It has been curious to see the international reaction to last weeks riots, some of which has pursued recognisable established agendas, related to post colonialism, others the domestic agendas of particular nations. Overall however there has been quite a bit of head scratching as to what the riots were about.
Iran’s media wanted the problem to be one of attacks on Muslims from the far-right. Iranian politicians, tried to portray the riots as legitimate protest and wanted to discuss the violence in the United Nations. The Iranian Fars news agency reported, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast as urging the British police to exercise restraint against protesters… asking the British government to start dialogue with the protesters and to listen to their demands in order to calm the situation down.
The Russians rather disturbingly seemed to echo Anders Behring Breivik,
Pravda’s Sergei Balmasov wrote. “It does not look possible that British politicians will be able to solve this problem with the help of democratic methods. Britain has fallen a victim to the cult of tolerance that has been taken to absurdity.”
Mikhail Margelov, head of Russia’s upper house’s international affairs committee, was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency that the riots represented the death of multicultural society and that the economic crisis were to blame.
“I think the events occurring in the English cities have at least two reasons. One is fundamental: it’s the death of multiculturalism, a eulogy which the heads of Germany, France and Great Britain have recently delivered, . .. .. .. .. ..”The value of tolerance, or in other words the value of difference, has been accepted neither by ‘indigenous’ Europeans nor by immigrants. The two sides merely tolerate each other. And patience is the kind of thing that runs out from time to time.”
The Chinese blamed high welfare payments, “excessive personal liberties” and an increase in immigration. The Guangming Daily, reports Xiao Qian, as saying. “In good times, the flaws in this social model are concealed. But when prosperity fails, the problems emerge: xenophobia, extremism, and such — if they aren’t handled well, sudden violence can break out. .. .. .. .. To take these riots as an example, the British media have reported that people are angry with the European Union, dissatisfied that irresponsible consumption in southern Europe has created a financial crisis, unhappy with cutbacks in public expenditure, worried about the inefficiency of the police and the crime rate – this is what the riots reflect.”
In India, an editorial in the Hindustan Times, called ‘Anarchy in the UK‘ began, “Welcome to the post-modern riot,” the article struggled to identify the ‘curious agenda of the rioters‘, saying: “While they were drawn from the underclass, mostly working class whites and blacks, they had no political agenda. .. .. .. .. .. ..Their definition of inclusivity was access to branded consumer products ranging from gaming machines to high-end footware. Banks and ministries, icons of capitalism and government, were largely ignored.”
The African response seemed to focus on differing standards of poverty The Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, questions where moral guidance comes from in British society but then points out that the ‘underclass’ in Britain are much wealthier than their counterparts in Africa, saying:
“Poor people do not drive cars or carry cell phones or spend endless hours on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, as the truly deprived citizens of the world will tell you. .. .. .. .. .. The British looters were probably card-carrying members of an international fraternity that labours under the illusion of entitlement to wealth and comfort without effort. These are able-bodied people who hunger after leisure and ownership of digital toys, but prefer to skip the mandatory step of hard work and sacrifice that the majority of us must take to realise our dreams.”
CNN’s correspondent in Johannesburg, Robyn Curnow, reports that Africans are wondering why more worries are not being expressed about whether England can pull off the Olympic extravaganza. “After all, they say, the streets are burning! The mobs are in control! The politicians are on the beach! Call in the army! Is there a Plan B for the Olympics, some ask jokingly? How about South Africa?”
Yet after four days after the riots, in Britain it has not been so much the police that have restored order, but the people. Not the ‘nutty slack’ of the far right, marching round claiming to represent communities, but community groups, protecting their own homes and shops. Police numbers surely helped, but so did the mass of people emerging onto the streets to clear up the mess. Whilst the far right were claiming all the rioters were black: Muslims, Christians, White People and Black people, gathered in Birmingham, to remember three Muslim boys who were killed in a hit and run during the riots, and to demonstrate a unified community against the violence. Mikhail Margelov’s words suddenly sounded hollow.
The major criticism of the police in Britain over the Riots, has been that they were not tough enough in their response to the riots. Personally I think this is a little unfair, it seemed rather that to begin with they treated the issue as a public order one and reacted accordingly, and were a little slow to recognise that this was a variation on the US phenomena of Flash Mobs that has plagued cities such as Philadelphia in recent Months. Yet the police changed their tactics and addressed the disorder as criminal activity, and with a few minor exceptions established control demonstrating considerable restraint. Ramin Mehman-Parast, had no need to be concerned.
Now the fires have been quenched, the British as is our want have slipped into the inevitable navel gazing. Even whilst the riots were still rumbling through the streets of British cities the battle lines between right and left were drawn, ‘It’s just criminal behaviour’ cried the right, ‘There are underlying causes’ cried the left. And as the debate has developed, the underlying causes of criminal behaviour have been discussed by both right and left. Economic austerity has been acknowledged as an influential factor, as has alienation of youth and the significance of the quality of parenting. Although the right seeks to paint the left as making excuses, and the left seeks to paint the right as authoritarian a consensus seems to have developed that the underlying causes of criminal behaviour should be acknowledged and addressed, the argument seems now to be about: how? Xiao Qian might see the riots as revealing flaws in “excessive personal liberties” but those liberties, such as freedom of speech seem to be getting to answers about causes and solutions without the need for tanks on the streets.
The bemusement of international reporters on the causes of the UK riots reflects that these were a different kind of riot to the ones other countries seem to encounter, or indeed that Britain has encountered in the past, there were no particular political agendas inherent in the riots, these were not demands for greater freedoms, or democratic reform. White communities were not lined up against black communities or Mulsims, rather it was youth from all communities who were ransacking shops, so race wasn’t a particular issue in the riots themselves, at least after the initial peaceful protest about the death of Mr Duggan. Nor were they reactions against extreme poverty. This seems to reveal that whereas some countries fear social unrest as an attack on government itself, for Britain in this situation this is not the case. That the Hindustan Times, recognised this is to their credit.
A part of the outrage among Britons about the criminality of the riots I believe is related to the sense that it is hard to argue that people in Britain live in poverty. In this context I think that the African critique that the riots were not driven by poverty, not only rings true but is probably recognised by the majority of Britons, and in part is informing our response to understanding the causes and what our response should be?
In all this I do not underestimate the impact of the riots on those communities they have affected. These were a tragedy, not just the deaths that occurred, or the damage to property, but also the fear and distress they engendered in people living in those communities. The need to ensure Justice is done, address the causes of criminal behaviour, the influence of gangs, the value of good parenting, the development of a moral compass in young people, developing the strategic objectives of policing and police tactics to achieve those objectives, all these are important.
There are not a million protestors camped in parliament square.
We don’t have tanks on the streets.
The riots have been brought to an end without the deaths of hundreds of protestors.
Dissenting voices have not been silenced.
Minority communities are not barricaded into their neighbourhoods.
Community leaders are calling for peace not vengance.
Police and Government are not resting on arrogant power, nor does what complacency that does exist, match the extremes we might identify in other states around the world.
So is Britain Broken?
In comparison to events from around the world we see on the news almost every day. If this were a car accident and we compared Syria to a fatal crash on the motorway, these riots are by comparison little more than a rear end shunt. There are a few dents in the bodywork, some harsh words have been exchanged, the police are in attendance, and both drivers are calming down and exchanging insurance details.
So I don’t think Britain is broken, not unless we let political rhetoric, make the damage worse than it is.