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What’s Fueling the Rioting Raging Across United Kingdom?

August 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
More than 500 rioters and looters have been arrested in four nights of unrest that has spread from London to other cities across Britain. Gwen Ifill discusses what's behind the violence with The Observer's Ned Temko in London.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For more, we turn to Ned Temko, a writer for The Observer newspaper in London.

Ned, Welcome back to the program.

What do we know that is happening tonight?

NED TEMKO, The Observer: Well, I hesitate to give you any basically firm and final judgment on what’s happened now, because the situation is still so fluid.

But what appears to be the case is that this introduction of 10,000 extra police into London has greatly calmed the situation in the capital. There have been a few scattered incidents. There are some unconfirmed reports that in the suburb of Lewisham, there may have been some trouble.

But, by and large, two things, as I said, the number of police, but also the fact that most businesses throughout the capital kind of closed early. When I came to the studio here across London from the northwest suburbs, it was like a ghost town. And you would go through King’s Cross, which is generally a very crowded part of the city, and it was virtually empty.

Now, the bad news for the government is that, in the second and third most important cities of the country, Birmingham and Manchester, there has been trouble tonight, but on nothing like the scale of the last couple of nights.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any common agreement anywhere in all of this, Ned, on what really sparked this? We know of the shooting of the man who now appears — apparently was not, didn’t shoot first, the young man Mark Duggan. But do we know whether there is something else underlying all of this which caused such a spectacular reaction?

NED TEMKO: I think the short answer to that is no.

We know the proximate cause, as you said, of the first violence in Tottenham, in the north London suburb where this young man, it now appears, did not fire first and was killed by a police bullet. And that, most commentators and politicians understand. They don’t condone it, but it wasn’t that surprising.

But this explosion of violence that has followed appears to be basically using what happened in Tottenham more as an excuse than an explanation or a real cause.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things…

NED TEMKO: What you have is…

GWEN IFILL: Yes. Well, one of the things we do here — and I’m sure you’re doing the same thing — is say, well, what about the austerity measures? Is this happening mostly in poor neighborhoods who felt unduly affected by this, or is this just random?

NED TEMKO: I think it’s not so much poverty as just a deep disaffection. I mean, some of the rioters have been poor. In some areas, they have been disproportionately black. In other cases equally, there have been white kids.

The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are very young, as young as 14, 15 years old. And they have kind of marauded the streets of the major cities, playing hide and seek with the police, and have a number of aims, one, to loot, another, arson, and also to confront the police.

But the few who have interviewed basically portray this as a bit of fun and a bit of flexing muscles. And as one group of girls who was interviewed earlier this morning after last night’s rioting said: It’s to show that people with wealth and power don’t run the show. We do.

GWEN IFILL: So, how are the people who do run the show, lawmakers in particular, how are they responding to this?

NED TEMKO: Well, initially, I think everybody was taken by surprise.

And you have seen this dramatic turn in the last 24 hours. As you mentioned, David Cameron, the prime minister, cut short his Italian summer holiday. The deputy prime minister had cut short his holiday, as had the home secretary, earlier. And there was an emergency Cabinet meeting this morning, at which it was decided to bring in all these extra police, and equally surprising to recall Parliament, which is on holiday as well, for the first time since 2002.

And I think the point of this is that the government wants to show that it has full control of the streets, because, obviously, politically, the last thing it wants to do is to create the impression, fueled by anger, real anger on the streets, that somehow it has lost control. The other significant…

GWEN IFILL: And the same goes, I imagine — pardon me. And the same, I imagine, goes for Scotland Yard and for law enforcement as well.

NED TEMKO: Absolutely.

And their problem is compounded by the fact that morale and the reputation of Scotland Yard has taken a big beating from the incompetence and apparently in some cases corruption which has tainted its investigation of the phone hacking scandal, which we have discussed earlier on this program, a few weeks ago.

So, things aren’t great at the Met. So, yes, there’s a reputational issue there as well. One of the interesting things is that all mainstream politicians — and that includes the opposition Labor Party — have made it absolutely clear that, no matter what the long-term debate — and there will be one — on the causes of such widespread violence and rioting, the main political priority is just to create law and order, because there’s real popular alarm.

GWEN IFILL: How much — how does this compare to past uprisings? I think back to the riots in Brixton, which now are more than 20 years ago. And it was also an impoverished neighborhood, disaffected people participating.

But is — this doesn’t feel — is this on a bigger scale?

NED TEMKO: It’s different. And it is on a bigger scale. And it’s more surprising, in a way.

As you mentioned, throughout the ’80s, there were periodic explosions, one, as it happens, also in Tottenham on a council house estate called Broadwater Farms. There was one in Brixton, as you mentioned, Toxteth in Liverpool, which has been another focus of violence this week.

But all of those were much more directly racially inspired. They were a result of real problems between the black community and the police, which it was perceived as heavy-handed and racist. And there has been some progress on all of those fronts in the last 20 years.

What is different this time is that this seems much more opportunistic. It seems much less coherent politically, and much more 21st century. A lot of this is fueled by people with their BlackBerrys sending coded messages, saying, hit this store or hit that store.

And it makes it much more difficult for the police.

GWEN IFILL: Well…

NED TEMKO: But I think what the government will hope after tonight is, at least in London, they have turned the corner.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we hope things continue to calm down.

Ned Temko of The Observer in London, thank you so much.