‘Riot Fever’ Grips London, Other Cities in Britain

BY Larisa Epatko  August 9, 2011 at 4:41 PM EST

Slide show by Francine Uenuma

Authorities in London dispatched 16,000 police Tuesday night in hopes of controlling riots and looting that have continued for three straight nights and spread to other cities in Britain.

However, the incident that touched off rioting on Saturday — the shooting of a young black man in London’s Tottenham neighborhood — has since nearly been forgotten, said Michael Goldfarb, GlobalPost’s London correspondent.

“The tension around that event got out of hand very quickly, but it was clear almost from the beginning that this was plain old looting” by mainly unemployed youth with nothing to do on hot summer nights, he said.

Since Saturday, the riots have morphed into nighttime raids on stores with people helping themselves to electronics, shoes and other goods, along with trying to pry open cash machines.

“They sometimes just trash places just for the sheer pleasure of trashing them,” said Goldfarb. “And almost forgotten is this young man, Mark Duggan, who was shot last week by police when they were on an operation, the details of which are still very sketchy.”

Widespread rioting ensued when people alerted each other via text-messaging to areas where police were absent, banking on there not being enough police to cover the entire city, he added.

London’s last major riots were in the 1980s when racial tensions were high as Britain struggled to come to grips with newly multi-cultural cities, Goldfarb said. Since then, all sides came together to repair relations, he continued. The mostly white police force became more integrated, the government put funding into supporting minority-owned businesses, and inner cities were rebuilt.

“All of this went up in smoke…and that’s a big loss,” he said.

The current riots, however, are less about race relations and more a symptom of class distinctions, youth unemployment, and those who feel they have no stake in society, he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday he would bring Parliament back from its recess for one day on Thursday to jointly condemn the scourge. He addressed the rioters directly:

“You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishments.”

People are eyeing the level of force police are authorized to use. If they use rubber bullets to disperse crowds — as the British Army did to deter communal violence in Northern Ireland that started in the late 1960s — it would be like putting the current violence on par with events in Northern Ireland, said Goldfarb.

Cameron has not said if he would call upon the military to respond to the riots.

“The mood in London is tense. There’s no doubt about it,” Goldfarb said. Some banks and shops were closed on Tuesday, and people were encouraged to go home early.

Goldfarb said some shopkeepers he talked to in his neighborhood of Stoke Newington were planning to arm themselves with clubs to defend their property. “I think most people in London expect that this is going to go on for a couple more nights.”

We’ll have more on Tuesday’s NewsHour. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.