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
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.
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.