The lessons of Britain’s rainbow riots

TheStar.com – opinion
Published August 11, 2011.    By Haroon Siddiqui, Editorial Page

It’s been noted that while Arab youth are braving tanks to bring down dictators, British youth have been loitering, destroying and looting. One group uses social media to mobilize peaceful protests, the other to organize mayhem. One goes bravely into public squares at the risk of being captured and tortured, the other runs around in hoods and masks. While both suffer high unemployment, one conveys a sense of historic purpose, the other none.

Yet both represent a rebellion against the established order, one against murderous autocracies and the other against a democracy that has lost its way by ruling only for the elite.

In London, you don’t need to venture too far from the swanky bank district to see gangs of youth killing time — drinking, drugging and hollering their way past terrified residents. They represent more than a slice of Britain’s highly developed culture of hooliganism. Theirs is a new underclass atop the old British class system that Margaret Thatcher could only make a dent in.

Yet not too long ago Prime Minister David Cameron was blaming multiculturalism for Britain’s social woes, as had Angela Merkel for Germany’s. He said that multiculturalism had encouraged people to live “separate lives, apart from the mainstream.”

Pilloried for what was seen as a coded attack on Muslims, he beat a clumsy retreat. On a visit to Qatar, where he needed to suck up to his rich Muslim hosts to do business, he claimed that he was not against a “multiracial” Britain, only a “super tolerant” one, whose boundaries of tolerance he, of course, did not define.

We did not need the present riots to know that it was neither multiculturalism nor the “super tolerance” of British society that moved millions from the mainstream to the margins. The ranks of the segregated have long been defined by a lack of education and jobs rather than religion, race or colour, as attested by the rainbow of rioters — blacks, Asians and whites — who are victimizing people of all colours and faiths. What’s needed is not the doling out of more dole to the culprits but rather getting them engaged in more productive lives.

Unemployment among some segments of British youth is 30 per cent and more. As it was in Detroit in 1967 when it blew up, moving a Canadian into a plaintive cry:

Motor City madness has touched the countryside / And the people rise in anger/ And the streets begin to fill / And there’s gunfire from the rooftops / And the blood begins to spill / Black day in Jul y — Gordon Lightfoot.

High levels of unemployment in the banlieues of Paris led to riots in 2005 and 2007. There the spark was the death of two youngsters who were electrocuted while hiding inside a transformer to escape overzealous police. In London, the spark was the shooting of yet another black man by police.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, railed against the rioters. Cameron is doing the same. “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick.” “We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets.”

Of course he must restore law and order. But his political formula is about the same as that of Sarkozy and Merkel: pursue policies that marginalize people and then blame them for being marginalized.

Also familiar are the public complaints against the rioters’ “nihilism,” “greed,” etc. But theirs is petty theft compared to the grand larceny pulled off by banks and CEOs, with the assistance of the state.

Canada has not been immune. In 1992 we had the mini-riot on Yonge St. Stephen Lewis wrote an eloquent report on the need to be inclusive. In 2008, Roy McMurtry, former chief justice, wrote a report on youth crimes: “The sense of nothing to lose and no way out that roils within such youth creates an ever-present danger.” He, too, called for tutoring the young to keep them in school, recreational programs to keep them off the streets, mentoring to guide them into a career, etc. Reached yesterday about the events in Britain, he said: “They should serve as a wake-up call.”

But doing the slow and painful work of creating a more equitable society is more difficult than finding scapegoats and fanning fears. Stephen Harper is building $9 billion worth of jails when the crime rate is going down. Mayor Rob Ford wants to cut funds to libraries and grassroots organizations rather than trim the bloated police payroll. And Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak is promising chain gangs.

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