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Rebel youths tell Britain: Peep in your own bowl!

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Shock waves are still running through British society in the wake of large-scale rebellion, riots and looting that swept through the British capital city, London, last week and then rapidly spread to other major population centres. These included the second largest city, Birmingham, as well as Manchester (of Manchester United fame), the old slave ports of Liverpool and Bristol, and many other towns with immigrant populations. The open outbreak of violence and defiance of law and order was on such a scale as to cause the rest of the world to sit up and to wonder at the causes.{{more}}

The four days of insurrection have left much destruction to property all over the cities, pillaged stores and burnt out factories, storerooms and residential dwellings. There were few deaths, though damage to property will run into the millions and there have been more than 1,500 arrests with the courts operating 24×7 to deal with those so arrested. Above all, Britain suffered huge international embarrassment, since not only is it the site for next year’s Olympics, in London no less, and a delegation from the International Olympic Committee was visiting there at the time of the social eruption.

As the post mortem continues to ascertain the reasons for the violence on such a nation-wide scale, one significant fact emerged – that is the role that modern technology, and social networking in particular, has played in the unrest. There is much irony in this, for, since what those in the West proudly label “The Arab Uprising”, broke out earlier this year, the western news media has been extolling the virtues of social networking. Young people in the Middle East won high praises for the use of this technology to mobilize their citizens to defy their governments and to fight for “regime change”.

It is a very different matter now the boot is on the other foot. British and western societies are now being forced to “peep in their own bowls”, for, however much we may all deplore the looting and arson, it must be a sign of something drastically wrong with the society as a whole. Led by right-wing Prime Minister David Cameron,(who must be peeved at having to break off his Italian holiday to return home to deal with the troubles), there is much ranting and raving about “criminal elements”, “greed” and social irresponsibility. Yet, these are merely symptoms of the malaise, not causes.

Huge undercurrents have been swirling around British society for some time now. There is a sense of alienation of the youth, a widening gap between the haves of Cameron’s class and the have-nots, continuing manifestation of racism and discrimination against non-whites and the immigrant population. These have been exacerbated by the uncaring actions of the Tory government in slashing budgets for social spending, such as education, housing and benefits for the army of unemployed. Add to this the moral decline in western society, what Prime Minister Cameron has called “moral decadence”.

Yet, rather than deal with these problems, Britain’s tabloids have been honing in on “immigrants”, radical Muslims and such distractions. But the insurrectionists of last week were overwhelmingly British citizens, born and bred in, and shaped by, British society. The chickens have simply come home to roost. These same young people, now being termed as greedy robbers, have grown up in and been nurtured by a consumerist society. They have seen their communities being rapidly consumed by High Street stores and mega-supermarkets, while branding has become the status symbol. When side-by-side with this, you have a growing army of unemployed, young people who can’t afford university fees, what else do you expect?

As for the charges of “greed”, are the looters any different from the white-collar robbers-the bankers, mega-merchants and their like-who daily rip off consumers? It is not those young people in the riots, misguided though they might be, who caused the financial and economic crisis. How different are those who stole from the stores to those Parliamentarians who, in a massive scandal, have been falsifying claims to rob the public purse?

There cannot be double-standards. Yes, law and order must be upheld, but justice and fairness must be pursued as well. The ‘big stick’ alone cannot and will not solve the deep social problems. One needs to go beneath the surface if proper analysis and remedial action is to be taken.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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