Riots in London have concluded their third consecutive night of looting and pillaging, and have now claimed their first fatality – a man who suffered a single gunshot wound as he sat in a parked car in Croydon, a neighborhood in south London.
Some Brits feel the riots have merited a national disaster, asking that the military be brought in under command of police forces to break up the crowds. Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered another 16,000 police officers to London to quell the riots, raising fears that the surge of police in London leaves other cities vulnerable – including Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham where riots spread for the first time last night. Civic-minded Londoners are organizing on Twitter, using the hash tag #riotcleanup to begin trying to make right what the rioters have devastated.
The root of the unrest has been tacitly blamed on cuts to social programs, but many Brits feel that this claim gives the rioters more credibility than they’re owed. The riots have been loosely organized through smartphones and social media by gangs of thugs who are taking advantage of the situation to loot their own neighborhoods and terrorize their neighbors.
But there is a kernel of truth to the assertion that there is a political undercurrent to these riots. Under the conservative government, social programs have been slashed to pave the way for austerity measures meant to keep the country out of burgeoning debt that has crippled other European Union nations like Greece, Italy and Portugal.
Social programs are the salve that pacifies the poor. They’re the thing that makes life in this country livable for hundreds of thousands of people by bridging the gap between their meager hand-to-mouth incomes and the high cost of housing, food, utilities and energy. These programs do not allow people to live comfortably, but they keep people from desperation. And there is nothing so dangerous as a desperate individual with nothing to live for and nothing to lose.
The negative press that these riots have received will be their undoing. Reports center more on the fact that the hooligans are looting shoe and clothing stores than the fact that the rioters have no shoes and little to wear. The cost of living has gone up considerably, but wages have remained stagnant, leaving more and more people to make do with less and less in a society that, only months ago, saw millions spent on the wedding of a descendent from bloodthirsty tyrants of medieval privilege as remnants of a form of government that long ago lost its legitimacy.
The thing that we on this side of the pond must be cognizant of is that these are not uniquely British problems. Here, a faction in our government is hellbent on cutting the programs that provide food, medicine and housing to a considerable segment of our population. While the United Kingdom has far more earned its reputation as a “nanny state,” we here continue to endure the harassment of our “welfare state.”
We know that our neighborhoods are segregated, and we know the social ills that face people who endure life in areas plagued with poverty. It’s impossible to catch a break when there are not breaks to be had. And the issues at the center of the riots in London – a lack of sufficient education, poor parenting, bleak economic prospects and now, the elimination and scaling back of what few programs existed that made life a little more bearable – are occurring in our neighborhoods as well.
Is this the government’s problem to solve? Perhaps not. But certainly, no one else is stepping forward with solutions, either. And the spark that began with protests and riots in Athens, and now London, might spread to Los Angeles, New York, Dallas … Atlanta.
Our nation’s poor are being reduced to kindling. And when the fires spread, mighty will be the conflagration.