LONDON—On Friday, I met a former English teacher of mine for lunch near his home in Brixton, a neighborhood in South London. As he gave me a quick tour of Brixton—a diverse, somewhat rundown area with a lively market—he shared his belief that the neighborhood had improved greatly since riots, which were motivated by race issues and social discontent, took place there in the 1980s.
I’m sure it has, but less than three days after our meeting hundreds of looters stormed an electronics shop in Brixton. It is a familiar story in London’s urban sprawl—often in its poorer, more marginalized outer areas, such as Tottenham, Croydon, and Hackney. It all started on Thursday in the northern neighborhood of Tottenham, after police lethally shot Mark Duggan, a local father of four and alleged gangster. A peaceful protest soon descended into anarchy, and over the following few days dozens of areas around the metropolis bore witness to arson and looting. As I write these words, there is a strong likelihood that the violence will repeat itself this Tuesday evening, despite police efforts to the contrary. It’s not an exaggeration to say that riots have engulfed the city.
It is clear that the thousands of youths hurling bricks and stones at police on the streets of London aren’t protesting the death of Mark Duggan. The vast majority of them didn’t even know him. The real victims of this tragedy are the now homeless residents of the torched building in Tottenham. They include Aaron Biber, an 89-year-old barber, who lost his business in the mayhem. Yet a little part of me thinks the rioters, even if not justified in their actions, deserve to be understood.
London’s gross inequality is difficult to ignore. Some hotels charge 40 pounds for tea. That’s $60 for an afternoon snack. It’s more than what someone under 20 working at the UK minimum wage can expect to make in a day. In the outer reaches of London, populated by ethnic minorities who have long faced discrimination, even those jobs are hard to come by. The unemployment rate in areas of outer London can approach 16%.
Furthermore, for all the people lining up to buy $60 tea, this is not a city where money goes very far unless you have a lot of it. To give just one example, a single trip on the Tube, or subway, can cost 4 pounds. Add in the ethnic tensions that, for all its multicultural nature, permeate London, and the result is a toxic mix. While that mix happened to explode this weekend, it is one that has long festered in a gradual but equally harmful way.
While the recent upsurge in crime will probably, hopefully, fade away soon as police battle to restore order to these streets, the underlying problem will remain. It’s a problem that cannot be solved overnight, but until the U.K. comes to terms with its far-reaching social issues, violence of this sort will continue to boil over every now and again, a reminder that the disenfranchised need a voice too.
Jorge A. Araya ’14 is an editorial writer in Dunster House.