I was offline most of the weekend and Monday, so you can imagine my shock when I turned to Tweetdeck this morning and the first thing I saw was tweets about riots in the U.K. I found some articles to help bring me up to speed and provide some context. There were shocking bits:
One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission], but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.
Tottenham, the site of the initial riots, does not represent the UK in any shape, form or fashion. Nationally, the population is 92% white -- English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish. Yet a quarter of the population of Tottenham is black, a large percentage is from Eastern Europe and a large percentage is Muslim. Almost half are foreign born; a quarter of the population is younger than 18 and half are under 40.
I discovered that hundreds marched in London back in April when a 48-year-old black musician died "in police custody" in south London:
According to the Guardian report four police officers arrived at Emmanuel's home and an hour and a half later, just before 8.30 am he was dead when an air ambulance arrived at the scene. The police claim that Emmanuel went into his kitchen where he took a knife and stabbed himself, but his family and black community leaders believe that this explanation is contradictory.
Lee Jasper, chair of the London race and criminal justice consortium, said "Why, if Smiley was arrested, was he allowed to go near a kettle full of boiling water and drawers full of knives? It just doesn't make sense."
Pardon me, but ... and hour-and-a-half later he's dead at the scene? And he stabbed himself in the heart?
About those 333 deaths (December 2010 IPCC report, PDF, emphasis added):
The investigator found that police force policy and procedure on custody matters was breached in 91 cases (27%)....
Prosecutions were recommended against 13 police officers, who faced a total of 36 charges. None resulted in a guilty verdict (that we are aware of from the information available). Although making up 7% of all cases, the 22 cases involving Black detainees accounted for seven of the 13 recommendations for prosecution of police officers. ...
The acquittal rate of police officers and staff members is therefore very high despite, in some cases, there appearing to be relatively strong evidence of misconduct or neglect....
Over one-third of cases in which a Black detainee died occurred in circumstances in which police actions may have been a factor (the proportion rises to almost one-half if the cases of accidental death where the police were present are added) [compares] with only 4% of cases where the detainee was White...
The Police Complaints Authority (PCA, 2002a) stated that "...a disproportionate number of people who die in custody or specifically following restraint are from minority ethnic groups, which inevitably leads to allegations of racism" (page 5).
I cannot find similar statistics in the U.S. I have found, however, taser death data attributed to Amnesty International. Between June 2001 and August 2008, AI attributed 351 deaths to the use of tasers. Given that the U.S. population is about five times that of the U.K...
Combine this analysis with the demographics of the location of the latest death and it's possible to see the tinderbox waiting for a spark.
However, it was in a discussion with my in-laws over dinner that I started thinking about the unemployment rate among young men and the hopelessness that can result being part of that tinder.
There are sobering charts at The Poverty Site, which uses official Crown statistics.
Think about this: one-in-five young men under age 25 in the United Kingdom is unemployed. These data do not include people who are full-time students, because they are not job-seekers.
That's a general number, however, that lumps whites and minorities. There's no reason to believe that the general statistics -- unemployment higher in minority populations than in white ones -- is reversed for the under 25s. That means the numbers for black youth are no doubt greater than these. How much greater? I couldn't find the data for under 25s but I could for 25-and-older.
These data suggest that there is every reason to believe that the U.K. riots reflect frustration which may be well-placed (deaths in police custody) and reflect an economic situation that is untenable.
The parallels to the 1981 Brixton riots are compelling. However, how much of the current economic disruption (unemployment) reflects historical patterns, the rifts that occur as economies adjusted to new technologies? We have the Luddite attacks of the early 1800s, a response to industrialization. The 1830s in Britain saw "Swing Riots" as a response to economic pressure and a failure of non-agricultural jobs to provide relief for a "permanent surplus of agricultural labour." Food price increases lead to political unrest (and riots) ... and food prices in the U.K. have risen three times more than the G7.
What will the politicians -- and the courts -- do in response?
P.S. In writing this, I feel a little like Darcus Howe, a West Indian writer and broadcaster, might have felt when a BBC Anchor asked him if he wasn't shocked by the riots, did that mean he condoned them. In other words, don't take this as an endorsement of technique but an attempt to understand "why" this happened. I fiercely believe that we must understand the root cause if we want to prevent future riots.