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Between riots and protests: Letter from London

By Eyal Clyne

Reporting from London, Eyal Clyne writes that while the riots blazing in London are criminal, they stem from a legitimate frustration with the government’s economic policies, which are leaving disenfranchised youth feeling hopeless

Burning shop in London, UK, August 8 2011 (photo: Andy Armstrong / CC BY-SA 2.0)

London – The streets of London were overtaken by fear tonight. Even earlier, wherever you went, you could only hear of the sense of impotence, terror, shock of the damage, and disappointment over the government. Citizens feel abandoned and unprotected, afraid to leave home at dark, closing their businesses early, with the hope to have something to return to by dawn. All night long the Police and Fire Brigade sirens wailed, and in some neighborhoods an improvised civil guard organised, specifically where immigrant communities like Muslim-Turks, Bangladeshis or Sikhs reside.

These riots are not a protest. They have neither leadership nor demands, and it is aimed at taking all one can, because “we also deserve some.” It is led by youth, many of whom drop out of school at an early age. They come from very rough neighborhoods, where they live in poverty, and where violence and gangs are a fact of life. They grow up in families of extremely low income, or on small benefits, with no chance to ever succeed in life, and with frequent encounters with crime and the law. They think that they have nothing to lose. Every burglary, looting or mugging fills them with a sense of power, even if they mug the elderly, break into the business of someone of similar background, burn cars of innocent people, or attack fire-trucks. The feeling of potency only intensifies when in a group, and other criminals use the weak point of the law to strike too.

Indeed most of those who paid the price for the riots are neither the wealthiest nor the establishment. Looting hits the small shop owners strongest, many of whom are poor and/or hard working, often immigrants, who saved every pound in order to start a small business. Others lost their homes and belongings in fires. Even in their own communities they broke car windows one after the other, just like that, for no reason. Those with means were able to protect themselves best, and other than the odd nouveau riche sports cars set ablaze, it is the hard working public that paid the price of rage, and it is the general public who will compensate them.

Unlike the middle class protest in Israel, which is rather organised, in England it is not a political movement, and it is led by youth of significantly lower classes. “Street Parliament” or “Protest” are not even close to their life experiences, worlds or vocabulary. Some of them say it’s because of the rich, others come for the fun. But one thing is clear: these kids were born in the places society made an effort to forget, and like a rejected child they now run wild, hit and are unruly, not letting society continue to look straight through them. For too long the “Big Society” tried to ignore them and neglected their reality. They now remind us that they are still here, and that their problems are our problems.

The link between the loss of hope, economic distress and social gaps to the outbreak of violence is undeniable. This does not condone the riots, but is nevertheless important if we want to understand them. It is not by chance that the last time London saw riots on such a scale was in the early 80’s, during Thatcher’s rule. The Iron Lady, UK’s Bibi Netanyahu, brutally cut down social and public services then, and the current government is doing the same now. Large-scale dismissal is on the agenda, with regards to the police, health, and public services. Budgets for academia are being slashed while tuition fees triple, allowing only the wealthiest to study. Welfare benefits are cut, youth clubs are closed, communal service narrowed, and police forces are diminished. The economy remains low, unemployment remains high, prices rise, and these youth are left with no hope. Their chances of changing their socioeconomic class are lower than in any first-world country. Unemployment in Tottenham is double the national average, and for every 54 jobseekers only one will find employment. Instead of helping them, the government “encourages” them to go to work, even if for a shameful pay, in manual labor and part-time jobs, with no rights, and no chance for mobility.

Burned cars following riot in Ealing, UK (photo: Erik Hartberg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In response, March this year saw massive demonstrations of the No-Cuts movement. Hundreds of thousands marched in huge protests, calling for social justice and to save public services, just like in Tel Aviv. They are right. The state collects money and resources from the entire public, but once it refuses to use these resources to address social problems, it turns into nothing but lawful plunder. The wealthiest easily forget that they alone weren’t the ones who built the capital. We all invested in their business through public funds and infrastructures, such as electricity, water, telephones, law and order, roads, ports, education, security and diplomacy. They enjoy this public investment, but when it yields profits, and their turn comes to repay our share by taxation, fair employment, safety and environmental care, many prefer to offer only exploitative employment, outsourcing, and threats to leave and exploit elsewhere.

We often forget to mention this violent and unjust thievery when counter-riots break out, but now, when the world economic crises deepens, and only strong welfare states like Sweden and Germany have proven stable, we must be reminded. Sitting on our hands and waiting for “the market” to fix our social problems is borderline-superstition or belief in sorcery. In reality, we humans must fix our own problems, and that’s why we elect politicians. Not to be left alone in the market, for those with more money.

In this context, when a young lad says to the camera that he is there because he wants new sneakers he can’t afford otherwise, it is not merely hooliganism. It is an assessment of their reality, maybe even of the social class structure. Not too articulate, surely, but still, they express a will to have some of the wealth they were deprived of due to the class they were born into. They also want a bit of justice, even if they end up only perpetuating injustice. And let it be clear: burning down homes and stores, and mugging people’s livelihoods, is a crime which must be met with the same resistance as that of greedy landlords or exploitative employers.

Israelis better look carefully at England now. When I was a young boy my mother used to say that “a wise man learns from others’ bad experiences, but a fool not even from his own.” If the organised and just protest of the middle class in Israel fails to bring back the welfare state, labor rights and the ability to live in dignity, it is very likely that sooner or later we will see similar unrest in Israel too.

Eyal Clyne blogs at Truth from Eretz Israel.

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    1. Taoist

      Israelis better look carefully at England now. When I was a young boy my mother used to say that “a wise man learns from others’ bad experiences, but a fool not even from his own.” If the organised and just protest of the middle class in Israel fails to bring back the welfare state, labor rights and the ability to live in dignity, it is very likely that sooner or later we will see similar unrest in Israel too.


      @ Eyal Clyne,

      You were blessed to have a wise lady for a mother. Guess not only Israel, but the greater ME, is looking into its future in the burning blaze that London became out of the blue. Great report, thanks.


      Reply to Comment
    2. Anthony

      This is thoughtless left-wing propaganda.
      The Labour Government was in power for the last 10 years. None of the cuts you mention are yet to bite – most come in next year. It is a massive oversimplification to blame this on “Tory Cuts” while ignoring the impact of the recession, tensions over migration, decline in family values, and the failure of a decade of policies aimed at stopping gang violence and antisocial behaviour.
      Eyal suggests arson and robbery should be met with the same punishment as someone who employs people at minimum wage or a landlord who asks the going rate as rent – that is perverse.
      To be clear I have no easy answers to explain the violence – just a healthy scepticism towards those who claim to.

      Reply to Comment
    3. A

      “Here’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

      “Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

      The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “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.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Borg

      perhaps you should try your luck in London. You might have more traction over there

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      The revelling of parts of the Left/Progressives in this anarchic violence reminds me of the period before World War I when a lot of “progressives” were actually hoping for a war which would bring “cleansing violence” which would clear out all the reactionaries. I am not sure they got what they bargained for.

      Note in this article how many of the rioters are NOT poor:


      Enough with this Marxist claptrap.

      Reply to Comment
    6. “…..if we take just a little bit of what Nina Power said in her original article -http://bit.ly/mSEo9h – as an example:

      “Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has thefourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8%, double the national average, with one vacancy for every 54 seeking work in the borough.”

      This 8.8% figure quoted may well be true for Haringey overall, but these figures are distorted positively by the enormous number of relatively prosperous people who live right within the Borough of Haringey.

      If one were to look at the figures specifically relating to the Broadwater Farm council housing estate, where Mark Duggan (the black man shot dead by police as he sat in the back of a taxi, which reputedly kicked off the current riots) came from, then the actual unemployment rate for black males under 25 years old on this estate is presently pushing 55%, and rapidly worsening in this time of radical right-wing Tory Government imposed “austerity”.

      The sad fact is that if you’re young and black, and fill in a job application form giving your residential address as Broadwater Farm Estate, the chances of you getting a job anywhere in London today are virtually zero, however well qualified you might be.

      This is because as most of us know, the Broadwater Farm Estate was made notorious during the riots which engulfed britain’s cities during the Thatcher years of the early to mid 1980′s, and is still a byword for criminality and lawlessness in the imaginations of most british citizens.

      Doubtless in the days to come, you’ll see britain’s news media portray the place and it’s inhabitants as a viper’s nest of feral, work-shy, drug-dealing scum, muggers and burglars, but – and this is the important bit – this is a totally deliberate falsehood.

      Please read this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on the Broadwater Farm Estate:


      That’s why London’s burning.


      This comment was edited because it was far too long!

      Reply to Comment
    7. Deïr Yassin

      Reading “Ben Israel” is like reading extracts from Anders Behring Breivik Manifest. The same paranoia about Left-wings and Marxists, and the same xenophobia. And then we know Behring Breivik was close ideologically to the same people as Israeli extremists. Wonder if Ben Israel is mentioned in the Manifest ….maybe he’s Daniel Pipes in reel life.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel

      Nupaddle said:
      The sad fact is that if you’re young and black, and fill in a job application form giving your residential address as Broadwater Farm Estate, the chances of you getting a job anywhere in London today are virtually zero, however well qualified you might be.

      This statement is PREPOSTEROUS. Let me understand this, if a person with a good education and record comes and applies for a job and the potential employer sees that the applicant comes from this location, he won’t hire him or her because he thinks he will come in one day, pull a gun and rob everyone in the establishment?

      Reply to Comment
    9. holandise sause

      I think that this was just paln stuupid and retarted

      Reply to Comment