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London Riots: Cruel, But Not So Unusual

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The "shock", "outrage", "disgust" and "condemnation" has been coming thick and fast in relation to the riots that began in London, but have now spread to other parts of the country. Rightly so, the level of chaos and destruction has been shocking. But is anyone really that surprised that something like this has happened? The socioeconomic conditions and triggering events surrounding it have been seen many times before in countries around the world. Before anyone denounces this as 'fuzzy liberal thinking' or accuses me of 'making excuses for criminality', take a look at the some other examples.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots directly followed the acquittal of four white police officers on trial for the beating of black motorist, Rodney King. The beating was recorded on video by observer, George Holliday, in what has now become an iconic depiction police brutality. The riots raged for six days, mostly confined to South Central Los Angeles. 53 people died, over 2,000 were injured and damage to property was estimated at nearly a billion dollars. Looting was rampant and over a thousand buildings were destroyed by widespread fire-setting. At the time, the United States was recovering from a brief period recession, one of the causes of which was debt accumulation from the decade-long boom of the 1980s and consumer pessimism, linked to the Savings and Loan Crises (think Northern Rock) between 1986 and 1991. The Rodney King incident was the most high profile of a number of incidents in which the LAPD was accused of racism and brutality. Order was finally restored after 4,000 troops from the National Guard, Army and US Marines were deployed to the streets of Los Angeles.

In 2005, civil unrest began in the poor East Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, after two youths, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted while hiding in an electricity substation, after allegedly fleeing from police. The violence quickly spread across France and ran for 20 days between Friday 28 October and Wednesday 16 November. Nearly 10,000 cars were torched and over 2,500 arrests were made as riots sprang up across the length and breadth of the country. Rioters claimed that they were lashing out at a culture of xenophobia, employment discrimination and police harassment in deprived urban areas, much of which are populated predominantly by North African and Arabic minorities. Although, it should be noted, that the actual demographic of rioters included a large number of indigenous French. President Sarkozy announced a state of emergency on November the 8th, which ran for three months. This was followed up with heightened controls on immigration and a presidential order to deport foreign-born rioters, irrespective of their current visa status.

There are associated themes in both of these incidents that mirror causal, or aetiological, factors in the riots that have been taking place in London and now are spreading across the country. Economic hardship, coupled with high youth unemployment, the disenfranchisement of a section of society and a flashpoint event involving the avatar of state power, the police. The police shooting of Mark Duggan, which, in light of today's IPCC statement, is not as cut and dried as it may have first been presented, has provided a catalyst for wanton destruction and criminality. The fact that the ensuing events bear such a resemblance to other incidents that have occurred under comparable conditions should illustrate the fact that it has not happened through some kind of innate criminality in Britain's youth. It is instead, a rather predictable reaction by an almost predetermined section of society. This demographic of London and the associated socioeconomic influences have evidently reached boiling point.

American sociologist, anthropologist and general systems theorist, Hugo Englemann, created the One Third Hypothesis, which suggests that "a group's prominence increases as it approaches one-third of the population and diminishes when it exceeds or falls below one-third of the population". If that group's voice fails to be heard or if it feels marginalised, then collective frustration and anger are the result. Chairman of The London Assembly, Trevor Phillips, said in 2001 that by 2011, one third of London's population would be under 25. Mr Phillips also stated in 2005, that by 2011 one third of the Londoners would "visibly belong to an ethnic minority". While I don't suggest that the majority of the rioters are Black and Asian, it does appear that a large proportion of them are young men. Young men from the poorer areas of London. The section of society most prone to outbursts of frustrated violence. Understanding the aetiology of a situation does not excuse the symptoms, but in light of such causal effects, surely they are something that should be taken into consideration if we are to avoid them happening again soon?