his belief in himself. I'm not sure I could say the same thing about myself.

For many other Black and Asian youths in London, the constant harassment and prejudice begins to isolate them from society. They do not feel accepted or wanted by the country they were born in, and the police and government become the mortal enemy. They see no future for themselves in Britain because reality dictates there isn't one. . 

It is impossible to have a civil society when there are such extremes of inequality. When citizens at one end of the spectrum own the vast majority of the country's wealth, and those at the other end have nothing, eventually the disequilibrium becomes unsustainable.

David Cameron has described the riots as 'criminality, pure and simple'. But they were not. The underclass he has written off has no means to express itself. They are not represented in government, in corporate Britain or the media, so they lash out in the only way they know how.

In an NBC report shown on American television, a man from Tottenham was asked if he thought the rioting had achieved anything. "Yes," he replied. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night, a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Ben Cohen is the Editor of TheDailyBanter.com