Youth watch as vehicles and buildings burn in Tottenham in North London. The rebellion has extended for another day and is spreading to other cities., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
August 11, 2011
Britain Turns to Reckoning With Rioters as Cameron Faces Parliament
By JOHN F. BURNS, RAVI SOMAIYA and ALAN COWELL
New York Times
LONDON — Still reeling with shock and anger over the worst rioting in decades, Britain has turned to a tough reckoning with the perpetrators, with courts sitting through the night and the police saying Thursday that over 1,200 people had been arrested, the bulk of them in London.
But, despite an apparent lull in the rioting that has ravaged London and other major cities, concern was growing about many of the ethnically segregated districts battered by the rampages, particularly Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, where the police and political leaders worried about a potentially explosive new pattern of interracial violence that could be set off by the past days and nights of mayhem.
Three young men of Pakistani descent were killed in Birmingham on Tuesday night when a car crashed into a group of residents who had gathered to protect local businesses from attack. Witnesses said that the driver appeared to be of Afro-Caribbean descent, and the police arrested a 32-year-old man and charged him with murder.
On Thursday, the London police said 888 people had been arrested and 371 charged with offenses since the violence took root on Saturday, while the Manchester police in the northwest put the total of arrests there at 145, with similar numbers detained in Birmingham in the English Midlands. Courts in London and Birmingham sat through the night. But, with thousands of police reinforcement on the streets, heavy rain in some areas and residents in some places patrolling their own residential areas, there were no new reports of major violence overnight.
Meanwhile, politicians braced for the fallout from the convulsion of violence as Prime Minister David Cameron faced the most severe crisis of his 15 months in office. The wildfire spread of violence, the initial failure of the police to contain it, the slow early response of political leaders and the cruelty of the attacks have left the nation shaken and wrung by an embittered debate about whom and what to blame.
Casting himself as a decisive leader taking charge of the nation’s destiny, Mr. Cameron was set to address an emergency session of Parliament — recalled from its summer recess because of the violence — on Thursday. In face of the violence, he has taken a tough line, saying the actions of those who looted and committed arson showed a lack of “proper morals” and a failure of parenting.
While many Britons had initially blamed the violence on unemployed youth, however, one surprise was the presence of young men and women with regular jobs among the riot suspects lined up in police wagons outside courthouses in London and other cities. That raised questions about why they had been caught up in the kind of mayhem that has traditionally drawn on an underclass of alienated young people, with no jobs and few prospects.
Many of those who were remanded for trial appeared to come from just those kinds of backgrounds — evidence, as some commentators saw it, that the root causes of the disorders lay in social deprivation and despair. But those who stood before the courts for bail hearings in London, many of them still in their jeans and hooded sweatshirts, included a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, a forklift driver and a youth worker.
One 19-year-old woman was listed on court documents as living in a converted farmhouse in a leafy, upmarket area of rural Kent that is part of what Londoners call the stockbroker belt. A 22-year-old woman gave her address as an upscale block of flats in a gentrified neighborhood of Hackney, one of the worst-hit riot areas in London. Local residents said that many of the residents of the apartments, which are valued at about $500,000, belonged to a community of affluent, middle-class people with jobs in London’s news media and art world.
Ahead of the emergency House of Commons session on Thursday, Mr. Cameron declared a “fightback” against what he condemned as the “groups of thugs” who had driven the riots. With his government jolted by the scenes of young people looting and setting fire to shops, warehouses, vehicles and police stations, he spoke with an angry vehemence that conveyed a sense that his government had settled on an unyielding crackdown, shorn of the kind of exculpatory language that British politicians have often used when confronted with youth disorder.
Mr. Cameron, speaking of the inner-city gangs that the police say have played a leading role in the riots, said, “They are in no way representative of the vast majority of young people in our country who despise them, frankly, just as much as the rest of us do.”
He cited an episode relayed worldwide on YouTube in which a young Malaysian student, the bloodied victim of an attack, sat slumped on a sidewalk when he was approached by hooded young men, seemingly intent on helping him, who pulled him to his feet. They then looted the man’s backpack, with one man pulling something out, unwrapping it, then casually discarding it onto the street. The victim, who had a fractured jaw, underwent surgery in a London hospital on Wednesday, according to friends.
“There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick,” Mr. Cameron said. “When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.
“The sight of those young people running down streets, smashing windows, taking property, looting, laughing as they go, the problem of that is a complete lack of responsibility, a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper upbringing, a lack of proper ethics, a lack of proper morals,” he continued. “That is what we need to change. There is no one trigger that can change these things. It’s about parenting, it’s about discipline in schools, it’s about making sure we have a welfare system that does not reward idleness. It is all of those things.”
Many people in Britain have said that the time for a debate about causes will come after the looting and arson have finally ended. But Mr. Cameron appeared to signal with his speech — and especially with one dismissive phrase about “phony concerns about human rights” — that the governing Conservative Party, which he leads, while perhaps vulnerable politically because the riots occurred on its watch, is spoiling for battle with those groups in the opposition Labour Party and elsewhere that argue that the riots grew out of social deprivation and despair.
In the House of Commons debate he is to lead on Thursday, Mr. Cameron will be fighting a more immediate battle, over the government’s harsh austerity measures. Many in Britain have cast those initiatives as contributors to the riots, considering that the slashing of social programs mandated by the cuts is beginning to bite deeply in the poorest neighborhoods.
But so far, Mr. Cameron has yielded no ground. His tough words included a vow that the police forces would get everything they need to quell the riots, and backing for “whatever tactics” they feel are necessary.
For now, the political sparring has taken a back seat to more immediate concerns, especially the signs of rising tensions between ethnic groups in neighborhoods under siege. Earlier in the week, Turkish groups in Hackney and other London neighborhoods began arming themselves with aluminum baseball bats and other weapons to protect their homes and businesses. In the neighborhood of Southall, a crowd of Sikhs gathered at a temple where their spiritual leader vowed to fight back against any groups that threatened the temple or Sikh neighborhoods.
Similar vows were made by Muslim groups in a wide array of mixed-race communities in London and in at least two other cities with large Muslim populations — Birmingham and Manchester.
In Birmingham, a large police contingent moved into the district of Winson Green, where the three young men were killed by the driver. A police spokesman said an investigation had indicated that the car had been driven “deliberately” at a group of about 80 young men who were protecting a gas station from looters.
Tariq Jahan, the father of the youngest of the three victims, described bloodying his hands in a failed bid to restore his son’s breathing, then turned to an appeal for all in the community to renounce violence. “Why? Why?” he said.
John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya reported from London and Alan Cowell from Paris.