Aug 12, 2011

What caused the riots in London?

Dear Filipino,

What is your take on the riots in London? You lived there and I am sure you have good insights on what is really going on over there. Just curious…

Your friend from Machu Picchu,


Dear JoFlo,

I have not written for months and been really remiss in answering the questions that are piling up because (1) I have been so busy with work and family and (2) I simply have not been in the mood to write lately. This blog, as you know, is a “moodly” – I write and answer questions when I’m in the mood. That’s why even my loyal readers have abandoned my blog because of the absence of new entries. I don’t blame them – I too would do the same (and in fact did over the last few months).

But I decided to answer your question and let it take priority over the other pending questions because (1) it came from you and (2) you bet – I have my take on these appalling riots which have shocked the world. Now, whether they are “good insights,” well, you’ll just have to decide about them for yourself.

I actually just visited London with my family over the summer holidays and had a fantastic time. I can’t believe that was just a few weeks ago. We met up with my dear friends from college who were visiting from Manila, as well as friends based in London. Let me reiterate: I had a blast – and I did because I was with my close friends, of course, but also because of the setting. In many respects, London is a cut above other cities because of its history, its nonpareil restaurants and sights, and what-not. Even for my kids, who were simply too young to remember the year they lived there, London is magical – “Look, Dad, it’s Big Ben! And did you know it’s the name of the bell, not the clock?”

But David Cameron can’t be more honest: London is the heart of a “sick” British society. (And frankly, the adjective made me wonder if London is actually now a metonym for the West.)

I have a first-hand experience of how “sick” it is. I saw and experienced it myself when I was living there.

One incident leaps to mind: One June night in 2006, I was on my way to my friends’ place. I had planned to attend the World Cup in Germany with my friends and we had booked an early flight for the following day, so we agreed that I should sleep at their place instead so we could all go to the airport together. I was carrying my backpack, dressed simply like I always am – just jeans and a shirt and rubber shoes. I was not wearing, and do not and never did wear, any “bling.” I was my casual self, but I had my passport and some cash, my allowance for a week of football fan fun in Germany.

My friends’ place was within walking distance from a Tube station in East London. If you’re not familiar with the place, it’s notorious for having lots of areas which many Londoners, especially the upper class, would dare not even step foot in. It’s also known for having mostly residents with the “wrong” kinds of English accents – definitely not the Oxbridge type. Actually, if you sport a Cockney accent there, you would be at least near the top of the pecking order because your accent would at least be considered still British.

Anyway, after alighting from the train, I started walking towards an underground tunnel to get to the other side of the road where my friends’ building is located. The tunnel was poorly lit and I noticed there were four young men – probably in their teens and not more than 20, probably high school kids but bigger than me – just lolling around ahead of me. When I noticed they were somehow eyeing me, I became somewhat suspicious, but I grew up in rough neighborhoods myself so I didn’t let it bother me because I know strangers always attract attention. They also came across to me as real rookies in the intimidation game.

I was on my cell phone with my friend quietly asking for directions in Tagalog when I passed by the men. Then, I noticed that they started following me. I quickened my pace a bit and they did too. That’s when I started to become suspicious and a bit scared. But I knew I had to somehow disorient them so I stopped abruptly and politely asked them for help in finding a particular landmark near my friends’ place.

They were momentarily taken aback, as I expected, and didn’t know how to answer me. The “leader” of the group, however, suddenly grabbed my phone, and then launched into some language which to me sounded like Urdu, Hindi or something Arabic. As if on cue, his friends started surrounding me. The leader then asked for my bag and my wallet if I didn’t want to get hurt. I said, “No.”

Fight or flight? Kung fu or Kung tu? My survival instincts kicked in – I fled (hey, I learned my lessons in Kung tu well: “Kung tumakbo ay matulin” – which simply means: Run and run fast!). I wasn’t fast enough though and one of the guys sent me sprawling with a flying kick in the back. Another guy was grabbing my backpack but I held onto it while the others were trying to beat me. I managed to free myself from the rookie gangsters and ran again, this time shouting for “Help.” One of the guys kicked me again and I fell again, but they still couldn’t take my backpack despite the beating I was getting. Somehow, I managed to break free again and was able to get out of the tunnel.

When I was out of the tunnel, I was shouting for help but there was either nobody to help, nobody was able to help, or nobody was willing to help. Yes, despite my loud shouts and pleas for help, nobody came. That was surprising to me because London, especially East London, is a highly populated area and it was not really that late yet that night. Still, the rookies got scared and they fled because I was now out in the open, shouting. I managed to reach the bus driver of a parked bus, who then called the police.

Two policemen came in a 3-series Bimmer wearing shorts and civilian clothes, and asked me to hop into their car so we could look for my assailants. They asked me what they looked like and I replied they looked either Arab or Indian or Pakistani. They said I should not describe the men as such because that would be unfairly conclusory, but I honestly just didn’t know how to describe the men and was still too shaken to be making descriptions at the time. Since we were driving in a neighborhood with lots of young men just casually strolling around, one of the cops asked if they looked like them. I said, “Yes, from where I sit, almost all of them looked like my assailants.”

Then the cops concluded: “They must be Asians, then.”

I was puzzled. Asian? What a description, I thought! Heck, after all, I’m Asian and I look like one.

I realized later that for Brits, “Asian” refers to those descended from the countries in South Asia they colonized: the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Arab and other Southern Asian ethnicities. Taken together, I learned residents who consider themselves “British Asians” comprise over 12% of the Greater London population and many of them live in East London. And apparently, I fell under the classification “Orientals” – those descended from the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Thais and others from Asia who do not come from the Indian sub-continent. These “British Orientals” comprise about 3% of London.

In the end, we didn’t find my assailants and the cops ended up just dropping me off at my friends’ place. (Fearing that my wife would just worry about me and not allow me to proceed to Germany, I told her about the incident only after a few days had passed.)

Now, why am I relating this incident?

Because it’s easy to see that what happened to me that night in 2006 had some of the elements of what’s happening right now in England.

To explain, let’s look at what made London ripe for the kind of riots we've seen on live TV. For a good round number’s sake, I’ll give you ten factors.

One, you have an overcrowded city. It’s true: Maybe it’s because it was tourist season but the first thing that I noticed during our holiday vacation was how more packed London now is. Let’s not forget that London is really not that big, geographically speaking, and England has limited room for growth because it’s an island. In a way, you can say that the Brits, during imperial times, could easily solve the capacity issue because they would just “export” their excess citizens to their colonies like Australia, Canada, the US, the Caribbean Islands, etc. – but that’s not the case anymore.  And because of continuing migration to the UK of citizens from their former territories, the UK is just bound to grow in number.

Two, you have a very expensive city (one of the world’s most) and it’s not exactly boom times for the local economy. I know middle-class Brits are heavily indebted and can’t really afford the high cost of living there. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that these riots are happening against the backdrop of an economically insecure Britain with talks of welfare cuts and budget cuts all around.

Three, you have a highly segmented, stratified society with many pockets of no-go areas where crime is rampant because the middle class have largely abandoned them, the tourists don’t visit them, and the police don’t really have much of an incentive to maintain a respectable presence.

Four, you have young, idle, poorly educated teenagers out late at night and obviously operating outside the supervision of their parents. Or if they are not out at night, they are in front of TV sets and video gaming machines, both of which spew a not-insubstantial amount of trash. That’s why the riots looked fun to the copycat thugs – for them, the riots probably presented a rare and exciting chance to act out a real-life, multi-player gaming “adventure”.

Five, you have parents incapable, unable or unwilling to discipline their kids for all sorts of reasons. Against a permissive, highly liberal parenting culture, parents end up surrendering their roles little by little to other forces. Many of them are also scared or tired to even try to be real parents anymore and many have altogether given up. Don't take it from me – take it from an article from the Guardian, the online home of UK liberals. 

Six, I noticed there is not only little-to-zero intermixing among races, classes or religions, there’s in fact noticeable antipathy among members of these racial, social and religious groups.  "Us versus them" is a recurring thread.  Even a supposedly non-violent British protest is shocking to the uninitiated, with banners proclaiming "Death to the Queen" fairly common.

Seven, there is a ton of apathy among a huge swath of the population, which is, of course, typical characteristic of packed, highly urbanized cities where crowds are often shoulder-to-shoulder and butt-to-butt and yet are strangers to each other. I think apathy should be made a crime in some circumstances, that’s why I was frankly relieved to hear of some form of vigilantism among the locals even though the chief of the Metropolitan Police didn’t approve of it. (But it’s funny to read that the British Sikhs massed together to protect their temples; the British Muslims to protect their mosques; the British Turks to protect their shops; and the white British locals to protect their pubs.)

Eight, you have a policing system that’s nowhere near as robust as others I've seen in other countries (e.g., the American one), resulting in police personnel incapable of inspiring respect, let alone fear. Regular cops in the UK don’t even carry guns, for crying out loud! Not to sound chauvinistic here, and political correctness aside, the truth is policing there has been too feminized because many of their cops patrolling the streets are women, many no bigger than me.

Nine, you have a political economy with a dual-personality disorder: A massive welfare state with a huge pool of unproductive or underemployed immigrant underclass feeling both victimized and entitled, overseen by an oligarchy whose members – both native (the white overlords of imperial Britannia) and adoptive (the newly ordained billionaire Russians and Arabs) – have not been too shy to flaunt their increasingly and exceedingly abundant wealth – whether inherited, stolen or earned – in this glamorous playground of the rich and famous. The inequality in resources between the top and bottom deciles is really quite staggering – and getting worse.

Ten, a unifying religion-based moral code among the populace is now largely absent. You read that right here: Beautiful churches in England are mostly empty now of congregants except for tourists wanting to snap a picture here and there. From anecdotal evidence, the only houses of worship which are regularly packed are the Muslim mosques (unless of course you count the sports pubs).

That’s why all you needed is an excuse, really – the proverbial match to light the tinderbox – and the whole thing would explode.

As it turned out, Mark Duggan’s death was it.

The ultraliberal and ultraconservative pontificators of Britain have already weighed in on the riots and have made known their own takes. As can be expected however, their opinions are filtered by their own ideological lenses. And I think any reasonably honest, independent-minded person would conclude these people may be partly right but are mostly wrong-headed because they are incapable of taking into account the other side’s legitimate arguments.

Whether in the UK or the US, the ultraliberals, to me, have gone overboard. Although they always preach about tolerance, I’m frankly disgusted about their seeming intolerance for any opinion on education, welfare, family values, child-rearing, and many other issues that’s contrary to their position. They make you feel like a bigot for having any form of religious bent on any of these issues. They make you believe you are criminal-minded for believing that egos of kids have to be punctured from time to time, that some form of corporal punishment in raising and educating children is sometimes necessary to really teach them what’s right and what’s wrong (even a USA Today survey of 20 CEOs revealed that every single one of them got "paddled, belted, switched or swatted" as children). They brand you as closed-minded or repressive for speaking against the perversity of movies and TV shows. They mock your religiosity and sense of charity because you do not support simply throwing money at the "poverty problem," which they romanticize  and don't really understand. They advocate guiltless pursuit of carnal pleasures: after all, hey, you can abort a fetus anytime you feel like doing so or divorce your partner if you don’t fancy him/her anymore. Is it any wonder that this kind of atmosphere would produce many teenagers who are products of single-parent homes: amoral, delinquent, feeling entitled, mal-educated, and unafraid to mock and lash out at parents, teachers, or anyone in authority – yes, even the police – face to face?

As a presidential candidate then, Bill Clinton had spoken about the 1992 Rodney King riots in LA and what he said is apropos here. He observed that the people who were looting “do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.”

I think this absence of any moral compass whatsoever is what prompted those rioting thugs in London to rob an injured, young Malaysian student after pretending to help him at first – in the process perverting the Biblical concept of the “Good Samaritan”. Really sick. Sick, sick, sick.

Whether in the UK or the US, the ultraconservatives, to me, have also gone way overboard. I am appalled by their unrestrained, unprincipled pursuit of money, money, money – in that particular order. I am horrified by their lack of empathy for the weak, the disabled, the poor, the unlucky. They seem like they couldn’t care less about the widening inequality, the blight of growing ghettoes and slums. They feel entitled to fat bonuses regardless of their work (or lack thereof) and oppose all forms of taxation that will directly affect them in the short-term without any regard for the long-term fiscal health of the economy from which they derive much of their wealth. They despise all governmental efforts to help the bottom-feeders of society and claim such efforts are a wasteful use of their taxes, not really realizing that they would be the ones actually to benefit the most from them. Is it any wonder then that there are many ordinary citizens, not necessarily poor, who couldn’t care less about these uncaring, greedy rich and would take whatever they can from them if presented the opportunity?

These two groups – the youths/delinquent teenagers (the “feral rats” as many have labeled them) and the supposedly “ordinary citizens” (they’ve been aptly called “opportunists”) – effortlessly banded together in London to cause these riots, mayhem, destruction and wholesale thievery and criminality. The thugs from other cities of England then copied them.

I am not sympathetic to these people and I hope they are punished to the full extent of the law. For the sake of the UK and the people all over the world who are watching the events on TV – a real-life lesson on crime and punishment for all to witness – they should get their due.

I have little sympathy for the delinquent teenagers because they had no cause and they’re not really poor. If you’re rioting to steal trainers and iPods and flat-screen TVs, you can’t be poor in my book. Poor is when you’re rioting for food, for your kids to be able to eat. That's why District Judge Alan Berg of Manchester Magistrates' Court is correct when he lectured the looters who’ve been caught and presented in his chamber: “People like you, who have all the benefits of this country, which others in other countries would pray for, you bring shame and disgrace upon the country as a whole, and upon yourselves and your families!

Nor do I have any sympathy whatsoever for the opportunists also because they are not really the downtrodden type or the poverty-stricken type or the too-young-to-appreciate-the-criminality-of-the-looting type. In fact, I have a bigger problem with them because many of them cannot even be considered part of Britain’s underclass. I think they should be punished more or asked to pay back society more.

But there are those people in the UK who have earlier “ransacked” the UK too, causing major havoc not just in the UK economy but in the world, and they were allowed to get away. Where’s the righteous indignation from David Cameron? Where’s the political will to punish them? How come these criminals are not being haled before the magistrates’ courts?

I know I’m painting in broad strokes and I’m going to offend many people, both from the left and the right of the political spectrum. But right now, bro, I just don’t care.

I've written quite a lot already for this post and I still have a lot in my mind.  But do you know what really scares me?  What really scares me is if this kind of rioting -- senseless and devoid of any objective except pure criminality --would cross the Atlantic and start happening in US cities.  We both know things can easily be magnified in the US. tenfold or a hundredfold.

Heck, it's very much possible.  Why not? Many of the elements I enumerated above are now present in the US too.

And of course, the US has a wild card: GUNS – available to almost everyone.

Got a question for The Filipino? Email him now at


JoFlo said...

Glad to know you escaped almost unscattered of the unfortunate incident and went on to the World Cup games in Germany a few hours later as planned. That takes a lot of toughness too.
I spent 4 days in London on vacation in 2004. That is certainly too short of a time to be aware of the social dynamics going on then but although it is hard for me to explain I felt while riding the Metro and watching the people that the social tensions between the british natives and the young trouble making immigrant minorities was very different to what we are used to observe here in the US with their local counterparts. Do you perceive these dynamics to be quite different?

A Conflicted Mind said...

I have little to add to your comments since I agree with all of your points.
Taking a 10,000 feet view of the problem here are some of my bullet points:
->Isn't it the human consumer at the center of all this? Our modern consumer society has transformed and affected all social interactions and is now possibly risking human development.
->How did we enter into this now- global process of equating money and power with morality? Why do we see the BRICs countries displaying wild west capitalism? Have all brakes been removed?
-> Why technical progress in the most advanced societies cannot successfully address the have vs. have-nots seemingly "basic" problem?

Looking at the London riots and all recent global unrest, violence and crises made me think that the post apocalyptic world we often see in sci-fi movies is coming close to home sooner than we'd like...See this movie review excerpt below from "Blade Runner" describing in a now-strangely familiar way the dark world were the movie takes place:

"Released in 1982 and often reincarnated in the years since, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner speaks to a future that only a futurist of a certain bent could love: a world so used up that anyone who can afford to leaves it to inhabit space colonies off the shoulder of Orion, while those who cannot afford to—and the ill, the elderly, and, by appearances, most non-native speakers of English—are stuck in a ruined, rainy, overcrowded, and oddly mechanized place."

The Filipino said...


I think you're right. Because the US is a much more immigrant-friendly country, bigger, less stratified and more diverse, it is much better at absorbing and assimilating its newcomers than the UK. Hence, a lot more immigrants thrive.


Great insights. And you're right: the pernicious side of consumerism is a big factor in the rioting that took place. I should have discussed that aspect in more depth but your comment plugged that gap of my blogpost (I hope all those who read my posts read the comments section too).

John said...

Well put! I agree with many of your points but the real problem is how to move forward when English Culture has been so badly damaged. See The LOndon Riots and the Mediocracy.

Krystal said...

London was on fire

Silence said...

"the british natives and the young trouble making immigrant minorities was very different to what we are used to observe here in the US with their local counterparts. Do you perceive these dynamics to be quite different?"

What the fuck? I'm a 'British' native, born and raised in Lewisham, London. I've had more trouble from my fellow natives than your supposed 'young trouble making immigrant minorities'. I cannot overstate what a thoughtless and offensive comment that is. Also, what is the distinction you're making between a native and an immigrant? If it's based on skin colour, then please do not visit Britain again. We have enough racists as it is.

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