Magazine | August 29, 2011, Issue

London Aflame

What happens when you let teenagers run your country

London – Yesterday, August 8, I was watching live looting footage — some of it from districts near mine or where friends were hunkered down behind locked doors — with appalled fascination, when the 1992 L.A. riots came to mind. It was not because here in London we have had anything like the savage assault on Reginald Denny or the gun battles between cops and street gangs. It was the reports from shopping districts where stores were in flames and the police nowhere to be found. It reminded me of that first day or so of the L.A. riots, when LAPD chief Daryl Gates allegedly held his officers back and allowed South Central to burn, just to show propertied Angelenos how much they needed him and his men.

Given the cuts in police budgets planned by the Cameron government (which has “ring-fenced” or increased money for foreign aid, climate-change prevention, and Britain’s grossly inefficient health service), anyone could be forgiven for wondering whether the Metropolitan Police’s leadership was allowing neighborhoods to burn to make an economic point.

If that was the plan, it was a foolish idea. The Cameron administration is dominated by liberal young men from privileged backgrounds or the media-marketing elite. They would never live in the kind of neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the violence, and who are unlikely to empathize with the white-working-class and immigrant shopkeepers whose stores were trashed and burned. Law and order has not been a Coalition priority, as should have been obvious from Cameron’s notorious “hug a hoodie” campaign before the election, in which he called for more understanding of the alienated youths who make urban life a misery for the old and the weak.

But in any case, it has since become clear that London’s Metropolitan Police was doing its feeble best considering its inadequate equipment, training, and public-order doctrine, not to mention its poor leadership by politically correct apparatchiks. It was unprepared to counter the planned looting, which had been organized using mobile phones and social networks — though this has happened before in London, as well as in foreign cities hosting G12 and G20 summits. Worse, it foolishly assumed that sending small numbers of riot police — or rather police in riot gear — would intimidate looters into giving up and going home.

Instead, in some places, gangs of 30 or more hooded teens sent the cops scurrying in retreat. In other areas, the police stood their ground and bravely took the bricks and rocks hurled in their direction, but did not — perhaps could not — stop or disperse the youths setting fire to stores and sometimes the homes above them. They seemed to be waiting for the rioters to exhaust themselves and go home — which took many hours and much destruction. It was only where there were police horses and dogs — and there were too few equine and canine units to be in every riot area at once — that looters were driven off or arrested in significant numbers.

As usual, the Met did not equip its officers with baton rounds or tear gas or water cannon or any of the non-lethal riot-control technologies in standard use around the world. This was because, as its leaders subsequently said, with the support of the home secretary, the use of such weapons would represent an unacceptable escalation. It would signal a loss of control — as if burning department stores did not. It was telling that there were injuries among the police but none among the rioters. “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon,” claimed Home Secretary Theresa May. “The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.”

#page#You can make of her peculiar logic what you will, but the sentiment is shared by the entire law-enforcement establishment in Britain, if not the ordinary constable in the street. Watching the footage of rampaging youths taunting the London police, I remembered how, when I was living in New York’s East Village during the L.A. riots, there were the beginnings of a copycat riot in the neighborhood. A couple of hundred kids, many of them the anarchist youths who had taken over Tompkins Square Park that summer, marched up St. Mark’s Place to Second Avenue and started breaking windows. A line of police appeared on the avenue — ordinary street cops, but many wearing helmets — and walked calmly but determinedly in the direction of the bottle throwers. It was over in less than two minutes.

The cops knew what the British bobbies have forgotten — that if you nip a riot in the bud, fewer people get hurt, and it’s better for everyone. It is why in Paris, where I also once lived, the police break out the tear gas the minute they see a crowd getting out of hand — it demonstrates that the forces of law own the street, and it saves lives. I would not necessarily want a version of France’s extremely aggressive and tough CRS in London — though arguably it is what Britain needs — but I cannot help thinking that if the patrolmen of Gotham’s 9th precinct, with a few reinforcements, had been flown here on Sunday morning, they would have brought the whole thing to an end within hours.

On this the third day since the violence began, any racial and ethnic dimensions of the looting have yet to be parsed, at least in the mainstream media. From the footage it is clear that the rioters are mostly young and male — and that the mobs include plenty of white youths, though in some areas they seem to be disproportionately black.

On the other hand, members of Britain’s South Asian and Muslim minorities seem to have played little or no part in the violence. On the contrary, large numbers of Muslim youths in the Bangladeshi-dominated sections of London’s East End first guarded their mosques and then went to defend stores and banks from marauders.

In North London on the second day of the violence, Turkish and Kurdish storekeepers banded together, took up bats and broomsticks, and chased away would-be looters, despite being threatened with arrest by the police. (That is not a typo. The police were doing little or nothing to stop the looting, yet felt an urgent need to preserve their monopoly on the lawful use of force.) Though the victims were more diverse than the perpetrators, who tended to attack shopping areas in edgy, trendy mixed neighborhoods, it was striking that only immigrants seemed to show any serious inclination to defend their property and their livelihood. They were like L.A. Koreans, only without guns, a fact that made their courage even more remarkable.

As well as helping themselves to liquor and jewelry, the looters seemed to have a typically teenaged predilection for sportswear, mobile phones, and flat-screen TVs. However, they were also happy to smash up hairdressers, fast-food restaurants, and grocery stores.

#page#Despite talk in the media and in left-wing circles about the riots’ being the result of public-sector cuts and unemployment (which is indeed high among Britain’s undereducated youth), the rioters showed little compunction about destroying the workplaces of others. Moreover, the footage, much of it taken by the looters and their pals and then posted on the Web, showed little evidence of anger. Their mood seemed exuberant and excited — not unlike that of the students and sports fans who have recently rioted in North American cities after the local team wins or loses a major game.

None of the major commentators here in the U.K. seem to have heard of the sports-inspired riots in Vancouver and at Ohio State. They reflexively assume that anyone who sets cars on fire or smashes up a Starbucks must be motivated by anger or oppression. Perhaps because its members generally come from sheltered backgrounds, the British commentariat has little sense of the potential for violence, or the joy in disorder and aggression, to be found in most young men of military age. It is an odd thing, because I remember how, as Cambridge undergraduates, some of my friends and I did some dumb and destructive and illegal things — when we were confident that we would not be caught or that the price to be paid would be minimal.

Of course, there is a much more savage, bullying edge to this looting and vandalism than there was in my generation’s drunken undergraduate pranks. And it is perhaps not altogether surprising that neither the police nor the public generally — with the exception of the tough Turks and Kurds — felt like taking on what were relatively small numbers of tough kids (seldom more than a couple of hundred). It is not just that many “hoodies” carry knives (this fact was cited as a reason for police caution by one of the ineffective cops the London Times quoted) and have no compunction in using them. They are accustomed to extreme, close-up, Clockwork Orange–style violence.

They are also accustomed to being given the free run of the streets. This is largely because Britain’s police have over the last two decades adopted the hands-off, low-key, reactive model that American police departments disastrously moved to in the 1970s but then abandoned in the 1990s, most spectacularly in New York City. But in any case, the hoodies who this weekend demonstrated and revelled in their violent power like the gangsters in Walter Hill’s classic 1979 movie The Warriors tend to be utterly unafraid of adults or any of the feeble sanctions offered by the adult world.

Britain’s schools, laws, media, youth-worship, and policing have created what an angry Harlem preacher once called a “pediocracy” — literally a polity ruled by children, but here meaning one ruled by teenagers. As the world saw and the British public is having to acknowledge, it is not pretty. We can only be grateful that they don’t have Kalashnikovs like their counterparts in such places as Somalia — yet.

– Mr. Foreman, a former columnist for the New York Post, is a research fellow at the Civitas think tank in London.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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