London riots reveal social strains, say residents

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Two night of riots that rocked London point to deeper social unease in poor areas of the British capital, community leaders said Monday, but police and politicians said much of the violence was opportunistic.

The touchpaper for the unrest was lit on Thursday when police shot dead Mark Duggan, a resident of the multi-ethnic district of Tottenham in north London, after officers stopped the taxi in which he was a passenger.

Hooded youths set fire to police cars and a double decker bus in Tottenham on Saturday night after a peaceful protest against the death descended into violence.

A block of 26 flats was completely gutted by fire after the carpet showroom on the ground floor was set alight, sending terrified families fleeing into the street.

The violence then spread to other parts of London on Sunday, including Brixton in south London, another racially mixed district which like Tottenham was rocked by riots in the 1980s.

Young men were seen carrying new televisions out of some shops, while others tried on looted sports shoes.

The scenes in Tottenham evoked memories of severe rioting on the Broadwater Farm housing estate there in 1985, sparked when a local woman died after police raided her home. In the ensuing violence, a policeman was hacked to death.

A quarter of a century on, with Britain's economic growth almost at a standstill and government cuts to public spending hitting areas of high unemployment like Tottenham, some residents said they saw the seeds of more unrest.

Osagyefo Tongogara, a community activist who was in Tottenham during the Broadwater Farm riots, said: "There are a lot of parallels with 1985. I don't call it rioting, I call it rebellion.

"People are angry and frustrated. If you have a community with high levels of unemployment and cutbacks in welfare then this is what you are going to get," he told AFP.

"We are told that this is a global financial crisis and that we are all in this together but why should we be?

"I don't know everything about the crisis surrounding this young man's death. But you can't just put it (the unrest) down to that or down to criminality. That's a simplistic explanation for this."

But Chuka Umunna, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party who represents a district near Brixton, said Monday that the "anger and frustration arising from the tragic death" of Duggan was no excuse for the violence that followed.

"It's shocking, it's completely opportunistic and it's totally unacceptable," he said.

"Those in the community and local businesses pay the price for this kind of random violence and people will not put up with it."

London's deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, who watched Sunday's violence unfold from the central police control room, said he saw no evidence of a protest, just looting.

"We're talking about opportunists," he told BBC television.

"There's no coordinated action up there, there's no Mr Big, there's no sense of protest, it's criminality pure and simple. We need to be careful in the media and in politics not to create this atmosphere of excuse for what happened."

The incident that sparked the Tottenham violence was shrouded in mystery on Monday.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is investigating the shooting, initially said 29-year-old father-of-four Duggan was killed in an exchange of fire.

Doubt has now been thrown on the initial version of events. The IPCC were even forced to issue a statement to deny rumours that Duggan had been shot in the head, "execution-style". Ballistic results were expected on Tuesday.

Professor Gus John of the University of London, a Grenada-born academic who has written extensively about race issues in Britain, said dismissing the rioters as thugs was "fatuous" and failed to acknowledge the deeper issues.

"When I hear Home Secretary Theresa May saying this, it is almost identical to what the then home secretary Willie Whitelaw said during the Brixton riots of 1981. Such labels don't solve anything," he told AFP.

"The question is, what disposes these young men to be like that? Why is the largest section of the young offender population in Britain young and black?"

However, John said that the black community needed to take a critical look at its reaction to Duggan's death.

He said the police who had stopped the taxi Duggan was travelling in had been acting "apparently legitimately" as part of Operation Trident, set up to prevent young black men killing other young black men with guns.

"How can the black community want something to be done about this kind of violence and then when something is done, react like this?" he asked.

© 2011 AFP

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