BY MICHAEL NAKAN
I’ll bet that you have never seen Harry Brown. Why would you have? The London vigilante film, starring an aging Michael Caine, hardly recouped its low budget in the United Kingdom and made less than a fifth of that in America. At the time of release, some critics – myself included – snickered about the film’s finale, which they felt descended from cultural stereotypes into absurdity when the London youth who make up the villains of the film spark a full scale revolt resulting in armed police with tear gas storming south London estates.
Well, we’re not snickering anymore.
Last night, London burned. Worse, the police were powerless to stop it. It has perhaps become almost a cliché to complain about the lack of effectiveness of English police, usually armed with little more than a baton and a pair handcuffs to hold back what has become a staggeringly violent, frightening and uncaring urban youth. Scarcely a week goes by where the tabloid press doesn’t report on its front page that the police failed to respond this or that in an adequate manner. But being stretched thin is one thing – fighting what amounts to a war in the streets of your own city is quite another.
Mobile phone videos show police literally run off the street by mobs of youths. Shops have been robbed, others burnt to a shell. Women have jumped out of burning buildings and worst of all, a man has died from gunshot wounds sustained during last night’s riots. Last night, London burned along with other major English cities: Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and others suffered similar riots as cars and bins were set on fire and police could only watch helplessly as large mobs picked through the remains of stores that were near or on the main street.
The question that remains after all this destruction and strife is why? Riots tend to have some form of political or sociological motivation, as with the riots for freedom and basic human rights across the Arab nations – but no such ideal has emerged in the United Kingdom. Where the citizens of Egypt band together to demand liberty from an oppressive government, the youth of Britain battle police and break into locally owned shops to pinch HD TVs.
I suspect that it will be years before we can point to the exact cause of the riots. The death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham was definitely a catalyst, but make no mistake, the potential for trouble like this has been brewing in the United Kingdom for the past decade. The perceived weakness of police, even after more specially trained armed officers were put on the streets, combined with the young “rude boy” generation who wear their ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) on their sleeves with pride and a general state of apathy and even boredom among the council house crews who grow up in environments where this type of violence is encouraged by gangs have mixed together to create a potent, dangerous cocktail of social unrest which came to a head when the community of Tottenham began to riot.
What was really scary was when the rest of England followed.
There is no method to this madness, no underlying message or demand from the people, no attempt to break a corrupt government or rebel against an unpopular law. The lawlessness in the streets is pure anarchy.
Prime Minister David Cameron vows to put 10,000 more police in London tonight, drawing some concern that he is, as one TV commentator puts it, “putting all his eggs in the London basket.” I can only hope that the government has a cohesive plan to put a stop to these riots as quickly as possible and not to see a repeat of the prolonged anger that plagued Paris and France in 2005. With all leave and holiday cancelled by the PM and every available police body on the street to maintain order tonight, it is all I can do to hope that the mobs of people do not overwhelm even this great number of police – because if they do, there is no-one else to help.
Cameron asserts that no matter how young a rioter is, he knows what he is doing and will be tried in a sped up trial as an adult. Quite where these trials will take place, with holding cells around London and other major cities filled to the brink, is another matter.
Speculation about the implication of trying a teenager who partakes in a riot to steal goods from stores or throw stones at police as an adult is a luxury which England cannot afford right now. If the police fail to hold London tonight, as it were, and the riots continue to spread into the affluent areas of the city and across the country, then perhaps Cameron’s only option will be military intervention, which is a truly frightening prospect for Britain, not long ago regarded as one of the world’s major superpowers.
I missed the carnage by just over a week, flying early last week out of London, but my family and friends remain in the city. My heart goes out to them and all those affected by the riots – and I wish them the best of luck tonight.