We arrived in London the morning of the 8th of August. The morning after the street riots and looting began in earnest. But because the riots were isolated in such a small fraction of the city, I was amazed to read the headlines that began to appear the next morning. According to the Wall Street Journal, then later Time, and the other mainstream press London and even England were in flames. But as we were to find as we toured London and Oxford it was a completely false portrayal.
It is important to begin with the facts as opposed to sensational video and photos displayed to support headlines. London has a police force of approximately 36,000 police with another 14,000 staff. A force that is larger than New York City’s police force. It has one of the most advanced close circuit surveillance systems in the world deployed throughout the city. During our first night the London police force had 6,000 police on the street and after the return of Prime Minister Cameron, it deployed 16,000 police during the night. Much of this 16,000 deployment included police from around England.
While the violence was horrible ranging from general looting and arson to the murder of five to six people, it was isolated primarily to predominately poor areas of the city. In subsequent nights the violence spread to at least one upper middle-class suburb and into some of the northern cities of England. There was no related violence in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. In fact there was no violence in most of England. Further, there was no violence in most of London. Most of the violence was isolated to the high street shopping areas – there was no general looting of homes and other parts of the victimized areas. And as we travelled north in to the city into suburbs the press had portrayed as a war zone there was not only no violence there was no sign of violence.
Why would two tourists travel north to areas around the Bounds Green and Arnos Grove tube stations? Why travel into the poor north of the city given the violence? Because I wanted to see what remained of the last time London truly burned. I wanted to see the parking lot at Bounds Green that is all that remains of the house where my grandmother and infant aunt died in the Blitz and where my mother survived the bombing. And I wanted to visit the cemetery beyond Arnos Grove containing the mass grave of my grandmother, aunt, and another little girl killed in the raid. A grave surrounded by other Blitz graves. It was a coincidence of timing that we visited the truth – for it was in World War II that London as a city burned.
What happened last week in London is not complicated. An ugly arrest turned into a cause for a protest. The police lied to the protesters and promised a spokesman to address their concerns. When none appeared, unjustified violence erupted. First, gangs exploited the situation and began looting. Then, poor and middle-class people joined the looting in a phenomenon of crowd psychology we may never truly understand.
It was a terrible time if you were unfortunately resident in or working in the small part of the city suffering in the riots. If you were in the other 99 percent of the city, the only suffering was the fear that inaccurate reporting caused throughout the population. The Tube ran, the tourists crowded Westminster, the trains ran, the motorways were open, the river traffic on the Thames flowed, and commerce continued throughout almost the entire city. In over a week in London and Oxford we did not see a single sign of violence. And we walked safely at night in both cities including on a Friday night when supposedly English cities turn into a drunken hooligan mob.
But of course the press did not turn its cameras on the huge throngs of tourists or the bustle of commerce throughout the cities. Such pictures are hardly as sensational as fires and looting. And the truly inspiring story of the ordinary English turning out in great numbers to clean the streets and comfort their neighbors was given very little coverage. This was the true England.
The press on both sides of the Atlantic began arguing between the two conflicting ideologies of the day. The Wall Street Journal, under a “London Is Burning Headline” immediately argued that a bloated welfare state of dependency was the cause of pure hooliganism. Some British Labor members and others on the Left argued that austerity and budget cuts had closed down community centers and other services to the poor causing them to turn to rioting. The facts of course did not support either theory.
So, what really happened? When the first riot erupted, the police stood aside and allowed the looting to continue in the same way as when Donald Rumsfeld allowed looting to erupt in Iraq. And this blunder emboldened the rioters to believe that they could engage in an orgy of violence without consequence. Then, the police blundered again. Despite a force with over 36,000 officers and more auxiliary officers, the police deployed 6,000 or one-sixth its total force onto the streets of London. And on the following nights when they deployed up to 16,000 officers we saw on the streets huge trucks from Lancaster and other parts of England full of out of city police. Where was the rest of the London police force?
It took several nights for this mixed force from all over England to regain control and for the court system to begin the task of processing the accused. But once they did, there was no more violence. It is hard to escape the central fact of what caused the riots – the police bungled the first night, then under resourced the next night. It was not some high theory of Republicanism or the Laborites. The root cause was simple and ordinary government agency negligence in the face of crime.
Just as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the London riots make clear that the veneer of Western civilization is thin. Criminals who exploit the poor everyday erupt when the police fail to do their jobs. And it is the poor who suffer most.
We now have the usual intellectual battle raging with the Prime Minister claiming we have a sick society and others arguing we owe this all to the bad example of greedy bankers. In another brilliant blog posting Owen Jones (http://owenjones.org) correctly predicted that the Tories would seize upon the disorder to dismantle the British welfare state. Which the Prime Minister has indeed announced is his intention under the guise of reform.
If you simply read a small fraction of British history, you will learn that riots in the streets of England go back to the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Riot Act, so popular in slang not only in Britain but also in the United States, was a British law first promulgated in 1714. Riots have occurred throughout eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first century Britain. If the government and the police engage in ineffective policy, then riots will occur.
The great Anglo-American alliance that along with its allies saved the World from Nazism is faced with a terrible recession. The principal illness is unemployment. The President and the Prime Minister must have a laser focus on unemployment. We do not need a bogus ideological debate. The least they can do is not get in the way of employment expansion with unsettling hysteria.
The Prime Minister needs to fire whoever saw fit to have one-sixth of the police force on duty the first night of the riot and less than one-half on duty thereafter. Then, he needs to make clear to the police that they must never allow looting to take hold for even an hour. And the press needs to stop feeding on the misfortune of others with false headlines and false ideologies. There is nothing wrong with selling papers, but there is something wrong with lying about the extent and context of the riots to sell papers. And it is particular evil to do so in a time of great trauma, when every report of bad news saps confidence, gyrates financial markets, and causes employers to pull back from commerce.
And for those of us who know what it meant for London to burn so that we all might be free, it is nauseating to see the press and politicians use that holy image for their own purposes.