London riots put spotlight on Britain’s troubled, unemployed youths
LONDON: “I came here to get my penny’s worth,” said a man who gave his name as Louis James, 19, a participant in the widening riots that have shaken London to its core. With a touch of guilt on Tuesday, James showed off what he described as a $195 designer sweater that he said he looted in Camden Town, a gentrified area of north London.
In recent days, young rioters and looters like James have dominated front pages and television reports around the world, prompted a recall of Parliament to a special session and forced the deployment of thousands of police officers.
Widespread antisocial and criminal behavior by young and usually unemployed people has long troubled Britain. Attacks and vandalism by gangs of young people are “a blight on the lives of millions,” said a 2010 government report commissioned in the aftermath of several deaths related to such gangs. They signal, it said, “the decline of whole towns and city areas.”
The government investigation revealed that though only a quarter of such incidents were reported, 3.5 million complaints were nonetheless made to the police. An iPhone app is available to track attacks, and one enterprising inventor marketed a device, called the mosquito, which emits a high-pitched noise that can be heard only by young people as a means for store owners to keep gangs away.
Politicians from both the right and the left, the police and most residents of the areas hit by violence nearly unanimously describe the most recent riots as criminal and anarchic, lacking even a hint of the antigovernment, anti-austerity message that has driven many of the violent protests in other European countries. But the riots also reflect the alienation and resentment of many young people in Britain, where 1 million people from the ages of 16 to 24 are officially unemployed, the most since the deep recession of the mid-1980s.
The riots in London began when protesters gathered outside a north London police station after the shooting of a local man by officers. The police have long had troubled relations with racial and ethnic minorities in Britain and have sought to repair these relations, although the protesters have come from all backgrounds. Days later, in Hackney, where some of the fiercest riots took place, a young man in a gray hooded sweatshirt shouted directly into the faces of riot police officers: “You know you all racist! You know it.”
The combination of economic despair, racial tension and gang activity has “a devastating effect on communities,” said Graham Beech, an official at the crime-prevention charity Nacro. “It’s something that ordinary people see on their walks to work – street drunkenness, vandalism, intimidation – and that affects the general fear of crime.”
As the British government’s austerity measures begin to take effect, young people will see their chances of employment dwindling and their financial and community support cut, Beech said. “Boredom, alienation and isolation are going to be factors,” he said.
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