British responses to the rioting spreading throughout England have had a sharp anti-youth tone. The violence was sparked after the police murder of a young black father and an attack on a demonstration protesting the killing.
Press reports are full of references to drunken “gangs of youth.”
The editor of the Observer newspaper, John Mulholland, reported from Hackney, “There are close to a hundred or so in running battles with police at the Bethnal Green end of Mare Street. Youths looting shops, including the boarded-up Texaco garage… Many youths walking around with spoils of their looting, swigging from bottles of Martell.”
That many of those referred to as “swigging from bottles of Martell” are youth of color is an undeniable subtext to the reporting.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who leads a Conservative Party-Liberal Democratic Party coalition government, said after returning from vacation in Italy, “Let me completely condemn these sickening scenes; scenes of looting, scenes of vandalism, scenes of thieving, scenes of people attacking police, of people even attacking firefighters.” He added, “This is criminality pure and simple.”
While there may be criminality, it is neither pure nor simple. Underlying the riots are the monumental cutbacks of the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government, which have had a disproportionate effect on the lives of young people.
The Young Communist League of Great Britain issued a statement saying they “condemn the reckless violence and widespread criminality of recent nights but understand it as a direct product of the capitalist system and the resulting dangerous lack of security and stability for the youth of today, accompanied by disenfranchisement and exacerbated by unprecedented levels of alienation.”
They continued, “The YCL notes that the cuts in public spending have had a disproportionate impact on both the youth and ethnic minority groups.”
Young people of color are being specifically burdened by the current social conditions; almost half the black youth of Great Britain are being raised by single parents. And rising food costs have added to their difficulties.
As for the relationship with the police, statistics tell a story of an out-of-control police force, with 333 deaths of British citizens in police custody since 1998. There has not been one conviction of any police officer for their crimes. Even the Police Complaint Authority has openly stated that “a disproportionate number of people who die in custody or specifically following restraint are from minority ethnic groups.”
Last fall, proposed tuition increases prompted mass protests in central London and Conservative cutbacks have added to economic insecurity. A whole new wave of cutbacks threatens to effect living allowances for the disabled.
Early this year the unemployment rate among young people in the UK hit a record 20.5 percent, far higher than the 7.9 percent average. As in the U.S. the unemployment among youth of color is far higher.
This was but one of the many factors, including cuts in social programs and education, that led to the riots in the UK over the past winter.
Trent, a member of the British YCL, said in speaking of the coalition government, “Give us careers, give us a future, and stop caring only about yourselves, and maybe these acts would stop.”
Commentary on both sides of the Atlantic are drawing comparisons between the British cutbacks and those orchestrated by the Republican right to address the so-called debt crisis. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen said, “Americans ought to ponder this aspect of Britain’s trauma …The American right today is obsessed with cutting government spending. In many ways, Mr. Cameron’s austerity program is the Tea Party’s dream come true. But Britain is now grappling with the consequences of those cuts, which have led to the neglect and exclusion of many vulnerable, disaffected young people who are acting out violently and irresponsibly – driven by rage rather than an explicit political agenda.”
With tuition increases and high unemployment here in the U.S. among youth as a result of the tea party Republican-controlled House of Representatives, one wonders when and not if the youth of America will break under the pressure in a similar fashion. With very few opportunities in education and the job market many young people in America are already feeling bitter despair and desperation.
Photo: Gene Hunt // CC 2.0